What Happens in Denver

DENVER—Thirty-two-year-old Illsia Novotny has had a hard time making the rent. Illsia is a single mother and a hairstylist. And the last thing on John Q. Public’s mind right lately has been getting a haircut. So Illsia’s rent has been late.

Life can be unkind to single mothers. I was raised by a single mother. I know what it’s like. Day-to-day living is like sprinting through a giant gameshow obstacle course while IRS agents chase you with chainsaws.

I remember my mother sitting at the kitchen table, paper bills scattered around her, her hair frazzled from a long day. She would be punching numbers into a calculator. And there was that look on her face. Fear. But she didn’t let on, not around us kids.

“How are we gonna pay our bills?” I would sometimes ask her.

She’d smile and say, “Little miracles happen every day.”

“Little miracles happen everyday?” Really? That was the best she could do? I thought this was ridiculous. “Give me a freaking break,” that was always my motto back then. How could one woman maintain such a Pollyanna attitude when the ship was going down? What planet was she living on?

But getting back to Illsia. Until recently, the salon where she works has been closed due to the coronavirus quarantines, just like the rest of civilization.

Thus, many of us guys have been forced to let our hair grow so long that we now resemble large skunk apes who wander around rural regions subsisting on a diet of whatever we can find in the woods. At least I am speaking for myself here.

I caught a glimpse of my own reflection yesterday during humid weather, my curly hair looks like a Chia Pet.

Still my hair complaints are petty compared to what Illsia has been going through.

A sole female breadwinner does not have it easy. If you ever want to know what it feels like to be a single mother, try this: Hold a crying baby on your hip and smile while the mechanic tells you your ‘89 Nissan needs a new alternator. Got it? Okay. Now set fire to your wallet while simultaneously cooking Hamburger Helper on a hot plate.

I don’t know how my mother did it.

So it was good news when the salon where Illsia works announced that they were opening again after months of closure. And even though Illsia wasn’t scheduled to work on Saturday, she went to work anyway.

It was an average weekend. The sun was shining. It had been a steady day of clients. Customers in the salon were more than ready to get their long hair cut.

One of the last customers of the day was a guy whose hair was a little shaggy over the ears. Illsia gave him a trim. They made small talk about this and that.

The man said he had just moved to Denver from Chicago. He was nice. Amiable. Chatty. He said he was a Chicago Cubs fan, but, hey, nobody’s perfect.

After the man paid his bill, he approached Illsia one last time, to thank her for the haircut. Before he left, he said in a serious voice: “Just so you know, it’s not a mistake.”

What a strange thing to say, Illsia was thinking. WHAT’S not a mistake? Did he like his haircut? Was he speaking in code?

After the man left the salon, the receptionist told Illsia that the man had left her a tip. So Illsia and her coworkers inspected the receipt. The guy left a tip, all right. He left a $2500 tip with Illsia’s name on it.

“I was crying,” Illsia said.

If I were a betting man, I would bet that a few of the other stylists were crying, too. After all, they weren’t just happy for Illsia. They were happy because he’d left more money. A lot more.

The mysterious Cubs fan left $500 for the receptionist, $1000 for the general manager, and $1800 for the salon’s 18 employees.

I imagine it was a regular weep fest inside that barbershop, with uncontrollable happy tears bursting from various inanimate objects. And I wouldn’t blame anyone whose mascara started to run that day. In fact, I almost cried while writing this. But I didn’t.

I would never do that.

“I’m a single mother,” Illsia explains. “It’s been a rough last few months, not knowing what’s going to happen. Not knowing when we might reopen so I could go back to work.”

Illsia admits that during this quarantine, her son has been frequently asking things like: “If you don’t have a job, Mom, how are we gonna pay our bills?”

I can relate to this boy.

But, Illsia says something else I can oddly relate to. She says something that sounds a little familiar to my ears. Something I swear I’ve heard before. She says that small things have been happening along the way since these hard times began. Things that have helped her family get through.

Her landlord, for instance, worked out an arrangement with her for her rent. Also, the utility company said they would be lenient with Illsia’s bills. Then, recently, some of her regular clients started sending money electronically, simply to show their support.

And just when the world couldn’t get any more unpredictable, some nameless Cubs fan stops in and leaves the mother of all tips.

Illsia’s rent is paid up until June.

In other words: Little miracles happen every day.


  1. Deborah Blount - May 19, 2020 6:49 am

    Little miracles do happen every day. And I did cry. This was a wonderful feel good story. Thank you. But, most of your stories give me the “feel good” to get through these uncertain times.

  2. Dianne - May 19, 2020 7:02 am

    I keep a check registry from when I was single mom, working, going to school and just surviving month to month. My account would get so low it makes me nervous now to think about it. But we survived. We did without the unnecessary things and had what was important.

  3. Sharon Brock - May 19, 2020 8:01 am

    Oh this was great and just what I needed at 3 a.m. For every covidiot ignoring social distancing, refusing to wear a mask, and getting drunk in reopened bars, there are 50 Cubs fans. This retired single mother salutes all the decent Americans who are taking care of their fellow citizens. And salutes my favorite columnist for publicizing their good efforts.

  4. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - May 19, 2020 12:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing this “little miracle”. I .am lucky. I don’t personally need a little miracle just now. But a I did need to hear about one.

