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Sensory Overload

The first thing you notice: the smell.

Urine laced with an undercurrent of sewage; stale liquor and sweat. The acrid, unmistakable scent of marijuana and grease.

Second thing you notice: the people.

A drunken homeless man verbally and physically assaulting a pay phone in front of Tiffany’s Gift Shop, three security guards in navy blue and bike helmets running to subdue him; the unassuming gray-haired man in denim shorts preaching about God sending sinners to hell.

Then, once your olfactory sense adjusts and your adrenaline subsides — you realize you don’t need to fight or flee, after all — everything comes together. The sights, the smells, the light show and the warring sounds of a rock cover band and a country duo: It’s the Fremont Street Experience on a typical Friday night.

“Early in the evening, the atmosphere is cordial. Later on it gets more violent,” says John, a proselytizer who has been handing out religious tracts at the Fremont Street Experience every Friday for the past year. He doesn’t want to give his last name. It’s almost 9 p.m. and as he’s saying this, a Las Vegas marshal is handcuffing the phone abuser near Fremont Street, where crowds cross into the east side of the Experience.

A few pedestrians take note, most don’t. It’s just one more sight to see under the canopy where sensory overload is almost the point.

“You see a lot down here,” says street preacher Drew Petitti. The ruckus with the man, the phone and security guards unfolded steps away from him, but he only increased the volume of his sermon. “I was just like all these people. I used to come down here, I used to be drunk and I’d use the Fitzgeralds restroom and pass out on the sidewalk.”

Every Friday and Saturday night, Petitti spends a few hours at the Fremont Street Experience doing his outreach because “those are the best nights for fishing,” he says.

He, John and a handful of others stand near the crosswalk on Fremont Street where the Experience meets Neonopolis, casting their religious lines into the crowds. “I’m the body of Christ” and “Jesus loves you” are tossed out freely.

They hope to reel in a few lost souls among the vagrants who wander across the street from the nearly deserted Neonopolis and from farther east along Fremont Street.

While the air feels tense near the edge of the Experience, it undergoes a noticeable change as you move toward the center. Near a cluster of kiosks outside Glitter Gulch, the atmosphere is jovial. Tourists watch a spray-paint artist or pose for pictures with the girls who hand out beads in front of several casinos. They sip on football-shaped glasses filled with alcohol, then, just before the hour, they stop and look up expectantly. The light show plays every hour, with the last show at 11 p.m.

Here in the center of the Experience is where the crowd is thick with kiosks and people such as Francois Blais and Linda Proulx. The Canadians are staying at the Flamingo but heard they should check out the light show, so they took a cab to Fremont Street. And it is worth it, they say.

“Oh my, it’s wonderful,” Proulx says as the animated characters dance across the LED screen.

“This is a must-see for me,” Blais says. They like the old-time, intimate feel of the casinos, where nothing is nearly the size of a Strip resort.

Nearby, D Grady, who operates a kiosk selling necklaces, hats and posters of reggae artists, hangs out with friends, including Adam Boolin, a security guard at Tiffany’s.

“I’m off tonight looking for a friend so now I’m killing time. I just like people watching,” Boolin says.

Tattooed and towering over most everyone, Boolin says the crowds are always the same. There are the revelers and the awe-struck tourists; rowdy college kids and locals. The desperate, the down and out, and the dejected. It’s only the size of the crowd that changes.

“You’ve got your locals, regular faces who are down here every weekend,” Boolin says. “You’ve got your locals who just stop and ask people for change. You can pick it out; watch along the wall.”

Every weekend, “there’s always a good crowd down here,” Grady says. “When it’s a special event weekend, like the Grand Prix, it’s wall to wall people and fights all night.”

Sitting in the open hour after hour puts Grady and other Experience workers in a position to witness everything from the mundane to the unbelievable.

Once, Grady says he witnessed a man fall through the Tiffany’s Gift Shop window as a uniformed marshal arrested him. He saw a woman pass out and crack her face on the sidewalk. The craziest thing he says he has seen was a guy who climbed into the canopy and threatened to jump off of it.

Nothing like that is happening on this Friday night, though.

As you walk to the west end of the Experience, the air changes again. This time, it’s sleepy and subdued. It’s well past 11 p.m. Kiosks are closing and workers sweep up the trash.

A giant steel ball sits near Main Street, empty save for two motorcycles. The Riders of the Thunderdome — daredevils who ride their motorcycles inside the giant steel ball — performed their last show at 10:15 p.m. and now workers are clearing the area.

By midnight, the crowd thins out. The last light show is over; the bands have packed up for the night. This is the time when everything slows down, Boolin says. But it never stops.

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