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May Day on the Chicago River, celebrated by an artists' boat parade

By Dale Bowman

From the June 2005 Issue

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We’ll come to a buck-naked Johnny Payphone hurtling into the North Branch of the Chicago River on a girl’s pink bicycle. But, at the start, the second Guerrilla Flotilla is as innocent and smooth as a baby’s bottom. A day before May Day, a motley crew of artists and artisans pulls objects of dubious floating ability from trunks and the roofs of vehicles.

They park briefly at a tiny empty lot by an extinct railroad track on the edge of the North Avenue turning basin. (One of the few vacant spots, we might add, in Chicago’s red-hot Clybourn Corridor.) “What are the corks for?” Allie Young asks as she rummages through stuff collected beside the bastard offspring of a catamaran being assembled by Erik Newman. Why stop there, miss? What was any of this for? “For the holes,’’ Newman answers. To Young. The deeper question the quasi-organizer of the event will address later. While most of the crowd of several dozen wears artistic ragamuffin styles or basic black in the work-boot mode, Newman sports a straw boater with a hole in it, a white suit and pink shirt.

Occasionally, he pulls out a rescued piece of organ pipe, originally part of the Manhattan Project that had come to Newman by some wayward path, and hangs a few notes in the air. Canada geese pairs swim in the turning basin as artistic aquatic stuff—and it only rightly can be called stuff—is dragged into the cocklebur-infested bank. A tug passes, heading north. Later in the afternoon, it will return, pushing a barge toward the Loop.

Geoff Wood, a Seattle man transplanted to Bucktown, has built an 8-foot canoe/boat of lauan wood. The Daisy Paddler, named in honor of his girlfriend, has not been water-tested before the launch. “Today is the maiden voyage; it is still sticky from the varnish,” he says. “I am sure it will float, but will it leak? I am one of the seminal organizers, though not really—there is no organization.” Whoa. Was that one hand clapping or one goose splashing?

Matt Binns of Chicago’s West Side has revamped an ancient, gasoline-powered one-seater that looks like a forerunner to the modern personal watercraft. “It hasn’t run in 20 years,” Binns says. “I bought it on eBay from a guy in Burbank.” Burbank, California? No? Try the southwest suburb of Chicago. “It used to be powered by a chainsaw motor,” Binns says. Yeah, his Panther had been powered by a “rip-snorting, two-stroke engine.” He replaced that motor with an electric Minn Kota trolling motor. One he jury-rigged to run somewhat backwards via hand controls, instead of the usual foot pedal. In consulting with advisors at Minn Kota, they assured him his warranty was no longer valid.

Warranties? This was art. Binns is first in the water. It took some doing, but he learns the quirks of his backward rigging and putters around the turning basin with a certain pizzazz and glee. Wood launches shortly after him. There is a preliminary wobble to his maneuvering, but Wood steadies the Daisy Paddler and makes his own arcs.

On shore, Eric Richardson of Wicker Park says, “I need some duct tape.”

Duct tape: not just for the suburban woodsman any more, but friend to the urban artistic alternative, too.

Richardson is patching spots on a dubious-looking scull loaned to him by Newman. Forget a sea-exploring Eric the Red; this vessel looks more like Eric the Sinker.

“It took a spill of 20 feet off his deck,” Richardson says. “But it is still useable.” There is a method to his mad taping. All the spots that had been previously taped or somehow repaired receive a fresh coating of duct tape. “I just hope it doesn’t take on water,” Richardson says. “I do not want to touch that water.”

A photographer is wandering around looking at the crowd sprawled across the bank, and says it looks like the painting Summer in the Park at the Art Institute. One of the more art-literate recalls it was Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Both the painting subjects and the Flotilla watchers are gathered in a weekend social outing. After that, the points dissolve. Instead of wearing the finest Sunday suits and hoop skirts of the 1800s, the people are wearing the 21st-century urban alternative. Newman half-watches the doings and putters around, prepping his own vessel, his half-breed catamaran. His Aqua-Cat vaguely resembles a gondola with three wooden barrel hoops laid on a twin track. “When I was caulking last year, I saw the tube said it was not waterproof,” he says.

