EVERETT — You just never know who’s going to turn up on a “What’s Up With That?” tip.
A co-worker told me about an old wooden utility pole in the 1900 block of Madison Street that has rows of feathers stuck in it by human hands, not by errant birds. She drives by the feathered pole on her way to work and wondered about the story behind it.
Sure enough, the pole was just as she described, a subtle yet head-turning roadside attraction that makes you go, “What was that I just saw?”
About 300 feathers lined the pole in an orderly but interesting fashion. Whoever did this was methodical, with an eye for design.
I went to Hairlines beauty shop across the street from the pole. The stylist said a nice man named Jerry puts the feathers in the pole as “art.” He helps around the neighborhood, she said. He sweeps her driveway and walks the street picking up litter. He feeds the birds. Everybody knows him.
As an afterthought, she reached into the magazine rack and pulled out a book of black-and-white photographs.
“He gave me this,” she said. “He’s a photographer.”
What? The man who pokes feathers in a pole is the Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Jerry Gay?
Gay won the prize for a Seattle Times photo shot in 1974 of four firefighters resting after battling an intense house fire in Burien.
He was 27 at the time he took the renowned photo that’s titled “Lull in the Battle.”
Now he’s 70, and known as the unofficial steward of East Madison Street.
He was easy to track down and eager to talk, often beginning a sentence with “Long story short” that was anything but. He had as much to say about God and helping neighbors as he did photos.
The Pulitzer wasn’t his golden ticket to a fancy career in journalism which, incidentally, began at The Everett Herald, from 1968 to 1972. It was more his ticket out.
“It opened the doors and made me believe I could do more,” said Gay, who grew up in Lynnwood and went to Everett Community College.
He left The Times in 1977 to embark on years of capturing images on his own terms and whims.
“I came to a point I wanted more,” he said. “I had a pretty good portfolio of pictures. It was easier to change jobs. I kept changing marriages and relationships. I had three marriages and five live-ins all across the country.”
He stayed on the move: L.A., Maui, Minnesota. Wherever the job or his mate led him.
What he captured on film he brought to life in a darkroom.
“Probably a couple hundred rolls every two to three months,” he said.
Always in black and white: “It takes you right there. You don’t stop to evaluate colors,” he said.
His photos are expressive and captivating.
A book, “Seeing Reality: Humanity, Humility and Humor,” that he published in 2010 is a collection of some of his favorite images.
He sat me down and told me about every photo, page by page.
The first was an angled shot of America’s most horrific killer viewed through his shackled feet in 1976.
“I spent three hours locked in a room with Ted Bundy,” he said. “Just the two of us.”
Across the page from Bundy is the warm smile of The Dalai Lama in 1993.
“We sat and held hands before I took his picture,” Gay said, referring to the spiritual leader, not the serial killer.
Other photos show clowns hugging, nudists kissing, a badge-wearing UFO investigator.
“I tried to get a look at America the average person wouldn’t see,” he said.
The photos don’t have captions. They don’t need them.
Text at the end reads: “At the end of our life all we take with us are pictures of the reality we created in our soul.”
Gay doesn’t take photos these days other than the occasional smartphone snap.
“I’m not into digital at all,” he said. “I just have no desire to take pictures now.”
He said he has taken enough.
“My career has been at the top and at the bottom,” he said. “I lived in the skid row area and had no money. I went through bankruptcy, difficulty with drinking in my 50s when I was struggling with things, three DUIs. I learned a lot. It made me not judge other people.”
That sparked his obsession with helping people and preaching the gospel.
He landed in the Pinehurst-Beverly Park neighborhood about 10 years ago.
“My second wife’s husband had a dental clinic, and I rented the basement that had been vacant,” he said.
About three years ago, he put his stuff in storage to move a few blocks away to be a full-time caregiver to a 90-year-old woman who could no longer live alone.
In the large side yard between her place and the beauty shop, he started feeding the pigeons and crows, which led to feathers littering the ground.
So, of course, he picked them up.
The weathered pole across the street that was no longer of service caught his detail-trained eye.
“There were lots of lines going up that created places to stick feathers in. I said, ‘Hey this would be a great little art project.’ It is a way to honor nature, and there’s art wherever you look. It is truly kind of fun,” he said.
“It’s just one of the things I’ve done in my life.”
Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @reporterbrown.