America At Its Best: Dubois, July 4, 2017

Serious. Fun. Together. It’s what we do, over and over.

DuboisWyomingJuly4
Here we went again, enjoying the best Independence Day celebration anywhere. That designation, awarded this year by several tourists on Ramshorn Street (who were obviously delighted and astonished at their good fortune in being here), arises in large part due to the nature of the town that creates it, year after year. I second the nomination, of course. It’s just the kind of July 4 we kept wandering around New England hoping to find for our children, back when they were small. We had no idea back then that we should be thousands of miles farther west.

 

 

Dubois WY July 4
For one thing, as someone who came all the way from Cody pointed out, you don’t have to stake out your spot the night before to get a good view. An hour ahead of start time will do. Ramshorn Street is unusually crowded, but the scene is just about right: Festive, but not frenzied.
Dubois WY July 4
We saw Daniel Starks’ fleet of Army tanks laboring slowly down the highway shoulder as we drove in. Seems like he sent out three times more this year than last.
Dubois WY July 4
They set the pace in the parade, a powerful and sober reminder of what we celebrate on Independence Day. I wonder what, if anything, parents said to children about that. What would I have said to mine?
Helicopter
Meanwhile, a neighbor kept making passes with his helicopter, just to add atmosphere. This sound normally means med-evac. Today, just more fun, and in the sky.
July 4 Dubois WY
What an odd juxtaposition against the century-old motel! Somewhere in the back of the mind: How far out of harm’s way we are. How many of own neighbors ready to put themselves in harm’s way for us–whether it’s mortar fire, forest fire, or house fire.
Dubois WY July 4
Same location, much less thought-provoking display. Friendly wranglers from the CM Ranch turn up every year. This is what brings people here first–the image easiest to sell to the outside world, and least difficult to convey persuasively.
July 4 parade Dubois WY
“It’s great to celebrate July 4 in a town that is happy to be patriotic,” a visitor remarked. (Now that brings up a lot of thoughts this year!) I like the fact that nobody around here goes out of the way to tell me what my patriotism should mean to me. Just show the flag, and put your hand over your heart. We take it for granted you deeply feel what you feel. Whatever it may be.
Dubois WY July 4
Someone chose to honor a fallen veteran in this wonderful old pickup. Another reminder that freedom is not free.
July 4 parade Dubois WY
Could it ever be a July 4 parade if there were no kids chasing free candy? So much of it! I asked for a little Tootsie roll. Someone didn’t want to share, but Mom shamed him into it.
Fire trucks Dubois WY July 4
Uh-oh! Here come the fire hoses! Loudspeakers warn: “You WILL get wet!” The crowd begins to thin as people take cover.
Fire trucks July 4 Dubois WY
Some older folks complain about the fact that the firefighters don’t always aim the hoses straight up. Some younger folks seem eager for the harmless adventure. (Hey, it’s hot out here!)
FireHoses3
“Come under here!” urges a friendly gentleman, and I duck into the garage at Bull’s Conoco. (I’m not afraid of the water, but my camera is.) You can see that Dubois’ Bravest can be straight shooters when duty calls for it.
Fire trucks July 4 Dubois WY
I’ve never known a place more fond of its firefighters, except perhaps New York right after 9/11. Dubois’ Bravest are volunteers, of course. These are the same guys who came out in frigid subzero temperatures at midnight a few years ago, trying to save the old Mercantile. When we hear a siren in Dubois, everybody’s ears perk up and I’m sure many people think a prayer.
Dubois WY July 4
There’s an ice cream social on the church lawn, just after the parade. (This picture is from last year, but the scene was the same.) I’d hitched a ride down to the middle of town with Randy, who was driving his SUV at the rear of the parade. He was exhausted after an early start to his day. After dropping me off, he would circle back and clean up the orange cones to let the traffic get through. “This event must really bring the town together,” a stranger from Riverton said to me, as he was enjoying his ice cream. Well meant, but I had to stop and think about that. “Um, I don’t really think so–no more than usual,” I said finally. “The town is together already. This is just what we do every year on July 4.” Along with everything else we do together every year. (Randy wasn’t present for ice cream, having gone home for a nap.)
Square dance, July 4 Dubois WY
Was there going to be a square dance on July 4? Well, of course! If it’s a Tuesday in the summer, there’s a square dance in the back room at the Rustic. I helped to serve soft drinks at the bar last Tuesday, as I often do. A quarter for a Pepsi or a 7-Up. The proceeds go to local charities.
Square dance Dubois WY July 4 2017
It’s fun to watch the dude ranch folks trying to figure it out, and slowly succeeding. But the best part of it all is the square that always forms in front at the right. The 8 young locals who turn up every week seem to have reserved that spot. They know what they’re doing, and they clearly enjoy doing it. I love how they take it very seriously and keep getting a kick out of it, at the same time. This is the very definition of good, clean fun.
Square dance Dubois WY
The lovely teenager at left began the evening helping out with the soft drinks. The Bob Marley shirt was an act of defiance. (“I’m not wearing any of those stupid Western clothes!” she had told my friend, whom she’s visiting.) And she refused to dance, saying she can’t. Once mother of a teenage girl, I found this all quite familiar. One of the young people saw the stranger at the bar, came on over, and pulled her onto the floor. (Friendly just isn’t something you can sell in a travel guide. You simply have to be here and witness it. Then you’re hooked.)

