Lobsterman stands, as he is inclined to do, at Michigan and Pearson, tall, red, and proud. Hurrying shoppers ignore him as rain begins to fall, assailing his huge red head and shiny satin skin. For a few minutes he seems a mere shell of a man--stiffly awaiting recognition, even acknowledgment. He starts to wander east toward the lake when a woman stops him.
"Excuse me," she says, staring at his claws. "Are you a shrimp?"
Lobsterman returns her gaze sadly, the rain hitting his exposed face. "No, I'm too tall to be a shrimp."
Minutes later a group of children run toward him screaming, "Lobsterman! Lobsterman!" They surround him, patting his shell, reaching for his antennae, and poking at his tail.
"Can we take your picture?" one kid asks. Lobsterman nods graciously, and they click away.
The rain becomes a drizzle, as Lobsterman makes a circuit; he heads west on Ontario, then up Wabash, swinging his claws back and forth and whistling a happy tune. It's one of his favorites, Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home," which he happens to be able to play on piano. An old woman scurries out of a flower shop and gives Lobsterman an apple. Then a fire truck drives by, and two firemen shout "Hey, Lobsterman!"
Before the day is over Lobsterman must distribute a shoulder-bag full of fliers advertising the Waterfront restaurant, on Maple. Lobsterman is also known as Dan Kolzek, UIC student, but only during off hours.
Sometimes Lobsterman poses in outrageous positions to get people's attention. Sometimes he stands on one leg, or does the splits. Other times he stands perfectly still, mimicking Michelangelo's David. He is in one of his more outlandish poses (feet spread wide, claws extended, head thrown back), when a young man approaches him and asks in a hushed voice, "Excuse me, but are you a crab?"
Lobsterman glares at him. "Only in the morning!"
A minute later, two kids with backpacks approach Lobsterman and ask in thick German accents, "Vat are you supposed to be? A member of da' Vatican?" Lobsterman cracks a smile. "Actually, I'm the antichrist."
A group of teenaged groupies see him from across the street and walk toward him, trying to play it cool.
"Hi Lobster," one girl says, giggling. Another blushes and hands him a box. "It's leftover pizza. We figured you'd be hungry."
Lobsterman seems touched. "Wow, thanks a lot!
"Some people really do care!" he gushes. "This is why I like my job. Every now and then you connect with somebody on the street, and you feel as if your life has meaning."
Just then, a bunch of guys in a car drive by yelling "Get a real job, loser!" For a moment Lobsterman looks forlorn, but within seconds he claps his claws together and says, "There are bad things about every job, but I don't like to dwell on them. Besides, this is more than a job. This is my alter ego. When I'm Lobsterman, the sea is my oyster!"
Lobsterman has met people from all around the world and been the subject of innumerable tourists' photographs. Last year he marched in the Saint Patrick's Day parade, and was a Maine attraction at the Taste of Chicago. But more important to him than the fame and glory are his daily interactions with people.
"Just last night I was walking past a restaurant, and a whole group of men came running out and asked me to join them for a drink. I sat down with them for a few minutes, and they told me they wanted to present me to one of their wives. When she arrived at the restaurant, I hid under the table and her husband said, 'Honey, you said you wanted the biggest lobster in Chicago, well here you go!' and then I popped out from under the table. She was so happy--she wouldn't leave me alone. She was like a barnacle on my back all night long."
Lobsterman decides to take a short break and leans against a streetlight at Chicago and Michigan, his tall, pointed head tilted sideways, his claws resting gently at his sides, his antennae bobbing in the wind. A businessman approaches and hands him a five dollar bill. "I don't accept tips," Lobsterman says proudly.
The man laughs. "This isn't a tip. I was wondering if you could find me a few candy bars. My wife is having a chocolate attack, but we're from Dallas so we don't know where to go."
Lobsterman smiles. "I'd be happy to help out," he says, and sprints across the street to Walgreens.
Lobsterman says that one reason he loves his job is that "it sure beats trying to sell Time-Life 'Mystery of the Unknown' books to people over the phone, and that's what I used to do. Plus, I think I might have been a crustacean in one of my former lives, so this identity is second nature to me, in a way."
Lobsterman walks west on Delaware, then stops for a few minutes of calisthenics. While he is jumping up and down, a group of tourists clutching all sorts of packages approach. "Hey, are you a reindeer?" someone shouts. Lobsterman rolls his eyes. "No."
"Well then what are you? A cockroach?" somebody else asks. Lobsterman takes a deep breath, trying to remain calm. "I am Lobsterman," he snaps.
A few people in the crowd laugh, but one woman says "Oooohh!" and lunges toward him. "Can I touch your claws?"
Lobsterman extends a claw and she runs her hands along the smooth fabric. "Amazing. I thought you were Sebastian from the movie The Little Mermaid," she says. Lobsterman grabs the woman and stares at her desperately. "Seriously, do I look like Sebastian?"
The woman seems nervous and shakes her head. "No, it was a joke. You look like--ah--you look just like a shrimp! You're a wonderful, bright red shrimp, right?"
Lobsterman lets go of the woman and walks away--scowling. "I don't understand. I've been on these streets for a long time. It's not fair!"
A strong cup of coffee from a carriage driver cheers Lobsterman right up. "It means a lot to me to be Lobsterman, even though there are difficult days. During my first day on the job, I was standing by Neiman Marcus, and I kept thinking to myself, What if I have to go to the bathroom? Nobody's gonna let me into their shops!"
Will Lobsterman ever give up his Lobster personality? "No way! It's a part of me. These claws, these antennae--sometimes when I'm in costume and I blast the stereo and dance in order to get psyched for the day, I think to myself, even if I wasn't Lobsterman I'd probably still wear this outfit. Some people pay money to get psychotherapy, well, this is my kind of therapy. Maybe more people should try doing this and they wouldn't need to waste time talking to doctors.
