Jan. 22, 2006- Picture a little room overlooking the water, waves lapping at the dock outside, sunlight streaming through the paneled glass doors. The room has two comfortable looking beauty chairs.
It looks immediately on the brilliant blue Charlotte Amalie Harbor and bobbing sailboats tied up at the Frenchtown dock. The shop is "Erica's Total Beauty."
Inside, the peaceful ambience continues. In fact, it looks like somebody has fallen asleep. "Wake up, dear," says Erica Benjamin, as she gently nudges her customer, "We're almost finished."
Erica turns and laughs, as does her customer.
"This isn't the first time I've had someone fall asleep," she says.
Benjamin has been cutting islanders' hair since 1982, after a limited career as a Caribbean power boat charter captain. It's been a circuitous route.
Benjamin left her native Germany in 1961 to join her new husband, Heinz Mueller, in Southern California. Barely 20 years old, she had trained as a beautician in Germany, and she soon opened up her first shop in California. Later, she had a daughter, Monica, and the couple moved to the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, where Heinz ran a motel, and she again opened a beauty shop. But that was not to be long lived.
Like so many now-permanent Virgin Islanders, they moved here on sort of a whim.
"My husband decided it would be a wonderful idea to leave there, and move to the sunny Virgin Islands and buy a charter boat. So, we did."
They first moved to Florida, where they put their young daughter in boarding school, and Erica went to school to learn to captain a power boat because their plans had changed somewhat. First, her husband had decided to be the boat captain, but that then fell to Erica. With a smile, she says, "He decided that men couldn't be seen making mistakes, so I would be the captain, and he would be chef and first mate."
After Erica got her captain's license, the couple bought a 57-foot Chris-Craft, brought it to St. Thomas in 1978, and with the addition of one more mate, they were off in the chartering business.
Benjamin recalls her captains days with a certain pride and some laughter. She is petite, about 5 foot 2, (and, actually, has eyes of blue).
"I had a hard time at first," she says. "There weren't many female captains then. When we would come into Marina Cay in Tortola, the fellows on the dock there would stop whatever they were doing to stare, to see if I could dock the boat. It made me very nervous at first."
After a while, she says, they stopped staring. "They saw I could do it, and I lost the nervousness, and they lost interest." She says Heinz and she did term charters for about five years, after which they sold the boat, moved ashore, and parted ways. "We got a divorce," she says, "but I stayed here."
"By then, I loved being on the water," Benjamin says. "I went back to hairstyling, and I opened up a beauty salon at the old Yacht Haven Hotel." That was in 1982. "I had kind of a built-in clientele," she says, "since I knew so many people in the sailing world, it was mostly word-of-mouth. And I got the hotel guests, as well. I do very little advertising," she says, which is still true today.
Benjamin stayed at Yacht Haven for 16 years, through hurricanes Hugo in 1989, and Marilyn in 1995.
"The hotel suffered in Hugo, but my shop was spared," she says. "Then, after Marilyn, I had no damage, but the hotel was in disrepair. It kept getting worse, and it was awful for my customers to get to me. It was affecting my business."
She found her new location, still on the water, in Frenchtown in 1998. "It's perfect," she smiles. "My old customers were happy to come here and look out at the water, instead of Yacht Haven."
Benjamin says she now has a clientele with lots of old customers, and many local folks and the French community. "It's still word-of-mouth," she says. "I have people who come from the East End, too. I have a good reputation for color," she says.
But there was something lacking. She needed a massage therapist to fill out her concept of "total beauty." Today, the salon is known as Erica's Total Beauty, Hair Salon & Spa, Erica & Marilyn.
Marilyn Jones, a tall, slender young woman, with shoulder-length brown hair and auburn eyes fit the bill. She seems a natural for what she does, quiet and unassuming.
Jones says, "I was working in food and beverage management at one of the big hotels, and it was really stressful. I wondered what I was doing, living in this beautiful place and being stressed out.
"My daughter, who is a masseuse, told me, 'Mom, don't do that.' She suggested I go to school to learn massage. It sounded like a good idea, so I moved back to Oregon with my family. I went to school for 11 months, got licensed and moved back here."
Then, she couldn't immediately find work. "One day a friend told me that Erica in Frenchtown was looking for somebody," Jones says. "I went to see her, and it was just love at first sight."
Indeed , the two seem like mother and daughter, rather than business associates. That was in 2001, and they have been together ever since.
Jones is in love with her new profession, where falling asleep is a natural. She works her relaxing magic – facials, waxing and body massage – in a small, seductively scented back room, barely aglow with soft candle light. A small blue fountain burbles and soft music lulls one into a welcome state of peacefulness as Jones applies wonderful smelling balms and lotions.
If you like, she will chat. Or not.
"Lots of times, people just fall asleep," she says. She doesn't have strictly a female clientele. In fact, a comfortable-looking older gentleman is sitting in the waiting room. "He is one of my regulars," Jones says. "We get lots of local people and the French community, men, too. They love it, and they tell the other guys."
Jones' philosophy about her new profession is simple and to the point. "I love to make people feel good," she says. "When I can make them happy, I'm happy, too. It comes right back."
Benjamin points out one picture with pride. It is of daughter Monica's wedding, and it's surrounded by lots of smaller photos of Monica, who lives in the states. "She's still my baby," she says.
There's still some of the playfulness of the tiny woman who became a boat captain about Benjamin. "I don't know if I should tell you this," she says, "but one of the funniest requests anyone ever made to me is a girl who came in and looked at me very seriously. She said, 'I want you to give me that just-made-love-to look.'"
"Well," she laughs, "I tried."
The salon is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For appointments, call 774-2424.
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