Her instincts were right, of course.
That night, her numbers were called in the exact order she needed, and she went home with the winnings and a new way of looking at the son she hadn’t yet met. From then on, she called him her “lucky” child.
In a month, Jack Bubis will turn 69, and he says he still feels that way.
“I really believe it,” he says standing in the middle of the hair salon he owns in Washington’s Tenleytown. “I’m lucky. It’s the only word I can use.”
He makes a strong case for it. He describes coming to the United States at 25 and taking risks that could have cost him everything. And yet, they worked out for the best. He describes falling into the hair-cutting business because he struggled in school and “had to do something.” And now he owns a salon in a prime spot in the nation’s capital.
He describes running a business that relies on customers coming back — and he has never seen that as a source of stress.
He has known some of his “clients” for so long that he doesn’t even use that word when he talks about them. He calls them “friends.”
One friend makes him homemade flan every year. Another friend has passed down family heirlooms to him. When one friend who is in her 90s called him to say she was no longer capable of driving to the salon, they cried on the phone together. And then he drove to her.
“That’s what life is about,” Bubis says.
It’s unclear whether he’s talking about friends or luck or taking care of one another — and it doesn’t matter. He uses that phrase often to punctuate points that seem larger than him, and the connections he has made with Washingtonians in the four-plus decades that he has been cutting hair in the city call for punctuating.
Those connections, as he sees it, also call for decorating. Every year, as a way to give back to a community he believes has given him plenty, Bubis turns his 800-square-foot salon into a dizzying display of holiday homage.
He decorates a dozen Christmas trees in different themes. One tree pays respect to Marilyn Monroe. Another serves as a perch for large glittery peacocks. He usually shuts down the salon after Halloween for five days to start decorating and then works on his wonderland until after Thanksgiving. When he is done, the place twinkles with more than 6,000 lights, and the ceilings and walls disappear behind a tangle of greenery and dangling surprises.
When I walk in on a recent afternoon, his work is only half done, but already a cluster of birds hang from one part of the ceiling and stuffed animals hover in another. He hopes to finish by the middle of the first week in December.
As he walks through the display, he ticks off the names of clients who have contributed to it. One made him a large Santa Claus figure from papier-mâché. Another gave him four bird ornaments her mother sewed by hand.
“She told me I would appreciate them more than her kids,” Bubis says. He hangs them every year, and when he does, he says, “I think of Jean.”
“Didn’t a client give you a Stanley Cup ornament?” asks Michael Wenthe, who happens to be getting a haircut from Bubis at that moment.
“Yes, and this year, I’m going to get one for the Nationals,” Bubis says. He motions toward a nearby wall. Displayed in the center is an ornamental puck declaring the Capitals the Stanley Cup champions. “That section over there is going to be my Washington tree.”
Wenthe and his wife started coming to the salon about 12 years ago, before they had children. Since then, their two daughters and son have sat in that chair to get haircuts. They have also seen Bubis transform a place that throughout the year is covered in eye-catching decor — framed playbills, signed photographs and other theatrical memorabilia — into a wondrous wink to Christmas and Hanukkah. Wenthe said that when his parents are in town, he brings them by just to look.
“Year-round, it’s a visual feast,” he says.
When the weather is nice, Bubis says he opens the door so people can walk in off the street. After all, he does it for the public. He insists he doesn’t do it for publicity or to grow his list of clients. I believe him, because frankly there are much easier ways to do that than spending 120-plus hours decorating.
I heard about his work from a woman who was new to the District when she saw it for the first time last year. She described it in an email to me as “remarkable,” and I wanted to see for myself if that was true.
If you plan to visit, here’s what you should know: This display is nothing like those carefully planned windows at Macy’s that inspire awe every holiday season. It is weird. It is whimsical. And that’s what makes it wonderful.
You can stare straight at something and not see its significance, until Bubis starts talking.
In the silver branches of one tree sits a small blue Tiffany’s box. It’s the kind that might pop open to reveal an engagement ring. But this one, Bubis explains, holds the ashes of a client-turned-friend. They knew each other for about 40 years, he says, and he believes the man would appreciate being part of the display.
“He loved what I did every year,” Bubis says. “Every year, it’s different. It’s never the same.”
Another object that your eye might miss is a large crystal that hangs on a wall Bubis dedicates to his mother each year. It is one of the only pieces he has left from his grandmother’s chandelier after his storage unit was robbed several years ago. Also taken were many of his peacock decorations. Since then, he says, clients have helped him rebuild his collection, and he’s grateful.
“It’s hard to find good-looking peacocks,” he explains.
Because he’s Jewish, some people are surprised to see angels, Santa and other Christmas decorations in his salon. But, Bubis says, the way he sees it, the holidays should bring people together, regardless of their differences.
“That’s what makes life beautiful,” he says. “The spirit of the holidays, it’s all about sharing things. It’s not about buying things.”
When I ask him if he has family in the area, he says his friends are his family.
When Bubis first got a job offer in the District, he was 25, young enough to make the leap without much fear. He figured he would stay for a year. He has now been in the city for 43 years, and two years ago, he became a U.S. citizen.
In 1982, Bubis opened his first salon with a credit card and hope. He later moved his business up the street, opening Minsky’s Hair Emporium 25 years ago. Since then, Bubis says he has put together some sort of holiday display each year, making it more elaborate in the past 10 years.
This year, he confesses, was the first time he considered not doing anything. He tells me this as we stand in the salon alone surrounded by memory-infused mementos. He explains that it’s not that he didn’t want to decorate. It’s that he didn’t know if he could. In November, he lost his second brother in two years.
After he lost his first brother, he didn’t pay to have the salon’s front window painted, as he does every holiday season. And people noticed. Some came in to ask if he was okay.
This year, he says, he wavered on what to do. He then decided to dedicate the holiday display to his brother.
He now plans to make it bigger than ever. He recently bought more supplies.
“I get pleasure when I see other people happy,” he explains. “I’m really, really blessed, and when you’re blessed, you have to give back.”
And this time, it’s clear he’s talking about his luck — and the urge to share a bit of it — when he says, “That’s what life is about.”