Healing Hands

Since entering the formal American work/labor force at age 14, I have worn acrylic nails much of the time. It’s funny how I came to the practice. Well…even if you don’t LOL at the very least this story may satisfy the voyeur in you.

I have small hands; unusually small hands. Omar (my husband) jokes I have doll-sized hands. It’s true. My hands are annoyingly small. It would be unreasonable for you to expect me to open a new jar of Vlasic pickles. My hands are THAT small. I had never noticed this as unusual until…

IMG_20141002_094020I started waiting tables when I was 16. For work I was required to carry multiple plates, bowls, cups and other table items at one time without a tray. People commented on the size of my hands often. It made me a little self-conscious and I started to pay attention to hands more in general. I started to notice the waitresses with fancy manicures were consistently making more money than those of us who did not. All of the waitresses I worked with were highly skilled waitstaff. It was expected by our boss and our diner had a reputation for the best waitstaff service, fair prices, home-style cooking, and cleanliness. Differences in tips had nothing to do with lack of quality of work and everything to do with client perception of waitstaff and shift volume.

My doll sized hands have doll sized nail beds to match. Seriously…to this day my hands look juvenile. The hands of the gals with the sculpted acrylic nails appeared not so much OLDER as more EXPERIENCED. In short, their hands appeared more CAPABLE than mine and they were awarded by customers with higher tips. I was in college. I wanted and needed to make more money to cover books, supplies, food, gas and other vehicle expenses. Someone once said you have to spend money to make money. I decided to get my nails done. I asked the other girls where they got their nails done.  Most of them went to the same place. No appointments. Walk-in ONLY. I got directions.

I can’t remember the name of the shop now. It’s not important. It might not even be there anymore anyway. What I remember was walking in the first time. It was early fall of 1997 in Michigan. I lived in the burbs and was a freshman at a private Art school. As I entered the busy Pontiac, MI salon I was greeted by a tiny woman with a sign-in sheet and told to take a seat. The shop was a big square with 15+ nail tech stations arranged in a U-shape around the walls and a back room with a row of sinks. Chairs were lined up in rows in the center where you could read trashy tabloid magazines and wait your turn. Looking around I recognized a couple waitresses from another popular diner in the tri-county area. I put my name on the list, sat down and waited almost an hour that first time. Walking into a nail salon for the first time ever, I had no idea what to expect. It was all new to me.

My first set of acrylic nails wasn’t just my first set of acrylic nails. It was the first time I had EVER had my nails done in a salon. When I was a little girl I had a nervous habit of nail biting. In sixth grade a boy made a rude comment about my messy nails. I stopped biting my nails, but it was hard to stop picking at them all together. My natural nails are thin with short nail beds and fast growing cuticles. My natural nails bend and snag just pulling a sweater over my head. So, I always kept them cut short and rarely painted them. From time to time I would pick at a cuticle and end up with a raw finger. It’s not a big deal, but not the best thing for waiting tables. People want the hands serving their food to look nice.

Finally I was called to sit down at a station. A husky young Vietnamese man introduced himself as Brandon. He and his sister owned the shop. Drills were whirring on every side. Puffs of dust and air brush paint poofed in every direction. A stack of People and Vogue magazines spread across the front window ledge and floor along with a couple dingy and cracked children’s toys. A toddler screamed. I recognized the woman at the seat to my left from middle and high school and relaxed a little as I sat down. Brandon asked me if I wanted a “French”. I was embarrassed to tell him I didn’t know what he meant, so I said yes. Shorter or longer? Shorter. Round or square? Square. Give me your hands. OK. Oh, your hands and nails are so small! I’ve heard that.

Thirty five minutes later my hands were transformed. They had gone from ignorant looking to capable looking. My table waiting skills remained the same. My tips doubled. On Friday nights I went from $50 to $100 or more. If I had some crazy air-brush art on my nails it would always be more than $100. In the 90’s, people in suburban Michigan liked to be served coney-dogs and greek salads by hands decorated with dolphins and palm trees. I know. It’s weird, but it’s true to my experience.


Over the years since I have worn acrylic nails off and on and have never had a problem. I’ve been wearing them for the past three years after a number of years of doing my own conventional manicures. The worst has happened…a dreaded infection. I probably will never be able to wear false nails again, and hopefully my natural nails will not grow back in too terribly deformed. I’ve always enjoyed getting my nails and toes done. It was always a relaxing experience…until I moved to the East Bay.

