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Women Bonding In Nail Salons: A Place Lost In Time

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Years ago, I was a regular customer of a nail salon in New Jersey that no longer exists. For Your Nails Only was a stand-alone nail salon -- one of the first of such places where a woman (and the very occasional man) could go to get manicures and pedicures that wasn't part of a hair salon. I was owner Cathy Musselman's standing appointment every Friday at 3 p.m. and there were no noisy hair dryers in the background drowning out conversation -- which is a good thing because visiting For Your Nails Only had more to do with the conversation than the nails.

What beauty parlors were to my mother, this nail salon was to me: a place of community, a spot where you came for sisterhood and women-bonding. The details of your life were openly shared here and everyone had an opinion on them. It was "Cheers" without the booze and indeed, a place where everyone knew your name.

At the time, I was writing a thrice-weekly column for a daily newspaper and I can honestly say that the ideas for at least of two of those columns each week came from Cathy's nail salon. It's where all of life's dramas were played out and all I had to do was listen. It might be whether Lorena Bobbitt was justified when she cut off her husband's penis or whether Joanne-the-cashier's boyfriend would ever marry her now that she agreed to move in with him, the nail salon was always alive with discussion. And from that came my stories.

I wrote about how one woman coped with her husband's cancer by volunteering in the hospice unit; she told me that it helped her to see how gentle death could be if we just let it. Another woman hated the girl her son wanted to marry but loved her son more than she hated the girl; I learned from her that there is often no prize for being right and sometimes the greatest reward comes from pretending not to see. And I'll always remember the woman who was certain that her weight loss would keep her philandering spouse at home. "It's my fault, you know, I let myself go," I recall she told us. I cried for her the whole way home.

For Your Nails Only was what Facebook can only hope to be. Yes we brought our accomplishments there to show off -- photos of a child's graduation, a new baby, a new car -- but we also brought our vulnerabilities. Instead of posting link-outs, we clipped and shared magazine stories that addressed one another's problems. There was no need for Facebook to remind us of someone's birthday; the salon's inveterate baker wouldn't miss a chance to bring in her special birthday cakes, much the same way the master crocheter -- who put down her needles only long enough for her polish to dry -- made a baby blanket for every pregnancy.

Lest you get the wrong idea, the news of the nail salon was never far removed from the news of the world -- albeit filtered through a very local prism. When Chernobyl happened, we all asked if it could happen here. And when the Exxon Valdez oil spilled in Alaska, all eyes drifted to the gas station on the corner, wondering whether this meant gas would jump to $1.10 a gallon. Invariably, the refrain was to blame it on the politicians.

But mostly, the talk was personal and advice-seeking. From the small -- should I start to color my hair? -- to the large -- should I take a job offer in Los Angeles? -- opinions were offered. Support came in the form of a group hug goodbye, and the promise that one would never be forgotten.

In the circle of a woman's life, it didn't get much better than what bloomed in that nail salon.

When I left New Jersey for a job in California, I fully expected to replicate the nail salon experience in my new home. Little did I know that nail salons here are a different animal. Generally owned and staffed by new immigrants from Asia, they are an assembly line of efficiency -- not a place to linger and talk. I remember trying to tell Kim, my first California manicurist about how lonely I felt as a new arrival. She nodded her head in earnest and asked me if I wanted the extra $5 foot rub before turning to the manicurist sitting two feet away and asking her something in Vietnamese.

Eventually, I decided that I had neither the time nor the money to spend on manicures and just stopped getting them. In the summer, I stop wherever I can find a parking spot and run in for a fast pedicure, using the time to check emails on my iPhone. But each time I do it, I feel the ache of missing all over again.