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Chatting with George Gee: Economist, barista, artist, philosopher

There's a light on in the back of a small shop on G Street hours before daylight arrives in downtown Anchorage. George Gee stands at an open space next to a countertop oven and a rack of clean silverware. As cookies bake, Gee hovers over his dry-erase board, alternately dabbing the tip of his black marker and rolling his fingertips over the lines to erase or texturize, nearly giving his flat drawings a third dimension. It's a technique he's been working on for about an hour a day, six days a week, at Side Street Espresso since September 1997.

The board is Gee's social medium, one you can only "like" in person. He shares his image and complements it with his candid thoughts, appreciations and concerns. Customers -- lawyers, tourists and homeless people among them -- might find themselves considering government intrusions on privacy, a well-chosen quote from historical giants or Gee's personal feelings on America's military might as they wait for Gee to steam milk for a latte. That the board also announces the daily drink special seems an amusing afterthought.

Some of the drawings live on. Gee makes three photocopies of each one. He keeps a selection of many organized by theme and bound like a book manuscript. Each February, Gee holds a silent auction of about 35 drawings from the previous year. Several times over the last 18 years, the event has been a fundraiser for various Anchorage charities.

Gee had a 22-year career as an economic consultant in Alaska before buying the shop and transitioning to life as a barista with his co-owner and wife of 21 years, Deborah Seaton. Recently, I sat down with Gee, now 73, to learn more about some formative moments in his life, what he's noticed in his customers in recent years and what he hopes to communicate in his impermanent art form. Here are some excerpts.

What drew you here (to Alaska)?

You want just an easy answer or the truth? (Laughs.)

I want the truth.

I was in undergraduate school in a small state college in Beaumont, Texas. … I had gotten there through a parole plan. And so after I was there for a couple years, my parole ran out and I could go anywhere I wanted to. It was summertime. I had a brother living in Alaska and I thought that'd be a good place to be. So I came.

Do you care to talk about the circumstances of why you were on parole?

In '64, I refused to be inducted into the service. It gets misunderstood … that it had to do with the war in Vietnam, but it hadn't started yet. … My opposition was twofold. One was a peace-time draft, which was going on at that time. My problem with that was as much social as anything. Almost anybody in the middle class who was white could get out of the draft if they wanted to. College, marriage -- there were all kinds of ways out. So pretty much poor and non-white were the target group for the draft in those days. … What happened in Texas may be different than what happened in California or what happened in Delaware. I don't know those things.

But what you saw happening around you wasn't being applied fairly?

I was taking this position when I was 17 and 18, so I wasn't the most educated person in the world on it, but that was my perspective on it. …The other problem I had even remains today, and that is I feel like a citizen of the United States should always have access to the civilian code of justice. And you can have rules of military justice to apply, but not to the extent of severe punishment, that you don't first have the option of going into the civil system where you're judged by your peers. And that still doesn't exist.

This led to legal trouble for you.

I did 16 months, and then parole, in a federal penitentiary.

What was that experience like for you?

I went into it with a lot of fear ... and found that it wasn't real different from a college campus. You get an array of people, all different sorts. Some intelligent, some not so intelligent. Some outgoing, some very withdrawn. It wasn't dangerous like I thought it might be.

Is there anything about that experience, looking back, that you would do differently now?

No. Even then, your compadres and stuff, they talk about being courageous to do what I was doing, and it wasn't at all. It was just getting up and looking at myself in the mirror in the morning and saying who am I and what do I think about myself.

There was a point (after years of professional work as an economic consultant) that you could've chosen not to be a barista. Why did you choose to be in the shop working at the counter?

I guess initially it was just something to do when I wasn't working. I had applied for a couple things that came up that looked interesting. … To fill my time, I'd take shifts working. And I liked it.

What did you like about it?

The major product when you're consulting, part of it is talking and meetings and running meetings. But a major product is reports. It takes months and months' effort to generate a report, depending on what kind of job it is. By the time you finish it, nobody's really happy. They're satisfied enough to accept the report and whatever benefit they can get from it. There's some people who like it a lot, and there's some people who don't like it at all. Me, I'd put in a lot more hours than I wanted to do it, and I'm not happy about that.

When you're putting a latte on the counter, and you make a good latte, which we've always done, that person's going to be real happy getting it. And they never come back saying, "I don't want that anymore." So there's that.

