By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
Buck Oletski is digging carrots in the garden he's tilled for almost 57 years. When he straightens up, he has a clear view of the house he was brought to as a baby in 1917. And whether he looks left, right or directly ahead, all he sees is Oletskis.
His daughter Georgine is chasing his grandson Nicholas around her yard, which is one house north of her father's house. In the next house to the north, another one of Buck's six daughters, Diane, is sitting at her kitchen table remembering 1969, when she was young, newly married and had just moved two houses away from her parents. "Good, that's how it was," she says, as her grandson Tyler goes by on unsteady toddler legs. "I never had to jump in my car and go anywhere. I just went over to my father's. We'd sit out on the patio and watch the airplanes go by."
But at Buck Oletski's, sitting was an evening pastime. During the day, everyone gardened. There isn't an Oletski for blocks around who hasn't had to weed or haul manure for Buck's hundred-square-foot plot. "And the pickles and beets we girls had to pack," Georgine sighs. "Oh, we hated it." Today, neither Georgine nor Diane has her own garden. Buck's is enough.
At the moment, even that looks dormant--most of the plants have died back. But below the surface, there is action. Earlier this morning, when Buck stuck a pitchfork to its hilt in the ground, he came up with a half-bushel of sweet, perfectly formed carrots. He filled a box with those, then added a layer of beets. And next summer's garlic and asparagus are already into their formative months down in the dirt.
The dirt itself is a piece of work, famous among neighborhood gardeners: fifty years of composting and cultivating come to dark, crumbly fruition.
"Go across the street and check the expensive dirt," Buck suggests. "They couldn't even grow a crop of weeds there. You can't buy dirt like my dirt."
In fact, Globeville's most infamous resident, the Asarco Globe Plant, tried to--and failed.
A man with a video camera has appeared on the sidewalk to document the Oletski dirt. "I just want to make sure everything's taken care of," he says, panning back and forth from the lawn to the vegetable beds.
Farther down the block, the video man's colleagues patrol the neighborhood in pickup trucks. Representatives of the Asarco plant, whose lead-smelting operations spewed pollution into the Globeville air and soil as far back as the turn of the century, they are two and a half years into a court-mandated cleanup job that will probably last into the next millennium. In 1993, Asarco settled two lawsuits--one filed by a group of Globeville citizens, one by the State of Colorado--and began working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to identify the extent of the damage to Globeville's dirt. No one disputed that the soil was tainted with lead, cadmium and arsenic--the question was by how much, and how to remedy it.
Since it was ordered to clean up its act, Asarco has become an almost benevolent presence in Globeville: throwing parties with mariachi music, distributing newsletters, operating a community information center. And so far, tensions are nowhere near as high as people expected them to be during this $28.1 million cleanup--especially considering how down-and-dirty the litigation became.
"Growing up, we didn't have any knowledge of all this being polluted," says Michael Sanchez, one of Buck Oletski's grandsons. "It was just our home. We knew about the Asarco plant and we ate the fruit and vegetables out of my grandfather's garden and we didn't know any better. So now all that bad stuff is in the soil, and it's something that you didn't put there purposely, some big company did, and you can be frustrated or you cannot be frustrated. Either way, you have to live with it."
This past spring, subcontractors began hauling away the top twelve inches of topsoil from blocks of affected properties, 550 houses in all, replacing the dirt with something they hoped was comparable. But Globeville soil, cultivated and improved by generations of gardeners who grew their own food for their own large Catholic families, was a tough act to follow.
"They gave us good soil," says Globeville gardener Mary Dudymott, who has fed her family of seven from her quarter-acre plot for 25 years. "It was good to make bricks with, anyway. It would get real hard, like cement, and turn a kind of sandy color. But I figured, give it a chance, because I had never gardened in anything like it. I planted the usual things--corn, pumpkins, watermelons--but they barely grew. I thought of taking a jackhammer to the whole thing."
Instead, she complained to an Asarco community liaison and was assured she would receive better soil by next spring. Officials at the plant, owned by New York-based Asarco Inc., do not want to make an enemy out of Mary Dudymott. They sent the man with the video camera over to her place, too. Pacifying Globeville's gardeners is an ongoing job.