Dubois Gets Lucky, and Gets Fresh

Quiz: What’s warm and green where it’s high and dry?

greenhouse1It could go without saying that Wyoming is not the garden state. We’re high and dry, which is a fabulous climate for people to enjoy in the late spring and summer, but not so much for garden vegetables.

So it was truly big news last week when Mary Ellen Honsaker told me that the Community Garden had been offered the use of a large greenhouse near the center of town.

FarmersMarketHaulHooray! The Community Garden supplies the Farmers Market, which funds the Food Bank. Now the Farmers Market, which opens in June, will be able to offer produce that is larger, more abundant, and presumably also more fresh.

Normally, setting aside the local gardeners who sometimes offer part of their harvest and whatever Mary Ellen brings in by car from other farmers’ markets in Jackson, Lander, or Riverton, the main source for the Farmers Market has been the Dubois Community Garden’s outdoor garden. Located beside St. Thomas church, it’s vulnerable to those enemies of gardeners everywhere: deer and frost.

greenhouse6Proudly, on a gray day in late April, Mary Ellen showed me around the greenhouse, which was warm and already showing many signs of green. Use of the greenhouse is the generous gift of Debbie Phillips, who acquired it with the house she and her husband bought when they moved to Dubois last year.

Debbie put in those scallions a while ago, but the tomatoes at upper left belong to the Farmer’s Market. The Community Garden is free to use the other beds, and will maintain Debbie’s plants in exchange, whenever she is out of town.

The Community Garden’s broccoli plants are barely big enough to see. But much to Mary Ellen’s delight (and mine), we found that the tomato plants are already blossoming.broccoli_tomatoes

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois Donkey Dunkers Kick Ass (or Vice Versa)

Not so easy to ride bareback holding a basketball

DonkeyBasketball6“Seriously? You only had to go 10 more feet for a layup!”

The donkey and its rider had been plodding, oh-so-slowly, toward the basket. No donkey will run unless it wants to. The rider shot, but fell short.

Announcer Joe Brandl, beloved ex-scoutmaster and Naked-but-Unafraid wilderness survival expert, kept up a steady stream of banter from the sidelines (I don’t know how he did it!), while sometimes batting back a loose basketball.

What do you do for fun in April, when town is quiet and the snow flurries just don’t stop? You crowd the school gym and watch bareback donkey basketball, of course. (For charity, of course.)

Donkey basketball — that’s right, basketball with players mounted on donkeys — is the occasional fund-raising event for Needs of Dubois (NOD), which helps residents who need emergency assistance in times of trouble. This week, NOD also helped residents who needed a good laugh, and there were plenty of them (both residents and laughs).

DonkeyBasketball2“That donkey has longer legs than you do!” Joe calls out to someone on the students’ team. “How you gonna get on?”  The donkey stands patiently, thank heaven, for what seems an eternity, as she tries to jump on its back. A referee walks over and gives a boost. The student blushes. The first game begins.

There are 3 rounds in this tournament: wilderness program participants versus students, students against teachers, teachers against phone company employees.

The rules, as posted on the NOD website, sound reasonable but are entirely ridiculous.

Players must be riding their donkeys, both feet off the ground on both sides, to shoot baskets or play defense. Players are not allowed to go anywhere on the court without their donkey, but there is no out-of-bounds for donkeys. (It seemed the donkeys knew this rule.)

DonkeyBasketball1You may dismount to catch a loose ball, but you must always take the donkey with you, keeping a hand on a rein, and you must return the ball and re-mount the donkey within 15 seconds or get a penalty.

Have you tried to hurry a donkey? The term “chasing the ball” takes on a whole new context. Not understanding this rule of the game, any donkey dragged after a loose ball seems to be working for the other team.

