Broke and the City: Cheap Nail Art

I've been a nail freak since childhood, so the nail-polish-is-the-new-lipstick trend sits well with me. Unfortunately, I lack the funds to try out the cool new stuff available (Chanel Peridot, gel manicures). However, I'm a sucker for anything borderline ridiculous or cheap (or both), so when I saw a brightly colored sign advertising $10 nail art in my less-than-cool Bronx neighborhood, I was intrigued. “$9.99 FULL NAIL MANICURE! FOUR COLOR DESIGN!” read the wooden stand, pointing up a narrow staircase to the second floor of a building housing a tattoo parlor and an electronics store. Never one to be afraid of a little sketchiness (I’d actually gotten my nose pierced at the aforementioned tattoo parlor as an idiotic, parent-free freshman during my 1st week of college), I commissioned my roommate as a wing woman and headed in.
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I've been a nail freak since childhood, so the nail-polish-is-the-new-lipstick trend sits well with me. Unfortunately, I lack the funds to try out the cool new stuff available (Chanel Peridot, gel manicures). However, I'm a sucker for anything borderline ridiculous or cheap (or both), so when I saw a brightly colored sign advertising $10 nail art in my less-than-cool Bronx neighborhood, I was intrigued. “$9.99 FULL NAIL MANICURE! FOUR COLOR DESIGN!” read the wooden stand, pointing up a narrow staircase to the second floor of a building housing a tattoo parlor and an electronics store. Never one to be afraid of a little sketchiness (I’d actually gotten my nose pierced at the aforementioned tattoo parlor as an idiotic, parent-free freshman during my 1st week of college), I commissioned my roommate as a wing woman and headed in.
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I've been a nail freak since childhood, so the nail-polish-is-the-new-lipstick trend sits well with me. Unfortunately, I lack the funds to try out the cool new stuff available (

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Cash in hand—somehow we knew this would be the kind of place that didn’t take cards—we navigated the winding hallway via handwritten signs reading simply “NAIL” with an arrow. Suddenly, our eyes were assaulted by a hot pink room with green floors and plastic palm trees.

“HII YES?!” screams a man from behind a doctor’s mask.

We are deer in headlights. The room is packed with stations, most manned by techs in the process of applying acrylic nails. Children are everywhere. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a rubbing-alcohol-scented assembly line.

We're ushered in to chairs. I ask for a design; the tech pulls out a card version of the sign outside. “Which?” Apparently the choices are limited: glitter stripes, polka dots, a misshapen leopard, and the one that initially sparked my interest, a cream base with gold and black zebra tips that I deemed the “Jenny From The Block French Mani”. Sadly, my nails are too short, which she quickly offers to fix “You can do with tips! Only 10!” I politely decline the plastic talons. I compromise with full-nail zebra but replace the gold with iridescent pink and baby blue—go big or go home.

My girl works with silent precision, aggressively filing my nails to sharp-cornered squares. The whole thing goes much like you’d expect a $10 manicure to go; all the usual buffing, rubbing and clipping, only done at a brisker, surgical clip with mysteriously unlabeled products. Before my girl starts painting, however, I'm instructed to pay now, or no color (as collateral in case I walk out?). I examine the wall of polishes; there are almost no neutral colors.The range is between bright and blinding, with neon as the median shade. At least a third are glittery. There's no OPI in sight.

my neighbor\'s crazy stripes

my neighbor\'s crazy stripes

My nails are now half pink, half blue. Surprisingly, the tiger stripes take the least amount of time. I blink and the tech's pulling out what I hope is topcoat from a bottle labeled “chicken essence.” Whatever—I got exactly what I was envisioning. Lisa Frank's tiger would be so jealous. My neighbor has added yellow, hot pink and silver stripes. Hers look awesome, and I ask to take her picture. My technician thinks I’m weird.

my finished nails

my finished nails

The Update: It’s been a few days, and though I swiped on my trusty Seche Vite topcoat when I got home, they’re already starting to chip in the piecey way that spells bad base coat. I chalk it up to an experience, a new Halloween go-to and a good life lesson: you get what you pay for (results vary by borough).