My Hands Are Tools

One of my first lucid memories of living in Portland was on the MAX train between Lloyd Center Mall and the old town waterfront. It was full-sun September, which is how Oregon apologizes for its late-running winter and barely-existent spring. I wore flip-flops and came back to my dorm room with post-camping feet. It took me more than a school year to accept that the city was grimy in a way my tiny hometown in Mt. Rainier’s foothills didn’t know how to be, while it was busy staying stale and pristine in its turn-of-the-century logging mecca glory.

I can’t remember how I would have been keeping myself busy in this, the year 2003, when my cell phone was a Nokia green glow brick. Maybe I was beating my record on Snake. Perhaps I was staring out the window at the stagnant river and abandoned cement monsters on a south side that was still a decade away from the rabid zombie “revitalization project” talons.

A stranger shoved me out of my trance with a single unsolicited note. “You must be very busy,” he said, his gaze fixed on me in an almost-empty car.

“What?” I asked, because it would be the better part of a decade before I stopped engaging with random comments.

“You don’t have your toenails painted,” he correctly noted. “You must be too busy.”

“Oh.” I curled my naked toes up against the Roxy flip flop foam, suddenly strangely aware of my lack of lacquer.

What a weird thing to say, I thought before I knew how to categorize What a passive-aggressively chauvinistic casual observation. He was incorrect, however. I wasn’t too busy. I simply hadn’t bothered to give a fuck.

I had never painted my nails. I didn’t have the patience to guide a tiny, flimsy brush around my fickle cuticle edges, lines I could never stay within. I hated the bottle of remover that smelled like Strawberry Shortcake dolls dumped in kerosene. Staying put with my fingers and toes aloft, immobile while they dried, made my nerves itch.

Lacking any natural talent to perform the ritual myself, my other option was to pay someone else for the service. When the man marveled at my busy lifestyle on the MAX, I didn’t even have the $20-30 for a manicure in my bank account. I was a college kid working a minimum wage job, and if I was going to roll quarters for an extravagance, it was going to be something I cared about, like a fancy deli sandwich from New Seasons or new thigh-highs on my Frederick’s of Hollywood employee discount. Not on a look I didn’t care about that turned my hands and feet into Faberge eggs.

If I stumbled on the sidewalk (a daily occurrence) or scraped/tapped/brushed something the wrong way (an hourly occurrence), the enormity of effort would be wasted with a single jagged chip. My body became Fenton glass, its beauty no longer a sum but a deduction of imperfections.

The number of manicures and pedicures I’ve had in life can be measured in a couple of dozens, clustered around formal events (anybody I’m related to’s wedding) and the year and a half I spent in the naked foot country of Tucson. It’s never the “treat” that salons and magazines position it as; I stress over how gross and dry my feet must be, and sink my teeth into my lower lip’s flesh to distract as the manicurist digs so hard at the nail beds, they begin to bleed. When my sister got married in January I got a gel set, which was the most likely option to survive up into Seattle. By the time they started to chip two or three weeks later, they took an entire layer of nail along with them, leaving my nails so soft and brittle that they still tear off at a mere tapping on a desk. I was breaking my nails by typing this blog.

That is the last time, I swore as I picked the jagged edge off every last digit. A memorandum on my once-or-twice-a-year habit. An acceptance that my hands are not art objects. They are the most powerful tools I have.

I choke and rip weeds out of my yard before I remember I own gardening gloves. I scrape stubborn baked-on marinara from Pyrex dishes. I grate cheese all the way up to the rind. I snag packing tape from packages that arrive at my door, because I’m too excited to use scissors. I type all day, whether it’s at the day job that pays the bills or this graveyard shift that keeps my heart going. When something is stuck, I yank and scratch. I’m clumsy and I plunge ahead and anything delicate that stands in my way is going to end up chipped and shattered.

I guess that man on the MAX was right. I am too busy to paint my nails. Too busy snatching and scratching and scraping and yanking every tiny obstacle in my day to worry about a thin varnish’s feelers. You’ll never want me in your twee Starbucks Instagram shot, but just wait until you go to Marshall’s and get a picture frame with the price tag stuck smack on the front of the glass. Me and my short, blunt claws have got you, girl.

One place where I will always go practical > pretty. Besides, all you need is Bunny Cup.


  1. WOW what a weird comment from a stranger!! That’s something I’d be less surprised to hear happened in LA or NYC but in Portland!? Isn’t Portland supposed to be chill about that shit? Isn’t there a Portlandia sketch about how only organic, biodegradable nail polish is even LEGAL in Portland!? Sorry…not to attemp Portland Cliche here. I’m just surprised. But also love this post because I’m a no polish gal too. Though I will do my toes in the summer, I hate having my finger nails lacquered for exactly the same reasons as you!


    • I’ve never been to NYC (sob, boo, I know, all the things), but when I was in LA I was shocked at how much kinder and friendlier most people were. Portland (and by extension, Seattle) is crammed with an abundance of assholes hiding underneath a twee reputation. It’s kind of a passive-aggressive world capitol.

      Liked by 1 person

      • How interesting! I had no idea. Shows how false cliches can be! Only visited the area in the 90s when I was a kid (my memory mostly centers around the giant troll under a bridge in Seattle)


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