"I don't spend too much time here," says Jeff Chiplis, navigating his way through his in-home shrine to all things carrot, most notably an extensive collection of the plastic and burlap bags that carrots come in. "It's kind of crowded."
A Tremont resident for 20 years, Chiplis is variously known as a neon sculptor, pretend dentist, unofficial rib cook-off judge, and part-time energy adjuster for the Clark-Metro neighborhood association.
His carrot bag collection had its humble beginnings some 25 years ago, when he had an epiphany in the produce aisle of an Indiana supermarket.
"I came across a carrot bag and thought, "That's a nice design,'" he recalls. "When I was done with the carrots, I took a little piece of Scotch tape and taped the bag up on the refrigerator.
"The next week, I went to the grocery store, and there was a different kind of carrot bag there, and I thought, "Hmmm, okay, I got another one,' put that one up on the refrigerator."
Soon, his refrigerator was a patchwork of carrot bags, from the familiar Bunny Luv brand (distinguished by its cottontailed pinup girl) to Single Pleasures ("Fresh and Crisp!"). He had entered a world that was see-through, with faint blue lines running through it, sealed with a Twistie. One where rabbits wore boxing gloves (Up 'N' Atom brand) and red devils held bouquets of carrots like poison arrows (El Diabillo, from Argentina). Where the steadfast names of farmers' daughters were injected with innuendo and plastered on packaging: "Shirley -- Fast and Fresh," "You'll Long for Lisa."
"Lisa was probably one I picked up in Florida," says Chiplis, who's gleaned many leafy, green facts from his subscription to Carrot Country, an industry publication that recently featured an in-depth piece titled "Carrot Storage Tips." "But they're not doing as much farming down there, because they've drained the mucklands where they grew them."
Visual appeal was just one concern. "What's nice about the carrot bags is you can fold them up and put them under your arm and go places with them," explains Chiplis, who also collects circus posters, but in a more casual fashion. "Compact, easy to collect, easy to transport, and a wide variety. All the things you're looking for in a collectible."
Carrot bags also mail well. A local woman who had seen Chiplis on TV once sent him about 80 bags, ironed and folded. She had saved them for years under the sink, storing them in her rag bags. Chiplis invited her over for coffee, and they chatted admiringly about Jolly Green Giant and Naturally Sweet.
But miracle finds rarely just materialize, notes Chiplis, who says, "It's all in the networking." Friends and family bring him bags from their travels. He once wrote a letter to a Swedish family requesting their carrot bags. The bags had a certain star quality, having appeared in the family's worldwide broadcast of the comings and goings of their groceries, via an Internet cam mounted in their refrigerator.
Chiplis almost met his match once -- a fellow carrot bag collector in Pittsburgh named David Coulson, who had been collecting about 10 years. After swapping popular brand names over the phone, the pair met and traded bags.
Chiplis is also on friendly terms with Harley Stiller, known to insiders as the Paper Clip Guy (3,000 paper clips -- all different!) and the Record Turntable Tone Arm Guy. But he's not so keen on the Bedpan Guy, who lives in Bay Village.
"He took pictures of his bedpans and sent them to MTV," Chiplis says, shaking his head. "I asked Harley about him, and Harley knew him. He said, "I've heard about that guy. He's always trying to get on some show or another.'"
And that's the crux of the apostrophe, as Chiplis would say: True collectors do not court celebrity -- they just court another carrot bag. But celebrity can sure court them.
When civic leaders in Holtville, the Carrot Capital of California, got wind of Chiplis's bags, they asked him to be the grand marshal in their Carrot Festival parade. So that summer, he rode in a hot-air balloon with the Holtville Carrot Queen and waved to adoring throngs from the reviewing stand, his lovely wife beside him in a sparkling tiara made of paper carrots. He spent five days in Holtville, exhibiting his bags at City Hall. People noticed.
"This town is like maybe 5,000 people," he says, chuckling. "And I went into the bank to cash a check, and they go, "Oh, we know who you are, you don't need an ID.'"
When not traveling the carrot circuit, Chiplis lives and works in a former saloon on Jefferson Avenue that he first laid eyes on in 1979. His studio is a jumble of electric alphabets and gas-filled tubes, salvaged from scrap piles and businesses that went the way of the three-martini lunch. His art, made from salvaged neon, flirts with the medium's obsolescence, yet it's loopy and modern, fresh and crisp.
