Beauty salons are supposed to be places of refuge and tranquillity, where the worst catastrophe is a bad case of the frizzies.
But Tuesday, while other L.A. salons happily polished their clients for New Year's Eve revels, staff and customers at Mare Mercier in Woodland Hills mourned Luz Zepeda, who did shampoos at the salon and helped color clients' hair.
Zepeda, called Lucie by friends and colleagues, died early Friday in a house fire in Lancaster. She was 47.
Arlen Traster, a Marine corporal who lived nearby, rescued Zepeda's husband, Jesus, and two daughters, but was unable to reach Zepeda, who died in an upstairs bathroom, apparently of smoke inhalation.
"Hard-working" and "sweet-natured" -- the terms her friends use to describe Zepeda are not terribly specific. But it is clear that they admired Zepeda for her grit, and loved her for her kindness. She might be surprised to see how large a hole she left in the little world in which she worked so hard.
"She took the Metrolink and the bus from Lancaster, two hours to work and two hours back," recalled salon owner Marilyn McAlevey.
Zepeda, McAlevey said, was the mother of five, and the primary support of her family. Born in Mexico, she had worked in the salon for more than four years. She didn't drive, and the commute was brutal, especially painful because it meant less time with her two youngest children, Jeanette, 14, and Evelyn, 12.
"Sometimes she left here at 7 o'clock and didn't get home until 11," co-worker Hermelinda Webb said.
Zepeda's death was the second tragedy to strike the 15-person salon. Two years ago, then-owner Annette Amoroso, now 40, lost an eye after she was shot with a beanbag projectile by a Los Angeles police officer, who said he thought she was reaching for a weapon after a traffic stop.
Last month, the city of Los Angeles settled Amoroso's suit over the injury for $2.5 million. Last week, Amoroso's friends at the salon called her in Hawaii, where she now lives, to share the sad news of Zepeda's death.
"Somebody said we need to have the shop blessed because we've had so much bad luck here," said McAlevey, who bought the business from Amoroso.
On New Year's Eve, the shop looked much as it always does, its shelves lined with gels, creams and potions with such fanciful names as Undone, Blofoam, Guts, After-Party and Thermal Defense. The Christmas poinsettias still brightened the corners.
But the mood was mournful, not festive. On a counter near the entrance was a hand-lettered sign inviting clients to contribute what they could to help Zepeda's daughters. The shop's receptionist, 36-year-old Tina Harris, said donations so far include clothes for the girls, a toaster and several hundred dollars.
Sheri Tiongco, 48, was a friend of Zepeda's and a client. Tiongco manages the lighting company next door, and she and Zepeda talked frankly, as women will do when one is washing the other's hair.
Zepeda and her husband had moved to Lancaster from a condo in Panorama City.
"It was her dream to have a house," Tiongco said. "She wanted her daughters to be brought up right. But the neighborhood was rougher than she expected. She wanted to get out of there. Her dream house became a nightmare."
Tiongco teared up as she imagined what Zepeda, a tiny, timid woman, must have gone through, trapped in the bathroom of her burning home. Daughter Evelyn was with her, and managed to get out through the bathroom window onto the roof, where Traster led her to safety.
Tiongco recalled Zepeda's perpetual smile: "You'd never know she had troubles."
Zepeda's friends hint at some of the problems she rarely talked about. She had older children who had been seduced by gang life. She had so little money that she felt she couldn't quit her job in Woodland Hills, with its generous tips, for something closer to home. There was a car at home in the driveway, but no one able, or willing, to use it to ease her long commute.
Tina Harris talked to Zepeda the day before Christmas. Zepeda's grandmother had died in Mexico, and she had taken the bus to the funeral. She told Harris: "I got back safe. I'll be there Friday."
"She was excited about coming back to work," Harris recalled. "She did not deserve this.... Everybody's heart is broken."