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I remember the first time I noticed it.  Walking down a street in New Jersey, I passed a nail salon.  Three stores down, to my amazement, there was another one.  Why? What was the difference between the two salons?  Why two on the same block?  And then, short term memory unable to store such data, I promptly forgot. However, the associative process rumbled on in the back of my head.

While driving days later, I suddenly remembered a trip to India.  Every famous temple site I visited was tended by vendors – they sold everything from glow in the dark statues of deities to cotton candy.  Cotton candy in shades from traditional hot pink to electric blue hung from a beam above the counter, attracting flies and passing detritus.  I never actually saw anyone eat any.  At several shrines, there would be 3 and even 4 cotton candy salesman in a row, all with the same variety of colors of goo, the same display counter, the same prices.  As people would walk past them, they would hawk their cotton candy, as if no one had ever tried fly ridden, day old cotton candy before, as if one’s cotton candy was different from the guy next to him.  I asked a resident of the town why there were so many cotton candy vendors.  He shrugged.  “One day, one man gets an idea to sell cotton candy.  People come and buy.  So then others think, well, I too could sell cotton candy and I will also make money. And so they all do the same thing.”  I sputter, “But that’s really dumb!  I mean, if I don’t buy cotton candy from one guy, why should I buy cotton candy from another?”  He shook his head in that maddeningly incomprehensible movement that means everything from yes to you are such a stupid foreigner stop bugging me, and moved on.   I of course, never bought cotton candy, although I did buy a glow in the dark statue. Were the nail salons merely odd business choices? I think not.

Now that I live in North Carolina, I have certain rituals each time I visit New York City.   One of them is to walk the old neighborhoods where I used to live and work; to drink in the atmosphere, see what has changed, what streets are still quiet, whether my old haunts still exist.  Not exactly like a pilgrimage, but there is an element of sacredness to my process.  As I walk down 8th street, I am shocked to see that one of my favorite unaffordable clothing boutiques is gone.  For years I had peered in the window at the Betsy Johnsons and the Vivienne Westwoods.  Once I had even ventured inside, but all their clothes were designed for women who were 5 foot 9 and wore a size two which was fortunate, since the price tag was well out of my range. That store is now called Glamour Nail Salon.  Oh well.  A couple of doors down, I remember a little café, Nick’s, where I had fallen in love with a “NY actor” during my teenage juvenile delinquent days. Nick’s Cafe is gone.  In its place is Trevi Nail Salon. The nail salons are everywhere.  At least two in every block.  Carla’s Spa and Nail.  Princess Nails.  The Nail Place.  Monaco Nail and Facial.  Nails’r Us (an unfortunate name).  They are as ubiquitous, even more numerous than Gap Stores.  They outnumber Ann Taylor.  Even Starbucks cannot outdo the humble nail salon.  By chance, I pass two young men walking and talking, drinking their Starbucks. “Can you believe how many Starbucks there are now?” “I know, man, it’s amazing.” “You know, the other day, I was over on 72nd St and I stopped into a Starbucks for a Cappuccino.  I go outside and cross the street.  And there was another Starbucks!  I mean, what are they thinking?  You go in, have a cup of coffee, go outside, cross the street and think, hmmm, I haven’t a cup of coffee for at least…..30 seconds, hey, look, a Starbucks!  Lucky thing.” They both laugh hysterically and I find myself thinking about cotton candy. 

