Steve MacWithey, Kathleen Kahr D’Esposito and her husband Greg (best known around town as Vegas Santa) look like hippie ambassadors to a Grateful Dead concert.
Kathleen is decked out with a feathered marching band hat, blinking earrings, a crochet knit rainbow vest festooned with many lighted and beaded trinkets, and a duck call dangling from her neck. Santa holds his own in a full-length, bright yellow African tribal styled tie-dye print muumuu, complete with fake boobs. Steve is dressed to the party nines with a painted jester’s face, a party baton and ringmaster’s red velour vest. The stranger and more replete the costume, the more each person seems to just be a natural extension of the colorful fabric that is The Blinking Man.
As leader of EPYK entertainment, head DJ for the event and driver of the portable pedal pub party rig (a people-powered vehicle that resembles a small bar, each attendant manning a pedal station that propels the party forward when the guests all pedal in tandem), Steve doesn’t look even slightly out of place. Tonight, he is simply another costumed creature blending in effortlessly with bearded women, steampunks, clowns, burners and other freaks of the evening. If not for the bicycles, this gathering could almost be considered a normal night for downtown Las Vegas, the only real difference being that none of these people are charging you to pose with them for selfies.
This is my first Blinking Man event. As a founder and ringleader, it was Kathleen Kahr’s enthusiasm that led me here. It wasn’t until her and I (along with Steve and others) recently began working collaboratively on a large art event (scheduled for next year) that I really learned to appreciate all she does in this downtown community. I confess that I had not yet secured what I hope will become my main mode of transportation over the next year (a good beach cruiser) so I was a bit hesitant to commit to the ride before I was certain I would have the requisite gear. When Kathleen mentioned at a meeting that she had acquired yet another bike to add to her growing collection, I ventured to enquire whether I could borrow one for the event.
I’m glad I asked. The beautiful black and cream colored Schwinn 15-speed I was presented with as my chariot for the evening could not have been more perfect. Large tires, a comfortable seat and (of course) wired from stem to stern with an assortment of steady, blinking and neon lights, I was ready to roll.
The group I’m starting the evening with gathers slowly across the street from Huntridge Circle Park. Santa and I content ourselves playing a brief little jam session at the house as we wait for the crew to assemble. We are nearly two dozen strong by the time we leave the house and make the very quick jaunt around the park to gather with the larger group amassing in front of the Huntridge Tavern (HT), already preparing for a full evening of bike riding, noise making, bell ringing, horn honking revelry.
This is the Blinking Man Cycledelic Circus and I’m glad to be here. I feel pretty low key in my beige sixties protest style Peace t-shirt and small blinking Las Vegas sign, though what I lack personally in visual attractiveness my bike makes up for many times over. I am blinking. All over.
After around a half hour of standing in the Huntridge Tavern parking lot, mingling and taking photos, we officially begin the ride, perhaps 200-300 of us rolling down Franklin in a roundabout trip that takes us briefly down Las Vegas Boulevard with much fanfare and honking (or perhaps the drivers were trying to advise us of the completely illegal manner in which we commandeered the street), finally arriving at the first stop of our tour, The Lady Silvia bar at 4th St. & Hoover, one half block north from the ghost of the Enigma Garden Cafe.
I mention the Enigma here because I cannot help but remember her glory every time I end up traversing the first block of 4th Street going north from Charleston Blvd. I spent a good many years mere yards from this intersection, and most of the people I would consider life friends did as well. There is no small irony to me that while the Enigma Garden Café is now barely a memory (perhaps downtown Las Vegas’ finest ever outdoor patio, garden, and generally relaxing place to enjoy accidental conversations [Tony Hsieh now calls this "collisionable hours"], good food, and non-alcoholic libations. Alas, it closed its doors for good in December of 2000), the results of those days spent envisioning a new downtown clearly had an impact.
I really wonder how much of this area would have actually developed by now if there was never an Enigma? I think Julie Brewer would have approved of Blinking Man (I think we all would have approved). Julie was the original owner of Enigma and co-founder of First Friday, she passed away in 2007 before ever seeing this new boom after the housing bust. I think of her often when I look around at the transformations that continue downtown and always wonder what her commentary might be. I imagine her, like me, looking around and saying, “Is this what happened?” I suppose it’s cool, if not clichéd. Where I once stood at the front of the Enigma and looked across the two lane street to a vacant lot, now sits Soho Lofts (one of the first to dream of “Manhattanization”) along a completely refurbished and expanded 4th Street Corridor. Times have changed.
