Huddled in the half-bathroom beneath the stairs in her Arnold Court building, Venicia Hokenson thought her time was up.
“I said, ‘Here I am Lord, take me.’ And then it was over,” she said, recounting her narrow escape from a Nov. 17 tornado. “I didn’t have time to be scared.”
She’d come downstairs just minutes before, down stairs she’s traveled thousands of times, both to exit the building and to see her friends in the beauty salons below.
Talk of the Town, Hair Trends by Edie and Deb’s Hair Design, all situated on the ground floor of a building on the north side of Arnold Court, provided a never-ending cast of characters for Hokenson to talk with. Hokenson is universally known to the ladies at the salons as “Grandma” or simply “Grams.”
The salons were closed that Sunday, but Hokenson, in her upstairs apartment, had been watching the progress of the vicious storms blowing in from the west. About three minutes before the tornado destroyed her apartment, she decided she’d better move.
“I got a call on my cellphone, and she said she was downstairs in the bathroom, and that some glass in my front door had been broken, but don’t worry, I’ll be OK,” recalled Hokenson’s good friend, Sandy Griffin, owner of Talk of the Town. “Of course I went straight over there, and the hallway had caved in and we had a skylight.”
Hokenson’s escape from the bathroom, under the stairs in the caved-in hallway, settled at least one thing. The 78-year-old, who’d lived in the same apartment since 1985, would be coming to live at Griffin’s house.
“I’m actually glad this happened,” Griffin said Friday. “It answered a lot of prayers for me. It got me out of the stress of owning a business and it finally convinced Venicia to come live with me. I’d been asking her for a while, but she said she was going to a nursing home.”
Hokenson had gotten very, very used to coming downstairs each morning to grab some coffee and a newspaper, doing a crossword puzzle and chatting with the women at the salons.
Griffin’s salon had been in the same place for 20 years, and over that time, Venicia, who lived alone, had become family. The rest of the stylists adopted her as well — or Venicia adopted them, whichever. Universally, she was Grandma.
“She’s the mayor, the fire department and the police department of Arnold Court,” said Brandy Clark, one of the stylists who worked at Talk of the Town.
Last year, Venicia’s health took a turn for the worse and the stylists and some of their clients stepped in.
“I couldn’t walk and they cleaned my place, did my laundry, brought me food,” she said. “They took care of me.”
Of the five destroyed hair salons at Arnold Court, three are now consolidated into one business, Hair’s All of Us, at 1500 S. Main St.
Lott, Clark, Griffin, Edie’s owner Edna Humerickhouse and another former Talk alumnus, Kelly Goebel, all work at the bustling salon, which they opened within a week of the tornado.
“We wanted to set up as quickly as possible. We all went to lunch one day and we decided we’d all like to stay together,” Clark said. “We’d all been together for nine years. We’re a family.”
Two months after the storm, Griffin said the stylists haven’t lost any of their clients. Several, like longtime client Donna Hamilton, came over to Arnold Court right after the storm to help clean up.
“As long as I knew they were OK, I was all right,” Hamilton said, as Griffin buffed her nails. “But I’ll always remember seeing Grandma’s couch.”
“Can you tell she’s had a big impact?” Griffin interjected, drawing a round of laughs around the salon.
The family at Hair’s All of Us includes Grams, who comes out to the shop on occasion to have her hair done. A longtime bartender at the now-defunct Moose Lodge, and at the Eagles Lodge and the Pumpkinvine Room, she’s sharp and acts as an arbitrator occasionally, if there’s a debate in need of settlement.
She laughed at the Hair crew naming her as the salon “judge.”
“I’ve been around for a while, I guess I might know a few things,” she said with a grin.
There’s a bit of regret things aren’t like they were back on Arnold Court, with her instant access to the discussion at three different salons.
But the ladies fished all of her photographs from her destroyed apartment — many of them of Griffin’s kids and grandkids — and set them up for her in Griffin’s house.
“I’m so comfortable where I am, I don’t really want to go out,” Venicia joked.
Between the family life and home cooking at Griffin’s, Venicia is set, but Griffin may have to deal with a rebellion at Hair’s All of Us if she doesn’t bring Grandma around more often.
Clark needled Griffin: “You don’t bring her out as much. You’re getting stingy with her now.”
John O’Donnell, who owns the north side of Arnold Court, is still negotiating with his insurer over his claim. He said Friday he thinks it is unlikely he’ll rebuild the badly damaged strip.
O’Donnell said about 25 people worked on his side of Arnold Court prior to the tornado, and said it looks like most of the businesses, except for Tropic Tan, which had already closed for good, have found new locations.
John Patton, who runs a custom orthotics business, The Foot Shop LLC, moved across Arnold Court to the south strip. He’s proud of the way his fellow tenants came together after the storm, especially of the way Griffin took in Venicia Hokenson.
“She is just a sweet lady,” he said of Hokenson. Burnt out of his former location in Forest Park Plaza back in 1995, Patton said he’s sorry he’s not O’Donnell’s tenant any more.
“He has just been the best landlord,” Patton said.
“I know all of these people out there on Arnold Court, and we tried to build a family,” O’Donnell said. “We made sure people got along, and could work together.”
Griffin said things could hardly have worked out better for the gang at Hair’s All of Us. She found out about the location, at Main and Defenbaugh streets, from a client just two days before the storm.
“We ended up in a great location, and we ended up staying together. We’re together as one group and all we lost was a bunch of buildings,” she said.
Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter, @JasonSSmith1.