A few weeks ago, I got a Groupon for $65 full leg wax and pedicure at a downtown spa. I could care less about the pedicure, but full leg wax for $65? I’m about it. I finally got around to making an appointment for last Monday. The spa is of course over the top beautiful and is decorated with lots of wood paneling and stones in bowls, also made of wood, and smells like your college dorm when they’d try to cover up the weed smell with overpowering incense. They also had a live parrot in a wooden cage. I approached the parrot carefully, as I do all animals, both out of respect for its autonomy of being and to avoid getting my damn finger bit off. He or she gave me the eye and pulled away at my approach. The little thing was shaking. I do not like birds kept in cages for our pleasure. But I digress.
So the actual waxing experience could be an entire blog post on its own, as I decided to throw in a Brazilian to the full leg (as long as I’m there, let’s just giterdone). I get Brazilians all the time, but let’s just say that this one was unique, as it had Veronica the esthetician saying several times throughout the experience, “I am sooo sorry. Oh my god. In my five years of doing this I have never had this happen before!” But I’m here now to focus on the pedicure.
I have a complete aversion to getting mani/pedis. It’s not that I don’t like strangers touching me or my feet (No no, please. Touch my feet. Touch me. Anywhere. I insist.). I’m ok with that. It’s the fact that I am paying someone money to do something for me, something hygienic, something pampering, something that I could totally do myself. And frankly, I don’t see spending $20 or whatever for something that I could do just as well at home for much less. But that’s yet another issue.
If you live in a major city (or even if you don’t), the probability that your nail tech is going to be an immigrant, probably from Asia, is high. So there I was, post traumatic waxing, with my piggies in a bubbling vat of blue liquid as Lien (as I learned her name was) literally sat at my feet and poured oils on my ankles and began massaging my calves.
I could just not relax.
And this is coming from someone who has had plenty of oils and other substances dripped onto her ankles, as well as various other parts, in the past and fully enjoyed every second of it. No problem with that. I began to babble faster than the bubbles.
Oh, hi! I’m Jill! Wow this place is pretty! It’s so… (hushed voice) fancy, right? Sheesh!(read: Lien, please know that I am not of this world, this is not my norm. I am one of you! A worker! A proletariat!) Where are you from? Oh, Vietnam! Neat!
Somehow we began talking about fruit, and how the fruit here was just not like the fruit back home in Vietnam.
Oh I know… I lived in Paraguay for a couple of years. The bananas were tiny and sooo good. (read: I have lived in developing country, too. Boy, were we poor! I get it! I’m hip! I’m with it! Takka takka takka. And boy was the fruit different, and better! Stupid Americans don’t know nothing about fruit, right Lien? But we do. Lien and Jill, one in the same, BFF 4eva!)
It went on like this. I couldn’t stop. Stop babbling, making small talk, trying to relate, trying to prove that this was just a fluke, I was really a scullery maid who was forced to get a pedicure by some evil Groupon discount stepmother. Because in reality I was all about fiscal thriftiness. We talked about coupons. Lien had found some sort of super coupon off a local dry cleaner and ended up getting a ton of clothes and five suits cleaned for like, $17. I praised her ingenuity. We scrunched our noses at those who don’t like coupons. We were One.
It was the never-ending pedicure. Lien kept pouring different oils on my feet, massaging and rubbing, blotting dry with a tiny towel only to rewet with a new, different kind of oil or balm. I was running out of things to babble about. I tried to just STFU and enjoy it. I mean, this was her job, right? Without this, she would be, what? Begging in the streets. Working in an overcrowded, hot and unsafe illegal apparel factory in someone’s basement. Still in Vietnam, doing whatever she did back there (which was probably something like finishing her PhD in biotechnology or the like). But I remained incredibly uncomfortable. I was paying someone money to rub my feet. I guess it’s not unlike prostitution, in a way. But that can’t be it entirely, because I have no overarching ethical problem with prostitution. So what’s the biggie? Hmm. I have to talk this one out.
It was a racial thing. A socio-economic thing. I’m a white girl from the suburbs and she’s an immigrant from Vietnam. My liberal white guilt kicked in. Let’s do a little exercise. What if she had been a white girl doing it? “Heyyy I’m Staci, and I’ll be your nail tech for this evening! What, me? I’m a business administration major at DePaul, and I just do this on the side to pay for books.” If that were the situation, I think I’d think Oh, in that case, lay back, stretch out and tell Staci not to forget to get in between my toes, too, thanks.
No, that’s not exactly true. I would feel better about it, yes. But not entirely.
