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The Keepers of Local Color

Every city has its characters. They’re the eccentric local fixtures whom everyone knows by name; they’re the self-appointed representatives of their cities’ imaginations; they amuse and sometimes frighten tourists; to encounter them anywhere outside their cities would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine. In my eyes, they’re the lifeblood of a city’s local color—encountering them, knowing them, and occasionally spotting them around town make me feel more at home in a city than anything else.

Photo courtesy of IgoUgo member alex_nyc

My first such encounter took place in Austin about 5 years ago; I had moved there a few days before and was heading to my first day of work. I’d taken the free downtown trolley from my parking lot to the intersection of 6th Street and Congress, the epicenter of downtown Austin and just a short walk from my office. As I disembarked, I stopped to marvel at the scene before me. On the corner, just outside Starbucks, a man stood preaching loudly from the Bible as another man—probably around 60 years old, thin, and bearded—strutted back and forth in a hot pink one-piece women’s swimsuit, 3-inch heels, and a cowboy hat, occasionally shouting back at the street preacher. I don’t even remember what they were saying; I was just thrilled to be given such a fantastically weird welcome to Austin.

Later that day, I told a woman in my office about the encounter, and she beamed at me and said, “That’s Leslie!” Turns out my welcome committee was even more special than I’d thought; Leslie is a local legend—an Austin eccentric-slash-cross-dressing-homeless-man who’s known and loved by all. A popular local bookstore, Book People, makes Leslie refrigerator magnets; he even ran for mayor once, to great fanfare, and came in second in the popular vote. You can’t quite call yourself an Austinite without having encountered him, and the real jackpot of any visit to Austin is a Leslie sighting. Needless to say, I was a proud Austin resident that day.

I’ve since moved to New York, and New York, of course, has characters to spare. After four years here, however, my hands-down favorite is the famous Bird Man. I first saw him—or heard him, rather—in Chinatown one day, ca-cawing his heart out as he walked down Canal Street. As any New Yorker can attest, weird encounters like this aren’t exactly unusual, and I didn’t think much of this one. Until I ran into him again in Soho a few days later, then again on the 1 train another day (where I heard a variety of other bird calls in his repertoire), and then again uptown a few weeks later. Once I mentioned it to friends, I found out that they, too, had encountered the Bird Man on multiple occasions. We did a little investigating and found that he’s a veritable local character: a package courier named Stanley who just really enjoys doing bird calls around the city on his routes. I’ve spotted him many more times since those initial few encounters, and I still feel like I’ve won the lottery every time—he never fails to brighten my day and make me love New York just a little more.

At a recent work gathering, a fellow Window Seat writers Holly, Alison, and Rachel told me about their favorite local character: the Bush Man, a guy who disguises himself as shrubbery and lies in wait on a busy street in Fisherman’s Wharf, waiting to jump out and scare unsuspecting tourists (I’ll admit to giving him an inner high-five). I’m betting your city has one too. Who is it?

cameron_siewert

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Comments

Jessica
Reply

San Francisco is definitely known for the Bush Man. But one more offbeat and interesting guy–close to the hearts of many Bay Area locals–is Frank Chu. He frequents pretty much every major protest or event in the city with a black sign that reads “12 Galaxies,” followed by a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that supposedly has to do with aliens that perpetrate crimes and treasons against him. Frank is so famous, he even sells ads on the back of his signs and has a nightclub, 12 Galaxies, named for his strange mantra. I see him weekly, if not oftener.

Michelle
Reply

Leslie has an East Coast counterpart in Atlanta named Baton Bob, self-proclaimed Ambassador of Mirth. I loved how he was just as much a part of my neighborhood there as anything else. Now if only I can track down the Bird Man and say, “Hello, Stanley,” I’ll be happy.

Charlie
Reply

When I was growing up, New York seemed even more replete with weirdos than it is today. The character who I remember most was the purple man, Adam Purple, a bearded, aging hippie adorned head to toe in Tyrolean hues and who rode around on a bicycle painting purple footprints around the city.
He was famous for his artistic (and functioning) garden that he created down on Eldridge St. It was eventually bulldozed to make room for apartments, I believe, and I think he’s since given up the purple, but I always remember his strange bike and ZZ Top-like appearance.

Anne & May
Reply

OOh! Ooh! What about Wesley Willis in Chicago? He walks around head-butting people and playing songs on a Casio keyboard.

In fact, he wrote “Rock and Roll McDonald’s” that was in the movie Super Size Me.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Willis

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