When a devastating fire roared through the two-story wood-framed structure at 5 Mulberry Street in the Village of New Paltz on the evening of Monday, October 5, it cost the building’s owner Sylvia Zuniga not only her home and place of business — the Androgyny hair salon that was located on the ground level — but five of her beloved Pomeranian dogs: Tobigi, Belinha, Pacheco, Toniñho and Napoleón. They were killed in the fire, their small bodies discovered afterward by Zuniga, huddled under a chair together in what had been the salon’s office. A sixth dog, her three-year-old Pomeranian named Sherú, is still missing.
Zuniga holds out hope that the dog she used to call “little Houdini” for his ability to jump the fence and disappear will eventually show up. She had left the dogs in the care of a tenant in the building while she was in Brazil for two weeks, a trip she makes regularly to see her girlfriend, Simona. Zuniga had just returned to New York City when she learned about the fire, arriving at the building in New Paltz just as the firefighters were leaving the scene in the early hours of Tuesday, October 6.
The two other residents in the building, who were home at the time, got out without injury. One of the men that night thought to get Zuniga’s keys and move her cars over to Village Pizza, she says, but somehow nobody checked on the dogs, something Zuniga understandably still has a great deal of trouble accepting. “I can’t believe my babies suffered,” she says, questioning why misinformation was put out about the dogs at the time of the fire, as she heard about later; one person saying they were safe at a kennel while she was traveling, something Zuniga says was never the case. And she feels guilty that she wasn’t there to save the dogs she considers her children.
Zuniga now has only what she had carried with her in her suitcase to Brazil. “It feels like I’m still traveling,” she says. “It feels like I never got home. But home is only in my head, now. My dogs aren’t here, my business isn’t here.” Standing amidst the bulldozed wreckage a week later, the acrid smell of smoke and charred rubble still pungent in the air, she points out the singed leaves high up on a nearby tree, evidence that the flames rose 50 feet in the air.
Until one sees the aftermath of a fire up close like this, it’s difficult to fathom the complete obliteration of somebody’s life. There are few identifiable remnants to be found; just a few burnt pages from a hair style book scattered here and there, caught under some rubble, the smiling models appearing oddly inappropriate in the destruction. Everything is blackened and colorless except for the vivid bouquets of flowers marking makeshift graves for the dogs in the back yard where they’re now buried.
All that was left intact after the fire was the painted sign reading “Androgyny International House of Design” mounted on a post near the street, with one of what had been many rose bushes on the site still flowering next to it; a hopeful sign of life.
Zuniga has already purchased paint to restore the sign. She plans to rebuild both her home and the business there. When asked if she has considered just leaving New Paltz to start over, perhaps moving to Brazil where her girlfriend lives in Recife, a port city in the state of Pernambuco, she is emphatic that she plans to stay and eventually bring her girlfriend here to marry and live as they’d planned to do previously. Her loyal clientele is here, Zuniga points out — this would have been the 20th anniversary of the Androgyny salon — and she loves New Paltz. Besides, she has longstanding roots in the region, her ancestors among the first settlers of Rhinebeck.
In the meantime, Zuniga is staying with friends and neighbors at night — couch-surfing, as she puts it — and camping out at the site during the day. She is a metal sculptor as well as a hair stylist, and plans to distract herself from thinking about her dogs by putting her energy into building a freestanding structure that she can cut hair out of. She then plans to get an RV to live and work in, if approved by the Village Board, while rebuilding is under way.
When the fire happened, Zuniga was already in the process of working with one of her clients, architect Richard Miller, to rebuild the part of her property that was destroyed by a different fire 19 months ago. The cause of that fire was ruled to be an electrical problem; Zuniga says the fire inspectors determined that this blaze started in the back of the building and was of unknown origin.
Special hair-cutting tools that she’d designed herself were lost in the fire, but Zuniga has a few standard hair-cutting tools that she purchased in Brazil to cut a friend’s hair while she was there. She almost didn’t take the tools back to New York with her, she says, since she already had so many tools here, but now she’s glad she did.
And some of her special tools may yet be found in the rubble, she believes. She’d created them out of aluminum and blades, colorful “metal puppets,” she calls them, fun to look at in the mirror as she works and designed for her style of hair carving; cutting hair with extreme attention to detail in customized styles. Zuniga specializes in having in-depth consultations with her clients before a cut in order to best determine a style that will truly reflect the person’s image of themselves. While Zuniga is not a conventional person — she considers herself “gender nonconforming” and was inspired to call her salon “Androgyny” after becoming intrigued with the term when she first heard it applied to Bianca Jagger years ago and it resonated with her — she says that many of her clients are people who have traditional lives and jobs but want to look as unique on the outside as they feel on the inside. Her clients, she says, are people of all types and ages.
The rebuilding process is likely to be ongoing for some time. In response to the many people in the community who have reached out wanting to help Zuniga in some way, Family of New Paltz director Kathy Cartagena is collecting donations, requesting that those who wish to help do so in the form of pre-paid gift cards or a check made out to Sylvia Zuniga, either of which could be mailed to Family of New Paltz at 51 North Chestnut Street or dropped off there. She asks that people not donate cash or clothing and household items.