Buck had no problem with the new soil he got this spring, or the new sod they laid on top of it--not at first, anyway. Then he noticed all his prize earthworms were gone and demanded new ones. Asarco agreed and is looking into replacement worms for Buck's lawn. They'll never get their hands on his vegetable garden, though.
"No, they can't have that soil, because they absolutely can't replace it," Buck says. "They wrote me a letter and said it was highly contaminated. And I said no, it isn't. I'm 78 years old, I have gardened here all the days of my life, and I have hauled so much damn horse manure I am not about to give it up now."
Buck is convinced arsenic, cadmium and lead are no match for a half-century of horse manure--and he may have a point.
"Absolutely," agrees Nancy Strauss, who is tracking the medical effects of the Globe plant's pollution for the state health department. "People in Globeville are very dedicated gardeners, and when they really mix and turn and compost their soil, we're not seeing the elevated levels of contamination." Buck Oletski's soil, she says, was statistically safe the last time it was tested--"although he wanted more worms," she adds.
Although Strauss's job is to monitor the general health of the neighborhood--measuring heavy-metal levels in residents' blood and urine, for instance--her conversations with the older residents of Globeville have ranged far from medical topics.
"I'd never done anything but drive through the place before," she says. "I didn't realize. I love Globeville. I feel real lucky to work there. The people have a sense of community. They have concerns, but they don't want to leave. There aren't many places in the urban sprawl like Globeville.
"Places," she adds, "where you talk to people, and things are unearthed, if you know what I mean. And people like Mr. Oletski."
Globeville was founded in 1885. Its first residents were workers at the Holden smelter, built in 1886 by a group of local businessmen and later sold and renamed the Globe smelter when it became obvious the people who worked there would be immigrants from all over the globe. The majority of Globeville's residents, though, came from Poland and Slovenia, and the neighborhood is still flavored by those countries.
Incorporated as a city in 1891, Globeville has been downsizing ever since. In 1903, it was annexed to Denver. In the Fifties, I-25 chopped off its western half. In 1963, I-70 cut a swathe through its middle. Motorists who drive that interstate today see little more of the neighborhood than the top half of St. Joseph's Polish Church, long the religious backbone of the community. The two smelter stacks that once loomed over Globeville are gone, as are the trolley tracks, almost all of the schools and many of the meat-packing plants that used to line the northeast edge of town. The Asarco Globe Plant itself suspended production of cadmium metal in 1991 and cadmium oxide and powder in 1993; today it is no longer a smelter and employs only thirty people. The downtown Denver skyline presses in on the neighborhood from the south; the National Western Stock Show buildings from the southeast. And the sound from both highways reverberates through Globeville like the wash of the ocean.
But in Oletski Valley--less politely known as Polack Valley--there are also the sounds of chickens, pigeons and horses. And from certain angles, the Oletski family houses seem as rural as any tiny enclave on the Nebraska plains.
"We're corralled," Buck Oletski says, from his accustomed place in the backyard. "Them railroad tracks have always been there--the plants and the smelter. At one time, we burned coal instead of gas. Other than that, it looks pretty much the same."
Buck's father, the son of Polish immigrants, came to Denver in the early part of this century to work as a cabinetmaker. His wife, who also grew up in a Polish family, set about producing seven children and feeding them from the garden and the barnyard of the small house in the South Platte river bottom that Buck refers to as Down Below.
"Down Below, they had floods, and it was awful good for the soil," he says. "On June 16, 1965, believe it or not, this here driveway was full of furniture and three quarters of Globeville was under water. The Polish priest even came up here to stay at my place, giving me orders when to turn the TV on and when to turn it off. I wasn't sorry to see him go."
This is as close as Buck Oletski gets to blasphemy: The Oletskis have always been devout Catholics, and Buck himself has attended Mass every day since he retired. "But immigrants are like that," he says. "Hell, yes, I'm an immigrant. I come two blocks from where I was born, didn't I?"
He moved those two blocks in 1939, when he was 22. Until then, he lived in that little house Down Below, the second oldest of four brothers and two sisters.
