The J & S Nails on Nostrand Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn is filled at noon on Friday. The salon’s workers are all occupied. In the waiting area, a woman in a velour jumpsuit stretches out in the seat closest to the dryers, her nails and toes freshly painted neon green.
I am summoned by a man, Jack, who tells me he is the manager of the salon. I sit down at his manicure station, my eyes are irritated by the chemicals, and the stench is overwhelming — except for the opened front door, there is no ventilation in the salon. All of the manicurists have on masks that cover their mouths and noses.
Jack begins filing the tops of my nails. “Have you heard about the New York Times investigation into nail salons,” I ask.
He’s confused. I ask him a few more times and look over at his co-worker, maybe she’s read it? No, Jack tells me. The co-worker averts her eyes. He tells me he doesn’t know about any investigation into the wages and conditions nail salon employees work under. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I believe him.
There is a substantial language barrier between Jack and me, who says he is originally from China. I ask where the owner is from. China, too.
Jack begins tugging at my cuticles now, and I can tell he’s on edge. I ask him if the workers at his salon are paid an hourly wage. A pregnant pause, he gathers his words. After a line about good service and hospitality he says the salon’s workers get paid at least 50% of each sale, plus the full tip. He doesn’t give me a straight answer on hourly wages. He does tell me they are not paid minimum wage.
My manicure is $6.00. Normally, I’d tip $2.00. Today I tip $4.00.
On Thursday, Sarah Maslin Nir published the first part of an investigation into the nail salon industry for the New York Times. After more than 150 interviews with salon workers, the Times found that a vast majority of workers are being paid below minimum wage, and sometimes not paid at all. “Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations,” writes Maslin.
It’s a report that has rocked my small, rarefied world of writers and New York Times readers. But what about my neighborhood? Is anything immediately different for the good folks at J & S nails? Apparently not. I’ve been before and it looked like business as usual.
Karen, a customer seated next to me, said she hadn’t heard of the report. “I’m going to read it as soon as I get back to work,” she tells me. “My mother taught me how to paint my nails,” she said with a soft nostalgia. She will go back to doing her own nails if she finds the report to be as damning as I described. Right now she gets her nails done once a month.
Karen’s manicurist lovingly chastises her for gesturing too much.
I turn back to Jack. “Do you know if any of the women who work here have health problems or miscarriages?” He doesn’t like my line of questioning. “I don’t think so.” He does concede that there are chemicals, so, maybe.
The second part of the Times investigation, published Friday, addresses the health issues - among them miscarriages, skin infections and respiratory problems - associated with being exposed to fumes and particles while working in a nail salon.
The J & S Salon is like many in my neighborhood. It’s cheap and shabby, not at all like the salons on the Upper East Side that serve some of New York City’s most affluent. This and most of the salons on Nostrand Avenue are frequented primarily by black women; the neighborhood’s gentrifying crowd must go elsewhere for their beauty needs.
I am struck by the congeniality between Jack and the customers. They know each other well. It’s a familiar relationship. A kind one. It’s hard for me to imagine it disappearing.
For now, in my Brooklyn bubble, nothing has changed. “It’s the Friday before Mother’s Day,” Karen reminds me. “It’s going to be crazy here tomorrow, too.”
I walk out into the springtime sunshine a bit lightheaded and headachey from the odor. I look down and admire my nails, a shiny bright orange.
But for how much longer?
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.