NJ Starz: Martino Cartier 

Hometown: Sewell, NJ

None of it was easy for Martino Cartier.

Nor is it still, but when asked to pick a word or phrase that aptly describes him, Cartier says, “A Jewish word, ‘bashert,’ which in Yiddish means, ‘It’s meant to be.” He then pauses, then says, “There’s two things I remember when I’m up against a challenge. These days, I still lose my temper, I still panic, and then I pray. I’ve come to the realization that when you’re on the cliff, he’s either going to keep you from falling or, when you fall, he’s going to give you wings. So that’s really pretty much what it comes down to.”

Cartier has a formidable wingspan, and amid all the pain in the early part of his 46 years, all the challenges that he battled with, a higher power kept him aloft.

Cartier, who owns Martino Cartier Salon in Sewell (Washington Township), New Jersey, is also the founder of Wigs & Wishes, a wonderful annual event that provides women who lose their hair during cancer battles with a wig at no cost, and also grants wishes to children suffering with childhood cancers. 

The next Wigs & Wishes event will be held on October 23, 2021 at Rivers Casino in Philadelphia. “It’s going to be quite a spectacular event, because we kind of got robbed of our 10th anniversary last year, so this year we’re doing it big,” says Cartier. “We’re going to have an 18-minute firework show right on the Delaware (River), right in front of the event center, and the Coast Guard is going to block off the Delaware and they’re bringing in a barge – it’s going to be pretty cool.” Popular singer Paula Abdul, whose support Cartier has wholeheartedly, will attend. “She comes every year,” says Cartier, who was born, adopted, and lived in the Garden State prior to his family moving to the Florida Keys when he was five.

There’s a special adoption story here as well. When little, Cartier’s adoptive mom, Joann Maguire, would always call him “Marty Special.” “She instilled in me that I was special because they chose me and they got to pick me,” says Cartier fondly. “Being just as tenacious then as I am now, I said to her at that young age, ‘What if my birth mother is looking for me?’ And she said, ‘Well, one day when you grow up, I’ll help you find her.’”

The fortunes of he and his family turned when he was age 6 and they lost everything, and his adoptive father became mentally, physically, and verbally abusive. In 1986, the movie American Tale was released, it about a tiny mouse who loses his family and tries to find them. James Ingram’s “Somewhere Out There” served as the movie’s theme. “At that time in my life,” explains Cartier, “I suffered from depression at the age of 11. My mother felt so bad, and she said, ‘I promise you when you turn 18, I will help you find your birth mother.’ Because at that time, being young and confused, and feeling unwanted and not worthy, I thought that if I found my birth family that I would be complete. At that time, being adopted was what defined me.” While in Florida in elementary school he got bullied, and when his family moved back to New Jersey and Williamstown when he was 13, he was targeted again. 

Seeking safer pastures for their son, during his freshman year in high school the Maguires moved to Glassboro. The move was significant, with leadership at the school and the school system ensuring his well being, and encouraging him to attend a local vocational school for half the day. His Vice-Principal suggested he study cosmetology, Cartier being the only male of 34 students. “I went,” he recalls, “and I realized that it was all about being creative, and about making people feel good, so I started learning quickly as these senior citizens would come in and get curls and rollers. You made them feel so good and, in return, you felt good. That’s when things started to kind of change a little bit.”

At age 18, the same Vice-Principal and his guidance counselor promised to take Cartier to get his birth records, and the latter drove him to Journal Square in Jersey City to do just that. “We walk in, and the same man who signed my birth certificate was still there. I couldn’t believe it. And he gets out this old book – a big old book. We just gave him my name, date of birth, and my social security number, and he thumbs through the book, he sticks his finger down, and he says, ‘You didn’t tell me you were adopted? Those records are sealed,’ and he closed the book. It was just like a bomb went off because, again, my brain kept telling me, ‘When you find out where you came from, you will be complete and you’ll be able to move on with life.’” 

“It was horrible,” he says, “and my relationship with my father was just getting more and more toxic.”

