This is the best thing I have ever seen.
Gene George. (Click for bigger. © William Anthony)
- “Did you know there’s a hitchhiker on the picture of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the five dollar bill? Yup. Here, I’ll show ya.”
This is one of the first things Gene George said to me when I walked in to the Sunset Hill Barber Shop on a sunny March afternoon in 2004. Not “hello” or “whatya need?” He started right into this line of conversation like I was a regular. Which I certainly was not. I wasn’t even a neighbor. I was on assignment. My very first assignment. I had landed my first editorial gig with Seattle magazine and I was nervous as hell. I had quit my day job just that month to pursue a new career in photography. I had no idea what I was doing.
The joke wall. (Click for bigger. © William Anthony)
- “He’s in here somewhere,” Gene continued, as he scanned the five dollar bill, passing it back and forth like a typewriter while looking over his glasses that now perched precariously at the end of his nose. “Gosh darn it! Where is that hitchhicker!” I sat and listened, genuinely intrigued that I didn’t know about this hidden easter egg on the five dollar bill.
Gene was an affable guy—like it or not. He refused to let you sit in his shop without talking to him. He had a loop of silly “Dad jokes” that he would tell to anyone who’d listen. This was a “traditional” barbershop after all. He was no “stylist.” He had old, weathered arms covered in smudged tattoos from his younger years (when tattoos were taboo). The walls are papered in joke ads, bumperstickers and funny pictures. Most made fun of Norwegians. This is Ballard after all. And the magazine racks were filled with CAR & DRIVER, Popular Mechanics, and if you leafed far back enough, Playboys. The barber pole spinning outside identified this not just as a place to get a haircut, but to go back in time to a place where haircuts were a place for guys to have their fare share of gossip. But don’t get me wrong, this is certainly a family-oriented business. All one needed to do was notice the photos on the many bulletin boards inside of Gene giving kids candy at Halloween, posing with them in their costumes proudly. Or the five or six times he halts cutting your hair abruptly to talk to passing families heading next door for ice cream or a movie.
(Click for bigger. © William Anthony)
I told Gene I was on assignment for the magazine to which the patrons waiting in chairs immediately began harassing him about his newfound stardom. Gene ate it up. He laughed, and talked. And talked. And talked some more. And I loved it. Older patrons began talking about how they’d been getting their hair cut by Gene for years. And he usually told all the same jokes.
- “Gah! I CAN’T FIND THE DARN HITCHHIKER!” he was beginning to seem genuinely upset. And I began to question his sanity. Maybe he’s been breathing too close to all the Barbicide?
I moved away from Seattle in 2008. We returned in late 2011 to a charming 101 year old Craftsman in Sunset Hill, mere blocks from the barbershop. Sometime last year, I needed a haircut so I decided to go visit Gene. He was still there. When I walked in he was scanning the back of a five dollar bill with another unwitting patron looking on. It made me smile. I re-introduced myself and he was thrilled that I remembered him and returned. I sat down on the chair and we talked like before only this time I noticed a change in him. He was still affable, but there was a sadness to him now that I didn’t expect. It was then that he told me about losing his beloved wife. And then having to leave the house they shared for decades as he swore he kept seeing her ghost there. He told me he moved to an apartment near the shop as the pain got to be too much. He wasn’t smiling anymore. My heart broke a bit. Despite this new cloud hanging over him, he still seemed happy to be in this little shop, among friends, cutting hair and telling jokes, no matter how corny.
This morning, I discovered that Gene passed away. And my heart broke again. For a brief while back, I thought of asking Gene if could do a short documentary on him. But I never did. I wish I had asked him. I would have loved to capture his spirit on video, which my be the only medium that can do his personality justice. Despite my regret, I am glad he’s at peace.
-“Hmmm… well,” Gene said with resignation, “I guess the hitchhiker’s gone. Must’ve gotten a ride!” Then came the ear-to-ear grin when he knew he’s gotten you, hook , line and sinker. I’ll never forget that joke. Or this man. Like the five dollar bill hitchhiker, it looks like Gene’s finally gotten his ride.
More info, and stories, on Gene can be found on the myBallard.com neighborhood blog.
(Click for bigger. © William Anthony)