Island profile: Her commute is a few steps down the hall

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Anna Salsedo outside her salon just off Midway Road.

Anna Salsedo has always enjoyed the blessings of a big family that has helped her through good times and bad.

Her dad, known on the Island as Joe the Tailor, lives just behind her house off Midway Road where she has operated Anna’s Salon. She has two brothers and a son on the South Fork, a daughter graduating this month from Shelter Island High School and relatives all over the world, from Queens to Tunisia, where her parents, both tailors, were born and lived as Italian citizens before emigrating to the U.S. before Anna was born in 1956.

For Anna, whose ready smile and happy banter spring from a native kindness that is as enchanting as her Mediterranean charm, her employees and clients are family, too.

“I think customers find it very comfortable,” Anna said last week, sitting in the bac1kyard next to a flowing pond that her boyfriend, mason Don Zabel, built for her four years ago.

Her Chihuahua Fifi greets the customers, who are served coffee or tea and maybe some cake or cookies. Some customers stop by just to see who’s in the chairs to chat and have a cup of coffee.

“We’re always joking around, singing. If an older customer misses an appointment, we’ll call and ask if they’re okay. It’s that kind of place. It’s a great atmosphere.” Nervous brides, she said, always leave relaxed.

“God has blessed me,” Anna said. “I’m telling you: I love my customers.”

It all started back in Forest Hills. “I was getting into hair at age 18,” she said, styling the locks of a next-door neighbor with whom she used to talk through their open windows. “I’d go next door and comb her hair” and she was good at it.

Working at a deli at the time, “I see all these people coming in and I’m wondering, ‘Why are they all in white?’ It’s because there was a cosmetology class upstairs. When they closed the deli, I collected unemployment” and, with some help from her family to raise the $1,500 tuition, she enrolled.

In 1978, she married high school sweetheart, Charlie Zelnick, who worked at a music studio in Manhattan, where Anna met Mick Jagger, Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra (“I’ve never seen anybody with the bluest eyes like his”) and other stars. “I held Jimi Hendrix’s guitar,” she said.

Four months later, Charlie died at age 22 of a brain aneurysm, months before the birth of their son Charlie, who would one day become a Shelter Island high school sports star. He now works as a plumber on the South Fork and has a home in East Hampton.

The whole Forest Hills community rallied to help Anna, holding fundraisers for her. Charlie could always count on a free Italian ice from the pizza place. The American Legion, for which Anna helped found a women’s support organization, sponsored Charlie at baseball camp.

She met Vic Kokonis, at a barbecue in Queens and married him soon after Charlie was born in 1979. He was a trucker with his own 18-wheeler and a wanderlust that Anna shared. “That was fun,” she said. “I loved it.”

She managed the rolls of quarters for their tolls and pay phone calls on long hauls and she loved the log cabin on 188 acres he had near Greensboro, North Carolina.

They moved around, living in New Jersey for a while, working with another trucking family; on a boat in Key West, where they ran a souvlaki place just off Duval Street for a year or so; and in Corfu, Greece, where Vic had cousins and worked for the Caterpillar company in the import-export business. Anna did some hairdressing — mostly tourists and college kids.

“It was great. I had a good time. I had a good life besides the hard times,” she said. Corfu was “like walking through the Bible,” with shepherds herding their sheep and woman carrying jugs on their heads and an old woman in black whose stone house had no water or electric. “She looked like the lady with the apple in ‘Snow White,’” Anna said, and she always wanted to buy Charlie — and wasn’t kidding.

In 1991, when Charlie was 12, Anna took him back to the U.S. to live with her parents in Queens so he could go to school there. With the American invasion of Iraq, Vic told her not to return because he worried about terrorist attacks on Americans.

He said he’d join them “but he never made it back,” Anna said. He died that year of cancer “and I never saw him again.”

By then, her mother and father had started coming to Shelter Island, where her dad’s best friend in Queens, John German, had a place. Another Queens friend, Bill Sullivan, asked Anna’s dad to work as a tailor at his dry cleaning business. When new landlords jacked up the rent at his Jackson Heights shop, he took the offer.

That was fine with Anna, because she’d been worrying about drugs and violence at Charlie’s school in Queens. He started seventh grade on the Island and she stayed behind, working at a salon. But a month after they had moved out, “Charlie called me. He was upset. He missed me,” Anna explained, so she came, too.

“There was nothing here then. The streets were empty. It was like a desert. Sag Harbor was like tumbleweed city. I was not used to that.”
Afraid she’d find no work, she prayed for a job, any job. It happened: a gig waitressing at the Inn Between. “It was weird. I was scared,” she said of that work. But soon enough, she landed a place cutting hair at a salon in Greenport.

By the time she married Island plumber Wayne Chicka in 1996 and had her daughter Saverina, Anna was working on the Island at Suzie Richards’ beauty salon behind the Tuck Shop. It terrified her when Suzie got pregnant and announced she was closing her shop.

“I cried,” said Anna, who had separated from Wayne, “and Suzie told me, ‘Anna, don’t worry, you’re going to open your own shop.’”

Her brother Danny built the addition for her salon and, sure enough, when Anna hung out her sign, Suzie’s clients all made the leap. Anna’s Salon has been a success ever since, with hundreds of clients, from the humble to the rich and famous.

Her staff includes Toby, who heads to Florida and his wife in the winter; Estevan, who drives in from Westhampton; manicurist Casey Hannabury; and assistant hairdresser Anna Lee from Greenport, who’s 25 and started working for Anna at age 18. “She’s my baby girl,” said Anna.

Her staff allows Anna to keep the salon open all year so she can keep traveling. She’s been all over, from Africa to France to Mexico and almost every state in the Union. Even on Sundays and Mondays, when the salon is usually closed, “If someone is in a jam, I’ll take them in,” Anna said.

“I’ll never retire,” Anna said. “I’ll probably be doing this from a wheelchair.”

Every Monday she drives four hours round-trip to visit her boyfriend Don, who has been hospitalized ever since he had a bad heart attack last year. For a time, he didn’t recognize her. When things did start to come together for him, he told her, “I’ve got to get home and clean the pond!”