Nearby, set on a rather desolate corner of Cleveland's West Seventh Street, is Pat's in the Flats, a blue-collar bar that's been open for lunch since 1945. Pat Hanych, the proprietor, considers Chiplis one of her "very best friends." She recently asked him to serve on the bar's new board of trustees, which meets Wednesday afternoons.
"He's the president, I'm the vice president, and another customer in the neighborhood is the secretary," Hanych says. "We don't come to any kind of conclusions. There's three of us here, and we make a little club." During baseball season, they talk about the Indians -- whom Chiplis affectionately calls the "Featherheads" -- and maybe what songs to put on the jukebox, a 1960s model that Chiplis owns and maintains, along with one at his house.
On this week's meeting agenda: putting up new siding on the building, because the old siding was stolen. "[The thieves] hopped the fence and pulled off the aluminum as far as they could reach," recalls Hanych. "They came back the next night and got the rest. Boy, it was a shock to the system."
Hanych has added a little carrot garden in a clay pot to Chiplis's collection, which has expanded far beyond bags, thanks to people looking out for him, his admonition -- "too much cute, not enough carrot" -- ringing in their ears.
Chiplis's carrot outreach also includes crashing neighborhood Easter Egg hunts. He shows up anonymously, in a full-length foam rubber carrot suit, muscles in beside a bewildered Easter Bunny, and gives carrots to the kids. "They're healthier than candy," he says.
The kids seemed to take to the idea, he says. "I think they just see it as a big carrot. I think they made the connection."
Not as quick to clue in were the world-renowned carrot scientists at the University of Wisconsin's International Carrot Conference in Madison last year, which featured workshops on "varietal evaluation and root bulking dynamics" and "band fumigation at seeding." Chiplis, who exhibited his bag collection, had hoped to hobnob with carrot growers and eaters, but he ended up a lone wolf.
"They were not exactly the most happening bunch of people, so I took it upon myself to spice things up," he says. "They thought I was weird.
"But they would look at the different bags and say, "Oh, that company there, they're now owned by somebody else. And this farm came over and took over this other person's business.' So it became a history lesson."
The food was a letdown, though. "You would think that, at every menu opportunity, they'd have some carrots in there or have a recipe contest," he opines. "No. They had some baby carrots that were out for break. That's it. I thought that was pretty lame."
Besides serving as carrot critic, another unsolicited public service that Chiplis performs is judging local rib cook-offs with fellow artist and friend Sam Hubish. A big part of the men's friendship had always revolved around the cook-offs -- it was a chance to catch up over a slab of meat.
So it was only natural that, about 10 years ago, Chiplis and Hubish sanctioned themselves as rogue judges by merely paying the price of admission. They interviewed contestants and drafted their own score sheets, rating ribs on The Meat, The Heat, The Sauce, and The Hospitality. Winners get T-shirts designed by the pair. This year's design depicts a venerated rib with a halo and a saintly glow.
"As long as it keeps being fun, I'll do it," says Chiplis. "When it loses the Fun Factor, I'm out."
"Jeff is different from most people in the sense that he organizes his life to make sure he has fun and entertainment first, and the rest is all below that," says Julie Fehrenbach, associate director of SPACES art gallery, where Chiplis is the board member with the longest tenure, having served since 1983.
A leap-year birthday ("I'll be 12 leap years this February 29") might help explain Chiplis's lifelong devotion to the Fun Factor. Most years, his parents would put off his birthday until the 4th or maybe the 10th of March, but when the real date actually rolled around, it was cause for a full-blown blowout.
"We don't celebrate the off years anymore," he says. "We just snap our fingers at midnight."
But the carousing endures at his legendary leap-year parties, which last for days. Besides lots of beer, entertainment may include pinball games, free rides on a dentist's chair, and maybe some mock mouth shots on his dental X-ray machine, with "patients" asked to wear the magnetic apron and smile as he slips behind the curtain. Well-behaved guests don't get a toothbrush, but they might get to pick a song on the jukebox -- a little Bob Marley, perhaps, or the Peppermint Trollies?
Chiplis's wife, Cindy, is a social worker who "definitely sees things as more carrot than cute." When they married nine years ago, they hired a Buddhist minister who converted to Judaism at the last minute and couldn't officiate. But they found a Unitarian minister willing to read lines like "If you carrot all about each other . . .," and the ceremony went on without a hitch. Love crunches all.
Laura Putre can be reached at email@example.com.
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