I do the math. Manhattan has 8 million official inhabitants, maybe 2 million illegals.  10 million people times 10 fingers.  Say 50 % are women so you can add 10 toes.  That’s 200 million potential surfaces for nail polish.  If there are two salons on every block, each with a staff of three….I suppose they could keep all of NYC in cherry red polish for eternity. I start staring at New Yorkers’ fingers.  While some do sport elaborate manicures, most have utilitarian nails.  Yes, there was the young blond man I saw on the subway. He had kind of a Rasta mullet: short hair in front, dread locks in the back. Clutching a Newport Jazz Festival program, his right hand sported long, immaculate fingernails, gleaming with clear polish.  A finger picking jazz guitarist – or at least he wanted everyone to think he was.  There was the Duane Reade clerk with 5 inch fuschia fingernails that curled around, the tips shimmering with shooting stars. Suddenly interested in my split, chipped fingertips, I wander the nail care section of Duane Reade, learning that a French manicure is as easy as gluing little tips onto my nails.  Intimidated by any glue stronger than Elmers, of course I won’t try it.  I am the type to get stuck to the desk. I buy a bottle of something called Sinful Colors. (I was told in grammar school by Sister Mary Alice that wearing red is a sin because it makes men 40% more aggressive.  I wore red constantly for years after that.)

So if every New Yorker is not going to a nail salon on a regular basis, why are there so many?  Is it the cotton candy theory?  Or something more insidious?  What if it’s some vast evil empire spreading around the US, linked together by tiny storefronts masquerading as nail salons?  That would explain why half the time they seem empty. I imagine the tiny transponders they insert in those little stars they add to the tips of the fingernails.  As you are relaxing in your footbath, they are taking DNA samples from your toenails to store in a sinister database that even now is encoding all of your needs and preferences.  I find myself scurrying past these seemingly innocuous little shops muttering things like, “Oh yeah?  Big Brother is not going to find me!  You just try to clip my cuticles and I’ll show you!”

I confess my paranoid delusions to a more intelligent and very urbane friend.  She snorts.  “Oh Lavinia, come on now.  Don’t you realize the truth?  It is the nail salon that is holding the fabric of our economy together!” Staggered by this thought, I sit down to relax with Briane Greene’s book, The Elegant Universe.  It promises an explanation of string theory, but first I must wade through his presentation on relativity.  I don’t get most of it.  But he starts talking about the warping of space and time, and informs the reader that the “overall size of the spatial universe must be changing in time. (italics his). That is, the fabric of the universe is either stretching or shrinking, it is not staying put.” AHA!  I am having a moment as large as the discovery of the benzene ring.  This explains the nail salons, Gaps, Starbucks and all excess retail stores on this planet, in this dimension.  If the fabric of the universe is stretching, then there are moments where it seems like there’s a gap (pun intended) in reality.  The universe, while endless, periodically runs out of ideas.  As it stretches its creativity, it feels the need to fill the apparent spaces in the fabric of reality.  Was it not Aristotle who proclaimed (albeit incorrectly) that nature abhors a vacuum?  Franchises are a convenient solution to these odd fluctuations in space and time. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s another Kenneth Cole store!  Why look, there’s a Barnes and Noble where there used to be….what was there anyway? But you can only have so many Wendy’s, Banana Republics and Pizza Huts in a row, so what do you do with all the stretched space?  People do get suspicious when there are two Starbucks across the street from each other. There’s already Kid Gap, Baby Gap, Men’s Gap, Gap Gap.  Any day now, there’ll be a Geezer Gap, Doggy Gap, Teen Gap, Generation Gap, if of course Gap itself doesn’t implode and create more space.  The universe, in desperation, throws in a nail salon. They’re small, they fit anywhere, and can have a variety of names.  These nail salons are not just the glue that holds the fabric of our economy together, they are the weft of the fabric of the universe itself, filling in the space that would be left by a retiring café owner or an outmoded clothing store.  Nail salons are the universe’s place marker, its holding pattern until in a fit of creative frenzy it will create a future that contains aplasma tv store, or an interactive 3D photo kiosk chain, or a human teleportation station.  Meanwhile, we are stuck with choosing between Passion Pink or Shimmering Opal as we soak our feet and contemplate new Gap options.

Postscript: With trepidation, I walk to Amsterdam Avenue between 110th  & 11t1h Streets to check on The Hungarian Pastry Shop, which has been there since I first discovered it 35 years ago.  There it sits in its old world chaotic splendor, loaded with strudel and almond horns.  Not a cuticle stick in sight.  Next to me sit two women, comparing manicures.  I can almost feel the universe folding.