“Move it!” Joe shouts. “Move it! Clearly, you’re no mule whisperer.”

Bucking broncos we’re used to. But bucking donkeys? Gimme a break. The ass brays,  kicks and rumbles, and throws the player. (Ouch! That’s a gym floor, not rodeo dirt.) The action stops. The mule-buster (typical!) smiles and remounts. We hoot and cheer.

“Meanwhile,” Joe says from the sidelines, “we’re still playing basketball ….”

Until you’ve watched it, you can’t begin to understand how difficult it must be to steer a donkey, bareback, while trying to hold onto a basketball. At one point in the third round, it seems that all of the players are off their mounts, wandering around the court like lost souls. One player regains his mount, and the donkey takes off like a shot — in the wrong direction.

“Complete control,” Joe drawls. “You got this. Thanks for the entertainment.”

Actually there were plenty of scores — nothing in the high double-figures, as in any ordinary basketball game, but enough to keep up the pace. Of course there was a wide range in skill sets, from old-time wranglers to newcomers just relocated West. Adults played better than kids. Teacher Jessica was the slam-dunk champion. Center Craig kept a smile throughout (he had the easy part, always standing on both feet). Hailey looked like she was being a good sport, focused on not falling off.

DonkeyBasketball3The school-teacher Donkey Kongs kicked the phone-company DTE Assets 14-8 in a last-minute surge, to win the championship.

In case you’re wondering about the floor, the donkeys were wearing boots and this event took place near the end of the school year, just before the floor gets refinished.

Although the half-time clowns played around with the idea that something other than a ball might drop, the floor stayed remarkably clean.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Time Travel: Jolted Back to Dubois, 1911

Two PDFs in my Inbox are a trip to the Old West

As a mother, I can’t help wondering how Mr. and Mrs. Leslie of Madison, Wisconsin, felt in 1911, when their 20-year-old daughter Elsie decided to take a job teaching school in a small village in northwest Wyoming. My own grandmother did much the same in 1919 when she moved from Michigan to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. She took along my beloved Aunt Luella, who got her teaching certificate in Laramie and took her first job at a sod-roofed schoolhouse on a ranch somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming.

Thus my own real experience connects weirdly to a history of Dubois that seems, from this week’s new perspective, rather fantastic.

Dubois1913The journey to Dubois in 1911 “must have seemed like a trip to the end of the world,” wrote the late Dubois artist Mary Back, in her 1955 brief biography of Elsie. The new schoolteacher traveled by train to Lander, then by a one-horse buckboard stagecoach to Fort Washakie, changed to another buckboard stage that took her (and the mail) to a ranch on the Wind River where she spent the night.

The next morning, she took a third stagecoach “clear to Dubois.” The driver was a man named Jim Locke. In that alien landscape, Jim must have been quite a spectacle himself: his face “long and tanned to a high color from the wind and hard weather…. a hooked nose and small blue eyes which sparkle like fire and bore like an auger,” as described by Frederick Studebaker Fish, in his account of a 1913 hunting trip near Dubois. (The guide for that trip was Elsie’s soon-to-be husband, Floyd Stalnaker.)

Jim had “a reputation of being a cranky old fool when sober, but rather genial when well seasoned with whisky,” Fish wrote, adding that “his gaze is startling until one becomes accustomed to it.” You wonder whether Jim was sober or seasoned when Elsie met him.

At the time Elsie arrived, Dubois was “a little straggling string of log houses” (as Mary Back put it), with about 60 inhabitants, two stores including Welty’s (still in operation), a hotel, a bank, and St. Thomas Church (still very active). Elsie took up rooms with the Weltys and, schooled with a certificate in home economics from the Stout Institute in Menominee, Wisconsin, began teaching nine pupils.

Weltys CaveShe was a school teacher without a school: Classes were held in the saloon dance hall, up against the cave across from Welty’s Store. The cave was used for wine storage and as a jail. (The cave entrance is near the center of this photo, with the saloon at far left, which is also still in operation.) Elsie had to clear away the classroom any time the saloon held a dance.

“No one, either students or parents, seemed to think school was very important,” Back wrote. “There was often something else to be done, rounding up cattle, hunting or fishing, helping mother.” There were two other schools nearby, she said, one of them taught by a former Dubois student despite “irregular attendance at Dubois [and] lack of educational credits.”