When we first moved to Oakland we lived in the Mosswood neighborhood and I went to a little shop on Telegraph walking distance from our flat. It was an unremarkable experience. They did I good job and didn’t ask me lots of questions. I observed other clients were aggressive in the way they interacted with the staff at that shop. I think the tech who did my nails was relieved to work on my hands. I was quiet and didn’t complain. She did a nice job.

When we moved to East Oakland I started looking for a shop closer to our new home. I found a nice shop on Park in Alameda with high-end polishes, fancy chairs and an autoclave machine. After my third or fourth appointment I noticed I was being charged more each time. I looked around the shop for a place where service prices were posted but found none. The woman at the counter insisted prices had not gone up…maybe I had given a smaller tip before. I knew this wasn’t the case – I regularly tip between 15% and 20%. I’m a former waitress…I can do that math pretty fast – but I didn’t want to make a scene. My nails looked nice and I just wanted to get on with my day. The next time I came in to get my nails done I knew FOR SURE I was charged more than ever before. The last time I had paid $58 before tip for an acrylic fill and pedicure. This time I was charged $95 before adding tip. The woman at the counter looked up as she took my debit card. I looked her in the eye and she quickly looked away. I asked her to repeat the total to be sure I heard and asked again if prices had gone up. “No. Same price for you.” she assured me. I knew this was a lie. When I got home I called the salon and asked how much for a pedicure and acrylic fill, the services I just had done. The woman on the phone answered, “$45.” I replied, “Then why was I charged nearly $100 20 minutes ago?” The woman argued with me until she pulled up my receipt from the credit card machine. Then her story changed. She insisted I had a “special service”. No, I had not. I told her I thought the shop was just price gouging because they thought I was wealthy. (Early on in small talk with my nail technician I had “made the mistake” of mentioning my husband is/was a software developer at Google and that I am an artist.) She insisted this was not the case. I told her she was lying. Hanging up the phone I decided to let it go and just try one of the other many nail salons on Park in Alameda.

The next salon I tried was less fancy, but they did a good job at a fair price and also had a barber who did a great job on Omar’s hair. What happened here is more complicated. Language and incongruous cultural expectations became challenging. I am empathic. I can’t help it. Mostly I keep it to myself unless someone knows about my “gift” and asks. Often, empathetic “download” happens when I touch a person or object. The woman who was regularly doing my nails was a quiet person. She seemed to carry a sadness, but I never pried and she never offered. One day I sat down at her station and noticed she was wearing a small silver cross around her neck. I commented on the sweetness of her cross. She smiled sadly and said she wore it because it was a gift from her husband, but she was Buddhist. I smiled. She took my hands and started to remove the old polish. As she touched my hands images of a young Vietnamese man in great pain and suffering flooded my mind’s eye. A feeling of such sadness washed over me I actually began to cry. She looked up at me with surprise and asked me if I was lonely. I wasn’t. I wasn’t even sad that day. I looked at her and told her how sorry I was and asked her if her husband was still with us in this world. She looked at me with alarm and her eyes filled with tears that didn’t fall. No. He wasn’t. She leaned in to me and whispered he had been killed recently and she missed him very much. Again, I told her how sorry I was and I would pray for her and her husband.

The next time I came in to the shop I was directed to the station of a new technician. She spoke less English and was even sadder than the previous woman. I didn’t pry. She asked me lots of questions about what I did and if I was married. Yes, I told her. I’m married and am an Artist. Oh. She said. She looked at me and said, “I think you are lonely.” No, I told her. I am not lonely. OK, she said. I changed the subject. New Year’s was coming…I asked her about her goals for the new year. To feel better, was her answer. That’s a good one I told her then inquired whether she was sick. As I asked my abdomen filled with pressure. I thought I had to go to the bathroom…but it quickly went away. She looked up at me with alarm then finished my nails. The owner of the shop approached me and asked if I was a healer. I told her I was not a doctor. She said, no, not a doctor….was I a healer? I knew what she meant. I told her that I could not make promises of miracles, but yes, sometimes I knew things when I touched people. She looked at the woman who had just finished my nails. The woman looked up at me and asked me to tell her what I could feel about her. “I don’t know. Give me your hand.” She did. I closed my eyes, expanded my chakras and allowed her energy field pass through my own. The pressure in my abdomen returned and a heavy sadness settled over my heart. I told her I felt there was something affecting her lower abdomen. She dropped my hand, lowered her eyes and shed a couple quiet tears. The owner of the shop explained the woman had recently terminated a pregnancy and the doctors had done something wrong. The woman had been very ill ever since and had lost much weight. The doctors said nothing was wrong, but that was obviously not the case but she didn’t have the money to see a specialist. I went home and made the ill woman a rosary. The next time I came in to get my nails done I gave her the beads. All of the women in the shop wanted me to look at their energy too. It became awkward. No one did anything wrong and I tried to explain I couldn’t help them. They needed to see a doctor for health problems. They then started to asked me when I was going to have children. I politely told them it wasn’t their business. It was just really awkward and not relaxing any more. When one of the women whispered to me she was afraid of me I decided to find a new salon. A neighbor gave me a recommendation.

