Michele Martin walked into an east-side gardening shop in February to buy a few odd sundries. She walked out with much more than that. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, her life had changed dramatically and for the better, thanks to an encounter with a store employee.
The shop’s cashier, Marcia Pilliciotti, is not your garden variety money changer. The gregarious redhead is an amateur matchmaker with an astonishing record of success. Though she is Italian, she calls herself yenta, Yiddish for “matchmaker.”
On the winter day in question, Pilliciotti sensed that the unsuspecting Martin might be yet another beneficiary of her avocation.
Pilliciotti liked Martin immediately. Liked that she bought marked-down Christmas ribbon to wrap presents for her nieces. Liked that Martin is a stalwart Detroit activist whose politics fall far left of center.
Pilliciotti, you see, knew something about Martin, even though the two had never met. She knew people who knew Martin.
Pilliciotti has a knack for knowing people — lots of them. She’s a human Rolodex. But not just names and faces. She sees beyond the obvious.
When she looked at Martin, she thought, “38 special.” She didn’t know why, but she couldn’t make it stop.
Pilliciotti told Martin she wanted to help her find a match, then began peppering her with questions.
“Do you smoke?”
“How old are you?” she asks.
Pilliciotti’s head swirled with “38 special.”
“What are you looking for?” she asked. “A lawyer? Doctor? Musician? Fireman? Do you want children?”
Martin was overwhelmed by the barrage of questions.
Then it hit Pilliciotti: The special man she had in mind for Martin is 38. He also smokes, wants children — and had recently agreed to let Pilliciotti find him a match.
Pilliciotti began describing her friend Paul Gaughn: “He’s handsome, smart, plays guitar, sings — and has his own teeth and a job.”
A skeptical Martin gave Pilliciotti her e-mail address to pass on to the mystery man; she left the store and didn’t give the strange interaction much thought.
But after several months of e-mails and phone calls, dating, moving in together and making wedding plans with Mr. 38 Special, the memory of her brief exchange with Pilliciotti is vivid.
Martin and her betrothed regularly wonder, “How did she know?”
They are not the only ones perplexed by Pilliciotti’s gift for matching Mr. and Ms. Right. The lifelong Detroiter has hooked up 10 other couples who are married or are getting married.
Pilliciotti surprises even herself.
“I see myself do it again and again and I’m amazed,” says Pilliciotti, shaking her head. “How does this happen?”
Pilliciotti’s happy couples struggle for an answer as well. Some attribute it to a “deep understanding of people.” Others call it a “sixth sense.” The fact that she’s a walking, talking social registry doesn’t hurt.
But how does the wise woman sift through her colossal collection of friends and acquaintances and select a well-suited pair?
And why can’t she find a match for herself?
Match No. 1
Pilliciotti sits on a floral sofa in her nearly 100-year-old home near Detroit’s historic Boston-Edison neighborhood, recalling the first merger she negotiated.
In 1968, decades before Pilliciotti entered yentahood, she fixed up two friends at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
Jeff Regan “was always ready to party” back then, she recalls.
“But I felt this loneliness about him,” she says. “He seemed to be looking for something.”
Regan concedes that he probably was lonely.
“I grew up in a small town and went to a small high school and Eastern was a big place,” he says.
It was also the tumultuous 1960s and Regan was disillusioned.
It occurred to Pilliciotti that a girl in her dorm, Linda Christensen, might help Regan through the troubled time.
“I didn’t even know her that well, but there was something charming and honest about her, and I felt that Jeff would be a better person with those influences in his life,” she says.
What stood out about Linda, says Pilliciotti, was that, “While the other girls had posters of psychedelic rock stars on their walls, she had a large, colorful poster of a smiling Jesus with a bunch of little children and animals.”
Pilliciotti invited the two to lunch with her in the student center.
“After I introduced them, I left,” she says.
“She said that we were both weird and would like each other,” recalls Linda.
Jeff says Pilliciotti urged him to call Linda, which he did several times before she agreed to go to a Bob Seger concert with him.
Linda isn’t sure why Pilliciotti sensed her match with Jeff. Jeff simply explains that his longtime friend “has a pretty good feel for people.”
The United Methodist minister — who was not a Christian before he met Linda more than 30 years ago — undoubtedly has a point.