What if it was a big black dude who lived in Section 8 housing? Well I know how I’d feel, because once a big black dude who said he lived in Cabrini was the hairwashing guy at Vidal Sasoon where I get my hair did. I felt fine about that, but probably because he was uber sexy and spent an unecessarily long time massaging my head and speaking to me in a low voice with lots of inappropriately awesome eye contact that made parts of me tingle, other than my scalp. So maybe horniness overpowers class or racial issues.
No, that’s not true, either. Because I’d have no problem paying a prostitute from one of those “reputable” escort agencies (in theory of course, ha ha. Ha. Eyes shift to right, eyes shift to left). But I could just never get into it with one from the street, young and truly needing the money to pay for baby formula or meth or something, no matter how horny I was.
So it comes down to I just have a hard time paying for services when class issues (which are often tied to racial issues) are at play.
Which reminds me of when I was living in Paraguay. I had just moved to my town and didn’t know how anything worked, really. The Peace Corps Volunteer that I was following up said she gave her dirty clothes to a neighbor woman, Fulana, who washed them weekly, and she paid her I believe 10,000 Guarani for it. (For the record, 10,000 Guarani comes to about $1.98, but is decent pay for the job.) The first week, I took my clothes to my neighbor’s house and gave them to her to wash. She said, “Sit down! Sit down!” and offered me a chair in her yard. She sat across from me and began washing my clothes in a soapy basin in front of her, chatting about the weather and the new pig they were going to buy. I sat there, practicing my Spanish, feeling so uncomfortable. Here I am, white, middle-class woman from the US, coming to live in a poor fishing town in a developing country, paying a local woman to wash my own clothes as I sit in front of her, resting my pretty hands and making small talk. Ugh. This felt wrong. And I wanted to be known as One of Them! She hung up my clothes, told me she’d iron them when they were dry, and her daughter Marta would bring them to my house when they were done. I said gracias and left.
The next week, Marta knocked (well, clapped outside, since some people don’t have doors so knocking is not the norm) at my door. “Mama wants me to get your dirty clothes for the week,” she said. “Oh, ok…” I started in my still new Spanish. “Well I think I’m going to wash it myself. I can do it! Tell your madre that she taught me so well and now I’m going to do it myself from now on.” Marta looked at me for a moment, said ok, then ran away.
Well. Did I hear about that for the next month. Everyone in town was buzzing about how the American was too good to have Fulana wash her clothes. I was shocked. I thought I’d get praise for being independent! Being one of them! I hadn’t even considered that Fulana really depended on that 40,000 Guarani a month income, and now I took it away. And Fulana could talk some shit, I’ll tell you what. It was a forever awkward topic after that, but I kept washing my clothes myself for the next two years.
I thought about this while Lien dried off my toes and began pushing my cuticles back with a metal stick. “Did you see those ladies here?” she asked. “Five sisters! Here for one of their birthdays. 50 years old. Two got massages, all got pedicures.”
I had seen the ladies paying when I had first got there, all middle-aged, well dressed, fake tanned, in flip flops and white cotton toe dividers protecting their freshly painted toenails. They were loud and laughing and fancy. I internally rolled my eyes at the time.
“Yes, I saw them,” I said. “Rich ladies!” External eyeroll.
“Yes, rich!” Lien said. “And so funny! And good business! Bad economy means more business for salons. People come here instead of away on vacation. Cheaper for them. Good for me! And very, very nice ladies. So funny!” She painted my toes. The color was called “Overexposed in South Beach.”
I then realized Lien didn’t seem to feel the same discomfort I felt. She liked these ladies. They were nice to her. Because… they were nice. Rich and nice aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I felt like an asshole. Again.
But I still felt uncomfortable paying for someone to scrub my feet.
I thought of Fulana. I thought of my brother and me, seven and 10 years-old, looking out the window of our cabin in Wisconsin at the “Honeydew Man” and his truck cleaning out our septic tank. “Eww,” my brother had said, the smell wafting in the air. “Well,” my Dad had replied. “Someone’s got to do it. Nothing wrong with that. Honest living.”
Honest living, I thought. I’m not rich, but sometimes I might find myself getting a pedicure. Just like Lien sometimes might find herself going to a fancy dinner in one of her dry cleaned suits. Or the Honeydew Man might find himself in first class on a flight somewhere for vacation.
But it still just didn’t feel right. And I found that I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. I won’t be doing it again in the near future. I’m too broke, anyway. I tipped big because she did a great job but also out of guilt, and took my pink toenails, moisturized feet and throbbing hairless vagina home.