In With Both Feet by George Merrill


I can’t cut my toenails any more.

The limitation’s been challenging. At first it bothered me.

My inability to cut my nails became apparent in January. I did well with the right foot, but I couldn’t get at my left foot to save my soul (no pun intended.) It required contortions that I couldn’t manage.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask my wife to help. She already does my hair (cutting only, no styling since I’m legally bald.) I felt doing my nails would be just another burden for her. If left unaddressed however, my toenails would pierce the fronts of my shoes. What to do? A manicurist, or a nail technician?

My pride hurt badly enough because I couldn’t take care of myself properly, the way I could when I was younger. Then, as I considered a nail salon, I worried my masculine identity might be threatened. Aren’t nail salons, like beauty shops, for women and girls? Aren’t they female sanctuaries, women caves, if you will? I’ve aged sufficiently to discover this is not so. They’re co-ed, but lean decidedly toward a female clientele.

My son-in law, a strapping 6’3” macho, executive type, takes his four daughters to have their nails done. He gets a pedicure while he’s there. His girls, I imagine, legitimized his presence in the salon. If I went by myself, I’d have no excuse. I’d be on my own. However, I took courage when hearing about him and the girls. When I considered how Rosy Greer felt comfortable with crocheting and needlepoint, I decided I could visit a nail salon.

After my first trip to a salon, I felt like the little boy who first rode his bike without training wheels. What can I say; when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

I’ve enjoyed two visits to the nail salon. No pedicures, though, just a trim. I have my limits.

On my first visit, I was relieved to see a male customer there. He was having a pedicure. He saw me, but didn’t acknowledge me, perhaps regretting that he was no longer the only rooster in the hen house. A staff woman attended me.

On the second visit, all the customers and staff were women. I was the only man, except for the male technician who attended me. He motioned me to sit. A woman’s purse was on the chair. I said loud enough that all patrons could hear; “I know this is not mine; it doesn’t go with my shoes.” We bantered. It was fun. I felt like one of the girls. As we are learning, guys are touchy about negotiating stuff like that. But that’s for another discussion.

I assumed that the personnel, except for one woman, were Chinese or Vietnamese. Few were fluent in English, but knew enough to conduct business efficiently.

Patrons chatted with each other, but not with any staff that I noticed. I’m sure language was the issue. Staff would occasionally comment to each other softly, as if trying not to intrude on the patrons all speaking in English. I listened intently as the staff spoke. The sound of the language intrigued me. To my Western ear, it sounded as if communication depended on rising and falling tones – as much, if not more, than just articulating words. It was as if music carried the messages. I’d hear occasional melodic whispers which I imagined might be a question, others an exclamation, still others, humor. I have no idea whether I interpreted these tonal exchanges correctly.

I know only that I was fascinated and I listened intently to each tone, trying to imagine what it meant. I looked at staffs’ faces for smiles or frowns, anything that might give their message away, but everyone appeared impassive. It surprised me to be drawn into a world I knew nothing about, but which seemed to beckon me to listen as staff did what is fundamental to us all – to speak with the desire to be heard; heard by someone, a someone who will understand what we’re saying. It’s the universal antidote to loneliness. Understanding frees us from isolation. It’s what makes community and affirms our belonging.

On my second visit to the salon, the man who attended me nodded for me to sit, but said nothing. I couldn’t actually see his facial expressions. He wore a gauze mask. Did he have a cold or did he fear being contaminated by his clients? It’s maddening when finding myself so close to someone, even touching and still not being able to communicate; casual small talk would have done it for me. Just a word can close the widest chasms.

He filed away on my big toe, stopped and looked up. He pointed to the little toe on my left foot, shook his head slightly. I thought he said, “Only meat left here.” The entire nail residue hung precariously from the flesh of the toe, the nail almost completely detached. He clipped it off, carefully, like a surgeon. He nodded his head, as if to reassure me that it was ok.

It was ok.

Finishing up, he began washing my feet. I felt strangely moved. An image of Jesus came to mind, washing the feet of his disciples in an intimate act of humility and hospitality. Jesus who was the master among his disciples, in one sense the one privileged among the twelve, revealed that he was not about exercising his privilege, but in serving others. It is the business of those to whom much has been given, that much is required. Serving others, some believe, is what destiny (or God) calls us to do. We give away what we have and only then, receive.

The man attending me, gestured me to take my feet from the foot bath onto a towel. After drying my feet, he drew his head back some as if checking on his work. He nodded in approval.

He took my shoes and put them on. I thought he’d leave that to me.

I felt an impulse to tip him more than would be appropriate. I prayed to God the impulse was not born out of pity or condescension. I know it’s not uncommon to feel dismissive of those serving us. I assured myself this impulse was something else, a surge of profound admiration for what I imagined he left behind to establish himself here.

To immigrate is a brutal process now. What did he and his staff endure to be here and provide this service? Determination, I thought, pure guts. Hope, too. Citizens with such character serve America well.

I don’t usually jump into something with both feet. Aging frequently provides the defining nudge. I’m glad I jumped. I’m more confident of my footing, now.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Letters to Editor

  1. Virginia Davis says

    Nice. Beautiful, actually, in so many ways. My father’s parents came to America in a ship as teenagers–speaking no English. They eventually married, raised 5 children and made a productive dairy farm out of the rocky soil of upstate New York. I’ve often thought how gutsy they were, just recently realizing that only a generation or two before them, people actually SAILED here in wooden boats with tree trunks for masts and huge pieces of fabric to catch the wind. Immigrants have always been our strength and that strength can materialize in the strangest ways–even in a nail salon!

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