Walk In Welcome

I'm not like these other white ladies, I want to say to the woman holding my hand.

“Choose color!” the reception shouts, and I walk quickly to the wall of nail polish bottles behind her head. There must be dozens here, frosted or shellac-bright, in shades from white through pinks and reds to browns and black. I grab a bottle of pinkish natural color and follow the manicurist to her station.

This is my first time in the nail salon, and though I’m turning sixty, it will be my first manicure. I chose this salon out of more than a dozen like it near my home, all in little strip malls, all run by Vietnamese immigrants.

The shop is busy on this rainy Saturday afternoon, and the workers chatter loudly to each other in a foreign language. Foreign to me, that is. The very young woman filing my nails smiles at me and tells me I’ve chosen a nice polish color. “Pretty,” she nods her head at the bottle near our hands.

She laughs and shoots some words I don’t understand at the male manicurist at the next station. The workers who chatter and laugh here are all Asians. The women customers are all Caucasians, like my friend who doesn’t come here anymore.

“They don’t speak English very well,” she says.

“What language are you speaking?” I ask my manicurist.

“Vietnamese,” she answers shyly and files industriously at the edges of my ragged nails. “Go out tonight?”

We have a little conversation about my upcoming evening but it’s difficult and so we finally shrug and smile instead.

The other customers stare at a small TV set mounted high in the corner, or flip through People magazines. None of them talk to the workers. I don’t think that’s right. Still uncomfortable, I try again.

“Do you live nearby?” I ask as the small young woman clips my cuticles with a tiny pair of scissors. A frown line appears between her brows. Without lifting her eyes from her work she names a small town a few miles away.

“Are there any good Vietnamese restaurants there?” I ask. “I love Vietnamese food.”

She shakes her head and places my hand in a small glass bowl of sudsy water.

Stupid, I chide myself. They probably can’t afford to eat out. Their families are more likely to work in restaurants than eat in them.

I squirm in my seat. My nails are being groomed, I’m paying for the service, yet I feel I should be doing more. More than the blonde suburban ladies around us that ignore the salon employees, flip the pages of their magazines and pop their chewing gum.

After all, I am the grandchild of immigrants. My grandparents came here from Poland at the turn of the twentieth century. They spoke no English and waited for hours at a train station before someone took them in and helped them find jobs in a broom factory in the city that became my hometown. Their courage gave me the life I have today, a comfortable, secure and happy life. I don’t work with my hands, and here I am, today, actually getting them pampered by an immigrant. Maybe that’s what makes me squirm.

At the reception desk, a golden statue presides over fresh oranges and fat red candles in glass holders. Shiny red flags with gold embossing decorate the walls, but I’m the only one here who looks at these things.

I’m not like these other white ladies I want to say to the woman who is holding my hand. I understand your struggle. I want you to succeed. But this time I keep quiet.

“Wash hands,” my manicurist brusquely orders, gesturing to the sink at the back of the room. Feeling conspicuous, I do as she says. I feel as if a sign covers my forehead. “Newbie,” it reads, “Doesn’t Know What to Do.” When I turn back around, no one is looking at me.

“Pay first,” the woman says when I am back at her station. I fumble for the bills in my wallet, not ready, and nervously over-tip her. She polishes my nails with swift precision, two coats in “Innocence” and then a clear top coat. She walks around to my chair, lifts my purse and leads me to the drying machines. I don’t know how this works. I feel embarrassed because I need her to show me how to place my hands under the dryer. She presses the button to start the blower.

“Have nice day,” she says, waving. “Bye, bye!”

Wait, I want to say. I care about your life.

“You, too,” I say feebly. When the dryer stops I stand and walk to the door where I read backwards from the inside, the words “Walk In Welcome.”

I hope you are welcome, too, I think, wherever you live and work.

My polished nails reflect the light as I push the door open and walk to my car in the rain.

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