"Boy, did we work," Buck remembers. "In them days, we didn't have immigrants doing the farm work for us. We had our own cow, chickens, pigeons, geese and well water, and we had to learn on our own and from our folks. There wasn't none of that fancy fertilizer. But you could go out, not even as far as Stapleton, and get all the jackrabbits and quail you wanted."
During the summer, like many other Globeville youths, Buck would be sent to the farms around Greeley and Fort Collins to thin beets for the season. He was often late returning for the fall term at St. Joseph's Polish Church School--which he still laughingly refers to as Globeville Tech.
"Anyway, I graduated from there when I was fourteen," he recalls. "I was the only one in the family who could find work, so I had to. I worked for the Postal Telegraph company in the stockyards, delivering messages. My family suffered, but everyone suffered back then."
By the time he was fifteen--"and an overgrown punk," Buck remembers--he was working with a crew of six men, shaking the salt off cured cowhides and throwing them onto piles. From there, he went to the lamb freezer. "And I stayed working in the packinghouses," he says, summing up a 45-year career, "and that was my job for the rest of the time."
Meanwhile, he married Margaret, a devout neighborhood girl he'd met at a dance at the Slovenian Gardens, a local bar and dance hall, and began the production of five girls and a boy. The newlyweds paid $2,500 for a house up the hill from the farm Down Below--"a hell of a lot," Buck complains--and lived there together until Margaret died of cancer in 1989.
"So I had her for 51 and a half good years of fighting," Buck recalls. "We had our fights, and our silent treatments. I gave her those silent treatments, and she hated them, too."
In between, though, there were leisurely fishing trips, church picnics and outings, and long summer nights spent sitting on the patio, watching the air traffic as it headed toward Stapleton. And gardening, of course. In short, Globeville was an excellent place for the Oletski family to live. Which is why the standard perception of the neighborhood--that it's a marginal area rapidly fading from respectability--has never made any sense to Buck.
"The worst thing was supposed to be the projects," he says. "And, of course, we never had no trouble with them at all. After the highway, some people moved in who only wanted a place to stay, cheap, and didn't take care of their yards. But mainly it's been people like us.
"The only thing that's wrong around here," he continues, "is that we don't get no noise from the airport anymore. Mother and I used to sit out on the patio and watch seven or eight planes circling. Now all I see is seven or eight squirrels circling."
Buck retired from meat-packing in 1978. He was only 61, but his youngest child and only son John had been killed in a car accident the year before, and Buck lost his will to work. Instead, he got down to serious gardening--making use of a ready supply of grandchild labor and trying to talk his adult daughters into canning fast enough to keep pace with the produce. "Women shouldn't work," he says. "There is plenty for them to do around the house."
His daughters, as if in direct violation of this edict, found plenty to do in the outside world. Georgine and her then-husband were so busy running a fireworks store and a Mexican restaurant that Buck and Margaret ended up raising their son. Michael Sanchez knows he will come to think of those years--between infancy and the age of sixteen--as "the most important," he says. "There wasn't no better time in my life. They were the very utmost religious. My grandmother always said you can do whatever you want in this life, but if you lose your faith, you've lost everything. And you won't find another man like my grandfather. I mean, you probably shouldn't even try."
In Globeville, the Oletskis are as much an institution as the old smelter. Down Below, stretching away in a line from the freight tracks, are four simple white frame houses. These were built by the Kowalczsyks, old-country cousins of the Oletskis, and a few still live in the little houses. A half-block east, at the dead end of East 49th Avenue, is the house where Buck's older brother, Ben, raised his family. His widow, Julia, along with a whole crop of grandchildren, still lives there. Buck's brother Ladis, crippled with arthritis and prostate cancer, lives in a small brick house across the street from a corral full of horses. Buck's brother Ray and his family occupy the house Down Below where Buck and Ray and the rest of the children were raised.
"I lived in this house all my life," Ray says. "I was born here, and I have roots. There's no one you meet anymore who has that, so no, I wouldn't leave here."
