Madison, by all accounts, has a rich cast of characters. A very few are famous (okay, one: John Nichols), and some are locally well known. And then there are those who, because of what they do, are recognizable but seldom in the spotlight. We see and hear them, but don't know much about them.
Well, the best thing about being a journalist is never having to say "I wish I knew." We don't have to wonder; we can always just ask.
That's just what a group of Isthmus staffers did. We picked people we see often and are curious about and asked if they would be willing to be part of this story. Not everyone was, but we did come up with an interesting mix of recognizable local folk with stories to tell.
Here's our advice: Use this piece to generate your own ideas about people you see about town and would like to know more about. Should you send us your ideas? Heck no. This story is done. Talk to them yourself.
Lena Enke, parking attendant
When I take my pick for this story on a tour of the Isthmus office, a co-worker accosts her, "How do I know you?"
Lena Enke gets it all the time. She'll be in a store or on the street, and people with puzzled looks will wonder why she's so familiar. "Do you park downtown?" she'll ask, rattling off some of her ramps: MATC, Government East, Capitol Square North ("which everyone still calls McCormick").
Enke, 55, is a bright spot in many people's day. She greets everyone, gives excellent directions, has mini-bags of Cheetos for kids and treats for doggies. I've known her for at least a decade, but only recently learned her name.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, she moved to Wisconsin as a young girl, first to Waushara County, where she harvested cucumbers with her parents, and later in Manitowoc, where her folks got jobs at Mirro Co., making aluminum cookware. (Both are still there, long retired.)
Enke had a rebellious streak and resented a home life where "I wasn't allowed to do anything except baby-sit my brothers and sisters." She ran away, which got her sent to the Oregon School for Girls (now Oakhill prison). She ran from there, too, and came to Madison, homeless but never without a place to stay: "There were hippies and stuff, and people would open their homes to you easily."
She worked various jobs and took part in antiwar protests; a photo of her at the 1969 Mifflin Street Block Party ran in Time magazine. Two years later, she was busted at another protest, and authorities learned she was a runaway. But she was now 18 and wanted only for running away, so "They pretty much had to let me go."
Enke lived for six years in Canada and one in Germany. But she came back to Madison, and in 1986 was hired at the city sign shop. She later became one of Madison's first female sanitation workers, hard but satisfying work. "When you were done it was like, 'Hey, I cleaned this whole neighborhood up by myself.'"
After an injury ended her garbage-hoisting career, Enke ended up at the Parking Utility in 1990: "I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the customers." She's known some since they had babies in car seats. "Now they're teenagers, and I've seen them grow up."
Enke, who has a grown son from a previous marriage, was married three years ago; her husband, a welder by trade, works part-time for a bus company. They live on the east side, near Reindahl Park. For her, Madison represents freedom and opportunity.
"I still love it," she says. "I'll never outgrow it."
- Bill Lueders
Raul Ortegon, tiger rider
Raul Ortegon zips around downtown Madison in his wheelchair like it's a Ferrari. It's that full-speed-ahead quality that first caught my attention. It's infused in how he talks, too - an all-in, infectious enthusiasm on everything from meditation to tattoos.
Born in Eagle Pass, Texas, a "dry, hot border town," Ortegon moved with his family to Fond du Lac when he was a teenager. He had polio when he was an infant; he used to walk with crutches, but he switched to a wheelchair when he started college.
Ortegon, 42, moved to Madison in 1995 to take a job in tech support, coaching people through the intricacies of Windows 95. He still does computer support, for the state Department of Administration, on a system used by district attorneys across Wisconsin. "It's nice to be working for people instead of a corporation," he says.
A west-side resident, Ortegon likes Madison more than any other place he's lived. "I can go anywhere and meet people." He takes the bus and just put $600 worth of new parts into his wheelchair, but now is considering alternative transportation: buying his first car.
Ortegon majored in math and physics at UW-Whitewater, but has always been drawn to big questions about life and the universe. In 1992, he discovered meditation. "Sixteen years later, I'm still working on enlightenment." He's attended Buddhist temples, but says "they're too calm for me. I'm wilder and crazier." Instead, he has meditation teachers and recently traveled to Colorado for a four-day course. Next stop: Europe, for another workshop, if jet fuel prices don't make travel too expensive.
Meditation has "done great things for me; I take things less personally. Changing the way you see things is a task and a half."
Ortegon likes reading, the outdoors and going to concerts. Oh, and skydiving, which he and a friend like to do annually. That's part of what he calls "riding the tiger of direct experience."
As he puts it, "You have to live in the present moment and not spend your life in la-la land." It's all there in his two tattoos: the Sanskrit character om that means, variously, "truth" or "yes"; and a silhouette of the questing Don Quixote on his horse.
- Linda Falkenstein
JoAnne Pow!ers, street musician
Anyone who's heard JoAnne Pow!ers play her saxophone on State Street won't be surprised to learn that she inserts an exclamation mark into her last name. "!" is a pretty good description of Pow!ers' wild sound, full of free-jazz squeaks and screeches. Love her or hate her, you have to admit she has guts for dosing Madison with her eccentric form of self-expression.
Pow!ers, 35, grew up in Racine, which she calls "the ass end of the universe." She came to Madison for college and stayed, even though she has reservations about this place, too. "It's sorely lacking in diversity and culture," she says.
Still, Pow!ers has carved out a niche here. She plays on State Street two or three times a week in the warm weather, carrying on the tradition of out-there saxophonists like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Aside from the occasional drunk, she tends to get a positive reaction. "A lot of people thank me for intruding on the atmosphere of the street," she says.
Pow!ers also plays with her own trio, recently releasing an album called Food for Thought. She doesn't make much of a living from music, but she doesn't seem to care. "Playing avant-garde jazz is not a road to riches for most people," she says. "I'm poor, but it's worthwhile."
So what about the "!"? Pow!ers puts the exclamation mark into her name because it seems appropriate. "People tend to think my playing is on the powerful end."
Make that "pow!erful."
- Dean Robbins
Dale Marsden, beehive hat guy
Dale Marsden seems a tad ambivalent about his celebrated beehive hat, a fixture at Saturday's Farmers' Market on the Square. "I usually wait until someone complains," he says, laughing. "When someone asks about the hat, that's my cue to put it on. It doesn't take long."
The hat is great for business. "I forgot it at home once; I had to have my wife bring it up!" he says. "One woman told me, 'I am glad you are wearing that hat. It makes me smile.'"
Some people want pictures, of him or with him. He's happy to oblige. "I keep a tally. I'm up to 15 or so. I've had three Flat Stanleys already this year!"
He made the hat himself. At the market in the '90s, his stand was sandwiched between Norm Weber in his inflatable brat hat and cheese makers who doffed home-crafted cheesehead hats. "Dale, you need a hat," they told him. Marsden, a market vendor since 1978, blended an old bike helmet with a decorative hive from the beekeeper supply store.
A youthful 61, Marsden has been keeping bees since high school. He grew up on his family's farm near Edgerton, and after graduating from UW-Whitewater with a degree in physics, was drafted into the Air Force and went to Vietnam. He became a navigator and bombardier, earning two medals; he retired as a lieutenant colonel from the reserve's Flying Badgers in 1992. He and his second wife, JoAnn, a kindergarten teacher, have been married for 20 years. Between them, they have four grown children.
Marsden's Air Force pension helped him settle into life as a beekeeper and honey sommelier. He maintains hives at his farm in McFarland and several other places. He can recognize the flavor of at least 15 different varieties of local honey. Cranberry honey is like caramel, dark and sweet. Russian olive honey has cinnamon overtones; locust is like a fine scotch; dandelions add a sharp spiciness.
Honey flows from early summer into September. Marsden spins it out in a small centrifuge in his honey house, bottles the sweet stuff, and makes beeswax candles from the combs. "People actually tell me they don't like honey," he says, offering tastes at his stand. "Then they try mine."
That's what keeps them coming back. Or maybe it's the hat.
- Ellen J. Meany
Thony Clarke, Mango Man
What's Thony Clarke's favorite smell? The proprietor of Cafe Costa Rica and the Mango Man cart, who spends his waking hours amid the rich aromas of the foods on his menu, gives the matter some thought.
"Hmmm," he says, taking a break at a table outside his Butler Street restaurant. "That's a tricky question, because there's lots of favorite smells. Like my sauces." He reaches for two large squeeze bottles and sets them on the table. "This is the Mango Man salsa, and this is the Monteverde salsa. It took me six years to put together the right amount of spices for the right scent on the plate."
How did he decide he had perfected each blend? "I believe that my taste buds are alive," he says with a hearty laugh.
Clarke, 41, moved to Madison from his native Costa Rica 10 years ago. "My wife was raised here in Madison," he explains. "We got married in Costa Rica. She turned out to be pregnant, so I married my girlfriend. We have two kids now. I wanted to be a responsible dad, a responsible person and do the right thing."
Adjusting to Madison's winters was difficult, he allows, and adapting to new ways of doing things proved a challenge. But things have worked out well; the couple's two daughters are now 11 and 7 years old.
He describes himself as "spontaneous and artistic." The artistic impulse is evident in the food he serves, "but I am a musician first. That's who I am. I did that in Costa Rica." He hopes to assemble a band that fuses his tastes, which range from Latino, Caribbean and African to jazz, funk and rock. He cites Restaurant Magnus and the Memorial Union Terrace among his favorite live-music venues.
"I have a huge collection in my cafe," he adds. "What makes me happy is the ability to make people happy, to put a smile on people's faces. Music makes me happy, and cooking makes me happy."
Clarke would like to someday open a second restaurant with enough space to host live music, but he has no plans to abandon this first location. "This is magic right here," he says, gesturing toward the front door. "I won't ever, ever mess with it."
- David Medaris
Kathleen Conklin, Pilates instructor
Kathleen Conklin is one of those people who turn heads. I know that because she turned mine the first time I got within 50 feet of her, at the dearly departed Gold's Gym.
I was stretching my calves. Conklin, the owner and director of Body Conscious, a Pilates studio located on Atwood Avenue, was conducting one of her mat classes. These are Zen-like rituals where body-worshipers (I mean that in a holistic kind of way) cultivate their core muscles. And if a teacher was ever said to embody the goals her students were striving for, Kathleen's the one.
Tall, muscular, but with curves in all the right places, she moves with the supple grace of a panther out for a stroll. She's also beautiful, her eyes a pair of diamonds. She's an ab-fabulous dresser. And she's single!
Conklin, 46, was raised in Middleton and attended UW-Madison as an undergraduate and for law school. She worked at CUNA Mutual before opening Body Conscious.
To the extent she's recognized when she goes out, Conklin says, "it's probably because I've been teaching around town for 10 years." Her studio, she notes, "is one of the stops on Gallery Night, so that might account for some of it. Maybe this is what happens when you've hung around town your whole life."
And just why has she hung around Madison her whole life?
"The people," she says. "My clients are Asian, African American, Native American, college kids, 81-year-olds, men, women, somewhere in-between, gay, not-so-gay, triathletes, Iron people, you name it."
Any other reasons?
"Yeah, because the traffic in L.A., New York and Chicago sucks."
- Kent Williams
Ron Burke, shoe repair maven
Ron Burke has been in the shoe-repair business since the mid-1960s. He knows everything there is to know about insoles and uppers, the relative merits of Vibram and rubber, and good old tanned shoe leather. And he's never shy about telling customers that the cheaply made shoes they've brought in for new soles don't deserve to be saved.
"I enjoy it. It's not work," says Burke, 65, owner of Cecil's Shoe Repair on Odana Road. "You get to meet interesting people. You get to do interesting projects."
Cecil's Shoe Repair is all that's left of Cecil's Sandals, whose sturdy, egalitarian footwear once graced the feet of thousands of Madison denizens. Back in the 1970s, Cecil's main shop on Frances Street produced as many as 70 pairs of sandals a day, with Burke, his trademark beret angled on his head, bustling about the premises and stopping every so often to correct the uncertain technique of his student-age help.
The sandal business was actually named after his dad. But that didn't matter. Old friends and people who'd known Burke since his school days in Richland Center called him "Ron" or "Ronnie." Everyone else called him "Cecil."
They still do. "No matter where I go - whether I'm shopping or at a play - it's always, 'Hey, Cecil!'"
Burke closed the Frances Street shop in 1997, but his passion for shoe-making didn't disappear. He's proud of the orthopedic solutions he comes up with for disabled customers - like putting a piece of shoe leather on a tennis shoe for an MS sufferer so the soles don't slide.
"It's extremely rewarding when you take someone from where they can hardly walk to a point where no one stares at them," Burke says before attending to a female customer who proffers a well-worn pair of black boots. "And you have to be innovative."
Some of Burke's compassion for customers with special needs comes from his own experience. After a skiing tumble in 1980, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a condition that causes a gradual fusion of the spine. He takes it in stride.
"After it finally fused, I had no pain whatsoever," he says brightly. "The doctor said it would take 20 years to fuse, and then there'd be no pain. It fused in 2002. He knew what he was talking about."
So does Ron Burke.
- Tom Laskin
Jane Jensen, peace activist
It never fails: Attend any Democratic Party function - a fund-raiser, a picnic, an election night party - and you're bound to see a petite woman, with coiffed brown hair and an ebullient smile, wandering through the crowd.
Jane Jensen, 75, sees it as her civic duty: "We're all responsible for making our country better and our lives better."
Born in Lakewood, Wis., Jensen became a military wife at age 19, had four children, and once worked for Gov. Warren Knowles, doing public relations. But she discovered her true passion in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq and her son, now a colonel in the Army, was deployed there.
Jensen founded Military Families for Peace, a group that provides emotional and psychological support to the families of soldiers. She also began speaking out against the war and attending rallies; some group members attacked Jensen and dropped out, but Jensen persisted.
"My goal is to end the war," she says. "I ignore all the rest."
Being a political junkie energizes Jensen. She spends her time going to every political event on the calendar, carrying a tote bag that reads "Politics is my bag" signed by Al Gore, Ted Kennedy and Teresa Heinz Kerry. In 2004, she toured the country with Gen. Wesley Clark and a "band of sisters" - other women from military families - backing John Kerry for president. She'd be willing to tour for Barack Obama, too.
"I haven't been asked yet," she says.
Maybe Obama's campaign should call. Jensen's group now has a mailing list of more than 600 people. Her enthusiasm is boundless. "I get up every day and I say, it's a new day and a new challenge."
- Vikki Kratz
'Merlin' Conley, newspaper vendor
"Would you like to buy a paper, miss?" asks a tanned man in a baseball cap of a scowling girl in huge sunglasses. She ignores him. "Like your shades," he calls after her.
Chris Conley, or "Merlin," as he prefers to be called, sells copies of StreetPulse, a Madison newspaper produced by the homeless, for a dollar each. He makes it a point to compliment people as they walk by, whether or not they pay him any mind. It's something he learned from his father.
"If you see something that is good about a person -their appearance, voice, whatever - tell them it's good before they do something to change it," his father told him. And people are more likely to buy what Conley is selling if he can make them smile.
In Madison, Conley is widely known as "StreetPulse Guy" or "Compliment Guy." He says that wherever he goes, odds are that someone will recognize and greet him.
Conley, 39, was born in Fresno, Calif., and grew up in San Diego County. He's lived in Washington state, picking up pool playing and panhandling skills and working in a lab that developed homeopathic supplements.
In 1999, Conley traveled to Pennsylvania for the national Rainbow Gathering, an annual outdoor event that celebrates the virtues of peace, love, freedom and community - or, as he puts it, "hippies and soft drugs." On his way, he was mugged of everything he owned, including his Social Security card, birth certificate and numerous credit cards. He hitchhiked to Madison, a place he heard was "fun to visit."
Since the mugging, Conley says someone has racked up $96,000 in debt in his name, making it impossible for him to get a real job or apartment. So he crashes with friends and sells papers during the days, when State Street gets the heaviest pedestrian traffic. He tries to be in front of security cameras on State Street for an extended period each day, to prove his whereabouts against the "charges" being made against him.
"Ironically enough," he muses, "the feature that most homeless hate is the feature that keeps me out of jail."
- Erica Pelzek
David Sewell, co-op troubadour
If you buy your arugula at the Willy Street Co-op, you've seen the rotating lineup of street musicians out front. There's the cellist, the accordionist, the guy who strums a mandolin and sings "Elvira."
And then there's David Sewell, 69, who flatpicks a beat-up Taylor guitar and, in his weathered voice, sings fine old country and blues tunes.
Day after day the south-sider rides to the market on his bicycle, trailer in tow. He mounts a harmonica on a mouth rack, then performs long sets of music by Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe and the Carter Family. Some shoppers stop and listen. Some don't.
"My father was a musician," says Sewell, who sells compact discs from his guitar case, including Brambles and Briars. "My mother wrote that one," he says, referring to the CD's title track.
Sewell was born in Lebanon, Ky. His father was a roadie for a chautauqua, and one year the traveling show ended its season in the town 65 miles southeast of Louisville. "They just stayed down there," Sewell says of his parents. Sewell has lived in Madison, off and on, since 1944.
Like many of us, Sewell learned about music from the radio. He especially loved the "Grand Ole Opry," the Nashville-based country and variety show; he tuned in every Saturday night. "It was still country music," he says of the "Opry" in its heyday, before drums and electric guitars. "That jukebox stuff hadn't come out."
His art hasn't brought him wealth or fame, but Sewell likes the life of an itinerant musician. "Nobody tells me what I gotta do," he says. "I don't have to answer to nobody."
What do Madisonians think of his brand of traditional American music? "They don't," he says, grinning. "You gotta go about 400 miles south."
- Kenneth Burns