Originally published Dec. 18, 2012, for Digital First Media and associated papers.
NEWTOWN, Conn. — Marci Benitez couldn’t wait for her first appointment last Saturday morning.
It was on the books for 9:15. The client: a 6-year-old boy with chubby cheeks and a high-pitched voice, who always had a smile on his face.
James Mattioli was exactly what the owner/stylist at Fun Kuts, a hair salon in Sandy Hook, needed on that somber Saturday.
He’d arrive at the shop, no matter the weather, wearing flip flops and shorts. He’d ask for his hair to be spiked into a mohawk.
He’d talk about pumpkin carving with his sister or the family’s trip to Disney.
Benitez hoped his chatter would take her to a happier place, far from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and 6 adults that had been killed by a gunman the day before.
The appointment came and went. James never showed.
“I figured in the middle of the hecticness his mom had forgotten, and she would just call later in the week and reschedule,” Benitez said Tuesday. “Then, later on in the day, when the list of the victims came out, I saw his name was on it.”
James, who was buried Tuesday, wasn’t the only one. Benitez, who specializes in cutting children’s hair, lost many customers to the tragedy. To ease their anxiety, some of them likely sat in her shop’s kid-friendly seats — one shaped like a fire truck.
“They come here for their first haircut up until they grow up,” she said. “You hope they grow up.”
She choked up, but the tears didn’t come out. Benitez – like others in business who serve the Newtown and Sandy Hook communities – must stay strong for the sake of her customers.
“I’m prepared to hear people’s sadness and take on the whole thing,” she said. “Hair dressers are like psychologists. People tell us their thoughts.”
Around the corner on Glen Road, “Chase,” an overly affectionate 4-year-old golden retriever quickly cuddled up to customers at The Country Mill antique shop.
Owner Linda Manna brought him to the store to provide some comfort to customers. She has stayed open every day since Friday, serving as a refuge to a community mourning the loss of so many.
“I’ve been open to give people the chance to have some relief for a few minutes,” Manna said. “As a shop owner you don’t know what to do, so you do the best you can.”
Others, like Sandy Hook Deli and Catering owner Artie Praino, have modified their hours to care for a grieving population.
On Saturday, Praino kept his shop open until 10 p.m., six hours later than normal. He stayed open seven hours late on Sunday.
For Praino, keeping focused on his job – including catering jobs for funeral parties — has helped him get through a very difficult few days.
“Staying busy has helped,” Praino said. “I have not had the chance to stop and think about what happened.”
On Tuesday, his deli cases were filled with bowls of cole slaw, fresh mozzarella balls, meat pies and deviled eggs.
“I kind of feel like I’m doing my job feeding you guys,” he said.
Everyone had something to offer.
At a Demitasse Café, three anonymous callers surrendered credit card numbers to baristas. They donated “large sums of money” to buy hot drinks for those close to the tragedy, said employee Fran Maturo.
Patrons flocked to Stone River Grill, into an atmosphere Jill Richelsoph described as “busy but somber.” Some just wanted coffee or tea.
Even the busy Subway opened its doors for people who just wanted use a bathroom.
“We are not even happy with the increased business because of the reasons for it,” the store’s co-partner Najeeb Ghafour said. “If we were busy because of the Christmas season, we would be happy.”
But the Blue Colony Diner seemed to be the center of it all. Mourners mixed with media crammed into the the blue booths of the almost 40-year-old eatery, framed by metallic trim decked with icicle Christmas lights.
“We lost a few of our regulars,” said waitress Orysia Zaluski, 26.
The parent of one, Zaluski said, stopped by Monday. He had to, she said, “one last time.”
The Newtown diner welcomes children who scribble on the backs of placemats with colored crayons. They order things like the “green dinosaur mash drink” or one of the other meal selections on the seven-page menu named after the kind of things kids want to be when they grow up.
There’s, “The Fireman,” a roast beef with mashed potatoes and the “Rock ‘n Roller,” a grilled cheese with French fries and a pickle.
“Last year, around this time, I was saying, ‘Have a happy holiday,’” she added. But not this year.
“I honestly haven’t said that once to anyone.”