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FOLD YOUR TENTS

Denver International Airport is deserted at twilight. It looks like the last relic of some tent-worshiping civilization after the bomb is dropped.

Which, of course, is precisely what had occurred earlier this day, 25 daunting miles away, when members of the Denver City Council learned that the proposed "back-up" baggage system designed to get the airport open is actually a system that will only serve United Airlines--which doesn't want it and would have told the city so had the city bothered to ask. Mayor Wellington Webb hadn't mentioned that slight snafu at the August 4 press-conference-cum-campaign-kickoff at which he outlined his latest strategy for getting the airport open and protecting the city from any further embarrassment (presumably such as Monday's "Mile-high in debt, disfavor" piece in USA Today).

If Denver's air-traffic controllers displayed the communication skills of the Webb administration, this city would be grounded permanently.

But news of the latest mayor-council imbroglio has yet to spread to Pena Boulevard as our impromptu tour on August 9 heads northeast along that lonely stretch of pristine highway. Artist and longtime Continental baggage handler Gary Sweeney, our unofficial guide, is trying to explain DIA to two visitors from Barcelona. "How do you say `white elephant'?" he asks, then resorts to his electronic dictionary. Although the image loses something in the translation, the Spanish visitors get the picture. But then, it's hard to miss this mammoth monument to Murphy's Law.

At the toll booth on Pena Boulevard, a guard asks Sweeney to take off his glasses so that she can check his ID. It's been a long, slow day--but even in the only car on the road, we'd be hard-pressed to execute the checkpoint-to-terminal-to-checkpoint loop that you must hypothetically complete within thirty minutes in order to get out of DIA free.

As if anyone will get out of DIA free.
Inside the vast, tent-roofed terminal, the emptiness is eerie. In the most fitting commission of art ever made public, three Terry Allen gargoyles hang over the jinxed baggage-collection area. Nearby, the occasional worker polishes and polishes and polishes the elaborate granite floor into a high-gloss, high-heel-skidding sheen. Most of the stores--remember when winning a concession contract seemed like a ticket to prosperity rather than a one-way slide into bankruptcy?--are shuttered and only half- stocked, their unpacking abruptly halted by the announcement of yet another DIA delay, the fourth in a continuing series.

Past more floor polishers, the passenger train is running to concourses B--United's domain--and C, slated for most of the other carriers, including MarkAir, the city's latest white knight despite a balance sheet that's rarely in the black.

Much of concourse A, the space closest to the terminal, is still reserved--contractually, at least--for Continental Airlines. Although monitors here display the correct date, they list flights that will never land at DIA. Will never again land in Denver, for that matter. Of all the ghosts at DIA, this concourse is the most ghastly of all. The elegant President's Club is a testament to the not-so-distant past when Denver's shiny new airport had high hopes and two hubbing airlines. A skyway leads from this concourse back to the terminal; United had complained--through legal channels--that the aboveground pedestrian passageway, with its stunning view of the mountains and plains, would give Continental an unfair advantage. On this day, though, all you can see are idle runways. On one post is a temporary-occupancy permit for the walkway, issued late last February when the city was frantic to make its March 9 opening date. The permit expires next week.

Time is already running out for Gary Sweeney, who has more than a baggage-handler's professional interest in the place. Sweeney has artwork here, too. The two pieces making up "America, Why I Love Her" are giant variations on a theme that his fans have seen before: snapshots from long-ago Sweeney vacations, augmented with contemporarily kitschy commentary. Here the photos are jumbo blowups of sister Gail ("shown actual size!") and Mom and Dad Sweeney, placed alongside huge maps of the United States annotated with titles and pictures of one-of-a-kind tourist stops. The Largest Catsup Bottle. The World's Largest Chest of Drawers. The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. Dan Blocker's Memorial Head. The Poultry Hall of Fame. The Tower of Pallets. The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum. Even hints of tragedies to come: An arrow points at Denver with the message, "You are here--but your luggage is in Pittsburgh!"

By the time Sweeney's pieces were installed, though, airport officials saw nothing funny in DIA's potentially terminal condition. One even suggested he change the work. Sweeney declined.

You are here--but Gary Sweeney won't be for long. He, like competitive airfares, is soon to be a casualty of Continental's pulling back from the Denver market. With fourteen years invested in the company, Sweeney and his wife, a flight attendant, are relocating to Texas so they can continue working for Continental--and Sweeney can continue to devote his off-hours to art. One of the early members of Pirate, Denver's swashbuckling art cooperative, Sweeney leaves behind a fitting monument in a building that rises like a ghost ship, riding the swells of the plains.

"Why did Denver build this?" The Spaniards are asking a reasonable question. Too bad the reasonable answers were exhausted long ago.

 
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