Elsie taught for less than a year, and never taught again. She met rancher and hunting guide Floyd Stalnaker, married him in December, and in due course had their first child. Mary Allison’s Dubois Area History says she brought her sister to Dubois to take over the class. (Again, I wonder how her parents felt, and think of my own Aunt Luella, who was also lured out west by her older sister, also a schoolteacher.)

Although she quickly became a ranch wife and busy mother, Elsie kept up a strong interest in the Dubois school, serving on the school board for many years. In 1939, when she joined the board, the students ate lunch in the Legion Hall, Back wrote, where there was no water, no sewer, and no stove. The children were kept warm with a wood-burning heater, and a wood-burning cookstove was put in for the lunches. “Wood had to be split and carried in, water had to be carried in buckets, dish-water carried out in buckets.”

Before that, Bernice Welty had been making lunches at home, carrying them in baskets to the school along with the dishes, serving the 25 children at their desks, and then carrying the dirty dishes home again.

TheStoneHotelI’ve been reading this week about Elsie and Floyd’s world, thanks to two unexpected gifts that dropped into my Inbox from their great-granddaughter, Gabby Cook. She was kind enough to scan and send me Mary Back’s typewritten biography, as well as the century-old account of a hunting trip that Floyd guided, as told in great detail by Fish.

Thus, in the middle of a busy, mundane week, I was thrust suddenly and vividly back into Dubois of a century ago, a place so like the old Westerns that it gave me the dizzying feeling of being in reality and unreality at once.

Fish describes a visit to that saloon next to the cave during his first evening in Dubois:

“The place was crowded with cow punchers and hangers-on. Everyone seemed to be having a good time for the liquid was flowing fast…One old man kept cussing at the proprietor much to the enjoyment of his drunken friends who were anxious for a fight. It did not take long to start the fracas. Slim, the proprietor, finally lost his temper and came around from behind the bar to throw the offender out. … As soon as they were parted a few hot words were exchanged and then it was decided that the drinks were on the house.”

A dance was on for later that evening, but Fish and friends decided to leave before it started. The next morning, they learned that they had missed “a terrible shooting that almost took place … over the affections of a fair lady.”

The hunters went out shortly after their elk, and for one night stayed at the Stalnaker ranch.

“Floyd has a comfortable and cosy home,” Fish wrote, “a very pretty and exceedingly nice wife and a six month old son.”

“After our delicious meal,” he went on, “Mrs. Stalnaker played the piano. Hers is the third to be bought in this vicinity so it is a very great treasure.” Later that evening, two visitors came by, one of them “a rather odd looking person who put on the appearance of being very important and business-like. He immediately called Mr. Stalnaker into another room and spent several hours in earnest and serious conversation. I afterwards learned that he … spends most of his leisure moments bothering his neighbors with trivial matters of little or no importance.”

StalnakerRanchThe hunting party had to sleep outdoors next to the shed, because the Stalnakers took in lodgers and the rooms were all occupied. (Mary Allison wrote that Elsie was a great housekeeper who often ironed her lodgers’ clothing, if they were bachelors.)

“It was a beautiful cold, starlight night,” Fish wrote, “so sleeping out was much more appealing than in a stuffy room.” This was October. Fish had changed his tune by the next morning, after a bad night during which his friend stole all the blankets.

But that didn’t sour his enthusiasm for the Wind River Valley. An heir to the Studebaker fortune, he was one of those who fell in love with Dubois during a visit, and later returned to live here. He became one of the biggest ranchers in the area.

DuboisMap_StalnakerFloyd worked for many years as a guide and ranch manager. Elsie and Floyd survived the great flood of 1919 despite great losses, briefly became mail carriers (Elsie also drove the Jeep), and then purchased the drug store, which they operated until after World War 2. Their son, Dean, was Gabby’s grandfather. Floyd was working as a carpenter in Riverton when he died of a heart attack in 1948. Elsie died in 1965, ten years after Mary Back wrote her biography.

Many of the town streets in Dubois bear the names of old families. I will probably never again pass the street that leads to the Headwaters and the Visitor Center without smiling inwardly, as I think of the Stalnakers whose name it bears, and all their adventures.

(Thanks so much again for the emails, Gabby! They were a trip.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Alone and Connected, At Home on the Mountain

A coder and an attorney find peace and quiet.

Riverwalk_Snow2I met “Jack” in the park on Saturday evening because our dogs wanted to play together. Otherwise I’m sure he would have left me alone.

Jack is clearly into privacy. That’s fine in Dubois. We understand that some people prefer solitude and a certain degree of anonymity. We’re good with you whoever you are, as long as you have a decent character.

