Watching David Lyons work on Marion Street one summer evening, joking with a gaggle of kids as he tugged and twisted balloons into animal shapes, it was hard to imagine him at a desk poring over lines of computer code.
But that’s what he used to do.
Lyons earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and computer science and worked as a programmer, only to discover it wasn’t all he thought it would be. So in 1994, he did something many people dream of doing but don’t: he quit his day job to follow his bliss. He became a street juggler.
Actually, Lyons didn’t immediately turn into a juggler. He sought out veterans to learn from, joining Triton College’s Triton’s Troupers, and took up clowning.
“After a couple, three months, I was confident enough to go out as a street performer.”
While he’ll never be rich, he said, he likes the results.
“I make enough money that I can live with my mother,” he said with a laugh.
And his emotional and physical health improved.
“When I was a computer programmer I was kind of shy,” he said. Now, “I greatly enjoy the physical activity. Before juggling, I was kind of sedentary.”
After a few years of juggling, he switched to balloons. Less stress on his body, he said. The past nine years, he’s been a fixture at Downtown Oak Park’s “Thursday Night Out” on the 100 block of North Marion Street. He likes the creativity of making whimsical animals on request (and not just animals — he once made an umbrella when a child asked for one as it started to drizzle). Then there’s the banter and jokes.
“I’m enjoying the creativity, like writing my own jokes,” he said. “Occasionally, I’ll come up with a new balloon animal.”
Nowadays lots of people are pleased with the results of Lyons’ career decision, including countless children, parents, and Downtown Oak Park merchants.
On Aug. 22, he was in his trademark red-and-white striped jacket, at his regular spot, near the Competitive Foot. It was just past 6 p.m., and there was already a line of seven kids and a parent or two. As he chatted with the kids, he filled a long balloon, and with a few twists, put a round head at one end and began to draw a face.
A scowling face, its teeth clenched angrily.
“It’s a Chicago parking meter,” he told the kids. They didn’t react, but the two parents in line smiled knowingly.
The balloons are free, courtesy of Downtown Oak Park, but Carlos Reyes, 7, tipped Lyons a dollar.
Carlos walked away with his scowling parking meter, looking up approvingly at the Chicago Bulls balloon hat, complete with horns, that his brother Mateo is wearing. Seven year-old Carlos said he’s been coming to get balloon creations from Lyons “since I was little.”
His mom, Emily Reyes, said she tries to get to Marion Street early on Thursdays, because of Lyons’ popularity.
“The line is often super long,” she said.
Carlos and Mateo say watching Lyons work is fun, and always different.
“Once I had a crocodile,” Mateo said.
“Pirates, dogs, vampire bats,” his mom adds. “He’s really an interesting person to watch.”
Carli Gini, president of the Pleasant District Association, just south of Downtown Oak Park, is a big fan of Lyons, calling him “a weekly treasure.”
“He always has a line,” said Gini. “You’d think it would grow old, but no.”
It hasn’t grown old for Amee Shinsako, who walked back to her mom, Linda, looking pleased with the pink Chihuahua balloon on her wrist.
“He’s funny,” Shinsako, 9, said.
Like the Reyes, mom Linda Shinsako knows to get to Marion Street early if they want a balloon.
“This is the first time there haven’t been 50 people in line,” she said.
The line shrinks and expands as Lyons works and eager-eyed children wait their turn. Every minute or two, another child walks away happily with a creature crafted especially for them. Lyons also works for agencies that hire him out for birthday parties and other events.
Lyons said he’s never promoted himself. While he has the “street smarts” to perform in public, he said, he lacks, let’s say, the “suite smarts” to run a business.
He is, he said, more hands-on, whether juggling, performing magic tricks, or creating an array of balloon animals for eager little kids.
Things slow down a bit after summer (the final scheduled Thursday Night Out was Aug. 29) but Lyons said he is looking forward to one more day on Marion Street at Oaktoberfest on Sept. 20. So, how much longer does he plan to twist balloons and tell silly jokes to eager kids?
“This,” he said, “is an ideal retirement job.”