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The time my mom’s acrylic nails lit on fire at a Pizza Hut in South Florida
A PSA for Pisces season
Do you like getting your nails done? I do. I was going to use this newsletter to talk about the real issues, like how Ringo was the best Beatle or how to get out of driving tickets or finally settling the long-standing debate over who is more famous: Food God or Paul McCartney.
I also thought it might be a good time to finish the podcast I recorded last month with artist and fellow weed witch Natalie Smith (sorry, Natalie! Better luck next issue!). Instead, I want to talk to you about the dangers of wearing acrylic nails while lighting candles at birthday parties.
Picture it: a Pizza Hut in South Florida. The year is 1992, and the first Y2K isn’t on anyone’s radar because social media doesn’t exist and the internet barely works. Most people do not have home computers and everything we consume has cancer in it, just the way we like it. A young girl turns 7 and the obvious choice for this fête is Pizza Hut, the most popular children’s birthday party destination in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Pizza Huts in the ‘90s were pretty great. When I think about big corporate brands who really strategized how to dig into my underdeveloped brain to forge longterm brand loyalty, I’m OK with Pizza Hut living rent-free in my head. I can’t even remember the last time I ate at a Pizza Hut, but put a slice from Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Little Caesars in front of me and I could blind-taste identify each of them, no question.
Their stuffed crust pizza with pineapple and black olives was my go-to for years—clearly because I was ahead of my time even as a young girl. By the time it hit “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” fame, the brand was moving in a different direction and we lost touch. I think I was just really at a different point in my life, culturally and physically, about where, how and why I was eating pizza. At this point, I had moved to Chicago, a city with notably iconic pizza, and it just didn’t feel right anymore.
Among the things I used to love about Pizza Hut was its BOOK IT Program, which turned me into pizza-loving nerd I am today. The point of the program was to reward kids for reading by incentivizing them with a free one-topping Personal Pan Pizza. Each child would receive a button, receiving one star per book, and earning a pizza after reading 10. As such, many kids would power their way through whatever they could get their hands on, and Pizza Hut quickly became a national sensation as a popular family-friendly spot for birthdays (including two of my own).
Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and that’s why after the program phased out, it relaunched in 2021 as part of their “Newstalgia campaign” (as a side note, I kind of love that Pizza Hut’s corporate blog is called “Hut Life.”) Here’s what the press release says:
Remember going to Pizza Hut as a kid? The glorious aroma of pizza enveloped you as you were led to a classic red booth decked out in a red and white checkered tablecloth under the cozy glow of a stained-glass Tiffany-style lamp. You’d score some quarters to play an arcade game as you waited for your Personal Pan Pizza®, served hot in a cast iron skillet. Life was good.
Pizza Hut is bringing back all the nostalgic feels to customers with a new brand campaign that captures the concept of “Newstalgia.” The campaign puts a contemporary twist on celebrating all the things people love and associate with the brand – from Book It!® pins, classic arcade games, red cups and Tiffany-style lamps and of course, iconic Pizza Hut pizzas.
To help launch the campaign, Pizza Hut teamed up with new spokesperson, Craig Robinson, for a TV spot featuring the actor/comedian playing a retro PAC-MAN game while enjoying a $10 Tastemaker™ pizza. In a modern twist, Pizza Hut has partnered with PAC-MAN to offer a limited-edition PAC-MAN box, featuring an augmented reality version of the iconic game printed directly on the packaging that fans can play using their smartphones.
That is some A+ marketing. Millennials—they remember it all!
My mom was a single parent and a bit of wild child. If you think South Florida sounds nuts now, there’s really no comparing to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. This was a time when the D.A.R.E. program truly went hard because Miami was hub for illicit drug dealings, murders, and child kidnappings, which we would all watch every evening as true crime entertainment on America’s Most Wanted and COPS. A psychic who read my mother’s fortune at an area barbecue festival told me I would die young, beautiful and a drug addict. I’m almost 40 now, but young-at-heart, so I still get anxiety thinking about this.
