Ian Applegate’s handwriting is famous, at least by New Haven standards. Chances are, most Yalies have already seen it on the menu at Koffee Too? on York Street, spelling out words like “Viennese” and “Moccaccino” on the board behind the counter. But in case anyone needed reassurance that Applegate’s distinctive lettering possesses local celebrity status, now they can look it up — on Applegate’s trading card, that is.
Sure enough, under the “Known for” heading on the back of Applegate’s card, wedged right between “composing digital music” and “a backpack full of ideas,” there it is: “having the coolest handwriting.”
Applegate, a New Haven resident for 24 years, is one of 60 colorful New Haven personalities whose photographs and profiles are featured on trading cards currently being sold at various bookshops in the downtown area. The series of cards, “Local Characters: Downtown New Haven,” was developed and produced last summer by Leslie Kuo ’03, who now works as a freelance artist and as a graphic designer for Artspace on Orange Street.
The front of each card displays a black-and-white portrait of its subject, while the flip side lists the subject’s personal details — everything from birthday and nicknames to where in New Haven he or she is most likely to be seen.
Most of the Local Characters are acquaintances of Kuo’s either from her undergraduate days or from her experiences in New Haven over the past several years. As a Yale student, Kuo was involved with Food Not Bombs, a volunteer group that serves food on the New Haven Green every Sunday to anyone in need. The group has its own Local Characters card.
“I guess I just knew a lot of different people who are involved in the whole downtown culture,” Kuo said. “I mean, everybody knows everybody — it’s New Haven.”
Applegate, who is particularly visible to coffee-loving Yalies and locals alike, finds himself at the hub of this downtown culture.
“You spend enough time around here, you start to recognize people,” he said. “I think that Leslie just started noticing all these familiar faces who didn’t go to Yale but were still recognizable.”
Most of the Local Characters would be familiar to the majority of Yalies. Annette Walton, better known as the Flower Lady, is shown posing outside a residential college. Margaret Holloway, the Shakespeare Lady, is photographed in full dramatic flourish, and Franco Gonzalez is shown standing next to his burrito cart on York Street. Applegate’s portrait was taken on the steps outside of Street Hall — “just a place where I would sit and do some of my writing,” he said.
Some names in the deck may be less recognizable, such as “Cloud Bear” — a mysterious Buddhist represented by a drawing of a cloud in lieu of a photograph, since he fears losing his soul to the camera. Cloud Bear’s card does not list a birthday, but instead insists he is “reborn every minute.”
Last summer, Kuo took the initiative to catalogue, track down and photograph all 60 Local Characters, but she said the idea for trading cards of New Haven personalities was not originally hers.
“It was actually something that had kind of been bandied around for a while before I came to it,” Kuo said. “When I started doing the project, a lot of people told me they had always thought that it would be a great idea.”
Applegate, whose card also identifies him as “Kid Analog” — the name of his digital music alter-ego and also the name of a comic strip character he created — said he had thought of something similar to the Local Characters cards when he began working at some of the local New Haven coffee shops.
“My idea was to have trading cards that would keep track of who worked at which places in New Haven,” he said. “So on the back you would have stats for each person, and they would show how long each person had worked at a certain job and how many different jobs they had worked at.”
The Local Characters cards officially credit Rich Neagle for the “original concept” and for the graphics found on one particular card. Neagle, a local musician who until recently worked at Tyco Copy Service on Elm Street, is himself featured on one of Kuo’s cards.
Kuo said Neagle welcomed the idea of the Local Characters cards with great relish when she began working on them.
“If I’m enthusiastic about this project, Rich is 10 times more enthusiastic,” she said.
The cards are sold in random packs of 10 at various local bookshops, the proprietors of which are usually featured on the cards themselves. Customers can buy a Bill Beckett card from Beckett at Labyrinth Books, a Roger Uihlein card from Uihlein at Never Ending Books or a Liz Theis card from Theis at Book Trader Cafe.
Theis, also known as “Sixteen-Year-Old Liz” because she moved to New Haven when she was 16, said she knows Kuo through City-Wide Open Studios, a project that invites New Haven citizens to explore the studios and expositions of various local artists. Theis pointed to a poster hanging in Book Trader Cafe that displays all 60 Local Characters.
“I suppose there are some pretty interesting people here, but I don’t really think of them in that way since I know all of them,” she said.
Theis said she was uncertain whether any other American city could boast its own deck of Local Characters.
“Well, it could maybe happen in New York City or Philly, but I feel like you’d have to be pretty crazy to make a name for yourself there,” Theis said. “Like the Naked Cowboy, in Times Square.”
Kuo said she thinks New Haven is unique in its particular flavor of city life.
“It’s this tiny little city,” she said. “I like to think that these cards couldn’t be done anywhere else in America. I’ve heard of some places like Olympia, Wash., or Asheville, N.C., where there’s a similar sense of local culture, but New Haven is special.”
That sentiment is underscored by a quote printed in each pack of cards and taken from a bumper sticker created by local artist and sometime-mayoral candidate Bill Saunders — “New Haven: so small, even you can be somebody.”
“The city has a sort of self-completion to it that I think is great,” Applegate said. “It’s not dependent on anything outside of itself for its livelihood.”
Unfortunately, Kuo said, cities like New Haven are becoming bygone phenomena.
“It’s a way of life that I think is really dying,” she said. “There aren’t going to be any more cities like this.”