Murder at the Pink Tarantula

Carmel Sanger's death -- a walk-in shooting at a SOMA hair salon called the Pink Tarantula -- was professionally brutal. Her life was a wondrous combination of the drag queens and musicians and druggies and gays and bikers and lesbians and tattooists and

If Carmel Sanger had been able to attend her own memorial on that chilly night in March, she would have thought the event unnecessary, even ridiculous. One after another, vehicles parked at the Walden House rehab center off Buena Vista Park, jettisoning bodies into the nocturnal wind-blast of the Upper Haight, creating the continuous stream of extraordinary humanity that filed into the room.

In the front row sat Carmel's mother and two of her sisters, flown in from Australia. There was her dog, Pancake, and her best friend, Carla. Susan Schindler, owner of the Brain Wash cafe/laundromat, came forth and spoke about how nice it had been to see another businesswoman move into the South of Market neighborhood. Connie Champagne stood up and sang, a cappella, the theme from Valley of the Dolls. That was as close to middle class as this memorial would get.

There were bikers from the Hell's Angels and the Survivors, gays and lesbians, queens and trannies, tattooists and hairdressers, mechanics and musicians, junkies and freaks, the heads of hair Carmel had cut for 17 years, 200 of them coming and going throughout the night. This was the demographic of San Francisco that the rest of the country found most vile, and these were her friends.

If Carmel Sanger had been in attendance, she wouldn't have hesitated to tell the mourners: OK, you're sad -- we get that. What's your point? The longer the memorial wore on, though, the more the reddened, moist faces sobbed. She wasn't supposed to go, not yet, not now. She was one of the ones who had made it, who had survived the drugged-out fuck-ups of the '80s, who had climbed out of the gutter and built a successful business. She had had rich bitches from Blackhawk pulling up in Mercedes, glam queens strutting in for hair extensions, customers who flew in from L.A. and Paris. There had been the review in Allure magazine. She had finally gotten her divorce. Things had seemed to be going OK.

Things stopped being OK the previous Wednesday, when someone walked into Carmel's Pink Tarantula hair salon, pulled out a pistol, and shot her twice, bullets hitting her in the eye and lung. She crumpled to the floor and died in front of her employees and customers. The slaying shocked the city with its cold brutality, but those close to her said she was half-expecting something like it to happen. If she had known the reason she was targeted and gunned down, however, she was one of the very few. Police still haven't made any arrests.

Carmel's ex-husband, Robert Sanger, doesn't match witness descriptions of the killer, and police don't consider him a prime suspect in the murder. Even so, many of Carmel's friends believed -- still believe -- he was tied up in it, somehow. His presence in the front row at the memorial, off to himself, made others there uneasy, to say the least. As people spoke of Carmel, his head rested in his hands, his eyes staring at one invisible spot on the carpet. After a long pause, he stood, and the room suddenly fell still. Unfair as it might be, some would later make a comparison to O.J. Simpson attending the funeral of his murdered wife, Nicole.

Robert turned his big tattooed frame to face the audience, eyes blinking through glasses with amber lenses. He had met Carmel at this very Walden House building back in the early 1980s. He knew her as well as anybody, but on this night of remembrance, he didn't have much to say. He cleared his throat, mumbled. All ears strained; it was difficult to make out his words. His shaved head lifted slightly, and he murmured that Carmel had been the first person "to let me be me." And then he sat down.

March 5, a busy Wednesday afternoon at the Pink Tarantula hair salon. A dark blue car glided down Langton, stopped, and waited. Carmel came downstairs into the salon. A blond-haired man entered, asked a few questions, and examined some of the hair care products, as if he were planning to make a purchase. He left without buying anything.

It was in 1963, in the middle-class suburbs of West Sydney, Australia, that the tiny Catholic hands of Carmel Strelein first curled around a pair of scissors with the intent to cut hair. Hair was fascinating to the 3-year-old. Her toy troll dolls had the best hair, wild thatches of neon pinks and greens that shot straight up from their skulls, much cooler than her sister's Barbies.

By then, Dad was already out of the picture, leaving Pat, the mother, trying her best to raise the feisty Strelein brood by herself. Mom envisioned them all growing up as good little members of the Pope's Army. But there would be early deserters in the ranks. By 1973 there was no need to set a place at the table for Carmel. She was already gone.

Begun as a British penal colony, Sydney might be thought of now as a small Los Angeles, a bustling sprawl of freeways and high-rises where millions toil in the urban mines. The hipster playground here is Central Sydney, where the streets are full of nightclubs, boutiques, and bums. A scrappy 13-year-old named Carmel Strelein had left her mother and siblings and found the playground; she survived there by hustling.

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2 comments
MzMeadows
MzMeadows

Where are her photos! She was so ahead of her time! Now is the time to show her beautiful face and all those tats! Its 2012 and I can't fine photos of Carmel Sanger!!

 
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