Chris and the Czech
Chris Miner-Minderovic met her future husband, Zorin, on the staircase between the second and third floors of Pilliciotti’s enormous home in 1975. Chris had walked two blocks from her house to check out the one her friend bought for $8,000. Chris wanted to see how the single mom and her 4-year-old daughter were managing with the unwieldy heap.
The house came cheap because it was a wreck, uninhabited for years. Windows were missing, portions of the interior were charred from fires, and dog droppings and old mattresses covered the floors.
The home had fallen far since it was built in 1903 by the Detroit Tigers’ first announcer, Ty Tyson. (Neighbors claimed that Hall of Famer Ty Cobb originally owned the wood-framed house. But Pilliciotti’s research told her that Cobb lived across the street.)
Zorin, meanwhile, had also stopped by to check out the monstrous project Pilliciotti had taken on.
When they crossed paths, Zorin felt an immediate attraction. Chris also liked him instantly, but was living with her boyfriend at the time.
A year later, after Chris had broken off with her boyfriend, the fledgling yenta coaxed her to ask Zorin on a date. Pilliciotti had her own motives for pushing the pair together—she was headed to the ballet with a date when Chris called to ask if she could join them.
“But that didn’t fly with Marcia,” recalls Chris. “She wanted her date all to herself and wasn’t going to let her friends near him.”
She insisted that Chris call Zorin, though it had been some time since they had seen each other.
“He plays cello, he likes ballet, he’s Czechoslovakian,” Pilliciotti bellowed into the phone.
Chris did as she was told. Zorin was happy she did.
“When we first went out, we both knew that it was someone who just kind of fit,” says Chris.
During the ballet intermission, Zorin — who turned out to be Yugoslavian, not a Czech — asked Chris to travel to his homeland to meet his family. They married the following spring.
“The Italian landlady”
Chris is not surprised that Pilliciotti confused her Yugoslavian for a Czech. Throughout the 25 years that Pilliciotti has owned her four-bedroom house, countless immigrants — including Zorin — have boarded with her.
“It seems whatever immigrants were populating the Detroit area, one would be at Marcia’s,” says Chris. “She would go through phases. She had her Czech phase and her German phase and her Polish phase. She had so many people living in her house, we called her the Italian landlady.”
In early 1980s, when a boat of singing Polish sailors docked at Hart Plaza, four jumped ship, seeking asylum. They landed at Pilliciotti’s house; she had a Polish boarder who brought the sailors over. They stayed a couple weeks.
“We helped them get into school and find a place to live. And I helped bring over — oh, no, that was another guy — I’m getting my Polish people mixed up,” says Pilliciotti.
The Italian landlady is like a doting Jewish mother. Whether you need help becoming an American citizen, your dog walked or floors sanded, Pilliciotti will do it herself or find someone who will.
“Someday I have to learn to say no, but not yet,” she says, petting her tiny cat, Shrinkydink, whom she picked up at the animal rescue along with her large dog Lucy; her other mutt Kublai Khan is from the Humane Society.
It’s hard to imagine Pilliciotti giving up giving.
What would happen to her somewhat rundown neighborhood? Many well-tended yards would suffer. After all, Pilliciotti is president of the Detroit Urban Gardeners, which voluntarily landscapes three nearby firehouses and police stations and a school. It also plants two gardens in a city park annually.
The master gardener also lectures. She advises the Parks and Recreation department on sprucing up street medians.
“Six Degrees of Marcia”
Pilliciotti knows a whole lot of everyone. This is due, in part, to the many circles in which she travels.
There are firemen, police officers, Detroit bureaucrats and gardeners. She knows a number of doctors and salesman from the days when she sold pharmaceutical supplies.
She befriended professors and other staff at Wayne State University, where she worked in the marketing department. But her most surprising collection of cohorts are medical examiners from around the county whom she met when organizing an annual forensic pathologist conference.
Pilliciotti displays an inch-thick manual from the conference with chapters such as “Gunshot/Shotgun Wounds” or “Difference between Strangulation, Smothering and Hanging.”
“You have to come (to the conference) next year,” she insists. “It’s amazing.”
She explodes with passion and it splashes on everyone in her path. This is how the zealous rainmaker operates. And often, her rain drops come together to form lovely little pools.
Mary Zatina entered Pilliciotti’s circle about 15 years ago, after meeting her at George’s Coney Island on Livernois. Pilliciotti approached the table because she recognized Zatina’s lunch companion, who turned out to be a childhood playmate.
