October 19, 2006
Life in the ‘hood: Gino Tortorella, hairdresser to the Jews
I love Gino because he's entertaining in a Martin Scorsese sort of way -- he looks like a cross between Joe Pesci and Danny Devito, with that thick New Joisey accent -- and because he's a Catholic who's had the chutzpah to spend most of his adult life surrounded by Jews. You see, Gino and his hair salon have been a fixture in the heart of the Pico strip (a few doors down from Pat's restaurant) since the time Richard Nixon was president (1971), so you can imagine that this man has a few things to say.
And, thank God, he does love to talk. Today, he's looking across the street, where Hymie's Fish Market used to be, and he's reminiscing. Apparently, Hymie's used to be a real hot joint back in the late '70s. According to Gino, the food was so good (alas, it included shrimp and lobster), and the Jewish owner/hostess ("Mama" Elaine) was so well liked, that "all the stars would show up," even big Jewish stars like Barbra Streisand and Milton Berle.
There's no question that Gino's got a thing for Jews. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that for the better part of 40 years, Jewish women have accounted for 90 percent to 95 percent of his hairdressing business.
He didn't always cut hair. After being raised in a Catholic orphanage on New York's Lower East Side, where he was shining shoes on Delancey Street at the age of 8, he lucked into a cook's job at an Italian restaurant when he was 15. As he recalls it: "I was a bus boy; the chef dropped dead one day, and they gave me the job because the head nun at the orphanage had taught me how to cook."
But cooking was not to be his calling, because he wanted a "more normal life." So at 19, he learned the art of hairdressing, and has never looked back.
For several years, Gino was one of Manhattan's hairdressers par excellence, with salons uptown and downtown, and a wealthy Jewish clientele ("Jewish women like to look good"). But his first wife, a Chinese American from whom he recently divorced, wanted to move to Los Angeles with their daughter. So to "keep the peace" and stay close to his daughter, he followed along and moved to a place he knew nothing about.
Since he didn't yet have his California hairdresser's license when he arrived in 1971, he started off by cutting hair on a federal Army base in El Segundo. But one question kept nagging at him: Where are all the Jews?
A buddy from New York told him to "go look in Beverly Hills," but he found the rents there too high. So one thing led to another, and next thing you know Gino's on the phone with the owner of a tiny building on West Pico, an Orthodox Jew who ended up becoming his friend and landlord -- for 35 years and counting.
A lot has changed in his neighborhood and for Gino over the years. In his heyday, when he used to advertise his salon in the local Jewish paper as "The Boys From New York," he would have "seven cutters, three shampoo girls and three managers working all the time."
He attributes his successful years to a discriminating clientele ("I gave them Beverly Hills service without the stuffiness") and to an obsession with cleanliness ("My customers never walk on hair").
He felt close enough to his Jewish clientele that he even remembers going on Friday nights to hear the sermons of Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who was related to one of his clients. Although this was a far cry from his working with Sister Rose Maria of Thousand Oaks to help with her Christian missionary work in Africa, he recalls fondly the rabbi's universal message that "we should all get along."
Today, it's just Gino and his second wife, a Japanese American named Kay, who run the salon, where relics of his heyday -- a mini disco ball, 1,000 pictures (including one of Pope John Paul II), tchotckies and an old TV -- are everywhere. When you consider how quiet the business is these days, you wonder how Gino stays so upbeat. He realizes that the neighborhood has changed; he calls it more "ethnic," but when pressed, he elaborates and says it's "more religious."
Obviously, the trend toward wigs among the newly religious has not been good for business. When I ask him why he thinks the business is down, he admits that it might have to do with him not getting any younger; that it's not like the old days, when he could attract the hottest talent in town. But the "r" words (retirement and relocation) are both out of the question. In fact, having recovered from a recent stroke, the fit and trim Gino has been doing some strategizing.
A couple of hot-shot religious hairdressers recently approached him and told him that they would be willing to work there, and bring their clients with them, if he would close on Shabbat. This notion intrigues him, and as he walks past the empty hairdresser chairs to offer me another coffee, you can tell that he's feeling an old fire light up.
When I tell him that I must leave because it's almost Shabbat, he smiles, the kind of smile that must wonder what it would be like to not have to work on the hairdressers' busiest day of the week, for someone who's never had a Saturday off in his life.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.