Foot in the Door

Ever been to one of those Vietnamese nail salons and wondered if the woman pumicing your heel is talking about you to the other nail techs? She probably is, and she's probably not complimenting your dainty, fragrant feet.

Life imitated Seinfeld on a recent Monday morning at K Desert Nail Spa, near Rural and Broadway roads in Tempe.

K Desert is like so many other low-end nail salons tucked into Valley strip malls, with buzzing neon signs, trashy magazines in the waiting area, and fumes so thick you need a gas mask. But you can't get a $20 pedicure at a fancy spa.

Today, a middle-aged woman -- blonde, bone thin, with tattoos running up and down her arms -- is the latest Elaine Benes.

The store is full, with all five workers busy giving clients pedicures or manicures. Above the sounds of whirring foot spas and whizzing nail drills, two women working on opposite sides of the shop chatter loudly as the blonde's fingers soak in nail polish remover. The nail techs are clones, both wearing light-colored Capri pants with spaghetti-strap tank tops and bellowing through surgical masks. The tattooed lady straightens up in her seat and swivels her head to follow the ping-pong of the conversation. She can't understand, but she's clearly concerned.

And with good reason.

"This woman always looks so sick. She scares me to death," says Hoa, the manicurist working on the tattooed woman. Wearing rubber gloves, Hoa files away at her client's fingernails and says through a white surgical mask, "I'm always so careful when she comes in. If she bleeds or I touch her, I might get sick."

Hoa, who is in her 30s, has chin-length hair and stands about five feet without her kitten heel shoes. She didn't give her last name. Hoa normally wears gloves when giving clients manicures, but says she takes extra care not to forget when she's working on the tattooed client.

She stops talking when a male co-worker warns against gossiping. But before he can finish, the younger worker on the other side of the busy store shouts a warning over her customer's head: "Remember when the Chinese girl with the hair that looked like a chicken's tail came in? We didn't know she could understand Vietnamese and then she yelled at us. Her hair was so ugly." The workers chuckle at the memory.

When they're certain no one can understand, the nail techs at K Desert make fun of "elephant" feet, call men who come in for pedicures "fancy boys" or complain about cheap customers who leave meager tips.

It's one of the perks of working with people who are like you and of working on people who aren't.

But a little ridicule should be the least of a pedicure lover's worries.

Nearly 40 percent of licensed nail techs in Arizona are Vietnamese. Many work 70-hour weeks inhaling dangerous chemicals and swallowing the shame of scrubbing strangers' feet to make a living. They've escaped the Vietcong. They've lived in refugee camps, and now many paint nails to find a piece of the American dream they've heard so much about.

Statistically speaking, you're not in any more danger at a Vietnamese nail salon than at a fancy spa. But that might just be pure luck, because Vietnamese nail techs don't always know enough English to grasp safety standards that would prevent clients from sprouting pus-oozing boils. And although the industry recognizes that Vietnamese dominate the business, only 10 states offer interpreters, translated exams or translated manuals for an extra measure of consumer safety. Arizona is not one of them, making some Vietnamese nail techs a hazard to their customers and their own dreams.

Those dreams are hard fought. When she came to the U.S. from Vietnam, Diane Scully lied to her family, told them she worked in an electronics factory. She didn't dare mention that she would spend part of her days scrubbing crusty, dead skin off customers' feet.

"In Vietnam, we have the level," Scully says about her native country's loose cultural caste system. People who dump garbage make up the bottommost level, and people who do hard manual labor or work with feet are near the bottom.

"Our culture don't like work by hand," Scully adds. "It is embarrassing to rub other people feet. But in the United States, they don't separate; they don't care. Number one over here is freedom."

Actually, in the United States, freedom is balanced against regulations -- and the nail industry is heavily regulated. Not enough, however, to protect Susan Campbell, who went into a Vietnamese nail salon for a pedicure and wound up with a nasty infection.

"I have never known pain like it, and I have given birth to twins," Campbell, 44, says about the toe infection she contracted from a spa pedicure at Club Nails on 39th Drive and Pinnacle Peak Road in Glendale.