Deep Inside the Zombie Mob

Deep Inside the Zombie Mob

by Maxine Lopez-Keough
There’s a pizza delivery guy sitting with his mouth open, stunned into silence, his hand frozen halfway to the horn of his Toyota Corolla.
Two minutes ago he was fuming, furiously drumming his fingers on the wheel wondering what the problem was and why both lanes of cars have come to a complete stop on a Thursday evening. There’s a minivan blocking his view of whatever it is up ahead that is causing the commotion, and now he’s definitely going to be late, he thinks, staring at his phone. He’s going to be late, and when he’s late he doesn’t get a tip, and if the customer calls to complain he’ll probably get fired, and hardly anyone is hiring on this tiny island nowadays so he’s basically screwed.
 It’s probably a scooter crash, some drunk idiot on a rented, off-brand Vespa who wrapped himself around a palm tree. They happen year-round but they get worse in winter, too many tourists drinking too many beers.
 He honks his horn once. Nothing.
He’s stuck, and the line of cars behind him is getting longer. He rolls down the driver’s side window of his car and leans out to see what could possibly be holding up traffic like this, 20 minutes stopped short on a two lane highway next to the ocean. Then, squinting into the setting sun, he sees whatever it is moving towards him, turning a corner, and the delay is revealed to be a weird mass of bicyclists bearing down on his car. There is a moment when he decides to honk his horn again, to yell at them to get the hell out of the road, that some people have places to be tonight— and then he freezes as they come closer, finally visible.
And there he is, frozen. Slack-jawed, hand paused, horn un-honked. A caricature of surprise.
The family in the minivan that was blocking his view sees them first; The youngest kid has his face pressed so hard against the backseat window that his nose is smushed into a pig snout, and though you can’t hear it through the glass you can see that he’s a pantomime of excitement, yelling, laughing, pointing, waving furiously at the two-wheeled swarm moving swiftly past him.
Some of the bicyclists wave to the kid as they careen past, and then they’re riding past the poor pizza delivery guy in his Corolla. He counts dozens of them, more than fifty, maybe even hundreds? It’s hard to tell, they’re moving quickly and a lot of them seem like maybe they haven’t ridden a bicycle in a decade or two, wobbling and weaving between one another, adults and kids and a couple of dogs stuffed into baskets, a cooler on wheels packed full of lite beer, and every now and then a burst of music from someone’s boom box mounted on a pair of handle bars. There is a fireman without his shirt on. There is a storm trooper. There are sexy nurses and mermaids and at least two Harry Potters, a few pirates, a spooky bride, a handful of generic mummies.
And all of them — every single one of them, even the fireman with his washboard abs —  are dead.  
It’s hard to shock people in Key West. Not in the same way that it is with other cities; New Yorkers brag about their particular insouciance, born out of years of averting their eyes as a homeless person begs for change in the subway. People from Los Angeles take pride in their special ability to remain unfazed in the presence of celebrities in line at Starbucks. But Key Westers  (also known as Conchs, pronounced with a hard k and woe betide you if you get that wrong) are particularly hard to shock with public displays of strangeness. It’s unofficial city motto: Key West, Where The Weird Go Pro. The anchor and origin to all that holier-than-thou attitude is Fantasy Fest, the ten days preceding Halloween, during which close to a hundred-thousand visitors descend upon an island four miles long and one mile wide and proceed to get very, very drunk and very close to completely naked. After only a few years of living on such a strange little rock, Key West residents develop a competitively blasé attitude toward costumed chaos, and seeing strangers in the buff. Oh, you went to a latex party at the back of Bourbon Street and got lost in a foam pit full of slippery young men? Please, I did that my first year down here. If it could, Key West would take out a full page ad in the Advocate saying: Hey San Francisco, Key West sees your world famous Folsom Street Fair all-day leather party and raises you two weeks of constant nudity, public drunkenness, and a parade float captained by Ron Jeremy.