And maybe this is even more significant … From the time I was in graduate school at the University of Washington in the early '70s, I began to develop arthritis. … It got to where I couldn't make a fist and such. And I don't know if it's the steam coming off the hot espresso machine or it's just doing something you enjoy or what, but that all went away over the first couple years of working as a barista.

Sounds like it was a nice change mentally and it was a nice change physically.

Yeah, I think my health is probably different from doing this, but I don't know. We certainly never have gotten rich from it, so it had to be.

And another thing is that, the way it has evolved the last 10 years, it's been Deb and I working together. I don't know how husbands and wives like it, day in and day out. But we like working together. We consider that real fortunate, too.

Part of the fun must be getting to know your customers, getting to know your community a little bit. How important has that been for you?

I see a segment of Anchorage through Side Street, which I enjoy a whole lot. The people that I see, I have great admiration for and appreciation of.

Do you think the role of a coffee shop has changed since you first opened? I wonder if it used to be more of a social center than it is today. Maybe today, more likely people will come in and look at their electronic device than get together to talk to one another.

I can't speak to what happens in other coffee houses that much, but we're not Wi-Fi'd, so we don't have that happening. … It is changing. People are dealing with the mechanical devices all the time…

I've been doing the drawings (that are) part of our daily drink board for a long time. I guess there's been themes -- four, five or six themes. But one of them has been some dismay I feel about people and their telephones.

Did you ever read Huxley's "Brave New World"? There's a drug in there. Soma. It was issued by the government. When things get bad enough, you'd take one of those and you'd kind of move into this great world for a time and you'd come out of it feeling a lot better. I kind of feel like these cellphones are like Soma sometimes.

Another thing that kind of troubles me -- and again, these are minor things -- but I don't know about you or anyone else, but for a long time I have (given) some attention to trying to be in the moment, and not thinking elsewhere. And it seems to me like the device is exactly the opposite of that, taking you out of where you are and what's happening, to something else, some other world. And so I bemoan that somewhat, too.

Is it minor or is it changing the way that we interact with one another in a meaningful way?

I don't know. There's a lot of excitement about where technology has taken us in the last 10 or 12 years, particularly with the Internet and such. I'm not sure that it's, in some qualitative way, different than what we thought about television when it came in. Which I can remember, at least when it became a household item … But this transmission of images of something happening somewhere else to where you are was as magical as anything that has happened on the telephone. I think there was a lot of worry that that changed the way communities interacted, particularly people staying home in their houses all the time rather than community activities. I'm not so old that I can remember all those community activities, so I can't speak to that too well, but I'm not sure that's really happened that much. Communities' activities have persisted anyway.

I don't have a cellphone myself, so I can't speak from firsthand experience to how it's altering me, so it's hard to talk about how it might be for somebody else.

Describe for me what the board represents in your life.

The top thing, I'd say, is self-therapy. In a way, I feel like every board I do is for me. I do a board every day, so I'll get asked, "What's the inspiration for this board?" on any given day. I seldom can say there's an inspiration. It's another day. It's like getting up. I'm going to have another board. So it might be just to draw. On Malcolm Gladwell's (assertion that) if you do 10,000 hours of something you might get good at it? Well, I'm about 6,000 hours into it, so I might get good.

I was not an artist prior to starting this up, and I don't even call myself an artist now. But I do the drawings, and lacking anything else I just find something that resonates with me that I found challenging to draw. Sometimes there's a political issue that I'll take on, have a position, state it on the board …

It's just a mystery, is what it is.

What do you like about the medium? Why a dry-erase board?

Like I said, I didn't start out as an artist at all. I don't really feel like I'm doing a drawing. I feel like I'm watching it happen. I have the pen. I have an image I'm looking at. I almost always draw from a photograph or something … And I just start. Not half the time, but a lot of the times, I just look at it myself and think, "I can't use this. I'm going to have to erase it." But it keeps coming and all of a sudden it looks right. Righter than I could've thought. But I'm seeing that happen.…

And I'm working in the constraints of like an hour's time. That's about what I have a day to spend on it. A lot of them are less than that. Working in a different medium, it'd take me a lot of time to erase even, whereas this doesn't take any time at all.

It sometimes creates a stronger image, like the Shirley Temple one (on the board) behind you. I don't know that a photograph would be quite as strong as even that one is. Sometimes the black and white will do that.

Contact staff photographer Marc Lester at mlester(at)alaskadispatch.com.