A friend of mine likes to tell the story of how, while working as an assistant at The New York Review of Books, he met the writer Janet Malcolm. Like all great anecdotes, it can be appreciated only by a particular audience, to the extent that it is appreciated at all. It goes like this: Malcolm walked into the office of the Review. It was late March; he was on Gchat.
“Hello, I’m Janet Malcolm,” said Janet Malcolm.
He looked up.
“Yes,” he said. My friend stood up from behind his desk. Malcolm removed her scarf, folded it, and placed it carefully in her bag.
He reckons they stood staring at one another like this for some time.
And that’s his story of meeting Janet Malcolm. It seems likely that his helplessness inspired genuine pity. He was at a loss. It is possible she realized, even before he did, that he had in fact played his entire hand. She moved on long before he might have been able to redeem himself. (He does not remember any details about the scarf.)
It’s a funny joke. Not funny ha-ha certainly, but a warm and fuzzy story that perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to meet a niche “celebrity” one admires in New York. It’s heartening to know that despite not being a physically imposing or impatient person, Janet Malcolm cannot help but be at all times Janet Malcolm: a natural-born reporter who feels no need to fill the air. A real cool customer she is!
Since I do not have the credentials nor personality to support quite so freestanding a personality as an American celebrity, I have done what I could to approximate it by adopting the logical shortcut: a unique, but ultimately flattering, uniform that offsets somewhat less controllable mannerisms. I occupy myself, however superficially at times, as best as I know how. Which is to say not very well, as I’ve not yet settled on a clothing style that suits either my environment or my body, nor am I known for having a particularly measured social presence.
What I have found, though, are some props that have carried me through time and space: my Blackberry, brown leather Chloé bag, black turtlenecks in the winter, high-waisted Acne jeans, a silver Bedat & Co. watch from my friend Helena’s mother, a dogged refusal to move out of Manhattan, an improvisational verbal patter, and…my nails—which I change constantly, usually in the first gesture toward whatever facet of my persona most needs highlighting.
Manicured nails are not unlike tattoos, albeit temporary. They’re either tasteful, tacky, or innocuous. My mother, more often than not, hates my manicure. People labor over their application, or they don’t. You really never know who’s going to sport them! I had a roommate in Chinatown who starched her jeans, wore high-waisted, pleated-linen shorts all summer, did the dishes with gloves, and started every day with a cup of coffee and a to-do list written in cursive. No curveballs here! Or so I thought. Instead of an engagement ring, she got a tattoo of her fiancé’s initials on her upper arm “for fun.” She didn’t do her nails for fear of “chemicals.” (One imagines Janet Malcolm does not do her nails because it is a waste of time.)
Like my most heavily tattooed friend, I believe nails are addictive. I’ve gotten more and more elaborate variations—from shellac to gel to gel tips to gel tips with art—from more and more skilled technicians at an ever increasing cost. A quick perusal of Instagram from the last six months reveals my varying degrees of employment, reading habits, and special events. Working as a glorified secretary for an aging society woman, I tended toward short, square nails of the “bridesmaid” variety, in the dull, matte coral pink of the Williamsburg bridge or pretty Ballet Slippers. I opted for hot pink the month an old n+1 editor of mine emailed me that much-coveted PDF of Eve’s Hollywood (the coat was fresh when a friend left a copy of Spy magazine at my house after a party); I reread Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies while wearing the red polish that is modeled on the cover. I celebrated quitting said job last month by donning the longest gel tips in gray. I called it my “pavement” look, since I’ll do nothing but walk the streets of New York from now on! When my friend Rachel lent me a gown with large, golden, little-girl puffy sleeves for a ball, I took pictures and carefully matched the shade.
Of course, it’s impossible to look at these photos and not think of the women who—while I perfected my “manicure resting face”—entertained me. There was Sarah, the part-time astrologist from Long Island, who fired me after insisting I get my birth chart done because she “can’t trust a double Gemini.” Melissa, from the 24-hour nail salon near my old freelance cubicle at Departures, who talked mostly about how her large dog and even larger boyfriend no longer fit in her apartment, gave me my first ever gel tips. I found out later she was removing them illegally, but who can forget the time she convinced me to get “tan mom nails”: square extensions the color of a sepia latte. Or Michelle, from next door to my favorite deli on the Lower East Side, who would fit me in between appointments (as long as I came in having removed the last polish myself), giving me a quick coat for $5 a pop, which I changed every three days in 2013.
I type this with manicure-free nails. A gesture I made recently (cough, last week) toward some financial solvency as an unemployed (freelance!) writer. I like that—unlike my clothes, my address, or my iCal—my nails always readily reflect exactly the state I’m in.
Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living—unfashionably East!—in Manhattan. She likes taking her Blackberry on long walks. She has never figured out how to put on eyeliner and feels really left out as a result.
Photo courtesy of the author.
The cheapest way to stop biting your nails brought to you by your old pal Sally Hansen.