I Drink, Therefore I Am

An incomplete history of local barchitecture, undertaken in two sober afternoons.

The new owner, Rosa Olivas, has had considerable success with Tequila Rose's, known around town as Denver's only gay Mexican bar. But Rosa's plans for the Blue Blaze are uncertain, Jeanne says. Liquor-board officials have strongly suggested she get rid of the name and even the color of the bar, to erase any unpleasant associations.

But although the current crowd is disjointed and uncomfortable, Jeanne admits that she would hate to the see the Blue Blaze become a place with no past.

"And it certainly should be blue," she adds. "My grandma said it always was."

PORTULACA CAFE
321 East 45th Avenue, Globeville
Although the Portulaca (pictured below) is now known as the Porch, or Dick and Jane's Spot, it could also be called the Patina, because all the old surfaces--the stainless-steel footrail on the bar, the brass threshold under the monumental slab of a front door, even the ancient beer-bottle opener nailed to the wall--are worn bright by decades of contact with human hands and feet.

"This is the oldest bar in Colorado," one guy says, gazing into the cloudy mirror behind the bar and speaking with mistaken authority, because this building, as near as anyone can figure out, has been around since 1930 but only began serving alcohol in 1960.

"It was the old Slovenian Hall before that," says Rich (but you can call him Dick) Gallegos, who bought the place three years ago but has been coming here since childhood. "Then it was a Polish club with drinks, and the truckers used to come here before work for burgers and the chili bowl. The guy who owned it used to make a bowl of chili and sell it to the guys who worked at the foundry and put all his kids through college doing that. I wanted this place so bad...and all he ever said to me was, 'When you got the money, we'll sit down.' Finally I got the money, and we sat down."

Included in the deal was one-third of the original back bar from the old Windsor Hotel, which once occupied a solid block of downtown Denver. Someone had installed two tubes of neon to update the Victorian relic. Dick, his wife and their patrons have continued the decorating process, adding a homemade aluminum-foil trophy celebrating the Broncos' Super Bowl victory, a Broncos dream catcher, a candle to the Blessed Virgin that reads "Look deep into her eyes and let her look into yours," and a deadpan plaque that announces "Free Beer Tomorrow."

"I also have a bunch of Elvis stuff to put up around the place," Dick says proudly. "I'm the first Hispanic ever to own it."

"What?" shrieks a guy named Dominic, who is helping out behind the bar. "You? You're Mexican?"

That could account for why the Porch now makes the best green chili you've tasted in years. A woman known only as "Mom" is cooking up some right now. At the same time, she is wondering out loud when Dick and Dominic are planning to do the chores she gave them yesterday. But what's the hurry? Next door is a horseshoe pit, and if you hang around here long enough, someone will suggest that everyone walk over for a game. So you do.

JOE'S CAVE
Federal Boulevard and1st Avenue, Denver
The neon arrow you have admired for twenty years leads nowhere.

"No, dude," says bartender Lonnie Lujan, "that was in Prohibition. They had a fruit stand up here since 1897. Then they put the speakeasy down in the basement, and you just kind of made your way down."

Today the bar is upstairs, done up in plastic paneling and Budweiser posters, with nothing but fifty-year-old linoleum and a refrigerator at least that old to attest to its origins in the alcoholic roots of time. The jukebox is playing rap. A woman in her fifties is dancing with a toddler in a patch of sunlight. "A future customer," Lonnie says. "It's a good bar. You're drunk, you're outta here."

Can you see the basement?
"Okay," he says, sighing deeply. "Watch the phone," he yells to the crowd in general. "I'll be back up in, oh, three days."

If you go through the cool damp all the way to the back of the cellar, past piles of old bottles and heaps of dust, you get to the narrow room that was the site of the secret drinking. Nothing is left but a wall of mismatched, mislaid brick. Still, if you look...

"But I don't," Lonnie says. "I don't know what kinda people used to be down here, but I hear noises. I had a dream about it twice. You're gonna think I'm crazy, but you know how that white fog comes up out of the ground in London? Well it was coming up out of this basement, and I was hanging by my neck from this pipe right here. I was all in white."

And the noises he hears?
"I don't know how to describe it," he says, walking quickly up the stairs and shutting the door. "I don't know what kind of people they must have been. I just don't know."

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