  5. Jo Ann - May 19, 2020 12:15 pm

    There are good people around us everywhere. Thanks for reminding us, Sean, about those folks. Take care, & please keep these stories coming.

  6. Jan - May 19, 2020 12:42 pm

    You did it again! You made me cry “happy tears”! As a former single mother from long ago, I remember those times of worry and angst. What a heart-warming story that lets you know there are many beautiful people in this crazy world we live in. Thank you, Sean.

  7. Beth Ann Chiles - May 19, 2020 1:16 pm

    My eyes are leaking again. This is what it is all about. Thanks for sharing the real stories and the real heroes of these challenging times.

  8. Joe Bolton - May 19, 2020 1:31 pm

    Great sketch of Mobile

  9. Wendy - May 19, 2020 1:38 pm

    Every singe time I read your column I cry, but they are tears of happiness and gratitude. Thank you for sharing all these stories. If you’re going to continue stories like these (which I’m sure you will and I will look for everyday in my inbox) we all should buy stock in Kleenex…

  10. Pat - May 19, 2020 2:19 pm

    Thanks, much needed at this time! Guess it’s just a “little miracle” from God!

  11. Tom Wallin - May 19, 2020 2:33 pm

    As a fellow lifelong Cubs fan who grew up wanting to be Ernie Banks, thanks for the wonderful story. And gratitude to all the many similar “Cubs” fans out there who have done other generous giving in these very hard times for a lot of people.

  12. Anne Arthur - May 19, 2020 2:54 pm

    Yup, they do. Little miracles (and big ones) happen every single day. Thanks for this heartwarming reminder.

  13. Ryan - May 19, 2020 3:14 pm

    Sean, is there a gofundme account set up for Illisia? If so, can you share the info?

  14. HL - May 19, 2020 3:24 pm

    I now support the Cubs-whoever they are.

    Thank you Cubs Fan from a grandmother who was a singe mom & now living with her daughter, also a single mom making ends meet with those along the path miracles.

  15. Steve W - May 19, 2020 4:30 pm

    Once again Sean, you put a face of hope on a bad situtaion and inspire us all. Thank you my friend.

  16. John - May 19, 2020 5:23 pm

    Your mom was right, Sean: little miracles do happen every day. And your column is one of them. Thanks again!!

  17. Linda Moon - May 19, 2020 5:34 pm

    I was raised by a single mother. Lots of my kind aunts helped her through that obstacle. My Guy has been forced to the dreaded comb-over, because there are some empty follicles in the mid-section of his head that won’t grow like the Chia Pets. But back to you… you would never cry. Right. Kind and empathetic you wouldn’t cry. Ever. A little miracle, the son of a single mother very much like yours, is sitting on my front porch with that guy, his Grand Dad. And, I’m not going to cry. Right.

  18. MAM - May 19, 2020 7:13 pm

    I really do love your stories. You tell them so well and the emotion is always there. Yes, I cried. If you lived where I have my little digital newspaper, I would hire you as a freelancer on the spot.

  19. Peter Heyer - May 19, 2020 7:18 pm

    Thank You Sean, for visiting our Fair City! ( aren’t we Safer at home orders?- Bless you anyway!)
    From a Son of a single MOM, here to them all! May it rain, Cub Fans in DENVER!

  20. that is jack - May 19, 2020 8:38 pm

    Just to say, great entry and I love the positive good stories of life. This country has many miracle workers, and it is good to hear some of the stories.
    From the NC Mountains
    Sherry & jack

  21. catladymac - May 19, 2020 10:04 pm

    As a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, I can explain the Cubs guy’s tip. He knew about suffering. And he knew it was nothing compared to what Ilisa and the others were going through. God bless him !

  22. Tammy S. - May 20, 2020 6:52 am

    Our daughter, Katie, is a single Mom to our precious grandson, Jack. She was working 3 different locations as a server before the virus struck. She is amazing and hard working!! Most single Moms are, they have to be. We could not be more proud of her. And in the midst of all this we have seen first hand how her needs have been met far above what my husband & I could have imagined. A local church came through town, going restaurant to restaurant leaving envelopes with money, for servers, all over town; her aunt & uncle sent her money; her local, loyal regular customers randomly stop by the restaurants, and like this story, will leave an amazing tip, at just the right moment when her need would be so great!! It has brought me to tears when she calls so excited! “Mom you won’t believe this….” Again, and again, as this all has gone on we have seen the kindness of people poured out to our daughter and her coworkers. I am so thankful for the kindness that has been shown to all the single parents like Illsia & Katie during a time like this. Humbled and thankful for all the “little miracles!!”

  23. Brenda Stallcop - June 27, 2020 6:34 pm

    Very well stated.

  24. Gerald Murphy - June 28, 2020 3:30 am

    Greetings Sherry and Jack from Cullowhee Mt, Cullowhee NC, home of Western Carolina University.

  25. Joe Patterson - July 1, 2020 3:14 pm

    My mom raised us three kids and was a single parent too. I remember my brother and I carrying papers and helping with the bills ,but we made it and like you we have all found our niche in life thanks to our rock who was our mother.I think back on those times occasionally and wonder how we made it but we all did and I know we all appreciate the things we have and the success we have achieved much more than the kids who had all the material things growing up but have not been near as successful as we have because of the strength of our mom.Thanks for sharing you made it too.


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