Tonight, a mere half block from my memories, I am blinking along with around 300 others now, surrounded by all manner of bicycle art, streamers, blinkers, wrapped neon, flags and reflectors. Large disco light towers are dumped into an attached carriage and flash to the rhythms of the music. One bicycle is covered with a real ram’s skull and full skeleton, another looks like Strawberry Shortcake puked rainbows all over it. There are low rider bikes, high rider bikes, scooters, mopeds, tricycles, mountain bikes, racing bikes and more. Women spinning hula hoops are glowing brightly in the center of the street. People are standing around, smoking, drinking and talking while a crush of people filters in and out of The Lady Silvia speakeasy. The Robo Duck food truck is running a brisk business. Costumes abound. Americana clashes with goth metal, hippie flower children and raver kids all move to the same thumping techno, all in the parking lot of a meaningless corner downtown, while the looming white Soho tower serves our reflecting pool.
The ride starts again. We cruise down 4th Street to Fremont and then make a detour to stop briefly, en masse, at the large mural on the south side of the Old Town Lodge Motel at 7th & Ogden. Created by the Artist Zio Ziegler for the Life Is Beautiful festival, I still consider this (and the other murals) to be the best thing Zappos has brought yet to downtown (I’m also still a bit peeved at Emergency Arts for removing the incredible piece by internationally acclaimed Ukrainian artist Interesni Kazki). During the brief pause we all park our bikes closely together, cheer and say hooray for the cameras. All because we can; because we should. The people who have gathered here in colors and lights represent a solid cross section of the larger downtown neighborhoods as a whole. Truly, this is community in action.
The tour commences again after the brief photo opportunity and we begin a long ride down through darkness on 6th Street (which really looked remarkably cool as the darker it got, the brighter we appeared, rows and rows of blinking colors moving slowly down lawyer’s row) that finally lands us at the semi-historic 5th Avenue Pub (mostly historic for seediness and not even in the original location, long ago replaced by a Walgreens and a Wells Fargo). The EPYK travelling sound booth is already grooving as we arrive. In the parking area, an enterprising gentleman with a few stuffed coolers carves delicious Mango flowers while Fuku burgers truck serves up late night Asian fusion. Hunter S. Thompson (or a poor facsimile thereof) poses with someone wearing a horse head, striped leggings and carrying an umbrella.
I think I miss tripping. I’m far too sober for all this. I know at least a few who are tripping balls by this point, though most are just slightly tipsy and wandering in and out of loose conversations or dancing to the beats in the parking lot.
Heading back downtown again, we take Las Vegas Boulevard to Fremont Street, then a right and straight on to our last scenic stop, Atomic Liquors. Downtown Steve (a local realtor and hip denizen) and I end up having a conversation for most of our respite at Atomic covering all things downtown. I always relish the chances to talk in depth to other locals who have enough history here to offer real insights based on their perspectives about what is happening downtown and its long term viability. We did both agree that Blinking Man seems to be a step in the right direction, along with many other creative community driven projects that are springing forth quickly out of the once declining Fremont East area.
At midnight I take a detour from travelling with the entire group by leaving the Atomic early, riding quietly back towards the HT with local craftsman and ginger-bearded cross-dresser about town, Charles Christians. Our decision to get a jump on the rest by pushing ahead to the final destination gives me time to watch the final arrival from a stationary position. The late night bicyclers straggle in slowly in small groups until the lights fill 11th Street as the push of the remaining one hundred or less cross Charleston Blvd. one last time.
The music continues well into the wee morning hours in front of the HT, the late night core crew still going strong at 1:30 a.m. I find myself wearing out finally and, after a few great final conversations with other local writers in our favorite tavern, I finally give up for the evening, heading back to Kathleen’s to return my faithful steed and venture back to my own abode.
There is an event sponsored by New Belgium Brewery called Tour de Fat that takes place in multiple cities in the US and culminates in a huge outdoor festival around Labor Day in Fort Collins, Colorado. It would seem every single resident of Fort Collins comes downtown that day on a bicycle and wearing something silly. So, while Blinking Man is a true community grassroots project without any major funding or corporate sponsorship (mind you, New Belgium Brewery is located in Fort Collins and is a shining national example of the right way to run an employee-owned company), I saw shades of Tour de Fat in every way while touring downtown this past Saturday night. I am grateful to all the participants for their energy and attitudes, and I hope that Blinking Man expands over the years to become as prominent an event here as Tour de Fat is in Colorado.