Somewhere back in the 70’s I was awakened one early morning by a phone call. The gruff, low voice said, “Is this Randall Enos the illustrator?” When I answered in the affirmative, he went on, “This is Gene Hoffman.” This was a familiar name to me. I had seen his illustrations and sometimes our work had been featured side by side in Graphis, the international art magazine based in Switzerland.
He went on to tell me that he knew a lot of the illustrators in Westport and that he had always wanted to look me up because he knew I lived there. He said he was in town visiting. I asked him where he was and he said, “The Sherwood Diner”. It was only a few minutes from my house. I rushed over and entered and spotted a heavy-set “mountain- man”- looking bearded fellow in bib overalls.
I sat down with him and said, “Let’s have breakfast”. The waitress came over and asked what we wanted. Gene, reading from the menu, said, “Two eggs any style, toast and coffee”. She asked how he wanted the eggs done and he replied, “Any style!” When she pressed him further on how the eggs were to be done he finally answered, “Basted. Just put a little basting stitch around the edge.” At mid-meal the waitress returned to ask how everything was. Gene answered, “Well, I don’t know about this trouble in the Middle East”. Right then and there I decided that Gene should stay and visit us for a while. I took him home and introduced him to my Leann.
We owned two houses in Westport at that time and we were renting one out. We told Gene that we had to go over to the other house to clean up a bit because we were expecting a new tenant. He said, “Let me help. I can do the work of two men … Laurel and Hardy!”
So began my years and years long friendship with my best friend, who lived in Colorado. Gene always had me laughing. He told me that when he was young, he was so lonely that his mother had to tie a pork chop around his neck to get the dog to play with him. When he got to know me better, he said that I was as useful as a screen door on a submarine. When I would call him and ask if he was busy, he’d say, “I’m as busy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” These bon mots would just flow out of him constantly. One time in a telephone conversation, I said that it looked like Ted Kennedy might run for President. Without missing a beat, Gene said, “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it!”
Every year or so, Gene would spend a week or two with us. We got to know each other and our comedic rhythms so well that when we would go out to the supermarket etc., we would entertain cashiers, bag boys, store managers and the like with non-stop patter that sometimes had surprising results. We were in a beauty salon picking up some hair conditioner that I liked and our conversation was clicking along so well at one point that a woman under a dryer laughed so hard that she actually fell off her chair onto the floor. Another time, we were in restaurant with a girlfriend of Leann’s who asked Gene what his “sign” was. With no hesitation, he said, “Feces!” A woman at an adjoining table fell forward and landed with her face in her soup. I am not exaggerating.
People in stores would say, “Are you guys a comedy team?”
Everywhere we went, Gene would chat up anyone we came into contact with. Everyone loved him and he was genuinely interested in every person he met from a famous cartoonist to the kid picking up the shopping carts at the grocery store parking lot.
When Gene would win a gold medal at the Society of Illustrators, he would come in from Colorado and take me as his date to the award ceremony. One time, he was at the podium receiving the gold medal and said, “Gosh, I can’t wait to get this home and have it bronzed!”
Sometimes his witticisms would fly high over the heads of the recipient as in the case of the guard at the Museum of Modern Art. When we got there, we found the employees on a picket line. We didn’t want to cross it so we spent over an hour conversing with all the strikers. Finally we each gave them a $10 donation to their organization and asked their permission to cross the picket line because we hadn’t seen the museum for a long time. They cheered us on. We went directly to the garden to see the Rodin Balzac sculpture. It wasn’t there! We asked a young guard standing nearby. He said he didn’t know because he had just started the job that morning.
“Survived the hazing of the frosh, have you?” Gene said.
WHOOOOOSH… right over the kid’s head.
Speaking of “Whoosh”, Gene and I had a running secret joke between us. He mentioned one time that a friend of his had said that everything was to no avail because it’s all going to be sucked into a black hole someday. So, every time Gene and I would be at an art show (and we went to many) and I would look at a label and say, “Oh look, it’s an original silverpoint drawing on acid-free, museum-quality, non-perishable hand-made paper”, we would both pass our hands over our heads and go “WOOOOOOOSH!” Into the black hole it goes.
At the Modern, we came to a room that had an installation artist’s wooden bed in the middle. In earshot of the serious-looking guard, I said, “I’m going to lie down a bit, Gene, I’m real tired!” The guard wasted no time in rushing over and telling me sternly that I better not even think about touching that bed. Well, we talked to the guard for a while and when we finally departed, he actually hugged us both.
Gene could tell the most amazing jokes. He knew elaborate obscure Russian ones that he would grandly embellish with minute detail as to the decoration on a Faberge drinking cup and so forth. The best joke teller that I have ever heard.
Gene was a graphic designer, cartoonist, illustrator, sculptor, and composer. He was the most well-read person I have ever met. His skiing posters were so important to Colorado that the mayor of Denver once declared an official “Gene Hoffman Day”.
When Gene would go to an event where we would get those little name tags that said “My name is…”, Gene would always write in “of German origin.”
His medium of choice for most of his later work was constructions made solely from the things people throw away… rusty nails, Tide bottles, paper clips, plastic forks, drinking straws etc.. When I’d take walks with him, he would stop and pick up old rusty things and fill his pockets with them.
The last time he visited me, I awoke to find him not in the house but out in the middle of the driveway staring at something that was very tiny in his hand. I approached and he called my attention to this tiny tiny little sprout gripped between his large fingers.
“Look at this, Randy, look how beautiful it is… look at those little veins!”
The last joke he ever told me was the one about the skeleton that goes into a bar and orders a beer and a mop.
When he had a heart attack and died, I wrote an obituary for him that was posted at the Society and eventually found its way to the internet where his daughter saw it. In it, I referred to “the late Gene Hoffman”. To show that the acorn doesn’t land far from the tree, his daughter wrote to me to say, “Randy, you know my father was never late to anything”.
Read more more of Randy’s cartooning memories: