Every Sunday, just before 11 a.m., a slender man with jet-black hair hauls plastic bins, a speaker, white PVC pipes, black cloth and a couple of cardboard signs to the northeastern corner of the 24th Street BART plaza and unpacks.
Nick Jones, 35, transforms this BART stop into a puppet stage. Jones performs all over San Francisco and decided to put on a show in his own neighborhood in October 2012. He had a rough time during the rainy season, but now that the sun is beginning to shine, you can expect to see him in the same spot every weekend.
Jones first came to San Francisco from Rhode Island as a runaway teenager. A drug user, he lived on the city’s streets, occasionally putting together simple sock puppet shows in the Castro District or on Market Street. He eventually went to live in a residency for delinquent youth on 21st and Guerrero streets.
Through the help of his new home, Jones got an internship as a theater technician at the Children’s Creativity Museum, then called Zeum, where he was introduced to puppetry as performance art. Although he was blown away by the idea of puppetry as a high-concept art, Jones says, he just wasn’t ready for it.
“I was definitely not ready for it, emotionally or mentally or anything.”
At 24 Jones decided he wanted to change his life and clean up his act, so he moved to Maine, where he felt would have a chance to get away from drugs. No longer a drug user, he worked a series of what he calls “normal jobs,” in retail and customer service.
After four years Jones decided it was time to come back to the Golden State. He moved to Santa Cruz, where he met many inspirational young people who motivated him to develop his career as a puppeteer. Among them was a young man by the name of Charlie Berman.
“He continues to be one of my best friends, and he’s like my little brother and I love him to death,” says Jones. “He inspired me and completely believed in me and encouraged me.”
The only thing stopping Jones from pursuing a career in performing arts was the fear of falling back into old habits.
“I felt like I had to try to live a very traditional life or else I was just going to backslide, if I tried to do anything too artsy or avant-garde or different with my life,” he says. “In my mind those things were linked with, like, partying and hard drugs and just that lifestyle. I didn’t think I could have one without the other.”
Still, Jones took the risk. Someone gave him a road bike, so he built a bike cart and decided to become a traveling street performer. On his way to Oregon, Jones stopped in San Francisco, where his bike was stolen, preventing him from moving on.
“Well, I guess I’m home,” he thought to himself.
Today Jones performs in the Castro and on Market Street, where he started. He says his puppets are a reflection of what he sees in the city and the experiences he’s had, with the exception of one — Wolfie T. Wolf, the emcee.
“He is a caricature of my grandfather a little bit. He’s kind of the New Englander I don’t get to be because I live in San Francisco. So, Wolfie can be a little more direct,” Jones says, breaking into character mid-sentence.
You can find Jones, as well as Wolfie, Dino the Shark, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Señor Gato and many other puppet characters on Sunday afternoons, set up by the sign that reads Flat Broke Puppet Co. and a smiling orange pumpkin for donations.