I can’t give him a cowboy name like Dustin or Cody. He’s clearly not a cowboy type. He’s young, but he doesn’t walk with a swagger and a smile. He and “Lynn” weren’t on their way to the Dubois Outfitters’ annual benefit pig roast and auction in the nearby Headwaters Center, as I was. That wouldn’t be their kind of scene.

At first I thought Jack and Lynn were visitors, because I’ve never seen them before. But they’ve been here for three years, hanging out in a house up in the hills near town.

They’d stopped in the park to give “Rusty” a romp after waiting in the car while they bought groceries. Normally they just hike in the public land right outside their door, but it’s been really muddy there after the recent snowmelt, so (like me) they’ve been using the paved Riverwalk in the park lately.

Both dogs were on the leash, but jumping around and eager to play. So we walked over the bridge to the large empty patch of sage and sand, at the back side of the Riverwalk, where they could be free.

“What brought you to Dubois?” I asked.

“We wanted a house in Wyoming,” Jack said simply.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

They’re from Los Angeles, but wanted to get away from the noise and the density. First they moved to Laramie, but they found Laramie also too crowded and noisy. Somehow, they discovered Dubois. (I didn’t ask how.)

Modem“It’s really nice in Dubois,” Lynn volunteered.

Even in tax-free, low-cost Wyoming, I figure, the only way that two people that young could afford to live for three years in a house in the woods would be on a trust fund, or telecommuting.

“So what do you do?” I persisted.

(I cringed; that’s a New York City question, but enthusiasm got the best of me. I’d like to think I’m not naturally nosy, just a bit too friendly with strangers in Dubois. In any case, Jack seemed willing to be tolerant as long as I behaved myself, so I think he will fit in well here.)

Jack told me he makes his income doing computer coding. Lynn is an attorney, still working for clients back in LA.

She also volunteered shyly that she’s expecting her first child in a few months. I couldn’t have guessed. Her shirt was loose. I asked if she had family nearby. “Chicago,” she said. We had a little polite girl-talk about babies, and then I asked them how it was going, this Internet life in the backwoods.

“Fine,” Jack said. He told me that DTE installed high-speed Internet service at 10 megabytes per second (Mbps) almost immediately after they moved into their new mountainside home, and he praised their customer service.

Mike Kenney at DTE has told me that they can provide 10 Mbps service to anyone who wants is, and if it isn’t easy, they’ll find a way.

BrandlHouseViewThere are several dozen people working remotely around Dubois, according to DTE, but of course DTE won’t share their identities. I already knew about a few; now I’ve stumbled on two more.

If you just want to be alone while you’re connected, we’re good with that too.

The dog and I hope I we run into Jack and Lynn again, but we’ll leave them to themselves.

(Lynn: I’m sure you know how to take care of yourself. But if you need something as that baby comes closer, please send an email. We’re here for you.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

The Place Where People Fall in Love

bigpinkheart“I just fell in love.” I can’t count how often the story ends in those four words, when I ask people how they came to be in Dubois. Sometimes “we” is substituted for “I.”

Joe and his wife were rounding the corner at the main intersection for the first time when one of them said, “This looks like a good place to retire.” And so they did.

Dorothy and her family got stalled here with car trouble on the way to Yellowstone. After a week at the campground, they returned to build a second home. Much later, as a widow, she lived here year-round.

We know many instances of young women from elsewhere who fell in love with a cowboy and ended up living here. I wonder whether the handsome young man was only part of a much larger infatuation.

I’ve also heard “I just fell in love” from a Millennial who moved here with her boyfriend, and from the mother of an eight-year-old boy who cried when leaving town after a week’s vacation. The family moved here a few months ago.

pigroast4I know not one but two couples who traveled the entire nation in their RVs looking for a place to settle, and wound up living in Dubois. One of the couples had lived here before, looked everywhere else, and then came back.

What is it about this place? The charm of the small village in the midst of this vast magnificent wilderness is what takes your breath away at first. What grabs you later and holds on? The welcoming kindness of the people, flavored by their spirits of self-assurance and independence.

We still have to be pioneers to live here (but that’s a story for another day). You sense it once you get to know the townspeople. It’s the same lure that always drew people to the West. Remarkably it survives in Dubois, intact.

It was the vast, empty spaces that won me over first. Airlifted out of a stressful job in the busiest of big cities, I was wonderfully unprepared for what I would find at the Lazy L&B.

