The Etobicoke-raised father of twin sons loves baseball, beer and U2, and boasts a nail game Cardi B herself would admire.
TTC bus driver-turned-rising Instagram sensation Michael Maguire is at a Tibetan momo shop close to the Toronto Queensway Bus Division “saaavouring” dinner before an evening shift when I call him to set up our interview. The -16 degree weather seems to have not frozen his spark, and he announces he’s just booked us matching manicure appointments for the following weekend. “Do you like burritos?” he asks me. “There’s a burrito place right down the street. We can make it a girls’ day.”
Last week, OCAD University student Brigit O’Neil tweeted about the gladdening encounter she’d had boarding a bus driven by Maguire. “He told me he really liked my nails. He saw I was slightly confused by the compliment so offered his hand,” she wrote. “And let me tell you I did not expect to see a set of glamorous long pointed blue and silver nails encrusted with rhinestones.” Hundreds of retweets later, Maguire’s phone is still buzzing with excited friends and colleagues writing to say they saw his nails on the internet. (Maguire can’t check his phone while he’s physically in the driver’s seat, so he tends to each mountain of messages during breaks or after work.)
I arrive at Vanity Nail Bar, a busy salon with thrones for chairs and a bright pink storefront sign in Toronto’s Bloor West Village. If I hadn’t already scrolled through Maguire’s Instagram account, @ttcnails, and known who I was looking for, I’d probably not have assumed the 56-year-old man dressed in routine dad-type denim, a black winter toque and a TTC logo-emblazoned sweater was my subject for the day. And I may not have expected to see Maguire grandly enter the salon to a chorus of friendly greetings from the owner and technicians, then convivially plunk down in a princess chair and remove a small packet of independently procured nail accessories from his pocket. But days prior, I and Maguire’s 2000 other new Instagram followers, learned that in fact this Etobicoke-raised father of twin sons, who loves baseball, beer and U2, boasts a nail game Cardi B herself would admire.
As Maguire and I settle in for our side-by-side nail appointments, I ask the manicurist for a fairly simple matte black. Maguire’s vision is much more ambitious. He reveals a gallery of inspiration from within his phone, and meticulously discusses creative direction with Jean, the nail technician to whom he’ll relinquish artistic control as soon as they sort out the essentials, most importantly: pink glitter on his under-nail. Jean grabs a small pair of plyers and begins clipping off the rhinestones that launched Maguire to fame. For three hours, she files, sands, coats and cures Maguire’s nails, lavishes them in builder gel — a phrase not lost on me given the careful, elaborate construction of it all, plus the fact that Maguire is in the midst of a major home renovation project with his brother — then uses a wand and a pot of iridescent dust to transform them into chrome. Maguire’s eyes fill with tears. (I almost cry myself when Maguire tenderly details the pleasure of seeing his nails dazzle in the reflection of the bus window as he drives.) An additional nail technician assists in the work of reshaping his nails from almond to ballerina, as Maguire occasionally winces due to a shoulder injury that makes the process less than comfortable. Maguire’s chrome dreams now brought to life, Jean expertly applies dozens of rhinestones, selected with the help of several other nail technicians, to his $150 hands.
“When I leave here I feel put together,” says Maguire. “I feel pretty. It’s like glitter exploding inside me.”
In 2013, Maguire suffered a broken leg. Upon the removal of his cast, a nurse suggested he get a pedicure to clean up his neglected feet. He went for what was supposed to a maintenance appointment — Maguire’s first — and left with the nails on his fingers and toes painted a rainbow of primary colours. “Life-changing,” he says. “The pedicure was the gateway.” Maguire’s sons, 15-years-old at the time, were unperturbed. Now 20, their main nail-related concern is that their dad deserves more Instagram followers.
When a photo of Maguire’s nails ended up on Toronto entertainment platform 6ixbuzz, he said he felt like “a teenager being cyber-bullied”. Though Maguire identifies as straight, and once even brought a woman on a date to the nail salon, many of those comments were distressingly homophobic. Beyond that, Maguire says he has not experienced any demonstrably dangerous confrontations. “You know what it is?”, he says. “It’s the look. If someone loves my nails, they’ll tell me. If someone thinks it’s weird, or is being judgmental, I get the look. Maybe I’m projecting. But you just feel it.”
Toward the end of the three-hour appointment, I realize that there have been no sideways glances or grimaces of denunciation at Maguire’s presence in a nail salon populated by women of varying ages. As is typical of most nail salons, clients exchange quick pleasantries or don’t notice each other at all. When we later get burritos — this girls’ day follows a strict itinerary — the millennials working the counter observe the Aurora Borealis on Maguire’s hands but offer no visible reaction. The other customers are too focused on their own plates to care about the contents of a stranger’s sleeves. (At the salon, one nail technician leaves her station to come over and ask if he’s the one who works for the subway. She leaves then promptly returns with a tray of jewels for him to browse.)
Most men are indifferent, says Maguire, but his admirers are gender neutral overall. One summer, a contractor boarded a bus he was driving on Martin Grove Road and complimented Maguire’s French manicure. “From a guy you’d never expect it from”, he recalls. “This guy was covered in drywall. He’d just left the work site.” Maguire does admit that “The dating pool shrinks dramatically”, noting that many women assume his penchant for nice nails means that he’s gay. “I think some [women] are a little thrown off by it,” he says. “So I put a picture of my nails on my Plenty of Fish profile. This way it’s not a surprise…But I’ve never quite understood our fascination with other people’s sexuality. Why are we so obsessed with that?” Last night, he says, a woman on the bus told him she admired his bravery. “I’m just being myself,” he says. “I’m not on a crusade. But if it puts a smile on anyone’s face, my job is done. At the same time, I don’t do this to be shy and reserved.”
“I’m a positive person by nature. Nothing but love, compassion and glitter,” says Maguire. “And right now I feel off the charts. I feel super alive. Heightened. It’s a natural high.”
As my own manicure finishes, Maguire insists that I, too, get some flashy hardware on my accent fingers. Not being the glitzy type, at least not in the sober light of Sunday afternoon, I resist. But Maguire encourages me to abandon the inhibitions preventing me from living a life of pizzazz. I run through a quick mental roll call of who I’ll see this week —an editor I’ve never met before, my class of fourth year undergraduate students, my professorial university colleagues, my therapist, who always notices my nails because I once bemoaned the money I spend on appearance only for every heterosexual man I’ve ever dated to be oblivious to the labour of beautification. But if Maguire can showcase his shimmery talons on the steering wheel of a TTC bus before an audience of thousands daily, I can lean in, too. (Now all I want is more.)
As an unrelated side note between bites, Maguire shares with me a gem of construction wisdom earned by years of landscaping and home renovations work: “You make your mistakes in the corner.” He is referring, of course, to the literal corner, where oddities and imperfections would be kept secluded. As Maguire heads off to a pub to watch the Super Bowl and I travel home to bask in the luminosity of my new rhinestones, I can’t shake the gravity of it. Maguire’s message is to be yourself wherever you go — defiantly, resplendently, unconventionally — not hidden in any corner.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s so ridiculous”, he chuckles. “But it’s fun. And it makes me happy.”