ST. LOUIS — The slender young man with the good head of hair and pale skin doesn't seem like a superhero.
Sipping on a peanut butter and banana shake at a Central West End St. Louis coffee house, Charlee Chartrand points out that he is more Clark Kent than Superman on this particular day. He's dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and high-top Converse.
This is Chartrand when he is not fighting for truth, justice and the American way as a street performer.
As the Man of Steel, he has become a fixture at Busch Stadium for nearly every home game.
He makes regular appearances in the Delmar Loop and here, near the coffee shop not far from Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
Chartrand, 23, has put everything into the costume of blue tights and red cape, leaving behind a string of part-time jobs and opting to skip college.
This is how he has chosen to chase his dream of moving to Los Angeles and become famous as a street performer, model, actor.
He says this route best suits him, and he is doing better than some of his friends with degrees who are finding it hard to land a job and strike out on their own.
"I want the world to know who I am," Chartrand said.
And while his dream has not yet panned out entirely, his family backs what some might consider far-reaching aspirations.
"His father and I marched to a different drummer also," said Chartrand's mother, Margie Soffer-Wood, of St. Louis. "We never stressed that he conform."
Chartrand's father, Rennie, said his son loved the cape that came with his Superman pajamas as a young boy.
Chartrand recalls watching a Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve when in elementary school. The bespectacled Clark Kent turning into a superhero appealed to the skinny boy. He found himself dressing a bit differently, uncomfortable in conformity.
"He's basically comfortable in his own skin," said his father, of Jerseyville.
The road to becoming Superman began in earnest when Chartrand was a senior at Jersey Community High School. He dressed as the superhero for Halloween. At graduation, Chartrand unzipped his gown, ripped open his dress shirt and revealed a Superman T-shirt underneath.
"High school was great. It's where I started to evolve," Chartrand said. "Jerseyville was a very good Smallville for me."
He honed his superhero skills at Six Flags St. Louis in 2006, when he worked as The Flash, and occasionally Robin or The Green Lantern.
Last year, he won a Superman look-alike contest in Metropolis, Ill., home of the superhero. And last month, he attended his five-year high school reunion as the Man of Steel, at the encouragement of those who planned the get-together.
A formal education beyond high school was never a serious consideration.
"I wanted to prove to the world I could make it on my own without college," he said. "There is no college for superheroes."
His father said a university degree is designed to show you can fit in some place. "I don't think that's Charlee."
Even so, Chartrand had planned to make it to Los Angeles by now. But the fledgling superhero encountered one of the biggest villains in the world: a broken heart.
He thought he had found love last year, moving in with a girlfriend. Money planned for a move to California was spent in St. Louis making a house a home.
"Let's just say it ended badly," Chartrand says. He has sworn off dating until he is sure he has found his Lois Lane.
With a Superman suit on, it's hard not to stand out in a crowd.
People want their photograph taken with him. He obliges but will ask for donations. He has had a few unpleasant dealings with Cardinals fans. One poured a beer on him. Another ripped his cape.
Thanks to social networking and word of mouth, birthday parties are becoming an increasing part of his work. He also does charity work, appearing at fundraisers.
At Cardinals games, Chartrand can make $200 to $400 in tips for posing, flexing and holding babies as cameras capture him in action.
At 5-foot-10, he does a decent job of filling out the Superman outfit, thanks to a routine of push-ups and sit-ups.
But there are no rippling muscles popping through. He says he will not cheapen the impersonation with padding that would give him bigger biceps or more defined abs.
The most difficult part of becoming the Man of Steel is the hair, which Chartrand dyes black from its natural medium brown. He uses at least four hair care products to give it body and help keep it in place.
Whether he is Superman, Clark Kent or simply Charlee, Chartrand always wears around his neck a chain with a small Torah. It reflects his family's Jewish faith and is a nod to the creators of Superman. The superhero is often referred to as Jewish because those who imagined him were.
Chartrand lives with his aunt and uncle. The basement of their home serves as his work space, his getaway, his storage spot for the comic books that he uses to compare his costumes against.
Chartrand's father has persuaded his son to stay in St. Louis for another year, delaying plans to move to Los Angeles after the holidays.
"I don't want to squash his dreams," he said. "But I don't think he's ready for that yet."
He needs more time honing his skills. A more solid reputation. Perhaps a publicist.
Charlee has had a small glimpse of fame. He was interviewed as Superman by a crew from "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in 2008 while attending a comic book convention in Los Angeles. The moment in the spotlight was fleeting, but it gave Chartrand a taste of what could be.
His parents say that if Chartrand does go back to college, he would make a good psychologist. Chartrand's parents divorced when he was 10, and they got counseling for their young son.
"He has always had an affinity for wanting to help kids because his life was really kind of rough there for a couple of years," his father said.
It might explain why Chartrand has embraced a fantasy world where he can go to help others smile, forget about their troubles.Comment on this story
In a non-superhero moment, Chartrand talks about his embarrassment at still living with relatives. Reality is creeping in at 23.
What was supposed to be a month or so living with relatives is now going on a year. He thought he would be in Hollywood by now. Performing. Becoming famous.
But love got in the way. And he knows his father is right. He's not quite ready for prime time. More work, more recognition. More money saved.
"The bigger I am in St. Louis," Chartrand said, "the better chance I have in Los Angeles."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.