"To tell you the truth, I was moonlighting as a hot dog for a while. I needed the money really badly. But people kept cracking phallic jokes. I remember once a group of women in business suits were walking out of a bar and they started humping me and screaming, 'I want to go to bed with you, Mr. Hot Dog!'
"I told them I didn't think they'd be able to handle it."
A group walks past him and a guy yells "What the hell are you supposed to be, the devil?"
Lobsterman makes a face at the crowd. "Yeah, that's right, I'm Satan, and I want to possess your soul!"
One of the men yells, "That shrimp is a lunatic!"
"Usually I really love what I do, but sometimes people can be pretty ruthless. Like this one time, I was resting on a park bench because I wasn't feeling too great, and this guy came up to me and started ranting and raving about hating shellfish and wanting to boil me alive. I kept my cool and asked him to leave me alone, but he wouldn't, so finally I had to hit him over the head with one of my claws. There was also this time I got caught in the middle of a fight between a carriage driver and a group of guys in a car. Somebody claimed to have a gun, and I was thinking to myself: Great, I'm gonna get shot because I'm the easy target."
Lobsterman came close to being arrested last year. "I went to McCormick Place for a convention and was wandering around inside when this undercover cop accused me of being a psychotic crab and threatened to arrest me. He said I was scaring small children. I told him I've scared plenty of small dogs in my lifetime, mainly poodles, who for some reason can't deal with my bright color, but I've never scared a kid, ever! If anything, kids worship me! Well, this cop wasn't too impressed, and he practically carried me out of the place. People were wondering why Lobsterman was in trouble with the law. But I handed out a lot of fliers, so maybe it helped business."
After Lobsterman takes another short break, he's back on the job. Swimming through crowds, he ends up on Rush Street, where he poses like a statue, complete with fliers sticking out of his claws.
"Hey Gumby, cheer up!" a guy yells.
"Gumby's not red!" someone else yells.
"OK, so he's Pokey--same thing, right?"
Then a woman walks past him and smiles. "Got a name?" she asks.
"Lobsterman," he answers coyly.
She looks him up and down and whispers, "You're cute." Lobsterman seems a bit uncomfortable and blushes. "A lot of people flirt with me. But I don't date people who I meet on the job. Unless, of course, they're turtles."
As the day wears on, Lobsterman picks up his pace, shoving fliers at people more aggressively. At one point, two people dressed as large black bags of Smart Food pass. Lobsterman waves to the human popcorn bags and they nod their heads disinterestedly. "I've had people ask why I don't work as a popcorn person. But they're more like a dancing team. They go to the sides of highways and do these cute routines. Plus they're always in pairs. Unless the restaurant creates a swordfish or a big flounder for me to hang out with, I'd rather be the lone Lobsterman."
Is there such a thing as lobster burnout? "Definitely. One time last summer I was literally broiling in the sun, and I just took off to Oak Street and went wading in Lake Michigan. I might have scared a few sunbathers who thought I was a giant red shark. But those are the risks you have to take when you're Lobsterman."
Lobsterman walks up Rush to Elm Street, where he runs into a large chicken, also handing out fliers. "Hey!" Lobsterman yells. "Get off my corner! This is my turf!"
The chicken looks around, shrugs his feathers, clucks a few times, and continues his business. Lobsterman stands with his claws folded across his shell and says to the chicken, "Listen man, I don't allow chickens to sponge off my terrain, all right?"
The chicken paces back and forth, clucks once more, and then yells through his chicken head in a muffled voice, "You're a rude little shrimp."
Lobsterman's mouth drops open. "Oh yeah? Well your beak is crooked!" The chicken turns tail, wings flapping. Lobsterman readjusts his own tail and takes a deep breath. "I can't stand it when other characters try to solicit in my area. One time last year, this giant toothbrush was handing out on one of my corners. It wasn't like he was intentionally scaring people, but I think the image of a giant lobster and a giant toothbrush was a little bit overwhelming to certain shoppers."
Lobsterman loops around a corner and is confronted with a group of rather boisterous yuppie types.
"What the hell is that?" someone yells.
"It's a piece of red carpet," a woman laughs.
"No, it's a member of the KKK!" someone else screams. They stagger past Lobsterman, pointing and laughing loudly.
How does Lobsterman handle the verbal abuse, the sideways glances? Does he ever feel bitter? "There are always going to be prejudiced people in the world. In fact, just last week, a carload of guys threw an egg at me and called me a carrot. I chased them to an intersection and one guy got out of the car to fight me, but when he saw my claws he jumped back into his car," Lobsterman says.
A young woman walks up to him and asks, "Hey, are you supposed to be a noid from Domino's Pizza?"
"Pardon me?" Lobsterman asks, somewhat confused.
"You know, that little red clay figure from TV commercials. He's a noid. Are you a noid?"
Lobsterman puts his claws on his hips and says, "No, I am not a noid, but I will be if you don't leave me alone!"
The woman walks away quickly, mumbling something about Lobsterman being "a jerk."
Lobsterman scratches an antenna and rubs a claw against his face. "That was the dumbest question I've ever been asked."
It's nearly 9 PM and Lobsterman, now a bit crabby, makes his way back toward the restaurant, his tail dragging on the ground, his bag of fliers empty, and his claws swinging limply from side to side.
A girl on a moped speeds by and yells, "Hey Lobster-Dude!" Lobsterman waves a claw somewhat lazily and continues on his way. Despite his fatigue he manages to ignore some children who sneak up behind him and grab his tail. Lobsterman tolerates children, knowing that many are enamored of him and some might even hope to become lobsters themselves someday.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.