 To really get a feel for the thing one should expect to attend at least five or six different parties with as many different costumes, and while most follow a template (togas for the toga party, leather for the leather party, sex dungeon-y corsets for the sexy dungeon party) some are more random: a neon spandex onesie here, a pair of fairy wings and rainbow platforms there, and always, ever present, the option to go topless, and body paint ones torso like a butterfly or a pair of bloodhound dogs. Towards the end, things tend get a little haphazard: locals can be found elbow-deep in a plastic tub of tutus, yelling to their partner in the next room to check and see if they know where their furry satyr leggings wound up, thinking vaguely that if they could just find the silver tinsel from last year’s Christmas party they might be able to throw together some kind of Glittery-Hot Space Centaur costume in an hour. There are people who live here who have been doing this for so long that they wax rhapsodic about the good-old days when Fantasy Fest was just a bunch of old hippies making papier-mâché headdresses and sewing sequins onto hot pants, when the whole thing was about craft and creativity, and no one would be caught dead in a polyester costume from Kmart.
 It’s perhaps ironic but inevitable that the pendulum would swing back — that locals so fatigued by the commercialization of a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life would yearn for something more authentically weird, more art-focused. And so, around 30 years after its conception in 1979, a kind of alternate Fantasy Fest was born, one that existed outside the “officially sanctioned” events of the festival. As seventy silk bathrobe-clad grandpas and their neglige-wearing dates vied for the prize of Best Hugh Hefner Lookalike at a Playboy-themed party, smaller and decidedly simpler events began to form on the sidelines, ones with dress codes so purposefully vague that they all but demanded attendees get fearsomely creative. One such event asked that partygoers incorporate a tutu into their costume— anything and everything else was up to them, go wild, have fun. Another, launched in 2009 as a kind of natural, spooky evolution of the annual Summer Bike Parade, gave attendees all the info they needed in the title of the event: The Zombie Bike Ride.

The sheer genius of the Zombie Bike Ride was in its simplicity. Prospective attendees needn’t overthink things: you should have a bike, and you should be undead. The rest of the details were up to you. Those first couple years, 2009 and 2010, have since become legend. People recall them with the same wistful memorializing that boomers do the early protests of the 60’s, how things  felt radical and limitless, no rules, just possibility. In 2010 Ryan Saca and his partner, Cody White, heard about a crazy thing happening up the road. They’d arrived in Key West via California a week earlier, intending on staying for the winter while they figured out their next move. They didn’t have costumes but they had bicycles, so they made their way over to Stock Island, not knowing what to expect. They wound up making friends, and staying for the winter turned into staying forever. It’s a common refrain among transplants: Move to Key West during Fantasy Fest and suddenly everywhere else seems underwhelming.
With very limited press and relying mostly on word-of-mouth publicity, a hundred or so pedal-happy people did the same thing: they just showed up on Stock Island an hour or so before the ride was scheduled to commence. Some were better prepared than others but it didn’t matter— inevitably someone would hand round a tube of fake blood while someone else offered up their blackened fingertips, dipped in kohl eyeshadow, ready to smear a little death onto the faces that looked a little too alive. It was slapdash and swelteringly hot. There were no food trucks, no drink tickets. Beers were passed around from inside backpacks. The whole thing had a kind of reckless, catch-us-if-you-can air to it, as though it couldn’t possibly be allowed. You’d stand around in the sun, making friends and admiring someone’s horrifyingly realistic head wound, wiping the sweat from your eyes, helping someone else drape their road bike in faux cobwebs. People taped speakers to their baskets and back wheels, big music on small bikes, revved their minds instead of engines. Every now and then someone would yell into the thick hot air “ride a bike, change the world” and people laughed but they felt it, too. It was rock and roll.
And then, suddenly, heart-swoopingly fast, it was happening — those hundred bikes lurching forward, their riders squinting into the sun as they headed south toward Key West proper, and in a town that historically patted itself on the back at its inability to be surprised by anything, traffic literally stopped.
The pizza delivery guy— I wish I’d learned his name, wish I’d stopped to apologize, maybe, to explain that we couldn’t be held responsible for making him late because we were doing something epic and important, something that would someday be the stuff of legends — his is the face I will never forget. The indelible face of Fantasy Fest as it was meant to be, gobsmacked out of his anger into sheer bewilderment. He wasn’t aware that he was an audience member until the show was bearing down on him.
