By Aaron Ricciardi
I love salons. My earliest memory is of three- or four-year-old me at Salon Aromatique in Coral Springs, Florida. As my mother’s hair was getting cut and dyed, I’d hang out in the back, making myself coffee with so much sugar and so much cream, trailing packets and stirrers in my wake, driving the staff crazy. I felt like royalty.
Flash forward about twenty years, and I’m living in New York City. Every day, on my way to and from the subway, I’d pass a cheap, rundown nail salon, a tiny place with about a half-dozen employees, but I’d only ever see one customer in there at a time—always a variation on the same elderly white woman. How does this place stay in business? One day, on my daily walk past, I noticed a new hand-written sign in the front window. It read, “Bunny Is Back.” Beneath the sign sat a forty-something Asian woman in a manicurist’s uniform, looking out at the street, forlorn.
This woman started to obsess me. Was she Bunny? Why was she back? Where did she go? Then nail salons started to obsess me. I’d imagine the life of a New York City nail technician—manual laborers (literally) who are almost exclusively immigrants from Asia. I’d think about their every day, cleaning the fingers and toes of privileged, mostly white women, suffering through their stories and insignificant tales of woe.
I’m a pretty bad nail biter. My most reliable prevention strategy is to get a manicure once a week. It keeps me in check. So there I’d be, sitting in a New York City nail salon for my weekly pampering, watching the workers, judging the customers, judging myself, seeing clearly the messy politics charging through us all.
Then the New York Times published “Unvarnished,” a two-part series by reporter Sarah Maslin Nir which exposed gross labor abuses at New York City nail salons. It blew up my Facebook feed. Every good liberal I knew was enraged by this news, me included. How could they pay their workers so little? They’re exposing them to deadly chemicals! This is horrible! We wanted something to be done—though we never thought about our part in all this. Thanks to the law of supply and demand, manicures in New York City are shockingly cheap. If customers paid more, those workers would likely make a higher salary. But who doesn’t love a good deal?
While we (mostly white) liberals were taking to the metaphorical streets of social media, there was a group of people who were taking to the actual streets—one specific street, 8th Avenue, to be exact. A group of (mostly Asian) nail salon workers and owners picketed in front of the New York Times building, protesting Nir’s article with posters saying things like “NYT: RIFE WITH UNTRUTHS” and “New York Time Cost our Jobs.”
New York City liberals clamored for the state to take legislative action, and Governor Cuomo answered those calls with a new law to protect nail salon workers. The law upped fines and gave the state freer reign to shut down salons found to be in violation. It also mandated that salon owners provide workers with gear to protect them from dangerous chemicals, and it streamlined the training and licensing processes for nail technicians. It usually takes many months or even years to write and pass a bill. This time, it took just ten weeks from the day the Times published “Unvarnished.”
I’m a proud, outspoken Democrat. I believe that an active, progressive government is a force for great good. I believe that the Republican party is a white supremacist organization that is out to get marginalized people in this country, and I find it baffling how an immigrant could possibly support their agenda. But, reading those Times articles and watching the backlash—seeing this whole situation from the perspective of these workers and business owners who feel victimized by a predatory bureaucracy—I can’t help but see the allure of conservatism. I get it.
I’ve been a nail biter since I don’t know when. I imagine myself gnawing on my cuticles in utero. I bite my nails because I want them to look pretty. Like a kind of oral manicurist, I use my teeth as makeshift nail file, as a makeshift cuticle clipper, but then I take it too far, and my finger is bleeding, and I need a Band-Aid. It starts out well-intentioned, but it ends in destruction. What a metaphor.
- Original New York Times articles: “The Price of Nice Nails”and “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers”
- Real violation letters sent by labor department
- NY Review of Books’ criticism of original Times article:“What the ‘Times’ Got Wrong About Nail Salons”
- NYT response to NYRB’s criticism: “Rebuttal to The NYRB’s Article on NYT Nail Salon Series”
- NYRB’s response to NYT’s response: “Nail Salons: A Reply to the ‘Times’”
- From NY Times Opinion pages: “Criticism of ‘Unvarnished’ Brings a Strong Times Defense” and “New Questions on Nail Salon Investigation, and a Times Response”
- Reason.com critique: “What The New York Times Gets Wrong About Cheap Nail Salons,”
- Another Reason.com critique, in three parts: “The New York Times’ Nail Salons Series Was Filled with Misquotes and Factual Errors. Here’s Why That Matters.”
Aaron Ricciardi is the 3rd-year playwright in the program headed by Peter Gil-Sheridan in Indiana University’s Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance. We invite you to read more about the playwriting program on our website.