The coolest person in Sacramento may be eighty years old.
Looking up from the local weekly’s single section, Ken Hilmer twists his bony torso, leans closer to my table and remarks, “Trying to find myself a date.” He lost his wife twelve years ago, and as he speaks, his terse, liver-spotted hands crinkle the cheap inky paper. “My wife and I had a deal: whichever of us outlived the other had to promise to keep that person’s memory alive, but keep living.” He straightens his hunched back and clears his throat. “I still miss her every day, but life is too interesting not to keep going.”
In hyper-hip cities like Seattle and San Francisco, Ken would have looked embarrassingly out of place, but here in Sacramento’s Naked Lounge Coffee House, amid the typical mix of chatty, backwards-hatted college kids and trench coat poets, he mingles with cool confidence.
Ken smirks when a young man exits the nearby bathroom. “D’you see that sign they got in there?” It is a typed formal page, entitled “An Open Letter From Our Toilet (Mr. John),” which schools the Naked Lounge Bathroom Users, in hilariously clever style, about “What to put in me” and “What not to put in me.”
He reaches out and shakes my hand. While other people his age are nudging pawns across chessboards in senior rec centers that stink of green beans and baked snapper, Ken has been out filming TV shows and movies.
In 1995, he served as a camera assistant on the John Travolta film Phenomenon, which was shot in nearby Auburn. He assisted with young local filmmaker Sarah Kruetz’s directorial debut, Elsa Letterseed, in 2002, and most recently, he worked on the ABC reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. This episode, filmed in the delta town of Fairfield, retrofitted a house with an elevator and other features to assist the physically handicapped kids who lived there. “In the middle of the shoot,” Ken confides in a low, hoarse voice, “the host, Ty Pennington, put down his microphone and stepped over to where I was working the camera and said, ‘Who is this guy?’” Ken’s back straightens. He shoots a reserved but proud grin. “Someone told him, ‘He’s a cameraman,’ and he shook my hand, introduced himself, and started talking with me as if no one else was there. Then all of the sudden, after ten minutes, he cut right back into the show.” Ken laughs. “Boom. He’s a real firecracker, that guy. Full of energy.”
Takes one to know one.
Ken’s business card lists his production company’s – Ken Hilmer Productions – email address beside the silhouette of a vintage, hand-cranked motion picture camera. My grandmother doesn’t even know how to get online, and this guy’s got his own e-mail address. Amazing. Ken describes his desire to learn high definition cameras and computer editing: “That’s the future of movies right there.”
Ken is more than a stock cameraman, though. In August, 2005, a chic urban houseware boutique based their Second Saturday show around Ken’s black-and-white still photographs. His work is still hanging two months after the show. “Go have a look,” he says, handing me a promotional postcard. “Tell me what you think.” There on the postcard’s glossy front, posed before a green neon background and holding one of his matted photos, stands Ken dressed in a blue t-shirt and khaki trousers and shot from the neck down for some artsy reason.
His frame, in the photo and in front of me, is frail, with a sternum that protrudes from his chest like the top of a canvas tent. His head, dusted with thin wisps of white hair, shows a lumpy slope of skull. But when he stands, his hands hang neatly to his belt like an arrogant twenty year old sizing up the competition.
He served in the Navy during World War II, fought battles in the South Pacific, and has yet to see any of the war memorials in DC. “Just don’t have the time to get to that side of the country. Too busy.”
Still, the human body cannot support the boundless hunger of the human mind. Ken has just been diagnosed with prostate cancer and, since he’s enjoying his new momentum, has decided against any sort of treatment. “I told the doctor I didn’t have time for that stuff. I have people I’ve yet to meet, places I still have to see, grandkids in Arizona.” A harsh cough interrupts his passionate proclamation. In addition to cancer, Fall has brought Ken a deep, phlegmy cough. “Excuse me,” he gurgles, turning his head to cough into his fist.
“It was good talking to you,” he says with a wink. “I have a coffee date I have to get to. Enjoy the rest of your day.”