Many kids my age were latch-key kids, so we were all given sex and drug education fairly young. Because I assumed every approaching stranger was undoubtedly a predator, the idea of my mom sexing it up and dating always seemed really awkward to me. Yet she always dressed in a semi-provocative way: long acrylic nails, elaborate wigs, and sexy dresses leaving nothing to the imagination—almost like a drag queen.
I hated her red wig, in particular, because it was so ratty. I think if she had invested in a really nice, sophisticated-looking wig I might not have hated it so much, but this was the one that made frequent cameos on her outings. Long and tangled, it was a dried-out mess of crimped waves in the most unnatural shade of crimson that would flow from her crown like a demented Barbarella. And she had the most ostentatious acrylic nails: always long and square-cut, usually in a shade of neon or bright red.
None of this was unusual at the time. Many of the women in our apartment complex had similar looks as they’d sun by the pool, spritzing themselves with Hawaiian Tropic and smearing layers of Bain de Soleil to maintain their golden bodies. One of my mother’s closest neighborhood friends was a woman named Bunky who would wear bikinis and sell hot dogs at construction sites—among the most underrated hustles I’ve ever heard in my life. At some of the complex pool parties, the office staff would get a little too drunk on Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers while dancing to “Strokin’” by Clarence Carter and clothes would just fly off as everyone jumped into the pool. These were family-friendly events the whole neighborhood could get in on.
Despite the eccentric and adult themes mentioned above, I had plenty of wholesome childhood experiences, including the aforementioned Pizza Hut birthday parties. She was fabulous at throwing parties, always making it a cool theme and usually at a restaurant. In many ways, I think I picked up my sense of hosting quirky parties from her as they were always the most fun—or the most memorable at least. For example, one year we had a Cat Woman-themed party where my mom pied me in the face with a plate of whipped cream (I hated that last part, but it doesn’t come up regularly in therapy or anything).
I remember my mom setting up the party for about a dozen kids. Slowly, they started to stream in, bringing gifts. Pizza Hut parties aren’t particularly action-packed in the same way as a trip to McDonald’s PlayPlace—there’s no ball pit or Happy Meals. So, the only excitement of the event is the lighting of the cake.
Acrylic nails were a bit of a happy medical accident. In the 1950s, a dentist named Fred Slack toyed around with dental acrylics in hopes of creating an artificial nail that could cover up a broken one. Twenty years later, acrylic nails evolved into an art form courtesy of Dr. Stuart Nordstrom who invented the professional liquid and powder system used in acrylics, founding the brand CND. By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, acrylic nail salons were everywhere, usually with a nice Patrick Nagel facade in the window.
Though acrylics have retained popularity, increasing with relevance thanks to social media influencers, they are also incredibly flammable. In addition to emitting toxic fumes that can cause cancer and carrying dangerous polymers, the first reported case in medical literature of an acrylic nail igniting was from a woman taking her final drags on a cigarette butt. The burn was enough to sustain irreparable damage to her dominant left thumb, requiring reconstruction.
When my mother lit the candles, her nails suddenly went up in flames. Waving them frantically while screaming bloody murder, she found the closest pitcher of root beer and submerged her hand, extinguishing the flame. We erupted in laughter, cut the cake, and called it another successful year. The irony is that my mom doesn’t even smoke.
I thought a lot about that party this year as I took my 38th spin around the sun. Ever since the pandemic, I’ve lost a certain joie de vivre of the ritual, mostly to prevent the disappointment of people not showing up or sending a thoughtful text to acknowledge that I am still alive. To ring in Pisces season, I had a pretty lowkey evening and decided to paint my nails. As they dried, I pinched my joint holder and carefully took a hit, as though I was unintentionally playing roulette for a cheap thrill. I took a look in the mirror at my freshly cut hair in its natural state, and toasted myself with a slice of pizza.