I have been doing nails for 18 years. I have worked at shops as small as a living room and spas/salons with dozens of technicians working in separate hair, massage, skin care, and nail departments. After all these years, I still love my work and the challenges of making every client feel special. My career has taken me to interesting places, but none more interesting than the first. I expected to learn about nails, which I did, but I learned so much more about life.
In the spring of 1992, I finished my training, took my licensing test, and began looking for a job. Since I had no experience, this was not easy. After a few weeks, I finally spotted an ad that asked for a manicurist to work in a hair salon two days a week. I called and set up an interview.
When I arrived at the shop on a Tuesday morning, I was very surprised at what I found. The receptionist/manager, Lottie*, opened the door and greeted me. “Hello,” she said without smiling. “I appreciate you being on time. In this business, that’s very important. I’m Lottie, and I need someone who is fast, reliable and can do a manicure in 30 minutes.” She looked at my resume and continued, “My clients are all about my age (she was 82) but they are very fussy about their appearance. The job is yours if you can start this week.” I was still looking around at the old hood dryers, the pink tile on the walls and floor, and the small manicure table with one drawer in the middle. Every-thing looked like it had been frozen in time (circa 1950), including Lottie. “If I don’t hear from you first thing in the morning, I’ll know you don’t want the job.” I thanked her for her time and left the shop.
Although the shop was outdated, it was located inside a beautiful condominium building with a gorgeous lobby, a uniformed doorman, and each apartment had a balcony that overlooked Philadelphia’s scenic Fairmount Park. There was a lovely garden of yellow roses that encircled the front driveway and there was a private parking garage underneath the building. These amenities helped me make my decision. I wanted and needed a job, but I envisioned working in a more upscale salon with younger clients and staff. But, I needed to start somewhere. When I arrived home, I called Lottie and told her I could start Friday at 8 a.m. sharp. On Fridays, the shop was as lively as it had been quiet the first time I went there. Big band music was playing on the radio; each stylist was busy with a client and Lottie was already on the phone taking last-minute appointments for the day. My first client was waiting for me. Her name was Eileen*. “You’re late!” she joked with a smile. She was a petite lady, impeccably dressed in a Chanel suit, pearls, and a diamond brooch in the shape of a poodle. She told me she and her late husband owned a car dealership. She was the bookkeeper (now she would be the CFO) and they worked side by side for 37 years until his death. She was getting all dolled up to meet friends for brunch and they had tickets to a matinee.
Next was Molly*. She taught school for 52 years starting in a one-room schoolhouse in Aiken, S.C., in the late 1930s. She married late and took care of her ailing husband. Her weekly manicure and hairstyle was her way to relax.
Next was Goldie*. She called everyone “honey.” She told me she had worked as a buyer at the now-defunct department store Gimbels. She left that job to open her own fabric store with her husband. They still worked in the store one day a week. Their only son was a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles. She taught me what to look for in quality clothing, how to spot a knock-off, and to always talk with the salespeople to find out when the sales would start and when the new items would arrive for the next season.
Added to the mix was Judy*, a cheerful redhead who bragged that she was the “Yiddish Shirley Temple,” a child prodigy who sang, danced, and played the piano to help support her family during the Depression. Sylvia* was a shy, birdlike creature who married four times, was widowed twice, and was worth a fortune.
My oldest client, Toba*, was 96 when I started working at the shop. She was so funny and animated. She was tiny (4’11”), and she loved to dance, do aerobics, and tell jokes. I later learned from another client that she barely escaped the concentration camps during the Nazi regime. She was granted a special health visa and sailed to America in 1936. She lost her first husband and two sons in the Holocaust. Although she endured much tragedy, it did not break her spirit.
Since most of my clients were Jewish, I learned about the holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover) and knew the shop would be closed on those days in observance.
Judy would talk to me whenever I had problems with my boyfriend (now my husband) and she would say, “Always start off the way you want to end up with a man. If you want to be in charge, start off that way because men don’t like change.” She was so right. (She even offered to talk with him for me, but I declined.) Working at the Plaza was demanding work, but also fun because of the many characters that frequented the shop. One client was a local talk radio personality who was very opinionated on the air. She would come into the shop with the same commanding presence. She would ask for a French manicure. I was nervous at first, but when I was finished painting her nails she looked at her hands then looked at me and said, “I wasn’t going to let you do my nails at first because you are new, but you’re pretty good.” She made another appointment and became a regular client. She even mentioned me once on the air.
Another client, Marlene*, was tough and hard to please. She would walk in complaining about something. “This coffee is cold. How come there are no good magazines? Don’t you have any other colors?” she would bark. Even after I finished her nails and they were perfect, she would only say, “They are alright.” I later learned that she was a divorced woman — back then, that was a social taboo. She also outlived her two children; her son was killed in Vietnam and her daughter died in a house fire.
The most special time at the shop for me was the holiday season. Although most of my clients did not celebrate Christmas, I was showered with money, gifts, cards, and lots of tasty food. Lottie would make a spread of salads, kugel, baked chicken, and homemade rolls. A coworker, Janice*, would start baking Christmas cookies the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. I forgot about all the calories and just enjoyed the feast.
Since I was the youngest person working in the shop, the other ladies took me under their wing and encouraged me as a novice cosmetologist. One of my favorite coworkers, Eva*, emigrated from Trinidad and worked as the shampoo girl. She would tell me about how the ladies were when they were young; how they would all rave about how successful their husbands were and compare their fur coats and expensive jewelry. Eva would tell me how the shop was so busy during the fall right before the high holy days that she often worked 12- or 13-hour days. She also said the salon was nearly deserted January through March because everyone went south to Florida after New Year’s Day.
The only sadness about the shop was the inevitable loss of clients; not to another shop but to sickness, senility, and death. Every few months a client would stop coming because she had become too ill, was in the hospital, or had to be moved to assisted living. One by one, the ladies who kept the shop alive and bustling with activity had grown silent. It was difficult to watch those beautiful, elegant fashion mavens disappear from the scene like pieces from a puzzle.
Finally, the shop closed in 1995 after Lottie passed away. She closed the shop one evening, went home to her apartment, and quietly drifted away in her sleep. Eva and the four stylists, Sheila, Barbara, Janice, and Peg, all retired after many years in the shop. I recently visited the old location and the new owners are much younger, but I can still close my eyes and see all the “Golden Girls,” laughing, arguing about politics, bragging about grandchildren, and just enjoying life at the Plaza.
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