Rickety Rat’s highlighter-green fur and wild eyes are muted in the candle light of Coventry’s La Cave Du Vin. Cleveland isn’t a plum and it’s not Paris. Rickety says these T-shirt-ready slogans are ridiculous. This is Rickety’s city — as it was Ghoulardi’s and Harvey Pekar’s.
Outside, on Coventry Road, the shops are just closing. A few groups of friends hurry in and out of bars, enjoying relaxed Monday night drinks. Nate Puppets, Rickety’s creator, navigates piles of fresh snow, Rickety safely tucked away in a black-and-white checkered duffle bag slung across his wheelchair.
This street is Nate’s home. He points out a bench near the soon-to-close vintage toy haven Big Fun — an icon in its own right — where he’s performed faithfully for the past decade.
“People look for me,” he says proudly. There is evidence of him even in his absence. On a bookshelf at Mac’s Backs bookstore, a furry puppet named Art P Flowersniffer sits near the ceiling. A few doors down, in Record Revolution’s front window, Jammer Monsta plays guitar.
Nate started making puppets when he was 11 years old, drawn to the puppet shows of the ’90s: Alegra’s Window and Eureka’s Castle. Of course, Sesame Street and the Muppets. Then, later, weirder, more irreverent shows, like MTV’s Wonder Showzen.
“It just looks like fun!” he remembers thinking.
“I love these concepts; I love these characters; I love these ideas!”
Also when Nate was 11, his hip popped out of place. Doctors had to put it back. Then, a year later, they had to do the procedure again, at which point a complication left his right leg a bit shorter than his left — a characteristic Rickety shares with him. Because he’d been walking unevenly for a decade, his spine went into his left leg when he was 22.
“It went dead,” Nate remembers. One day, he woke up and couldn’t move his leg at all.
“After the accident, that’s where it all started. I just kept going.” Nate, now 25, says, thinking back to when he was 11.
He’s always felt puppetry chose him.
“It’s exploratory. It’s inside me,” he says. “It has some kind of purpose; some kind of meaning.”
In some ways, Rickety — a cheeseburger-obsessed, lovable curmudgeon after Cleveland’s true, gritty heart — has always been there. In Nate’s sketchbooks, he’s appeared so many times over the years. Random rats here and there, a run-down Mickey and Minnie Mouse in a dysfunctional relationship.
According to Rickety, though, Nate isn’t there.
“He doesn’t even exist to me; he’s just kind of ethereal,” says Rickety, his chilled-out growl echoing in the quiet wine bar.
Before he was Nate Puppets, Nate was a Cleveland kid named Nate Brown. His brother was in the same class as Harvey Pekar’s foster daughter, Danielle Batone, so he’d always see the infamous comic artist around town.
“Heeyyy, Harvey, you feelin OK?” he’d ask him, wearily, no idea who he really was. A “face like death,” Harvey was being treated for lymphoma. And Nate, just a kid, was being polite.
Years later, when Nate was 16 and drawing comics, the two connected. Nate started doing odd jobs around the house for Harvey’s wife, Joyce Brabner, in exchange for puppet-building supplies and books. He’d written a comic book based on Harvey’s autobiographical series, American Splendor, and shared it with him.
“He was very polite about it. He was very, very polite,” Nate remembers. “I knew he wanted to critique it, but he didn’t want to destroy me.”
Nate reenacts conversations now priceless to him, busting out an exaggerated Harvey voice.
“Oh, this is good. Are you gonna’ draw it?” Harvey would ask him, saying his work reminded him of R. Crumb — another one of Nate’s heroes.
Harvey didn’t really know Nate did puppets.
“I was there to talk comics,” Nate remembers. Though, sometimes he’d catch glances of puppet sketches.
“Oh, so uh, you doin’ a puppet thing then?” another exaggerated Harvey voice, always accompanied with a smile.
It wasn’t until Nate watched the movie version of American Splendor years after Harvey’s death that he was really able to comprehend how special his experience was.
In his current sketchbook, Rickety grasps for Harvey’s hand, kneeling. “I worship you!” he begs. Harvey shoots back, “Get outta here, I’m goin’ to lunch!” Other illustrations show Nate’s childhood drawings attacking Rickety or maybe his own mind.
Back in December, when Disney acquired 21st Century Fox’s film and TV studios for $52 billion — the same day the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality regulations — Nate felt his head or his heart might explode. He’s always loved Mickey Mouse, but hates the fact that he’s the face of a giant corporation dead-set on owning all American characters and ideas.
Distraught, he went home, grabbed a piece of old cardboard; drew a demented, bled-dry Mickey and cut him out. Immediately, he thought, “Man, that would be a great puppet.”
Rickety has since taken on his own personality. He says he lives in the Free Stamp.
“It said ‘free,’ so I just moved in,” he laughs.
He has demands.
He wants his own old-school puppet show — The Rickety Rat Show. His costars are being built by Nate working day and night, carving puppet faces out of foam blocks wrapped in fur and then spray painted or otherwise brought to life. There’s a psychedelic Pegasus named Winkleperry; and a giraffe: Bumpy Peanuts.
Rickety also joined a hardcore polka band — The Hot Wings. He dances on stage during shows, moshes, stage dives, harasses people.
Aside from the TV show and taking over Cleveland, Rickety’s ambitions are simple.
“I want to live. I want to just be myself and do what I do. Once in a while I might throw a concept at you; an idea or something. Speak my mind about it,” he rambles, suddenly blurting out, “Billionaires.”
Thick, fluffy snow falls slowly and then melts in puddles reflecting storefront signs and street lights on Coventry, quiet but for Nate waiting for his bus near his bench.
“For hours, and hours, and hours, he’d sit there,” Steve Presser, who’s owned Big Fun for 27 years, remembers.
At first, he couldn’t figure out why Nate was gazing at his own reflection day after day. Then he realized he was training himself to keep his mouth from moving with his ventriloquist dummies: Skylar, a revolutionary rebel stoner kid; Chipper, the world’s greatest juvenile delinquent; and Bendy, a disgusting little clown goblin.
“I’m alternative, I’m not for children. I just want to do sick puppet shows. I’m not trying to be a kids entertainer; I’m not trying to be the great arteest; I’m just trying to be this weird, crazy, outrageous guy with puppets,” Nate says, aware that shock humor may not be for everyone.
“It’s what makes me happy; doing art the way I want to do it.”
“I love Cleveland,” he adds. “I really, really love this city.”
NOTE: Check out the Puppetry Guild of Northeastern Ohio’s World Day of Puppetry event Sat 3/24 @ noon-5pm at the Cleveland Public Library’s Main Branch.
[Written by Nicole Hennessy; all photos by Nicole Hennessy except as indicated]