Numbers game: Chasing the Number 1 at Pip’s Barbershop

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 4/28/11] 

What do the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu and Pip’s Barbershop have in common? If you’re a Pip’s regular, the answer should be obvious: It’s the Number 1.

Inside Pip’s, you’ll find a scene not unlike most other barbershops — patrons waiting their turn, reading hunting magazines and catching up on the latest gossip (though, in a barbershop it’s called “news”).

On the walls, you’ll find various mementos and tchotchkes, each with a story, accumulated over the years and placed with curatorial care by proprietor and barber Marty Muscatello.

But of all the stories to tell, perhaps the most intriguing and entertaining starts on a cluttered corkboard on the shop’s southern wall. There you’ll find a colorful mosaic of overlapping photographs, held in place by a rainbow of thumbtacks, arranged in the order they’ve arrived.

Each photo shows a different scene from different part of the globe — elephants in Africa, a beaming Polynesian woman in Hawaii, a soldier in Iraq. And within each photo is a small white plastic ticket with a black number 1 printed in boldface.

Marty Muscatello, Pip’s

For almost a decade, a small cohort of Pip’s regulars and not-so-regulars have been taking part in this world-spanning tradition, which has made the small Strongs Avenue barbershop a global crossroads of sorts.

Photos showing Number 1 stream into the shop with surprising regularity, each one following the same template of placing the ticket somewhere in the shot, either prominently or subtly.

According to Muscatello, the tradition was started unintentionally by Andy Ruth, a former Pip’s regular who now lives in Connecticut. One day, about 10 years ago, Ruth stopped in for a haircut. As is the custom upon arrival, he took a number from the basket by the door — Number 1. Placing it in his pocket, he neglected to turn it in and ended up leaving the shop with it.

Ruth later discovered the ticket, and had every intention of bringing it back until he got home to find a message from Muscatello, in which he playfully admonished Ruth about returning the ticket before he called the police.

Rather than comply, Ruth decided to have a little fun with Muscatello. Soon after, an envelope arrived at Pip’s containing a photograph of Number 1 being held by gunpoint. According to the accompanying ransom note, Number 1 had been kidnapped.

“It just got worse from there,” Ruth said with a laugh.

After the ransom photo, Ruth decided to take Number 1 with him to Costa Rica. Another set of photos arrived at Pip’s, revealing the ticket’s latest whereabouts.

Number 1 with a soldier in Iraq.

It could have ended there — and very well might have since Ruth accidentally left Number 1 behind when he returned to the States. Fortunately, a friend located the ticket and sent it home along with another set of photos further depicting Number 1’s Central American exploits.

Ruth continued to travel with the ticket, taking it with him wherever he went, and passing it off to family and friends with instructions to take photos with it so he could send them back to Pip’s.

These days, Ruth admits he has not been as active in the tradition as he once was.

“I try to keep with it, but it’s been a couple years,” he said.

Number 1, however, has taken on a life of its own, often traveling the globe without Ruth, but somehow always finding its way back to him.

“I’ve got it here with me right now,” Ruth said recently over the phone from Connecticut, where Number 1 just arrived back home after a tour of South America, which included a stop at Machu Picchu.

Remarkably, the ticket has never been lost. In the event that it ever is, Ruth has taken the precaution of taping a note to the back of it, which instructs the finder to return Number 1 to its rightful home at Pip’s.

But while the original resides with Ruth, there is another Number 1, which has done its fair share of globetrotting as well.

This doppelganger originated with Jim Carvey, another Pip’s devotee and frequent traveler, who wanted in on the game after seeing the Ruth’s photos in the shop.

Carvey, along with his son and some friends have trekked through Europe Asia, Africa and the Middle East with their Number 1, placing it at such iconic places as Buckingham Palace, Anne Frank’s house and the birthplace of Jesus.

Number 1 on a recent trip to Machu Picchi (Peru).

Between the two of them, the Numbers 1 have been on every continent except Antarctica, which Ruth says he missed sending it to “by a week.”

About taking the photos, Carvey cites strict rules about “cheating.”

“It has to make the trip with someone,” he said, intent on preserving the authenticity of the tradition. “You can’t mail it and have someone take a picture for you.”

Back at Pip’s, Muscatello eagerly greets each new photo he receives, always curious as to where and with whom Number 1 will appear next.

In keeping up his end of the tradition, he discards each new Number 1 upon opening a fresh pack of the tickets he uses for the shop.

After all, there can be only one (or two).

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