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CRACKS, TRACTS & COLFAX

A STRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE.

In the beginning, there is Tower Road. A vanishing point leads east toward I-70 and the rising sun. The view offers not just amber waves of grain, but purple mountains' majesty as well. Downtown Denver hangs fifteen miles to the west, a few water towers impersonate giant golf balls on the horizon, and traffic--except for Kenny Be and me on a motorcycle held together with duct tape--is nonexistent.

This is how the venerable strip must have appeared to pilgrims who made this trip long before I-70 existed, when Colfax Avenue, today still the longest continuous street in the country, was the official Gateway to the Rockies--a fitting commemorative to Schuyler Colfax, vice president under Ulysses S. Grant, who spent considerably more time hunting and fishing in the great Colorado outdoors than sitting behind a desk in Washington.

Then, as now, as travelers hit the road, the smell of cow manure hit their nostrils. Today it wafts from either Frontier Feed or the Candle-Lite Motel, both relics of the Grapes of Wrath era, by which time Colfax already had marked the way west for a generation. Feeling Okie as all get-out, we shoot up the dirt driveway to inspect the motel, which seems to have no tenants, no front office and no pop in the pop machine--too bad, since the sign says it still costs only ten cents. And yet, the Candle-Lite is not an unpleasant place, occupying the summit of a hill overlooking the scenic origins of Colfax. A sunburned man who arrives in a pickup truck confirms this.

"It's a very pleasant place," he says. "I like it here. Shit, there's people done lived here seven years."

We could stay another seven hours, but the day is young and we have thirty miles of main drag to cover if we are to follow Colfax to its inevitable conclusion. Immediately, almost alarmingly, we hit a clot of suburban sprawl. The rustic charm of M&M Western Wear, with a fiberglass horse on its roof, abruptly gives way to a Kmart/Pizza Hut/sports bar stratum that continues all the way to Chambers Road. Wasn't this a prairie dog village last time I looked? Where wild grasses once swayed, satellite dishes have sprung up.

But history holds firm at Bowl Aurora, located conveniently across from Fitzsimons Army Hospital and just down the block from the squeaky clean Family Motel. Bowl Aurora lurks within an Eisenhower-era building, complete with turquoise accoutrements and the more up-to-date admonition: "No sagging, no colors, no `obscene' language." What we find inside are five lanes full of small children, all bowling enthusiastically.

"Youth leagues," explains Mary Weber, the bowling fanatic behind the counter. "As soon as they're potty-trained, they can bowl." Summer and even winter, when Bowl Aurora runs an after-school program, complete with snacks--but no sagging, whatever that may be.

"Oh, there's gangs," says Mary. "We got some gang members in the apartments right behind us. But I think this is the better part of Colfax. I wouldn't be working here if I didn't like it, I can tell you that." Even so, Mary feels no need to cozy up to Colfax nightlife when she gets off work. For a good time, she says, "I go home and crochet up a storm." Unless it's Friday night, when she bowls on the Friday-Have-A-Ball league, or Saturday, when she plays for the Saturday Swingers with Jody, a lifelong bowler from Sheridan, Wyoming, who also works at Bowl Aurora and whose turquoise eye-shadow matches the decor perfectly.

Two miles west of Bowl Aurora, Colfax takes on an official strippishness, becoming a mobile mall for cheap furniture, pawn shops and billiards. A median divides the east- and westbound traffic; in places it is even decorated with big clumps of marigolds and wheat, presumably Aurora's official vegetation. There is a shabbiness in the air, but also a boosterishness, a feeling that Colfax will rise again. Could it be emanating from I.B.I.?

That's the International Baking Institute to you. Its president and founder, Larry Redinger, meets us in the hallway. He is a large, fit man, with a bullet-shaped head and bulging eyeballs. He is dressed all in white.

"Are you interested in the culinary arts?" he demands.
"Kind of," I say.
"Well, come on in," he sighs, leading us into a room filled with stainless-steel equipment. A lone student sits at a table. She is hooked up to an oxygen tank, but a cigarette burns beside her.

"How do you like your Colfax location?"
"It is good," Mr. Redinger intones. "I believe we enhance the neighborhood, we're going to contribute to the community."

At the moment, though, what the I.B.I. has primarily contributed to the community is a shelf of dusty gingerbread houses and a course catalogue that includes these rules: "Eating, drinking or the use of tobacco products will be forbidden in the production/lab area." And students are not permitted to wear "sandals, clogs, thongs."

Shouldn't a person's underwear be his or her own business?
Less than one-tenth of a mile later, underwear is big business at O.K. Fashion. The window features slinky, sinuous cocktail dresses, T-shirts proclaiming that "Jesus Was a Black Man" and prepackaged swatches of artificial hair to dress up such ensembles. Kenny gravitates toward packages of Tomo Underpants for Men while I gaze at a very inadequate black bra featuring gold braid and two feet of gold fringe.

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