Not long after, a handmade invitation with a sketch of haggard women gathered round a cauldron arrived in Zatina’s mail. It was an invitation to Pilliciotti’s house for lunch “to celebrate cool women,” says Zatina, who was impressed with the crowd. “She just has an amazing collection of people and experiences and I was lucky enough to be collected.”
Pilliciotti is a collector and a “connector.”
“I’ve found people jobs, cars, houses to buy. People used to call me ‘Nancy Network,’” she says.
Her friends play a game they call “Six Degrees of Marcia,” seeing how many steps it takes to connect themselves and others to Pilliciotti.
“I’ve met people who are interesting city people who live and work here, and I’ve said 10 to 20 times, ‘Do you know Marcia’ and they all do,” says Zatina.
How did Pilliciotti become adept at making connections? The social maven attributes her gift to her upbringing. Her parents, who now live in Livonia, raised their three daughters on Detroit’s west side in a safe, quiet neighborhood. Home life was serene. There were no major tragedies.
“Every day was pretty much the same,” says Pilliciotti. “It was just pretty beige.”
But her colorless childhood made its mark. When routines were altered, such as going from elementary school to junior high, the coddled child was unprepared to handle it.
“Change threw me as a kid,” she says. “I was paralyzed by it.”
Which might explain why Pilliciotti raised her daughter, Heidi, 30, in a less conventional, less sheltered way. She took on hordes of boarders — mostly from Europe, 14 different countries in all — for her daughter’s benefit. The single mom, who bartended and waited tables when Heidi was small, didn’t have money to travel.
“So I brought Europe to Heidi,” says Pilliciotti, who recalls her daughter’s excitement at hearing five different languages at a party one evening.
Though she knows lots of people in Detroit and abroad, Pilliciotti seems emotionally remote.
“It’s how I protect myself,” she says.
“I look deep into things. My dad’s blind, so since I was young I tried to look at things in detail and notice color, texture and light. I do the same with people.”
By 1993, Pilliciotti had successfully matched five couples. That’s when she became a self-professed yenta. She also staged the first “Yenta Fest” that year.
“When I meet interesting men or women, I keep them in the back of my head in a card catalog,” she says.
When she met Rose Beafore at an aerobics class, she filed her next to Ron Mason. Ron and Rose are both devout Catholics. Rose is Italian, and Ron “loves Italian women.”
To bring Ron and Rose — and seven other possible matches — together, Pilliciotti planned the Yenta Fest.
She organized the event at Elizabeth Street Café in downtown Detroit where Comerica Park’s left field now sits. Rose recalls Pilliciotti cajoling her to come, but the shy woman wasn’t interested. Her persistent aerobics buddy, however, convinced her.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why am I coming here, it was raining and ugly,’” she says.
Ron was unenthusiastic as well. But when Pilliciotti said she would introduce him to a nice Italian girl, he put on his cowboy boots and a clean shirt.
“Italian woman are my kryptonite. I couldn’t resist,” says Mason, who was first to arrive at the soiree.
“I’m sorry I’m late, I had to go to Mass,” he told Pilliciotti.
Five minutes later, Rose walked in. She was also apologetic. “I’m sorry I’m late, I had to go to Mass.”
Pilliciotti knew she had a match.
“I swear to God, when I looked at Ron something clicked inside me,” says Rose. “I don’t believe in love at first sight, but something strong went off in my body.”
Ron, after meeting Rose, became a believer in love at first sight.
About two years later, the Scot proposed by enlisting 22 bagpipers, drummers and other musicians — and about 70 friends and family members — to parade three blocks from Hamtramck High School to Rose’s front door. It was not an easy caper to keep secret — it involved getting a city permit, for one thing. They were married in 1996.
Turk and PJ
Paul Ryder, known by friends as P.J., doesn’t know what possessed him to attend the 1993 Yenta Fest. He had met Pilliciotti a year before at the Majestic Theatre where a Cajun band was playing.
“She came up to me and said, ‘You look like someone who knows how to do the Cajun Two-Step,’” recalls Ryder.
The two dated briefly, but it didn’t work out. Maybe someone else would fit with P.J., thought Pilliciotti.
She invited him to Yenta Fest.
“I thought, right, I’m going to drive from Ann Arbor to downtown Detroit on a Sunday morning. No way,” he recalls.
But for reasons he can’t explain, Ryder woke up that morning and decided to make the drive. When he arrived, all but one woman had shown up.