The possibility of leaving never even entered Ray's mind until ten years ago. A lifelong gardener, he had retired from a meat-packing job similar to his brother's after injuring his back and was spending most of his time "growing whatever I felt like," Ray says. "Raising pigeons and these quackless Muscovy ducks." When a team from the state health department--Colorado had filed suit against Asarco in federal court in 1983 for damage to natural resources and risk to public health--came by and asked to check his water for contaminants, Ray agreed. "It was very bad," he says. And his soil, despite the composting and organic gardening it had been subjected to for decades, was worse.
Almost overnight, Ray grew into an activist; his was one of the eight original families in the class-action suit filed against Asarco in 1991. In the process of pursuing that suit all the way up through the 1993 trial and jury verdict in the families' favor, Ray became friendly with the plaintiff's lawyer, environmental activist Macon Cowles.
"Well, I'm a gardener, too," Cowles says. "Ray gives me produce. I was out there marveling at his pumpkin patch just this summer. They were two-and-a-half feet across! With the Oletskis, you tap into a vein of history that's been there forever, and is still there."
Those roots stretch deep.
"It's quiet and it's beautiful," Ray allows. "People that was born down here all went to the same churches and it was the kind of place where you could walk to work."
Not that life in Globeville was always idyllic. "There was that Slovenian-Polish language barrier," Ray recalls. "They couldn't hit it off, and there were awful fights and riots. You know, they still can't--not in Eastern Europe. Tell me this, do you have any idea what they're fighting about over there?"
This is the sort of question Ray ponders as he gardens--and, like Buck, he gardens all year. There are still turnips to be dug up, carrots wintering over, and decade-old asparagus plants storing up energy for spring. At which point, Ray says, everything will have to go.
"They tested my garden soil this fall," Ray says, "and the levels are still pretty high. It doesn't matter that I hauled tons of manure." Or that it takes four or five years, at least, to produce a mature asparagus plant. Ray knows none of this can be replaced, but he knows he can't ignore the health risks, either. The plot sickens.
"I don't discuss my own health," he says. "But my brother Laddy's got cancer--I don't know if it has to do with Asarco or not. And I'm still growing vegetables out here. This is my playground. I grow what I want."
Are his crops safe to eat? "I'm not sure. I eat them anyway," he confesses. "I'm talking to the health department about it."
Which means he's talking to Fonda Apostolopoulos, on-scene coordinator for the state health department. "I know Ray because he's an activist, and part of my job is making sure I get to know the people," Apostolopoulos says. "We replaced some of his soil, and he was quite concerned that it was full of clay."
Apostolopoulos "got to know" Ray to the point at which the health official realized the replacement soil would simply have to get better. "The Oletskis are just avid gardeners," he says. "They own their piece of the valley, and it's all been grandfathered in, the horses, the chickens, all of it. If they ever lose the deed, it won't look like it does now. The Oletskis are fascinating to me. They believe very strongly in horse manure."
They do not tolerate yellow clay that collects puddles, either. And that, along with other strong preferences, is the kind of thing Apostolopoulos spends his days sorting through. He's been working in Globeville almost three years now, sitting in at least a hundred living rooms and on countless patios, through endless tirades, visits and chats. Right away, he says, he realized that the view of Globeville he'd had from the highway was all wrong.
"I assumed these people were lazy and didn't care," he admits. "I saw the graffiti and the junk in the yards. Then I learned that the 25 bucks it takes to go to the dump can keep some of these families in rice and beans for a month. Or that they have lived here since the Depression and all that stuff in their yard might really come in handy someday, and they might not have the cash to buy it otherwise."
Soon Apostolopoulos was running interference for the older residents of Globeville, who had not only enough time to survey the soil-replacement project, but enough time to study and object to every step. "I heard a lot of, `How come he's getting a new sidewalk and I'm not?'" Apostolopoulos recalls. "And I would have to say, `Unfortunately for you, you took very good care of your sidewalk.' Eventually I realized that with some of these people, if there is construction going on nearby, I will just have to park my truck in front of their house and talk to them all day long. One man, I actually had him raise his right hand and swear: `I will not bother the contractors. I will talk to Fonda first.'"