Five years after their first ride, Saca and White are standing in their neighbor’s driveway welding two old cruiser bikes to the discarded wheels of a small plane's landing gear. On top, they’ll lay some cheap electrical conduit and a piece of wood for a stage. It’s 2015, the summer of Mad Max Fury Road. Ryan is practicing his air guitar and they’ve recruited their friend Kelly, a tiny Swiss Army knife of a blond girl with a shaved head, to play Charlize Theron-playing-Furiosa. Kelly has a very loud set of speakers and an adult tricycle. The trio are seasoned Zombie Bike Ride performers at this point, with every year since their first getting a bit grander, louder, larger. The increasing popularity of the ride has meant the death of speed, a far cry from that first year where a hundred or so people raced and swerved towards the sunset — now, it’s a kind of slow, start-and-stop progression of hundreds. The ride takes hours, now, the streets are lined with people who’ve come to watch and photograph the fun. There’s less spontaneous peeling off to the side (you’d take out a family of seven if you tried) but this increase in numbers has also raised the ante significantly: more eyes on the parade means more pressure to create, to surpass last year’s zaniness. There are more sculptural art bikes than ever before, giant multi-rider sculptures, dragons with wings that move, aliens and jail breaks and group costumes— a dozen strong. The original handful of dogs stuffed into bike baskets has become legions of costumed Plutos and Laikas and Snoopys (all dead, of course) being carted in wagons and side cars and repurposed backpacks. There are coolers on wheels overflowing with drinks, tiki carts draped in Bob Marley memorabilia trailing clouds of illicit smoke. There are people in their late 80’s and people who are too young to remember any of this. There are teenagers on the cusp of being too cool to ride with their parents, who will return next year to explore independence in a cohort of their peers, taking turns to apply fake wounds to one another’s faces, pushing the boundaries of what has been done before.
 Saca and White have become the unofficial parade lieutenants. People line the streets of South Roosevelt in anticipation of seeing them roll by — them, and the thousands of others who join them. Like the rest of Fantasy Fest, the ride has become a spectator sport, not to mention an official, fully- sanctioned event. There are limited edition tee shirts to purchase, a pre-party so well organized that many choose to forgo the actual ride and simply revel at the starting line, to tap into the excitement of the pellmell. There are news trucks, and magazine reporters, and it’s not a surprise when someone’s aunt in North Carolina or Maine calls to say they saw their niece on the news, riding a bicycle dressed like a literal bloody lunatic. There are hashtags. There are people who flew in from all over just to see this, just to take part in something that has become Fantasy Fest canon.
And of course, like all great things, there are people who complain that it used to be different, that it used to be smaller. Locals only. More rock and roll.
But then, as dependable as  it happens every October: us aging, grumbling old farts who yearn for the chaos of yesteryear sit up from the box of tutus we’ve been rifling through, load our bloodied and bandaged zombie selves onto bicycles, and make our way to the start of the ride (which has since been relocated to an appropriately enormous and haunted-looking Civil War-era fort near the airport.) And we are greeted by a riot of color and chaos — yes, controlled, well-organized chaos, chaos that has been permitted and with a police escort, but chaos nonetheless — and as we line up with the crowd, with old friends and new friends and friends-to-be, our grumblings are silenced because this, this thing we’ve become a part of, it is special. Regardless of when you became a part of it, if you were there for the beginning, if you just moved here from California last week, you can feel it: It is insane and sweaty and would be impossible to explain to an alien life force watching bemusedly from above. This thing we are a part of, it transcends politics and (most) religions. It sparks joy.
Every year, that moment, the one right before the ride begins, feels pregnant with possibility. Like maybe this year we’ll just keep riding into the ocean, go underwater and wind up in a foreign place. Like if we could just keep riding long enough all the issues that seem to divide us would be worked out, because how silly do our differences seem if we can all agree to get dressed up like dead people and go for a bike ride? That moment where we are overcome with appreciation for the creativity of our fellow humans. Where we are all unique and also the same.
The crowd jostles into place, the moment builds as it has since the beginning, only now instead of a few hundred it’s thousands of people strong: thousands of undead faces pointed forward, waiting, toes poised on pedals, for the moment they can push forward, the greatest zombie army of nightmares, riding off into the sunset.

No Comments