Pete Alexander had a cordless drill in one hand. In the other was a brightly colored, rippled disc and a green stake. He deftly screwed the disc to the stake, then shook his head and laughed. “This is not my real job.”
Alexander was creating what he calls a “happy accident” – flowers made from recycled records. Five years ago, in his real job as a Penngrove T-shirt purveyor, he was trying to print a logo onto record albums. “It didn’t work. I tried four or five dozen. I saw them lying on the floor and they looked like giant rosebuds. I painted them and screwed them onto the ends of redwood stakes from my yard.”
Enlisting sons Kenny and Kai, they snuck out of the house before sunrise and “planted” the flowers in front of Penngrove School. Then he took them to IHOP to celebrate and said they couldn’t tell anyone. “When you go to school, say, ‘What a neat idea. I wonder who did it?’” He laughed again. “That lasted about three days.”
The next thing he knew, parents wanted to buy some. Then nurseries and florists became customers. He asked his sons for help making the flowers. “I told them – they were whining and moaning – if they helped me and we sold the flowers, I’d take them to Maui and buy them a shave ice every night.
“Sure enough, we went to Hawaii last October, sat on the beach every night with shave ice, smelling the ocean and the hibiscus, and I told them, ‘See? We made something out of nothing and that’s why we’re sitting here.’”
Alexander, who said he’s “52 going on 27,” didn’t expect his flowers to last a weekend, let alone five years. But there they are, blooming on the school hillside. Sharp-eyed drivers can see them scattered around Penngrove, including in front of Jay Palm on the Old Redwood Highway. Alexander runs his business, Double K Designs, from an outbuilding behind Jay Palm, working and living in the same town.
He stumbled into the world of T-shirts 30 years ago. He loves what he does because – well, he called it his Christmas Philosophy. “This job makes me feel like Santa Claus. You’ll act like a 5-year-old when I give you that box of your garments. You look at me like it’s Christmas. You’re paying me to be Santa. When you go back to your event, they’ll carry you around the room for a job well done. Best of all, I get to see how happy I make people.”
He’s deliberately kept the business small. For a while he didn’t, but realized he wasn’t connecting with people – and this is a man who enjoys talking with customers. So now it’s a four or five person operation and he doesn’t advertise.
He doesn’t need to, he said. “I’ll do a good job for you, you’ll tell other people. I haven’t made a cold call in 25 years, but I get calls every day.”
About the only thing he doesn’t like about the job is Mondays, he said. But, he shrugged, “I can say, ‘Let’s go, close the door, we’re going surfing!’” Another laugh. “Of course, in 25 years, I’ve never done it. But it’s the fact that I could that makes it worthwhile.”
Every day he sees someone wearing a shirt he’s made, and that’s always fun. Well, almost always. “One day I was at LAX and I spotted a guy coming toward me. He’s wearing one of my shirts. I got excited. ‘Hey! How’s it going? I made that shirt. How many times have you washed it?’ Well, the guy looks at me and goes, ‘Get away from me, you weirdo.’”
Will he ever run out of T-shirts in his wardrobe? Alexander shook his head. “My wife doesn’t even know about the 16 boxes in the attic. Each box has 72 shirts in it – ohmygod, she’s going to read this and find out.” More laughter. “I probably bring home a T-shirt or two every other day. They’re all collectibles I can’t get rid of – they bring too many good memories.”
So many of those memories, and fantastic stories, belong to his alter ego, Playa Pete. Alexander makes the T-shirts for Burning Man and has attended the event for 15 years. “It changed my life,” he said simply. When he and his wife, Theresa, went for the first time, he said it was only about 2,000 people – a far cry from the 50,000 that now attend annually. “We fell in love with it – it’s all about art and music, and it made us feel, after 15 years of marriage, like we were on our third date. That was 15 years ago and it still makes us feel like that.”
Although he said Burning Man is impossible to explain, he likened it to “the most wonderful music and art festival in Disneyland – kicked into reverse.”
Then he launched into his Playa Pete persona – “My name’s Playa Pete. I’m the baddest man in Black Rock – so bad I gotta kick my own butt twice daily to stay in shape. That’s Playa as in beach and Pete as in moss cause I kinda grow on you after a while.”
Although he’s got “a million stories” about the event, perhaps his most memorable was the year he took his mother, then 72.
Alexander’s parents were German immigrants who came to the United States in the late 1950s. “They lived the American dream, were so proud to be Americans.” The year the theme was the American dream, he knew he had to take his mom. The other reason was she loved fires. “She’d hear a siren, throw us kids in the camper, race to the fire and watch. It’s why I became a fireman in the Air Force. I wanted to take her to the best fire ever.
“She had the time of her life. And when the Man burned, we had a nice slow ride out there, with a bottle of champagne and watched the best fire ever and she’s crying, she’s so happy.”