When Codie Norman gets a sign-spinning gig, he tops his head like the Cat in the Hat, then dances, spins and flashes his pearly whites at passers-by.
"I love what I do," says Norman, owner a one-man operation called Cool Kat Street Level Promotions. "When you give smiles all day, how can you not?"
Norman's infectious smile and goofy red-and-white striped hat belie some tough challenges he's overcome with the help of caring Tucsonans and a steely determination to get and stay off the streets.
After his father died in 1998, Norman briefly joined Circus Gatti, where he worked moving props in and out during the show while "clowning it up" for the audience.
While working with the circus in Yuma, Norman was arrested on a traffic warrant. Mesa police took him back to their city, but the charges were dropped the next day.
What followed were three years of street life and drugs that led to a burglary conviction.
He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison and told by the judge to change his life.
Norman took the judge's demand to heart. He started a prison ministry and an inspirational bulletin board where he posted quotes, Scripture and affirmations. And he earned his G.E.D. and took creative writing courses at the prison.
Two years later, when Norman was released from prison in Tucson, he got a job and met his now ex-girlfriend, and they had a daughter.
Life was good for a while.
But when he and his girlfriend split, life spiraled downhill again.
He started drinking and became homeless again.
Home became a tent behind Pima Street Baptist Church on East Pima Street and North Rosemont Boulevard.
"He didn't have a place and he was struggling with alcoholism," said Randy Raaum, pastor of the church, whom Norman approached about living behind the property.
"It was myself and my wife who reached out to help him."
The church allowed him to stay on the playground behind the building in a makeshift tent Norman built. A neighbor let him use his electricity via an extension cord.
"He had an entire living space set up," said Raaum. "It was kind of amazing what he did with that space."
Despite their efforts, Norman says, his drinking caused him to temporarily lose custody of his daughter.
"It took damn near losing my daughter to get off the bottle," Norman said.
After about a year, he had sobered up, gotten off the street and gained joint custody of his daughter with his ex-girlfriend.
He got a job hawking the newspaper on the corner of Swan Road and Sunrise Drive. He entertained customers with his sales style, which included spinning the papers, dancing and smiling at drivers.
"It was captivating watching him spin the newspaper," Raaum said. "He's a performer. ... It's in his blood."
The showmanship and enthusiasm helped Norman launch his business about a year ago.
"He would always smile and wave," said Deb Weisel, owner of Tagline Media. "Before you knew it, I would roll my window down and we'd talk.
"He was so precious. ... He had a picture of his daughter on the pole behind him."
When Norman told Weisel he had started working on a logo to start a sign-spinning business she asked to see it.
"About a week later, she showed up with business cards and my first sign," Norman said.
Weisel made the cards for free. "We just wanted to help. So we did," she said.
Norman has performed at about 75 locations around Tucson. He spins at the street fairs on Fourth Avenue, Tucson Meet Yourself and Second Saturdays downtown.
"I've never had a bad day at work," he said.
While the business allows for little more than making ends meet, Norman says it's important to help others.
"The life best lived is the life you give away," he said. "I truly believe that."
Norman collects coats and gives them to the homeless. He spins signs in front of his church advertising Sunday service, free of charge.
"I don't think I know anyone who's come a longer way from where he was to where he's at now," said Raaum, Norman's pastor.
"One of the things that amazes me most is how he's always positive. Even during horrible times, he always finds the good and focuses on that," Raaum said.
Norman's been sober for three years. His focus in life is to move forward.
"I can't be ashamed of my past," he said. "I'm not living it anymore."
"When you've been to the gates of hell, even the ground floor is a step up," he said. "And the Cool Kat is stepping up."
The Cool Kat
The Cool Kat name was born when a group of kids saw Codie Norman dancing in his red-and-white striped hat.
"Hey," they said, "there's the Cat in the Hat."
Norman's retort: "I'm not cat in the hat, I'm the cool cat in a Cat in the Hat hat."
See the Cool Kat and his daughter perform on the Duke & Cat Show on Access Tucson at 8 p.m. Thursdays.
For information about Cool Kat Street Level Promotions, go to signspinnerstucson.com or call 867-1547.
Contact reporter Angela Pittenger at 573-4137 or firstname.lastname@example.org