Meet Tina Caruso, the beloved hostess at Frieda, a cafe and gathering place in Society Hill.
• Updates unavailable: “I don’t have a cell phone or an app. I think cell phones have wiped out togetherness with people.”
• Copper tone: Caruso’s official hair color — according to the L’Oréal Paris Feria box from which it comes — is “Copper Crave.”
Clementina “Tina” Caruso catches a lot of flak from women in Philly for her hair, which she’s dyed bright orange — her favorite color — for the last 30 years.
“I mean, they actually come up to me and say why don’t I act my age?” Caruso, 91, said. “But let me tell you — the men love it."
As a teen growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., Caruso used to worry about what others thought of her.
“Now I couldn’t care less,” she said. “I’m having a great time.”
Known as the affable hostess at Frieda, a cafe and gathering place in Society Hill, Caruso was nominated for this series by a customer, noting her rotating collection of brooches, which now number 497.
“I wear one every day of my life,” Caruso said. “I have little stories with a lot of them.”
Caruso’s grandmother gave her the first one at 16, and her collection grew from there. Today, the brooches range from one made of soda can tabs to a Smithsonian replica of a brooch Prince Rainier III gave to Grace Kelly.
But Caruso’s favorite brooch is a simple silver one of a dancing couple in front of the New York City skyline.
A boy gave it to her. They were just teenagers in Yonkers when they dated and danced their way around the city. But he was Jewish. She was not. And it was the 1940s.
“His mother would say to me, ‘Now, you know that when he’s 18, you two have to break up,’ ” Caruso said.
And so they did.
But Caruso had weathered tough storms before. When she was 13, her mother died in childbirth and her father took her out of school — which she loved — to raise her two siblings.
Caruso never got a high school education, but that didn’t stop her from reading. And when her little brother went to New York University, she learned accounting by solving problems from his text books.
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Once her siblings were grown, she entered the workforce, eventually becoming a head teller at a New York City bank. She was always up front about her lack of education — and she never failed an aptitude test.
In the 1960s, Caruso was married with two kids when her ex-husband’s job brought their family to Philadelphia.
The neighbors on her South Philly block called her “Miss Hollywood” because she got dressed up and went to work every day at an office downtown.
“I’m from an era where people dressed up,” she said. “I’ve had New Yorkers come down here and say to me, ‘Don’t the women in Philly ever get dressed up?’ And I say, ‘Not that I can see.’ ”
Caruso worked various office jobs until she was 67. She tried retirement for three months, but it wasn’t for her.
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In 1999, Caruso was hit by a car at Broad and Jackson Streets in South Philly.
“He got out of the car, looked at me and was crying. I looked up and said, ‘What the hell are you crying for? I’m the one laying here!’ " she recalled. “I said, ‘How could you not see me? The sun is shining. It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Look at my hair! How could you miss that?’ "
After nearly a year of rehabilitation, Caruso rejoined the workforce. At 82. About five years ago, she began visiting her daughter, who was working part-time at Frieda. One day, the owners asked Caruso if she’d like to become a hostess.
“I said, ‘But I’ve never done that!’ and they said, ‘Well, you can talk, we hear you talking to everybody,' " she said.
Caruso said the job and the people keep her happy. They give her a reason to get dressed up every day, even if it’s just dressing up her blue work shirt with a fancy brooch.
“I’m having a better time now than when I was younger,” Caruso said. “This is the best time.”
Want more We the People?
• Lawyer, swing dance instructor, and jazz musician Paul Salter rides his penny-farthing around Philly.
• Crystal Yates’ dad was a Philly firefighter. Now she runs the department’s EMS.
• Check out the full We the People archive here.