Along that North Clark Street strip of brunch bistros, lesbian bars and Swedish bakeries, two kitties danced to Cajun-tinged country.
“It’s kind of making my ends meet right now,” the puppeteer told me later as he took a swig from a bottle of water.
Putting on mobile puppet shows is Mike’s third job. His second is building canoes for a northwest side shop and his first is on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, where he spent the last 21 years. He recently cut down to a limited membership because of the economy.
“If you know what’s going on, the Fed’s not doing anything,” he said, shaking his head.
He wore a well-loved baseball cap bordering on raggy and a long-sleeved shirt and jeans with a few holes here and there. They are shop clothes; he had just come from making a canoe. We chatted about puppets, aldermen and Ultimate Frisbee as we sat on a wrought bench off Clark.
The Puppet Bike is what it sounds like: a puppet show on wheels. The puppeteers ride a phone-booth-sized stage to a spot — usually downtown, but for the last seven or eight years up also in Andersonville by request of a now-retired alderman — put on some music and make Clover, Lefty, Amtrak, Chock and the rest of the furry brigade of hand-puppet dancers put on a show.
Mike’s one of two Mikes who put on Puppet Bike shows. There’s also a Stacy or Stacey (Mike didn’t know the spelling) and Mike’s roommate Jason, who built the bike nine years ago and created the show. With about a year under his belt, Mike’s the new guy of the troupe, the “junior understudy,” he jokes.
That chilling September night in Andersonville, a few dates lagged by to watch as Mike hid within the painted wooden stage to make the two cats dance, wave and groove. Two laughing teen girls watched as he switched one of the cats for a bunny for a zydeco song. The street corner along Clark cleared but for me by the time a gorilla and one of the first cats waltzed to an old-timey yodeling country number.
Couples on dates are fun to entertain, Mike said. But kids are the best audience of all.
“They believe in Santa Claus and magic and all that stuff,” he said. “There was this little girl who was asking ‘Is there someone inside there? Is there a robot?’ She was asking all these funny questions. I’m glad they couldn’t see me inside. I was cracking up.”
“It’s hard to keep a smile off your face,” he added.
Mike and I stood up, smiled and shook hands. As I walked off, he crawled back into the wooden box. He made a tiger wave goodbye to me.
Among the lesbians and Swedes of Andersonville, Mike makes the kitties dance.