Might there be the first real excitement of the day?

“I built the hull 10 years ago, and had no idea what I would do with it,” Newman says.

Richardson continues to work on his loaner.

“He promised me it won’t sink,” he says. “I may duct tape the whole thing.”

“Grab these ropes,” Newman says, as he sets to launching.

“Just chuck it in,” Binns shouts.

Newman sets off on a shaky launch, but soon steadies. Richardson is close behind, but the scull has a leak and he soon pulls out.

Joseph Jorgensen of Ukrainian Village had bought a fisherman’s rubber raft, brand name of Fish Hunter, online. “Right now, it has no personality,’’ he says while mounting a small electric trolling motor to a wooden piece on the back. He had plans to build a platform on top. For this launch, a friend gave him a brown blow-up monkey as traveling companion.

The sixth vessel proves the first failure.

Chicagoan Katie Williams comes lugging her Bottle Boat, half a plastic barrel, covered with Saran Wrap on top and surrounded by multitudes of empty bottles. She gives it a gallant effort, trying to float on it, by crawling out slowly on her belly. To no avail. And she takes the first spill in the Chicago River.

Not a good idea.

Or, as Newman puts it on his Web page, “A word to the wise . . . It is recommended to keep out of direct contact with the river. Despite ongoing cleaning of the river, it is still classified as polluted. (You can get a very serious infection from any open wounds.) So no swimming.’’

Newman grew up by the North Branch on Chicago’s Northwest Side. He knows it well. “When I talked to people who live by a river and swam in it, it seemed so strange to me,’’ he says.

Strange is no stranger to Newman. This is the second Guerrilla Flotilla, which is a rebirth of a flotilla of sculptures on the North Branch in the early and mid-1990s. In those, a powerboat towed around sculptures.

So, is there some social or greater point, other than a 21st-century remake of a famous painting—say, A Saturday Afternoon at the North Avenue Turning Basin?

“We don’t know yet,” Newman says. He has had his fingers in many things over the years, or, as he puts it, “I make stuff. I’m an artisan.” He lives and works in a massive industrial space in Humboldt Park.

Ingrid Walker, stepmother of Young, surveys the doings—the small vessels circling the turning basin, the one dunked Bottle Boat—and says, “This is a much more seaworthy event than other years.” Meanwhile, on land, the Rat Patrol rolls down the bank. They make, or should that be sculpt, some of the more bizarre bikes seen around Chicago.

Out of nowhere, somebody launches a red plastic kid’s raft. Somehow, it seems right. Right place and right time. Properly absurd.

Johnny Payphone supervises turning a girl’s bike into a floating paddle bike. Several people duct tape together junk plastic jugs and bottles, some of drink, some of detergent. And some of other things.

“Put a bunch of garbage on the bike and ride it into the river,” Payphone says.

Before getting into the river, he shucks his shirt, exposing some body art. Then he sheds shoes and pants, exposing much more: a Full Monty down by the river.

The floating bike floats. But it also flops him, flopping into the water. Necessity, the great Mother of Invention, peers on the proceedings. Payphone stumps around on shore for a while. Suggests people bring him boards for a launch. He plans to jump the bike into the river. Planks are found and positioned.

Stumping around, we might add, still fully naked, while Saturday afternoon commerce clogs North and Clybourn. And so unclad he continues to supervise preparations.

“I know what is going to happen until we reach the end of the land,” Payphone says.

Friends jam a thick, dried weed stalk into the back of the bike, then take a few sheets of a reporter’s yellow notebook paper and crumple them. When Payphone signals, the paper is lit, and he pedals toward the river with a flaming tail of sorts.

Instead of popping the front of the bike into a half-assed wheelie, the bike nose-dives into the river like a shot-down plane, and Payphone sails head over handlebars into the Chicago River.

“Oh, the aftertaste,” he says.

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