I often arrive at La Petite straight from the office, still reeling from whatever rush-hour jam has made me five minutes late and continually amazed at how, in a city where calm places are as scarce as cheap apartments, my pulse immediately slows at the door. I'm a sucker for the hand-painted rendering of Versailles covering an entire wall (commissioned by Hanna, La Petite's thirtysomething Polish owner), the baskets overflowing with snacks brought by customers, the black Ikea lounge chairs where you can linger long after your toe polish has dried, and the sometimes spirited, sometimes melancholy, conversations between the regulars—women who have revealed secrets to me that have caused my jaw to drop or my heart to ache but whose last names I'll probably never know.
My weekly pilgrimages to La Petite began after a brutal breakup. That summer I would often take long walks around my neighborhood, ostensibly for the exercise or on an errand but really hoping I'd run into someone to connect with. On one of those walks, I turned a corner onto a side street and found La Petite. I don't remember what first drew me in, other than the promise of air-conditioning on a sweltering day, but I know why I sat there for almost an hour waiting for the next available manicure appointment: the laughter that spilled out the door as I entered. The mood inside was upbeat, even joyous, and there seemed to be no distinction between customers and employees—everybody was in the thick of the conversation. This was clearly not your average assembly-line New York City nail shop, where the only exchanges between the polishers and the polished usually revolve around the question "What color?" Nor was it the kind of designer spa you often find on the Upper East Side, where securing an appointment with a star manicurist can be a nail-biting experience in itself.
La Petite quickly became my Cheers—a place I returned to again and again, where everybody does indeed know my name. There were the obvious beauty benefits: I loved having hands that always looked groomed and legs that always felt smooth. But I didn't crave the beauty treatments half as much as the familiar faces, the Friday-night routine, and the Norm-style greeting that I still receive when I enter.
There's always common ground to cover, everything from neighborhood news to the deep stuff. Need a new apartment? Somebody always has a suggestion. A wedding dress? Have you been to...? A new boyfriend? Let me tell you about my friend Jed. A shrink? 555-....
The faces have changed somewhat over the years, but the communal, reunionlike spirit of Friday nights at La Petite endures. These women have seen me through new jobs, new loves, eventually true love, a new last name, and most recently the various stages of pending motherhood. In fact, La Petite was the first place I brought my newborn daughter. I was intent on introducing her to Hanna and the gang and on placing her picture on a mirrored pillar covered with dozens of images of customers' children. Weeks earlier Hanna had painted a question mark in red nail polish where my baby's picture would go. It was her way of letting me know she was saving a space on the La Petite family tree.
Leesa Suzman is a beauty writer who lives in New York City.
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