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Street performers CouchSurf via a Web site

TAMPA — A 20-year-old Jeep will roll into Tampa next week towing two rickshaws, three buddies and a chocolate Labrador mix named Stella.

No way this Denver trio could afford Super Bowl tickets — their budget barely allows for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But they're not interested in the Big Game anyway.

Just the crowds surrounding it. And the money about to be spent.

As Super Bowl ticket holders check into $200 hotel rooms, a roving class of cash performers will pour into town.

And at the end of the day, the rickshaw drivers and street jugglers will find their accommodations the same way they make their living — through the kindness of strangers.

• • •

Bobby Lentell, 29, is what those in his industry call a "pirate," a rickshaw driver who works for himself, pedaling across the country's biggest events, chasing money.

George Cottrell, 27, is a clean-cut Coast Guard lieutenant who flies Jayhawk helicopters and lives in Clearwater.

They both belong to Couch Surfing.com, a social networking Web site for people looking for a free place to stay in a new city, and for those willing to offer up their couches.

To Cottrell, the cultural experience is reminiscent of his hosteling adventures in Europe. To Lentell, it's the only way to travel when you're working for dollar bills.

They've never met in person. But when Cottrell goes out of town next week, he'll leave Lentell and his friends the key to his 800-square-foot apartment.

"He just seemed like a really hard-working guy," Cottrell said. "Why not?"

• • •

Also next week, Keith Wolfe will pack his trunk with the usual items:

Jeans, T-shirts, socks and underwear. Silver makeup, juggling pins, magic tricks, torches and knives. A bucket for tips.

The 30-year-old street performer known as Kerosene Keith will leave San Diego and get to Tampa somehow (he's convinced he can get his trunk onto a plane), and he'll check into his free CouchSurfing lodgings.

He sometimes stays in hostels, he says, but he'd rather spend that $20 buying his CouchSurfing hosts dinner.

In Tampa, he has made other arrangements to repay the favor.

He's staying with teacher Kelly Benjamin in Seminole Heights, and has agreed to come into his classroom to perform a juggling act about self-esteem.

• • •

The CouchSurfers will unpack.

Wolfe might get adventurous and try his fire show in Ybor City, but he's not sure how the local cops will react. He doesn't feel like getting arrested again. Last year, the San Diego police put him in jail nine times for playing with fire.

He swallows it, Wolfe says. "I used to breathe it, but I caught chemical pneumonia a few years ago, and I'm still a little froggy in the throat."

He'll probably just paint himself silver and stick to the juggling statue act. It doesn't rake in as many tips, but the crowds love it.

Lentell will ride around to get familiar with the city's street system, just as he did in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration, and as he will for the next stops on his pirating adventure: New Orleans for Mardi Gras, a big rodeo in Houston, South Padre Island, Texas, for spring break.

He plans to charge passengers per mile and will learn area history to increase his tips. He's hoping to get sponsored by a Tampa company that will pay for a logo on his bike.

Sure, Lentell is depending on others to get him through. But he has big plans to give back.

He wants to use the money he makes to open a rickshaw drivers' hostel in Chicago, so other pedaling pirates will always have a place to stay.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Street performers CouchSurf via a Web site 01/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 9:04am]
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