At first people just stare. Then come the whispers. Then, invariably, they ask Gemma Stafford the question: "Are those real?" What they mean is: "Could those huge, curved monstrosities truly be your own?"
If Stafford hears it once a day, she hears it a dozen times. "Yes, these are my God-given fingernails," she answers each time.
"And you wouldn't believe the other questions I get, honey," says Stafford, absently splaying her striking, five-inch talons. "'How do you pick your nose? How do you wipe yourself after you go to the bathroom? How do you hold your boyfriend's penis?' I tell them the same thing: I have been fortunate enough not to have any boyfriends with small penises."
Stafford, a clerk for Circuit Court Judge Murray Goldman, is not one to mince words.
"She's loud as a Cuban," says Cindy Diaz, a fellow clerk.
"And bossy," chips in her office neighbor, Flora Santos. "And those nails of hers A please! There's one girl here whose kid is terrified of her because of those things. The kid won't even talk to her on the phone."
Stafford laughs, a rich, trilling sound. "I had to show them I could file before they'd hire me," she says. That was ten years ago. At 43, the Bahamian-born Stafford has been drawing looks all her life A especially since she decided, seventeen years ago, to stop trimming her nails and initiated an elaborate decoration scheme that has transformed her fingers into works of cuticular wonder.
Primed, then layered with a special acrylic, the nails curve elegantly, in the manner of a jai-alai cesta. Each is painted a different shade. (Burgundy. Salmon. Electric blue!) Then the real crafting begins. Two digits are adorned with gold leaf curlicues. Another is inlaid with a minute mosaic of bright stones, the style manicurists call a "Treasure Chest." Another couple have strips of snakeskin laid across them like teeny, textured flags.
Only the index fingernails are cut short, (for Stafford "short" means about two inches). "I use them for typing," she explains.
In various Asian cultures, long fingernails -- the sort that render work impossible -- signify nobility. Stafford's glamorous clutchers, however, carry out often dreary clerical duties. Her hands scrabble across her desk like persistent crabs, the index finger and thumb together acting as highly coordinated pincers. As she goes about her work barely perceptible clicks and clacks sound from her cubicle, nestled in the pit of the Dade County Courthouse, on Flagler Street downtown.
Stafford's colorful creations may be old hat in the behind-the-scenes world of clerks. But what effect do they have in the sober environs of court? "It's hilarious," reports Judge Goldman. "The first question jurors have is always: 'Are those real?' When she was first assigned -- that was back in '83 -- I said, 'Now how is this woman going to get her work done?' But she's probably the most efficient clerk in this [civil] division. She runs a tight courtroom.
"Heck, everyone's afraid of Gemma," adds the normally conservative judge, whose foray into aesthetic flamboyance is limited to variously colored robes. "She gets away with stuff that no one else would. She calls one of the judges 'Curly,' and another one 'Santa.' There's this one lawyer who everybody bows down to, partner in a well-established firm. She calls him 'Chubby.' And he loves it. It's just her manner, I guess. She gets away with stuff other people wouldn't think of trying."
Which is probably the reason no one objected when the mother of four came into work some months back with her hair braided down to her knees.
"People are always shocked that I could change a baby's Pampers," Stafford says. "But really, you should have seen my nails before I cut them." Seems that until recently, they were a good two inches longer. Stafford says she cut them because they had become a bit of a nuisance, though office speculation is that the nails threatened to curl -- a la the saber-toothed tiger -- around her hands and disable them.
The woman who performed this delicate operation (who, in fact, oversees all of Stafford's high-level nail maintenance) is Virginia Kellam, an expert manicurist who plied her trade at Brownsville's El Dorado Beauty Shop before striking off on her own. "Gemma's my prize," brags Kellam, one of two specialists assigned the daunting task of maintaining Stafford's nails.
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While the second worker takes care of touchups, Kellam is the woman behind the intricate designs. She is also the one who will be called should Stafford -- brace yourselves -- chip a nail. "Oh, that's all kinds of trouble. When someone like her breaks a nail, that is an emergency. If she doesn't get that nail repaired immediately, she's likely to break the others as well. Her balance will be totally off."
But what motivates someone to grow such seemingly inconvenient appendages? "I call them 'talk pieces,'" says Kellam. "They're something people talk about. When you've got such beautiful nails, you're more likely to get noticed. And after a while, you get so used to them that they become normal."
Kellam knows whereof she speaks. "I had nails like Gemma. One day I cut them off, just like that. Cold turkey. My grip was totally off. I couldn't grab anything. You get adjusted to the world with those nails, as if they were your fingers. If Gemma cuts her nails off, she'll be handicapped. She won't be able to work, to drive a car, or comb her hair. I'd say she'd have to miss work for at least a week."
This scenario, fortunately, does not appear imminent. "Oh no, why would I ruin these?" she demands, swishing her embellished hands like Japanese fans. "I'll take these to the grave.