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A Stranger’s Touch

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Now Kachkoff rents her own chair at the Riccardo Maggiore spa on the Upper East Side, which recently served as a set for the Sex and the City movie. Of all the women I’ve spoken to—from fearful workers at chain salons to Jennifer Fried-Uman, who loves her job but can have “one bad customer” ruin her mood for months—Kachkoff seems most satisfied. She works with a set list of long-term customers, gets commission and sets her own hours. (She has health insurance through her husband’s job.) And she has a sense of control foreign to many workers in this industry—not least because the intimacy with her customers is the real thing.

“I know my clients, but it took a while,” she says. “Back when I didn’t speak English, I smiled a lot.” Now, she says, “they know my children, I know their children. They tell me their week, and I tell them my week.” Kachkoff gets spa treatments herself; when we meet, her hair is shiny and styled, and thick eyeliner sets off her eyes. (She’s picky about who works on her and went on a long hunt for the perfect manicurist.) For Kachkoff, the slumber party is less of an illusion. She’s cracked the code of emotional labor, making her relationships feel genuine and mutual.

A few weeks after Kim and I first meet, we get together again, for a trip to the Upper West Side, near the salon that just lost the lawsuit. We’re planning to get pedicures and talk to the workers, but it looks too small to have a real interaction, and we don’t want to get any workers in trouble. Instead, we walk around 72nd Street and Broadway, where Kim marvels at the sheer density of salons: eight of them on this one block. There’s an inexpensive massage/nails place run by a Korean woman, with Mexican employees and signs advertising “callus eliminators.” There are two salons, one upstairs from the other: an antiseptic-looking joint offering mani-pedis for $25 and another place, with a carnivalesque street sign, into which we’re waved by the owner, who shouts “Excellent treatment!” and touts his prices—$19, which he says he can offer because he has lower rent on the second floor. He’s been there 21 years, he tells us; when he arrived, there was just one salon nearby. I get a manicure; Kim gets a bikini wax and comes out alarmed by the fact that they use no antiseptic and soothe the skin afterward with plain Vaseline.

Afterward, we grab another cup of coffee. Kim tells me she’s planning to leave her job at the Tribeca spa: It was “not a good week,” with a misunderstanding about scheduling that left her cooling her heels for an hour. Instead, she thinks she’ll work in New Jersey while she studies for her qualifying exam in acupuncture. She’d like to get a treatment herself, she says, but she’d prefer to do it in a more “suburban, family-oriented” area, where she could get to know the technicians.

I try to imagine what Kim describes, this homier vision of the salon. Like Hochschild, I don’t want to be moralistic about beauty, to scorn women for wanting massages—right now, I could use one myself. A pedicure may not be a necessity, but it’s benign; if workers were better paid and treated as worthy of respect, if the hours were fair, their labor might be regarded as a kind of artistry. Prostitution might be one analog to spa work, but there is another: child care, another female-centered profession that requires tremendous emotional skill and physical intimacy. Like spa work, it is often underpaid and exploitative—not because it is intrinsically humiliating, but because it is coded as feminine and therefore invisible, undervalued.

And yet there is also Hochschild’s question: Is something missing in our lives that we’re trying to replace with spa services? Kim and I talk again about why her clients want these treatments—why so many more, right now. “These days, people don’t have family, that’s the problem,” says Kim. “Because at least before, even though they don’t get married, they have their intimate partner, or they live with brothers or sisters, they always have company. These days, they travel a lot. Every family member is living so far away. And when they go home, they do their computer, they watch TV, then they go to sleep; that’s it. You don’t have your sister to say, I do your nails, I braid your hair—even with your family, you’re not really keeping company; people are so individualized.” She smiles and gazes out onto 72nd Street. “How many people do they have to do the braiding of their hair?”


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