He had reached bottom – almost. Shortly thereafter, he drove his mother’s car into the woods, put a hose in the muffler, and attempted suicide. However, a park ranger found the car, broke the window, called 911, and Cartier woke up in the hospital, his mom crying over his bed. He was a survivor for the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last. He started working at salons, but none were suited to him, and he still couldn’t kick his depression. Finally, while working at a salon in Cherry Hill, he gave up again. “I remember one day, it was a Friday, and I just said, ‘I can’t do this,’ and I left, and Cherry Hill is near Camden, and I drove around Camden, until somebody came up to my window and said, ‘What are you looking for?’ I had just cashed my paycheck, it was $33, so I bought 33 dime bags of cocaine.” He drove north on the New Jersey Turnpike to New York state, opened every bag of cocaine, emptied the contents into a Tupperware dish, and, in his words, “did the entire thing. Three days later, I woke up in the hospital, bruises on my chest, burn marks – the whole nine – and the paramedic that brought me there came to check on me, and he said, ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’”

Realizing that he had a bigger purpose in life and that someone or something else was in control, Cartier opened his own tiny hair salon in Pitman in 1998. A woman one day entered his salon with her son, and he did her hair. Six months later, the woman returned, she telling Cartier her son was suffering with a rare form of brain cancer and had a year to live. He asked how he could help, and the woman said she’d just like not to work, but spend all of her life with her terminally ill son. 

Cartier’s wheels turned: he planned a cut-a-thon to help her. “The day came,” he recalls, “I did the cut-a-thon, and then a couple of other hairdressers in the area heard about it, and they came and helped a little bit. The goal was $5,000. It wound up going on for two days, and I remember the second day my hands hurt so bad, but we were getting close to $20,000.” The cut-a-thon raised over $22,000, and it paid for the woman’s mortgage for exactly 24 months, and her son lived another 24 months. “I mean, I’ve told this story 1,000 times,” he says, “and I still get chills when I share it. But that was just another validation, like, ‘Okay, this is your purpose. Understand that I gave you a gift. You have to use this gift the right way. Quit saying, ‘Woe is me.’ What defines you is not your adoption; what defines you is what you do with your time, your talent and your treasure. This is a final warning.”

He let go of the notion to try and find his birth family, but the universe wouldn’t release its grip. It was 2005, he had a nice salon and great clientele, and he also one night had a dream. Cartier explains. “On June 5, 2005, I have a dream that I’m in Egypt. There was a woman in the dream that was not at all how I pictured her. I could smell where I was, I could see it, I knew that this was my birth mother. So, I went up to her and I said, ‘Were you in America in 1975?’ And she said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Is your name Miriam?’ And she said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Baby boy Ayad.’ And she cried, she screamed, and she said, ‘I named you Ayad because it’s my last name. Put it together and you’ll find me!’”

Cartier woke up in a pool of sweat. He went to work, canceled all his clients that day, and called Trenton, and after giving his information, got a call back on a Friday at 5 p.m. The woman on the other end asked him to go somewhere quiet. Cartier starts crying at the recollection of the rest of the conversation. “I thought she was calling to tell me that she had passed away,” he says of his birth mom, “but she was calling to tell me that, ‘Your mom has been looking for you since 1998.” He also learned that she was still alive, her name was Miriam Ayad, and she lived in Jersey City.

Cartier headed to Trenton, where a letter from his birth mom had previously sat in a sealed file. Cartier tried to read it. “The letter started, ‘My son…’ and I just couldn’t do it,” Cartier said, handing the letter back to the woman, who had read the letter from Miriam Ayad explaining everything a few times. It closed with the words, “I will wait for you…“ He drove to Jersey City with his mom, knocked on the door of his birth mom, and at 6’ 1”, was looking at nothing when the door opened. “And I looked down (at my birth mom), and I started to laugh and said, ‘There’s no way I came out of you.’ It just broke the ice.” Miriam Ayad had diphtheria as a baby, which stunted her growth. The fever that she developed as a toddler caused all her health problems, so she was very sick and almost died many times before Cartier found her. “In fact, she was having heart surgery the next day, so they postponed it a few days in case something went wrong so we could spend time together.” Cartier’s mom took care of his birth mom for the last 16 years of her life, and they spent every holiday together. ‘My mother and her were inseparable.”

Cartier’s non-profit foundation, initially called FriendsAreByYourSide is now known as Wigs & Wishes. It is entering its second decade. Says Cartier (whose motto is, “You don’t know how to live if you don’t know how to give”), “We are a true nonprofit. We don’t have any paid employees, we are run by nearly 200 volunteers, and we never turn anyone away, and there’s zero red tape.”

Always thinking of others, Cartier has new projects as well, one a nifty petting zoo. Zoo Hoo is located on a farm on his property in Sewell on Salina Road. “At the petting zoo,” says Cartier, “we can have a safe haven for kids that have lost their hair.” He’s also planning on having his own reality show on a network like Lifetime or A&E or Hallmark. “I want something that people can be inspired by, can see the lives that are being changed everyday across the country through our efforts.”

Cartier is also planning a book project.

Martino Cartier Salon is located at 304 Hurffville Crosskeys Road in Sewell. For more information about Wigs & Wishes, visit www.wigsandwishes.org.

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