I could ride a horse or easily climb up a draw to the top of a mesa, from which I could look out forever without seeing another human being, or even a structure. And I had never before seen anything to compare with what I was looking at.

lwlazylbWhen I went home I took along cuttings of sagebrush, which I kept in an envelope. Now and again I’d open it to sniff the fragrance, which always made me wistful.

Our courtship with Dubois was more gradual than some. We came back to the Lazy L&B several times, and at one point I took a photo looking up the draw from the river. I took it to a shop on W. 23rd St and had them enlarge it into a poster. Ever after, at several successive jobs, it hung directly across from my desk in my office. I’d look at it when the office politics got too intense.

Once, when my husband had time to kill while picking up our daughter from a wilderness program, he took a look at some real estate here. He called me back in New York with what I thought was a totally crazy idea. Years later, when the son who came along as a toddler on our first trip to Lazy L&B was in college, I surprised him by suggesting that return to Dubois and investigate it as a place to live rather than just visit.

downtown2

We stayed in town that time. I got my hair done, and listened. We went to Happy Hour at the Rustic, and listened. We went to church, and listened.

At the end of the weekend, much to my astonishment, we had bought a house.

I had been infatuated for decades. Then I fell in love.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Nail File: Getting Glam, Dubois vs NYC

tammyssalonI dropped into Tammy’s new salon again for a manipedi. (I’m the daughter of a Nebraska farm girl; I learned the term only a few years ago in New York City. It means manicure and pedicure.)

Three other women were already in the salon when I got there, two of them getting new hairdos from Tiffany, and the third present apparently just for moral support or for fun.

Although I hadn’t met any of them before, they welcomed me into their friendly conversation, the kind of chat women everywhere have when they’re kicking back. We  moved from fresh-vegetable delivery services to the latest about Melanie’s young husband and his medical treatment in Denver, and on to what kind of shops we would like to see  in the new storefronts that are replacing the burnt-out Mercantile.

We need something like the original Mercantile, everyone agreed: A place to buy good jeans and strong boots, you know. Carhartt jackets. Maybe another place that sells local handmade crafts, like Sandy did in the pop-up shop over Christmas, as well as sewing and craft supplies.

I never used to get a manipedi in Dubois. Here, my feet are in boots all the time, and since I play mandolin and fiddle, I have to keep my fingernails very short. Anyway, who wants a manicure when you go hiking every day?

640px-fifth_av_14st_bk_jehI would wait till I got back to New York, where manipedis are essential to normal grooming if you don’t want to feel like white trash. Back in our Brooklyn neighborhood, there’s literally one nail salon per block. They’re even more prevalent than Starbucks.

In there, you wouldn’t exchange any words with the stranger flipping through InStyle at the next station. The only conversation took place with your manicurist. “Choose color. Square or round? File or cut?”

Sometimes I would try to strike up an actual conversation with the young woman working so intently on my hand. (Or, more embarrassing, my feet. Visions of Jesus and the disciples would come to mind, and the implications of servitude.) The conversation often failed, because the young woman spoke so little English.

Most of the clients are fairly affluent. Nearly all the manicurists in New York City are recent immigrants from Asian countries, most of them in their teens or early 20s. They wear name tags that say Nancy or Mandy or Susie, but you know that’s not the real name. It’s there in the hope that you can remember them when you come back. But who does?

A few years ago, I read an article in the New York Times about abuses in the nail salons that made the relationship even more awkward. It reported that some salon owners charged high “training fees” before a young woman would be allowed to work there, that many of the employees earned only tips, not  salaries, and that usually they lived crammed several to a bedroom, in basements or wherever.

I’d sometimes ask my manicurist about her working conditions, but who knew if she was telling the truth? You wouldn’t dare to ask about their living conditions.

Tammy, the manicurist in Dubois, is somewhere near my own age. With the demeanor of an ancillary health professional, she discusses the physical state of my keratin and my cuticles: why I shouldn’t cut cuticle (infection risk), whether I’m going to lose the nail on that finger I slammed in the car door (probably).

nailsGiven the ugly smashed nail (it makes Tammy’s tummy hurt to look at it), we decide on wacky dark teal polish that looks close to black. As she works, we discuss how she came to open the salon.

Tammy used to own the coffee shop downtown. She sold the business because she wanted something easier to leave behind when her husband gets around to retiring. She noticed that there was no manicurist in Dubois, so she got herself trained, got a certificate, and opened the shop.

The wacky blackish manicure lasted only a few hours. I ruined it putting on my snowshoes later that afternoon. Oh, well. I’m more the kind to just wear that ruined nail, or a Bandaid.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.