The Nail Biters; The Young Riders

The Nail Biters

Nail-biting would seem like one of the last idle, harmless, only mildly disgusting diversions around. There’s even something a little glamorous to hacked nails–Jackie Onassis was a biter–a little urbane. Like, who has time to maintain a perfect set of tips? People from Long Island, perhaps! But Ji Baek, co-proprietor (with her husband) of the Rescue Nail Spa, on Cleveland Place, wants to put a stop to Manhattan’s gnawing.

“It freaks me out,” she said.

Rescue offers New York’s first Nail Biters Anonymous program. It costs $85 for an initial consultation and $21.50 and up (depending on the amount of distress) for subsequent private meetings over the course of 12 weeks.

“There’s cuticle biters,” said Ms. Baek, who began Nail Biters Anonymous after viewing the decimated nubs of a 40-ish male jewelry designer, “there’s tearers, there’s playing with cuticles like this”–she made a flicking motion–”there’s peelers, and then there are, like, munchers . Biters don’t know how to work with their nails; they can’t open a can of soda. They use their pads. Nails are there to protect your pads, you know what I mean? Imagine your cat with no claws. He can’t climb! It’s the same thing.”

Ms. Baek, 29, said she used to work long hours managing restaurants like Gotham Bar & Grill and Park Avalon. The work left her feet aching, but she couldn’t find a pedicure in the city that pleased her. So she went to nail school and founded Rescue.

Under the hot, unforgiving glare of a manicure lamp, she displayed her own set of perfect, never-nibbled talons, complete with half-moons, and a certain disdain for the estimated 20 percent of her clients who bite.

“They’re so crazy. You know? A lot of artists, graphic designers. Very creative people, but they bite. I don’t want to say neurotic, but they’re like very anal and very like a deadline’s a deadline. They’re always on time for their appointment. They’re never late. If I’m running late, they’re like, What do you mean? It’s like, O.K., breathe. They’re not into yoga. They do a lot, they take on a lot.”

Ms. Baek gives female customers silk wraps and men matte nail polish, both of which, she claimed, change the whole texture of the nail-biting experience. “They love the softness of the biting,” she said with barely concealed scorn. “They lo-o-o-ve that little mushy feeling. So when it’s hard, they’re not that into it, and then they go for cuticles. There’s a whole stage that they have to go through … Every biter asks the same questions. ‘Is it going to weaken my nails? Is it going to damage my own nails? What if I get a fungus?’ You know what I say? ‘You bite your nails. You eat the germs.’ You know?”

Unlike most recovery programs, this one involves the occasional stinging rebuke. “They go into binges, and I will go, ‘What were you thinking?'” said Ms. Baek.

Her brochure guarantees that her Nail Biters Anonymous customers will stop grazing. But she backed off a bit from that in person.

“What does guarantee mean?” she shrugged. “We’re supportive. If you relapse, come back. I have a client who lasted seven weeks, beautiful. One night: gone. It’s a commitment.”

– Alexandra Jacobs

The Young Riders

Two scrawny, long-haired guys were hanging outside the Crooked Tree cafe on St. Mark’s Place early on a Saturday night. They’d known each other for two weeks, but had become fast friends, squatting together in basements and parks. Now they were trying to scrounge up some cash for bus tickets to Connecticut. That’s what they said they were doing, anyway.

Joe, 18, was wearing a white Giorgio Armani suit he had found in the trash. Mike, 22, had on a baseball cap, a pinstripe shirt, khakis. He had two tattoos on his arm–a “Biohazard” symbol and an “H.” He said the “H” stood for heroin and the Horribles, a band he once played in (trumpet).

“I’ve never been a masculine sort of guy,” Mike said. “You know, I never had much testosterone in puberty, or nothing like that. So I’ve always been a very sensitive kind of person, you know. Actually, it’s a proven fact that testosterone gives you brain damage. During puberty, testosterone narrows the mind. It blocks off whatever the person’s best effects are. I saw a video about it. But I’ve always been, like, ambidexterous, I’m multiskilled, I’m an artist and musician, a builder, an architect, all kinds of stuff.”

Joe sat quietly on an iron bench wrapped around a crooked tree.

“O.K.,” said Mike, “I was broke at the time, and I was an alcoholic and I got turned on to somebody that was willing to give me, like $140. That’s what I got the first time, for this dude who gave me a blow job. And it was the most excellent blow job I’ve ever had, you know? It’s such a professional thing. I mean, it was great, you know? Since then, I’ve had other experiences with men. The only time I ever did it was for money and stuff, but I did enjoy it. I never did it as a thing that I wanted to do. I’m not attracted to men, like as a pastime. It was an opportunity. These guys like straight guys. I hear it’s the ultimate homosexual dream, to turn a straight guy into a fag, you know. They did a pretty good job, and I don’t consider myself homosexual but certain femme-ish men, the ones who can behave like a female, are very excellent at what they do. If somebody wants to dominate me, like a homosexual wants to be dominant on me, I hate that. I will not stand that.”

“If they respect you for who you are and you’re eye to eye with them,” Joe added.

“Anything else biographical, like what you do?” I asked them.

“Yeah, well, I’ve done it with men,” Joe said. “Not for money, but I’ve also done it for money.”

Mike, a “traveler,” said he’s been homeless since he was 15. “My favorite jobs are doing tattoos or selling marijuana,” he said. “I don’t like selling hard drugs because it’s a really disgusting thing, all these junkies, and crazy drug fiends and stuff. But selling marijuana is very friendly.”

I asked them, if they could be with anyone in the world, who would it be?

“You know that girl from No Doubt?” Mike said. “She’s got a lot of energy and she’s really peppy and stuff like that.”

“Me? My ideal sex partner would be, um, Jesus Christ,” Joe said. “I don’t know, it’s just a strange fantasy of mine. He has so much love for everybody.”

“That would be excellent. I never thought about that,” Mike said.

Any other historical figures? They mentioned Mary Todd Lincoln and Adolf Hitler.

“I’ve robbed banks,” said Mike. “Yep. You can use my name, I don’t care, because there’s no evidence. I’m telling you the truth, I swear. See, I robbed a bank since I escaped from jail and I was supposed to go to Ireland but I didn’t because my girlfriend sent me to Guatemala.”

“My dad’s, like, a little mad that I’m here,” said Joe. “It’s like an Old El Paso commercial: New York City ? He’s a farmer and he hates the city, because he doesn’t like people at all. He isolates himself.”

I gave them $22 for “bus tickets.” So call me Diane Sawyer. We reached the Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B. Inside the bar, Joe was swaying around to “Young Man’s Blues.” Then he squeezed into the photo booth with Mike. They closed the curtain and flashes of light filled the cracks. Then Mike approached the bar. The bartender asked him how old they were. Mike said Joe was 19. The bartender thanked him for being honest, then gave them the boot.

–George Gurley