It's 2:00 am on Thursday morning and I'm standing near the epicenter of Coe Circle where Cesar Chavez Blvd meets Glisan. I'm freezing and the man I'm supposed to be interviewing is late.
At 2:03, I'm about to walk away. As if on cue, Omar McCarthy finally arrives by bike. He's a short man with a round upper torso and two hairy legs. He apologizes profusely. "I've been so busy," he explains with a laugh. "It's not easy coordinating an event for the dead."
Despite his tardiness, Omar is a genial man. It's hard not to like him. He's a prolific reader and community oriented, possibly to a fault. At any given time, he's responsible for coordinating three to five local fundraisers for various nonprofits around the city of Portland. Naturally, his experience made him a perfect fit for the first annual PDX Naked Ghost Ride.
"When you're approached by three eye-less figures," he explains, "each crawling around on your bedroom ceiling, it's best just to hear them out."
The figures Omar describes are the infamous Bay Triplets: three Oregon City brothers that died under mysterious circumstances in 1902. And the Bay Triplets had a problem: several of their favorite post-life support programs were being axed due to budget cuts. Some of the more notable programs included Possession for the Romantically Inclined, Intramural Mummification, and H.A. (a kind of support group for those hoping to avoid addictive triggers on Halloween).
Having watched the Naked Bike Ride gain notoriety over the years, the Bay Brothers began to wonder: could they put together a similar event that not only drew a spectacle, but also raised preciously needed funds? Ever the entrepreneurs, the Bay Brothers haunted more than eight different influential community leaders before deciding on Omar.
"Their pitch is interesting," Omar explains, sipping some coffee from his thermos. A statue of Joan of Arc looms down over us as we speak. Her confident, golden body is far from naked. I wonder how she'd react knowing that she was the starting point for such an event. "There're actually very few wealthy givers in the afterlife. The whole thing is propped up by 4% of the overall population. And several of those givers haunt Portland seven months out of the year."
"Wow," I say. "Have you met any of them?"
Omar inhales through his teeth. "Unfortunately."
It's the kind of answer that begs to be left alone.
Omar continues. "On the night of the ride, every ghost, phantom, and spirit is invited to join the parade. We've already got a couple hundred RSVPed." He pulls out a map and traces his finger in a kind of scone-shaped triangle. "We'll be hitting the big three."
"Lone Fir, Brainard, and Multnomah Park Cemetery. That's where most of the influential spenders summer. The idea is to kind of shock-and-awe them into generous donations." "How does that work?" I ask.
Omar lifts his hands as if it's obvious. "The dead are just like the living. They want to spend their time somewhere...somewhere worth their time. Alive with dead possibility, if you will. Where all the action and horror is."
"You mean they want to live somewhere fun."
"They want to live somewhere fun," he agrees. "And if we can show them this city is where the fun is," Omar flicks the map with a finger, "then the purse strings open up."
The proposed route for the first Annual Naked Ghost Ride
I admit to Omar, I'm skeptical. And even worse, I'm cold. We say our goodbyes, and as I sink into bed that night, I wonder if the Bay Brother's plan will work. Moreover, if it did, what would that tell us about the heart of society? Are we truly governed by the whims and fancies of a few wealthy elite? Do their "generous" donations actually dictate what cities will thrive or dive? Could it all be as superficial as "who's most fun?"
I try not to think about it any longer than necessary. And much to my surprise, two nights later, I am, in fact, having fun.
The Naked Ghost Ride has a magnificent turnout. Hordes of ghosts float throughout the city, some riding flaming steeds, some on semi-transparent bicycles, others just bobbing along as if flowing downriver. Living traffic is brought to a complete halt as the Bay Brothers, each atop their own tall bike, lead the horde across town. They're met with mixed reactions: fear, screaming, cheering. It seems that none of the living quite know what to make of such a spectacle.
But none of that matters. By the end of the second cemetery, Omar finds me in the crowd, smiling so wide that all his teeth are showing. They've not only met their fundraising goal, but they've exceeded it by over forty-thousand dollars.
"You must be proud," I say, shaking his hand.
"I hate to admit it, but I wasn't sure we were going to pull it off. This was a hard one."
"Between the permitting, the marketing, people floating in and out of my house at all hours, yeah. One of the hardest events of my career. Thought it was going to kill me."
"Well," I say, "Even If it did, you'd still have had your work cut out for you."
Written by Bobby Hairpin.