Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Strange messages, a mysterious sender and mental health Downtown

One of the collages of Robert Thurston Wylde.

A few weeks after I started covering Downtown, the first package was left with baristas at the Beat, the coffeehouse that serves as my office. Three more came over the next two weeks. With “RUSH” written on the outside, each package contained carefully crafted collages of newspaper articles, with circles around names of local judges and renowned media figures and words from clipped newspaper ads underlined and starred.

Example: In a story celebrating the anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, these words were underlined in red ink: “Librarians voted it the best novel of the 20th century.” A red star was drawn hard next to the sentence. In other clippings, outlined in yellow marker, “7-Eleven” is underlined (with articles from July 11); and there’s a fascination with the capitalized letter “D”. The messages make no sense to me, and no one knows the identity of the messenger.

Like every city, Las Vegas has its fair share of eccentrics. Some are people with their own idiosyncratic behaviors; some suffer from mental illness. Paranoid schizophrenics walk local streets every day, cursing at invisible people. Sometimes the hallucinations and delusions lead to suicide, sometimes murder.

I’ve known those who’ve developed the illness. Even with meds and counseling, the chronic illness can become hell for victims and, often, their families.

The mentally ill are an issue of a different kind for a rebounding community like Downtown Las Vegas. Simply put, it’s no fun walking the sidewalk with nowhere to go but past someone screaming and punching at the air.

Although the county’s Mental Health Court—established in 2003 and having survived to varying degrees during recent budget cuts—attempts to get treatment for chronic offenders, many end up in our de facto asylum, the Clark County Detention Center. A recent state report said roughly 10 percent of the 55,626 people in the county jail in 2011 had a history of mental illness.

Many Downtowners believe the neighborhood is home to more mentally ill because the jail is only blocks away. Sarah Nisperos, who operates the clothing shop Coterie in a building that once housed a check-cashing store, said former inmates straggle in regularly looking to cash checks. Some say they’re directed by jailers to the store as the nearest place to cash checks.

Private money, even the millions Downtown Project is committing to redevelopment, won’t dent a problem as systemic as a poorly funded mental health care system. (Downtown Project is talking to Jeff Sparr, a founder of Peace Love Studios, to see if a branch could open here, and a new Downtown medical clinic is likely to employ a social worker to identify and help the mentally ill.)

Nevada politicians helped create an army of homeless mentally ill when they cut millions in mental health care in the early ’90s to help balance the state budget. State officials now are proposing $7.5 million for a 24-hour urgent care mental health facility in Vegas, but there’s no telling how this special budget request will be received by the governor.

If Clark County wants a guarantee of more state dollars to serve the mentally ill, here’s an idea almost certain to work: After serving their time, don’t release all those county jail inmates Downtown. Release them in Summerlin and listen as the cries for more mental health facilities rise.

Update: Just before publication, I met Robert Thurston Wylde, who has been sending me the packages. He told a fantastic story of his 82 years that included a lucrative mortgage banking business, troubles with the IRS, winning a “when will Skylab fall from the sky?” bet (it fell July 11, 1979, in the Australian Outback), winning a lawsuit—or “the lottery,” as he called it— after being injured near a construction site, and the recent death of his wife, which he said has turned him into a “lost soul.”

His collages do have a message, he stressed, but he couldn’t remember what it is.

I searched a bit online. In 1998, a Westword writer said this about Wylde: “One day in 1978, Wylde was walking down 17th Street when a roll of steel mesh fell from construction scaffolding onto his head, instantly turning him into a mental case—depending on whom you ask, either a dangerous, disturbing loony or a creatively manipulative mastermind who just happens to be insane.”

Then I heard from a Downtown business owner. The interesting design and themes threaded through Wylde’s collage work caught her eye, and she wants to talk to him about a possible project. Wylde said he’s interested in hearing her out.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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