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Nail Art

Skip and Amy once worked the mall together. Now she's out on her own.

Despite the setback, Skip and Amy continued their lucrative acid business until their dealer left, and last summer, they made the move to Denver. Skip had picked up a little heroin habit while on the road, and he needed to be closer to his supply, since there's not much smack in the Boulder drug scene. Naturally, they traded in Pearl Street for the 16th Street Mall, hustling money from office workers and tourists.

But Skip's blockhead trick didn't do as well for him down here. They often had to sleep outside in the empty lot behind Coors Field, where they had some blankets stashed. Figuring two would be more lucrative than one, Amy asked Skip to show her how to do the trick. "At first I couldn't do it," Amy says. "I couldn't get the nail in the right spot. Then one day it just slipped in there, and I was able to find it every time."

Her talent developed quickly, and soon she was pulling in more cash than Skip. "I guess people like it better when a girl does it," she says.

Sometimes they'd work at opposite ends of the mall, but mostly Skip would watch as Amy did her performance by the Pavilions. "We were making easily thirty bucks an hour -- all day and all night," Amy says.

But they spent their money as fast as they made it, and Amy picked up Skip's taste for heroin. "We used to take all that money and stick it in our arms," Skip says.

By the fall, the two of them were fixtures on the mall, and their initially rocky relationship with the police -- they ticketed Skip for aggressive panhandling after one of his performances -- started to warm up. Outside Walgreen's one night, Amy asked people if they wanted to see her do a trick. Someone misunderstood the word "trick," and a cop rolled up and told her he'd gotten a report that she was prostituting. Amy pulled out her nails, and that's when the cop recognized her, saying, "Oh, you're the nail girl. Go ahead, everything's cool."

Things weren't so cool with her probation officer. She'd already violated her probation and had it extended a year. She was given a choice: rehab or jail. So last October, Amy went to the Arapahoe House detox facility. The first week was a blur of splitting headaches, diarrhea, cold sweats and vomiting. By day three, she was finally able to eat something. Her aunt visited her and slipped her some OxyContin to help ease the withdrawal. Once her system was flushed, she moved to the residential facility, where her days were filled with therapy, group sessions and filling out lots and lots of worksheets.

Amy got out of Arapahoe House after nineteen days and spent her first night out at her mother's house in Broomfield. The next day she met up with Skip, and they immediately went out and got high. "I was strung out just as bad," Amy says. "It took like two days to get right back where I was before I stopped."

By then, the cold weather had cleared out much of the pedestrian traffic on the mall, and Skip's tips had gotten much smaller. The blockhead was no longer a booming business, and Skip had had enough of life on the road and on the streets; he wanted to settle down, have a wife and a family.

While Amy was in detox, he'd reconnected with Shannon O'Neill, whom he's known for eleven years (he met her on the streets when she was fourteen), and she took him in to the Section 8 apartment she shares with her three-year-old daughter, Colleen.

The two made plans to get married this summer. Shannon insisted the dope had to go -- "Can't be shooting heroin and take care of a baby," she says -- so in February, Skip enrolled in a methadone program.

"It's cheaper than heroin," he says. "It keeps my mood a lot more stable than heroin. It's cleaner than heroin. It just doesn't get you high."

Skip still occasionally goes out with his pail and hammer to perform the nail trick, but he doesn't stay out all day doing it. He doesn't make as much money, but he also doesn't need as much money -- just enough to get some extra food and milk for his family.

Shannon hugs Skip, then giggles, "I'm marrying the best freak show in town."

Amy is still out on the mall doing the blockhead trick, only she's doing it by herself. "That was my best friend, and I really miss him," she says. "But I'm really happy for him. He's getting what he always wanted. He always told me how he wanted a wife and kids and the whole family deal. He's finally off dope, so I'm really happy for him. But at the same time, I'm out here by myself."

And the money is leaner than it was last summer. "You'll accumulate a large crowd of people, and they're all watching and it's really cool, and they all clap at the end like they really liked it. And then you'll start to ask them if they can spare any change, and they all leave. Not one dime. They don't even look at you."

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