When Tina Davis cuts hair, the conversation often reaches far beyond the realm of the typical small talk between stylists and their clients. The buzz of clippers and hairdryers can’t conceal her New Orleans accent. Even those who can’t immediately place her based on her speech notice her Louisiana stylist’s license.
The story behind her journey to Forest Park”the loss of her home and her beauty salon to Hurricane Katrina, the anxiety over the unkown status of her father who stayed behind, the kindness of Fantastic Sam’s owners O’Neal and Alana Robinson, in helping her get her life back together”then begins to pour out.
“I’ve heard a lot of ‘I’m so sorry,'” she said, “but the customers in Forest Park always had kind words to say and that kept me going”that and my faith in God.”
Davis evacuated the city where her family had lived for three generations at 4 a.m. the day before Katrina struck, and headed to Houston to stay with some relatives. Her father, Charles Davis, whom she describes as a “die-hard of Louisiana,” did not come along.
“He was just one of the people who wanted to stay and protect his everything,” she said. “We had no means of communication with him.”
A week later, Davis’ brother managed to find their father at the crowded Astrodome after Coast Guard personnel rescued him from his home, which by then was surrounded by almost 10 feet of water.
With her immediate family accounted for, Davis and 10 family members joined her brother Marcus and sister-in-law Amiee at their home in Oak Park. Davis enrolled enroll her 12-year-old son Gregory at Percy Julian Middle School, while her 7-year-old nephew Charles Davis III was enrolled at Horace Mann Elementary School.
“The people here welcomed us with open arms,” she said. “We just got an unbelievable amount of assistance.”
Davis soon set out to find work at a nearby hair salon. “I needed to keep my skills up because this is a profession I truly love,” said Davis, who had operated her own business, Tina’s Beauty Salon, for 15 years before Katrina reduced it to rubble.
In fact, Davis likes her job so much that it hurts. On Monday, she had surgery to relieve a case of carpal tunnel syndrome she developed from years of cutting and styling hair.
Davis heard through her sister-in-law about Fantastic Sam’s, which had opened just three months earlier at 7235 Madison St., and the Robinsons welcomed her to their new salon.
Alana Robinson now says it was one of the best moves she ever made, as Davis soon worked her way up to manager and ended up teaching the first-time business owners the ins and outs of the beauty salon business.
“She is an entrepreneur, and she became independent so quickly here. We became reliant on her. She’s honest, dependable, and really knows the business. We’re not stylists, so we learned a lot from her,” she said.
The Davis family was placed in two Oak Park apartments, and the support once again began pouring in. A customer donated furniture, and the Robinsons’ church, Greater Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church at 5856 S. Wabash Ave., reached into its collection to contribute to Davis and her family. Her brother and sister-in-law’s neighborhood came together to organize a garage sale benefiting the family.
Tina’s family embraced its new life, as she built relationships with customers and neighbors in Forest Park and Oak Park. Gregory adapted as well, making the honor roll his first two trimesters at Julian.
“In the beginning as I watched the news, it was hard to endure, watching the city I love covered with water and devastation. But looking at how bad it was, I knew we couldn’t go back, so I had to make the best of it,” she recalls.
Still, Davis said she never quite felt settled here. As kind and welcoming as everyone was, she was constantly reminded that she was not at home.
“My son everyday said he likes Chicago and he likes school, but he wants to go home,” she said, choking back tears.
Adding to this was the difficulty of carrying on her relationship with her fiancé, David Payton, whose job with the Criminal Sheriff’s Department in New Orleans required that he remain behind.
“He had to detain prisoners, rescue people, everything. He saw the dead bodies floating in the water. … He went through a lot,” she said. “He’s a strong-willed individual, and he’ll be OK, but it’ll be something that’s always in the back of his mind for the rest of his life.”
Davis and Payton made their best effort to see each other once a month, and Davis has returned to New Orleans twice since the hurricane.
“It was very ugly and very disturbing and sad, but it was still home to me. I still saw the beauty of New Orleans,” she said.
Davis will return home for good on June 10, the day after Gregory finishes school. After reuniting with family and friends, she said hopes to begin assisting in the clean-up process herself.
To give Davis the farewell she deserves, the Robinsons plan on creating a scrapbook commemorating her time in Forest Park. Customers, friends, and all others who have come in contact with Davis during her time here are invited to stop by the week of May 29 to June 2 and take a picture with Davis and sign the book.
“In a very short period of time, she’s developed a really strong relationship with the clients in the community. Many people will sit an hour to wait for her. It’s the quality of service and her personality”she’s a nice person and a warm person, and people really get attached to her. We’re all going to miss her,” said Robinson.
Davis said she plans to return to Forest Park to visit as often as possible.
“I’ll miss all the owners of the shops here. I’ve built relationships with all of them. I’ll miss everyone, and they said they’ll miss me too,” she said.
She still hasn’t figured out where she’ll live in New Orleans”her old neighborhood is in ruins”nor does she have a place to work, but after what she’s been through over the past year, she’s not overly concerned.
“I still have faith that I’ll eventually find a place and reopen my business, buy some property, and rebuild from there,” she said.
“People need to get their hair done everywhere, so I’m not that worried.”