Rosa Santos trims up a shih tzu at her Boca Raton pet salon, Joni’s Grooming.
Photo by Jerry Lower
By Tim Norris
Through the picture window, two faces play to the parking lot: the canine, looking straight on at passersby with wide eyes and wet nose, and the human, standing behind with attentive brows and, on eye contact, a break-of-dawn smile.
That doggy in the window, the one with the raggedy tail, is Molly, a chow mix, unfolded now across an elevated grooming table, and the one carefully trimming that tail with deft strokes of a long barber’s scissors is Rosangela Santos, known to most as “Rosa.”
Her story, of child labor and lost love and painful illness, does not come from a happy children’s rhyme. Suffering in her life, though, she says, has been eased by angels, leavened with blessings, always countered by good work.
She is, at the moment, singing, and Molly seems mellow with the music. The window showcases a shifting gallery of pets, their features most often enfolded by hair: poodles and Pomeranians, Yorkies, corgis and shih tzus, terriers and toys, bigger dogs, too. Their groomer provides a steady and sunny presence, and few who view Rosa have any clue what she endured to get here and stay.
On this weekday afternoon, she is enduring the howl and whine of a blower, for after-bath fluffing, and then of a clipped-hair-scarfing shop vac, brandished by assistant Elyel Barreto.
“Imagine listening to that for 45 years,” says Rosa, who is now 58, and she shrugs and smiles.
Moments later, in a narrow room to her right that ends in a bathtub, Barreto is introducing a cockapoo named Angel to bathwater and shampoo. Known to many as “Elio” and to some former classmates at John I. Leonard in West Palm and then Boynton Beach High and then Olympic Heights in Boca as “LOL,” he was born, as Rosa was, in Brazil. He arrived at her door a few months ago — back from a senior year of high school in Kansas and needing work while he saves for college — as a happy accident, and he serves as her co-groomer, pet-holder, arbiter with technology and also her translator, when needed, from Portuguese to English. (Her other assistant, Felippe Lopes, also from Brazil, is off for the day).
The grooming itself, Rosa says, arrived as a happy accident, too. In Brazil, she trimmed eyebrows and manicured nails in a beauty shop, until a friend suggested she could make 10 times as much primping pets. When her husband left her in 1999 (“I have him 25 years,” she says, “and he change me for a young girl”), she migrated to the Boston area, taking work at one point in a New Hampshire paper mill.
When a newfound Brazilian friend asked her just to look after a man’s poodle while he was out of town, no haircut, she gave the dog a shampoo and trim anyway, and the friend and then the owner said, “Wow! Beautiful!” She has made her living that way ever since.
Pet grooming might seem both elegant and risky. Most dogs and cats, after all, have soft hair and sharp teeth. It also can look a little tedious. The previous workday, Rosa and Elio foamed and snipped, combed and air-brushed their way through 19 dogs and cats; some days bring even more.
The spirit here, though, seems industrious and gentle. Rosa has a way, Elio says, with animals, including the human kind. Their shared exertions pull shoppers and delivery people to her window to watch.
She is also, as of August when she made her last payment, the business’s owner. Her shop, Joni’s Grooming (still bearing the name of the original owner), stands in a triangular strip mall on Federal Highway in Boca, between the Violin Shop and Dr. Laszlo Poduszlo’s Mizner Park Veterinary Clinic. Contrary to expectation, the portion of mall that includes the veterinary practice belongs to HER. They refer customers, she says, to each other.
When Rosa first set foot in Boca in 2006, glad to leave New England winters behind, she had almost nothing. She had answered an ad in Pet Product News International and went to work for Club Bow-Wow, not far from her present location.
She had come one day to the Wendy’s restaurant just to the north for lunch. “I saw the cages in the shop here,” she says, “and I ask about grooming. The woman say no. Then I find a note on my door. The owner has lung cancer, her daughter look after the dogs, wash the dogs, don’t groom them. I tell her I try. She had three or four customers a day. I offer to buy, the lawyer says you can lease (to buy), I say I pay $2,000 a month.”
“She bought the place thinking of the money she could make tomorrow,” Elio says, “because she didn’t have any money at the time.” The day Rosa made the final payment, her list of clients had topped 2,000.
Molly gets a final trim under her chin, carried then to a nearby holding cage with a ready-to-go bandana around her neck, and Rosa lifts a white Persian cat, Mr. Bentley, into the tub and strokes water onto him from a plastic bottle.
Cats notoriously hate dousing, but, even as his furry bouffant shrinks to a cringing oilskin, Mr. Bentley shows a resolute sangfroid, eyes steady amid the drip.
Patience, Rosa suggests, is learned and also earned. At age 6 in her native Brazil, she went to work in a kitchen, then in a factory, and she did not smile there. She grew up among 13 children, and as the oldest she needed to provide for the rest. “I had to make money,” she says.
Wrapped in a towel, then blow-dried, Mr. Bentley stands under her combing, and she goes after matting and knots with a scissors. Persians, she says, easily get tangled. She knows how to free them.
America and its customs and language seemed a knot for her, too, at first, but she has found that sometimes speaking simply and listening more work best.
Soon a man and then a woman in tailored dress come in from the parking lot to collect their pets, and everyone smiles and wags. Somebody is purring. Maybe, Elio says, it’s Rosa. Ú
In Coasting Along, our writers stop to reflect on life along the shore.