Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Musings on the neighborhood’s weird and wonderful characters

Downtown’s crazy mix of characters is part of its charm.
Photo: Sam Morris

Sit in one place long enough Downtown and you’re bound to catch glimpses of the absurd and the obscene. With a crew of coffeehouse observers filling me in, I’m privy to a wide range of oddities, developments, successes and failures.

I’ll call one of my fellow coffee-bar observers “Cliff.” He moved here from the southeastern U.S., where he worked as a lobbyist plugged into the political scene.

Cliff talks low and fast on purpose, by habit. I strain and move close to hear what he says because it’s often insightful, if not hilarious.

“There goes the bum whisperer,” Cliff says of a man who appears scruffy enough to make me think “homeless” but brings enough money for coffee daily. He yells his most intimate thoughts, theories and complaints to the baristas behind the counter.

The other night Cliff was at a nearby bar having a drink when another Downtown denizen sat next to him, opened his iPad and began to watch porn.

“Jee-sus,” Cliff says, shaking his head at the memory.

He tells me he’s lived in New York City, all over the East Coast, and he’s seen “characters” everywhere.

“But I’ve never seen them like here. It’s like with some of them, ‘Why are you still alive?’”

Downtown Las Vegas might be the best psychological melting pot in the country. You’ll find a few high intellectuals, nerds who can speak better ASCII than English, former and current drug addicts, dozens of budding entrepreneurs and many more parachuting into town because they’ve read about Zappos and the Downtown Project and believe they’ll be able to get their share of East Fremont’s pot of gold.

Everyone’s got an angle. Some are one-hitters, people who put all their eggs in one basket, fail, then leave town. It happens fast, typically a two-month cycle. Then there are the slow and steady, who work and stick around and adjust their spending to accommodate their income level.

A guy wearing a white lab coat talks into his cellphone, assuring someone that he’s “got Tony [Hsieh] on speed dial. I’ve got them all when I need them; we just need some seed capital.”

And there’s Tom, who has grown used to me rolling my eyes as he talks about the successes of Chinese versus Western medicine. One day when I complain about allergies and being sick of my sniffles and cough, he lightly squeezes a spot between my thumb and index finger. My monthlong misery ends the next day.

Another day, an older man walks into the coffee shop. He sits at a table, stabbing furtively at his food with one hand, his other arm forming a shield around the plate. I’ve heard he’s a felon who did time in prison. When the same guy tells Lizzy, the cafe manager, that he’s partners with one of the businesses in the building, she shakes her head.

“No you’re not,” she tells him.

“Well, I, I ...” the man stammers, then he leaves, never to be seen again.

The word “crazy” comes up a lot Downtown, as in, “he’s crazy” or “that’s some crazy stuff going down there.”

I think everyone’s crazy, but it’s a sliding scale. There’s stark-raving at one end and the wallflowers afraid of their own shadows at the other.

They’re all down here. And thank God for that. It’s the characters that make life interesting.

More Joe Downtown: Light rail on Maryland Parkway would boost accessibility and enjoyment.

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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