Gary Lustig climbs trees to gather raw material for his hats: palm leaves


Ocean City--He's known as "de hat mon."

Gary Lustic weaves palm leaves into baseball caps, derbies, Panamas and cowboy and Polynesian-style hats right before his customers' eyes.

"I've been doing this since I was a kid," says Mr. Lustic, while braiding fronds to make a long-stem rose that he will give to a woman admiring his work. "I have a lot of fun doing this."

Since June, Mr. Lustic, 38, has been fabricating hats, roses, birds, grasshoppers and fish under palm trees at Seacrets, a Jamaican-style bar and restaurant on 49th Street at the bay.

Typically, customers like Mr. and Mrs. Richard Kalb of Finksburg will ask Mr. Lustic to make something while they're eating or having drinks.

Mr. Lustic, often dressed in a floral print shirt and shorts, stands nearby, chatting while crafting art out of fronds. His work is done in minutes.

"What he does is unique," says Mrs. Kalb, who commissioned a parrot. "It's neat. He adds to the atmosphere here. We saw him yesterday and decided to come back and have him make something."

A Roanoke, Va., native, Mr. Lustic learned his craft as a youngster while his father was stationed with the Air Force in Hawaii and the Philippines.

"I saw Hawaiian natives making hats on the beach and asked them how they were making them," Mr. Lustic recalls. "They called me something like 'white boy without sand on his feet' and asked me to go climb trees to bring them branches.

"I supplied leaves for quite a bit before I learned how to make a hat."

While working as a lifeguard in Florida after high school, he began making hats on the side, eventually turning a hobby into his livelihood.

"I'm still perfecting my craft," he says. "A lot of what I've learned I've had to teach myself. You learn by experience."

Last summer, Chuck Webb, a bartender at Seacrets, discovered Mr. Lustic practicing his trade at a Florida bar.

Seacrets owner Leighton Moore offered Mr. Lustic a place to stay and brought the Florida resident north for a month.

The response was positive, and Mr. Lustic was asked to return for the summer.

Steve "Rico" Rossi, Seacrets manager, says Mr. Lustic adds to the atmosphere, which features a Tiki bar, palm trees, tropical plants and roaming chickens.

"He's a bit of a showman," Mr. Rossi says. "He knows how to handle people. He gives a lot of stuff away. The other day he gave a paraplegic woman -- on her way out the door -- a rose."

Bernadette Ortiz also was the recipient of a free rose.

"I've never seen anything like it -- not with palms," says Ms. Ortiz, a computer technician from Baltimore. "We always had palms on Palm Sunday and we'd weave them together and keep them until the following year. We never weaved anything like this."

Mr. Lustic picks the fronds from 12- to 60-foot Jamaican palms near his home in Florida -- he returns once a month to pick fresh fronds. He picks just two or three leaves from each tree -- the same trees he's been picking from for years.

TTC "They keep getting taller and I have to climb higher and higher," he says. "I love it though. Sometimes I just stay up in the tree awhile."

With proper care, palm leaf products can last a lifetime. He tells customers to freeze items overnight, then bake in the sun five to seven days to dry the leaves. A thin coat of polyurethane gives products (which turn brown) a finished look, he says. "I have a hat I made 20 years ago," he says.

Although Mr. Lustic will remain under the shade at Seacrets through September, he wants to make at least one excursion to Baltimore before heading south.

He plans to catch an Orioles game wearing -- you guessed it -- a baseball cap made of palm leaves. The hat, which will take about an hour to make, is a gift for Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.

"He's done so much for the game," Mr. Lustic explains. "I think he's the best. He's the best at his game and I'm the best at mine."

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