Such encounters became all-absorbing for Apostolopoulos, who has stories of taking an 80-year-old man for his first shower in more than a year, of an encounter with twin-brother eccentrics, and the discovery of a millionaire land baron still living in a Globeville shack. He hasn't taken a vacation in seventeen months, he says, because "this is my community now, and it wouldn't be right for me to leave."
Besides, spring is not too far off. "What we're going to do at Buck Oletski's," Apostolopoulos says, "is wet down his lawn real well, and let thousands of worms loose on it and have them dig themselves in."
After that, he and Buck will probably go out to breakfast. Eating is his "last bad habit," Buck says, and almost every morning he can be found packing away pancakes and sausage at Pomponio's DX Restaurant and Lounge in northwest Denver. In fact, when he doesn't show up by 10 a.m., he gets a call from a solicitous waitress named Vangie.
At Pomponio's, Buck will remind Vangie and Apostolopoulos of their common Greek roots, and soon everybody will consider themselves part of his neighborhood. "I like Buck very much," Apostolopoulos says. "His storytelling. The way he is fair. I get a feeling of compassion from him."
Three generations of Oletskis are seated at the breakfast table, with Vangie presiding over the group. Two-year-old Nicholas is eating non-dairy creamer and shaking his long blond hair out of his eyes. "You want me to get you a haircut, boy?" Buck asks him. "I took your older brother for his first haircut, and it took two of us to hold him down."
"His mother would kill you," says Georgine, who is babysitting her nephew for the day. Then Vangie arrives with coffee and news of the sudden death of a regular customer, who was only sixty. Talk immediately turns to the grisly mistakes some hospitals make. Despite the fact that he was the victim of a similar outrage, Buck seems to relish the discussion almost as much as his breakfast.
"...and it punctured her intestine!" Georgine concludes.
"No," Vangie clucks.
"Let me tell you something," Buck begins. "All the time I had a garden, the only time that I took off from doing the gardening was '92, '93 and '94, and all I did was hardly nothing but talk. I couldn't even bend over to pull a weed or kneel in church!"
"What happened was, we took him to the hospital with a bad gall bladder," Georgine recalls. "They operated and left a seven-inch piece of suction tube in there."
"For nineteen months!" Buck says. "That doctor must have been full of his old home brew. Ha!"
The suction tube finally came out, and Buck went back to weeding, kneeling in church, and all the other midsection-heavy activities he enjoys. "Every February, I cook roasts for 800 people at the Guardian Angels church," he says. "I can do that this year. I'm going to use a lot of garlic. I like garlic. I like meat a lot, too. If you want a good steak, you should come to Mickey's with me some Saturday night. I'll be out of mass by 6 p.m., and we can go."
"You look healthy, Buck," Vangie says, as she passes by again with the coffee pot.
"And sometimes," he retorts, "I even feel that way."
"The doctors know he's doing too much," Georgine says. "They tell him to do something simple, like just get the mail out of the mailbox. But they know he's a strong old man."
"Yeah, they tell me to quit, quit, quit," Buck laughs. "Quit gardening? If I quit gardening, I'd quit me."
So after breakfast the Oletskis pile into their car and drive home to the garden, where a thaw is under way and a pile of horse manure is breaking down in the sun.
"You would think it could never hurt you," Buck says. "But don't count on it. What hurts is when my garden is in bloom and I go off fishing with my whole family and a hailstorm comes up and when I get home, my whole garden looks like toothpicks. But would you believe the tomatoes recover? And maybe the hail makes them stronger?"
Georgine and Nicholas disappear inside her house. Up the block, another door opens and Diane--"my tomboy daughter," Buck brags--emerges with her barrel-racing daughter-in-law. "And she rescues animals," Buck says. "She come over here once with three raccoons! Have you met her?"
Mike Lilgerose, who lives in a tiny wooden house in Buck's backyard, comes out to the garden holding a bottle. He is 31 years old, developmentally disabled, wreathed in smiles. "I got juice, Grampa!" he tells Buck.
"You see, he's kind of a displaced child," Buck explains. "He's maybe a little slow, and the family's been caring for him.
"Come over here, Mike," he says. "Come over here and talk to me.