“I remember looking around the room and thinking, I’m not interested in any of these people,” says P.J., who owned a used record store in Ann Arbor at the time.
He changed his mind when Donna Turk walked in.
“I would not have thought of them together, but when P.J. asked if he could sit with her, I thought, ‘Yes,’” says Pilliciotti.
Turk, a photographer, wasn’t that interested. She was used to well-dressed men, and on their first date she says he wore a tank top.
“I hate tank tops,” says Turk.
Matchmaking sometimes involves being a therapist. Pilliciotti told Turk to look beyond P.J.’s fashion sense.
Turk, who had been hurt many times, tested her patient boyfriend by getting a brush cut and dragging him to Italy to see how well he traveled.
“I tried to get rid of him,” says Turk, smiling with her fingers entwined with P.J.’s. “But he wouldn’t go.”
She declined his marriage proposal.
In 1994 at a music festival in New Orleans, Turk says she began to cry as she listened to Ry Cooder and David Lindley sing an old spiritual about “asking death to pass me by another year.”
That’s when the teary-eyed Turk told P.J. that if she had just one more year, she would want to spend it with him.
They married in New Orleans in 1995.
The unmatched matchmaker
The second Yenta Fest, in 1998, produced no matches.
Friends she introduced hoping for a match also did not work out. However, one couple who met at Pilliciotti’s home — and who she did not think belonged together — did marry.
“I felt a lot better when I heard they divorced,” she says.
Sometimes Pilliciotti considers trying to make money at being a yenta, but she fears that “it would take the sweetness out of it. It would be like selling aluminum siding or eye shadow.”
Asked if anyone is unmatchable, she says, “I hope not.”
But there are some people “I can’t do anything for.”
So why does she do it? “It comes back to myself,” says Pilliciotti. “ I want someone to come to me and say, ‘Here’s this great person for you.’”
Finding love for herself hasn’t been easy.
“People have tried to match me up several times, but none have been even close to someone I want to see a second time,” says Pilliciotti.
Zatina has tried to match the matchmaker, but it goes nowhere.
“Marcia has perfected giving and doing things for others, but I don’t think there has been a whole lot of practice receiving.” she says. “I’m not sure she’s quite comfortable when somebody expresses an interest in her.”
Turk, who also has tried to hook Pilliciotti up with a friend, says, “Her life is really full the way it is, and maybe it’s hard for others to find a place where they could fit in.”
Asked what she wants in a mate, Pilliciotti’s fingers fidget, she draws in her shoulder and says, “Someone playful and — oh, boy — someone who’ll appreciate me. In marriage you give the best parts of you, that’s how you honor them.”
Pilliciotti was briefly married when she was 19. The pregnant daughter of Catholic parents felt pressured into it. She jokes that it didn’t count because she crossed her fingers during the ceremony.
She once fell for a Detroit lefty, whom Pilliciotti swears she would run away with if asked. But there is not much chance of that. The last time they were to go out several years ago, he failed to show up. Hours later he called from Florida and said that he was headed to Nicaragua to help the indigenous women pick coffee beans since most of the men were engaged in guerrilla warfare.
“He didn’t understand why I was upset,” says Pilliciotti, laughing.
She recently tried to match up herself. Pilliciotti answered a personal ad, which she has rarely done. The ad attracted her attention because the man recently adopted two children on his own.
“I thought it was noble,” she says.
But when Pilliciotti laid eyes on him from 20 feet away, she knew it was a wrong match.
“He was wearing a toupee. I like people who are honest about everything, including their hair.”
After an uncomfortable evening of answering questions like, “Aren’t you afraid to live in Detroit,” they parted ways.
Can the matchmaker find a match for herself? Pilliciotti doesn’t know.
“Some friends tell me I look too hard,” she says.
Pilliciotti has had her heart broken. In college, she was crazy about a man she dated a year or so. After he graduated, he left for Sweden to travel. Pilliciotti still has his love letters, including the last one which contained a patch of moss from a Viking grave. After that, she never heard from him. She heard rumors that he had been killed in an accident. She likes to imagine that her old lover is still alive.
“The romantic part of me pretends that he is still roaming the earth in search of me,” says Pilliciotti.
Read "Are you a 'connector'?" to learn more about the "six degrees of separation" phenomenon, and whether you may possess the same social gift as Marcia Pilliciotti.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]