The new salon was great. The woman who managed the shop used an autoclave machine on her tools. I think stories of me were making the rounds at local nail salons because the first time she worked on my nails she looked up at me after having a quick phone conversation with her 13 year old son and said, “Don’t listen to the women at the other salons. I get it. If I could do it all over again, I’d do like you and not have children.” I was taken aback. I hadn’t mentioned anything about my past experience to her. I smiled and nodded. The next time I came in she was busy and another technician did my nails. They looked great. She did the best job of any nail technician before or since. Conversation was light-hearted and not rude. One day I was telling her how much I wanted to travel the world…to go anywhere, see anything…but it was hard because my husband’s work schedule and I didn’t want to travel alone. She invited me to join her on a trip to Vietnam. I told her that would be wonderful knowing that I could not accompany her to Vietnam. The next time I came in she leaned across the table and whispered to me that she did not like boys. People often tell me deeply personal things. I wasn’t surprised, and also didn’t realize what she was really saying to me. I just smiled and said, “oh, ok.” I’m not homophobic. It wasn’t an issue for me to know my nail technician was lesbian. It made no difference to me and I was touched she felt comfortable enough with me to share something so personal. While she visited her family in Vietnam the owner did my nails again. When she returned from Vietnam she brought me a gift of a small bust of Buddha. I told her it was lovely. After that I returned to the salon one more time to have my nails done. The nail tech finally made it clear to me that she was interested in me romantically. I told her I was flattered but not interested. I am married and not a lesbian. After that it was awkward to return to the salon. I had to find a new salon again.

There is no shortage of nail salons. I started to go to a new one with a sign shaker out on the street to drum up business. The woman who did my nails did a decent job…but the questions and conversation were getting tiresome. There seemed to be a nail salon agenda to guilt me about not having children and belittle my work which none of them really understood because I didn’t feel I was obligated to talk about it with them. It’s not anyone’s business and I was paying them to do my nails, not give me unsolicited advice. If there’s anything I’ve learned in this life it is that you can’t change others…only yourself. Rather than cause a fuss I found a new salon.

By this time I had a bit of a reputation in local nail salons I guess. A different technician worked on my nails each time I went in the new salon. At times they were rough with my tiny hands. I finally just had them take the nails off. After a couple weeks I missed my long nails and on a whim decided to get a new set put on. The woman putting on the new set didn’t even look at me and never spoke the whole time. I noticed the acrylic was a different color than I was used to seeing. She was rough, really rough with my hands and cut multiple fingers when filing the nails. I bled and decided I wouldn’t return to this particular salon. That night my cuticles and skin around my nail beds began to burn and itch. I woke the next morning with a raised blistered rash on the fingers that had been cut by the file. Over the next week crud erupted from under all of my nails. I went back to one of the salons I knew…they treated my nails for fungus and told me as long as I used the medicine they sold me I wouldn’t have to remove the acrylic nails. Eventually I did…I should have done it sooner.

Right now my nails are creepier looking than they ever were when I was a nail-biting kid. The photo below is from just after having the acrylic nails removed. After tests, the doctor assures me there is no fungal infection…that it’s all just “inflammation” from the acrylic nails…but I don’t know about that. One thing is for sure…I’m taking care of my own nails now. The nail salon no longer relaxes me. If and when I ever go back to a nail salon it will have to be one that uses an autoclave on their implements.


I’ve been prescribed a topical steroid to while waiting for healthy nails to grow and replace my creepy looking finger tips. They are slowly but surely growing back healthy. In addition to Reiki, I also have a medical cannabis recommendation for other health concerns and have decided to take matters into my own healing hands. I made the following salve to treat my nails and skin.




Combine all ingredients in a double boiler and whisk vigorously with a fork until liquid and blended. Pour into a jar straining out solid materials. Once the mixture sets up to room temperature it can be applied directly to skin and/or nails and is safe for all topical applications.


I’ll post a picture when my nails are all healed and grown back in. They are already looking much much better.

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