A Place in the Crowd

Two guys, one with a walker and the other with a cane, sit at opposite ends of a long table at the boarding home.

"Hey, there. How are you doing?"
"Getting along. Getting along."
"Better than me."
"Oh, I don't know about that."

The guy with the walker is William George Gaskins. He's small and bald and wearing a white undershirt. The guy with the cane is Robert E. Lee. He's grizzled and grinning and wearing a black T-shirt and black baseball cap. Gaskins fidgets with a coffee stirring-stick; Lee fidgets with the key to his room. After a while, they get to talking.

Gaskins: "I must have been in jail in every state in the union. For vagrancy. The worst states are West Virginia and Mississippi. They hardly feed you. And if you say anything, they beat you half to death."

Lee: "I was a disc jockey in Detroit for station WJBK. I called myself 'The Rockin' Rebel,' 'The Rebel With a Cause.' And that cause was to play rock and roll from three to seven. Your little chunk of heaven from three to seven!"

Gaskins: "I hated guns and knives. I was mainly a poison person. I got revenge on people. If I got into an argument and someone hurt me bad, I'd say, 'Hey. Forget about it. Let's go have a cup of coffee.' Then they'd go to the restroom and I'd put cyanide in their coffee."

Lee: "I was in the early wave of the Berry Gordy Motown. Stevie Wonder. The Miracles. The Supremes. The Temptations. I knew them all. I was as popular as Wolfman Jack. Maybe more."

Gaskins: "They call me 'Red' because I used to have red hair. I'm five-feet-one and 132 pounds. Dynamite comes in little packages. I've tried to live up to that."

The Barth Hotel has stood at the corner of 17th and Blake streets like a red-brick sentry since 1882. Although it started out as a warehouse, the building soon became a hotel for travelers disembarking at Union Station: miners, cattlemen, entrepreneurs, prostitutes and swindlers. One magazine called the Barth "Denver's Courtesy Hotel, where the comforts of home prevail in the midst of the bustling activity of the commercial district which surrounds it." Even then, it was a refuge.

Gaskins: "I've been traveling since the day I was born. Mom and Dad were telegraph operators and they went wherever Western Union sent them. In Atlanta, they took mother off the train and I was born. I've been traveling ever since. That's 82 years."

Lee: "I was born in Detroit. Dad was a machinist and Mom was the wife of a machinist. Growing up, I was an expert on the race riots. You had to fight your way out of school. Which wasn't always easy. Looking back, it was pretty tough."

Gaskins: "Buddy, I was one step ahead of reform school. My dad died when I was ten and they put me into a military academy. I had the heck beat out of me more than once, so I ran away. I got money by panhandling. I was so little and all, people felt sorry for me. Then I got mixed up with the wrong crowd and started taking narcotics and shooting paregoric painkiller. That's what they used to give babies to help with colic. I used to take yellow jackets, too. In Chinatown I took quite a bit of opium. I wasn't no angel."

Lee: "I graduated from the Wayne State University speech department, where an instructor directed the Lone Ranger radio show. I wangled an audition and got hired. I was Lieutenant Coats, and I was going to fight the Injuns without any interference from the Lone Ranger and his Injun friend, Tonto. It went like this: 'Hi-ho, Silver, away!'"

Gaskins: "I killed a guy in Chicago. A bully from the neighborhood. I don't even remember his name. Bill Gaye, I think it was. We was in the theater. The same one where they got Dillinger. We got into a fight and I had a black eye and a bloody nose. I must have been about sixteen years old. He went to the restroom and I did it. With cyanide. I killed my antagonistic friend. He just went to sleep. Then I called the usher and said, 'What's wrong with him? He won't wake up?'"

Lee: "I also did Challenge of the Yukon. A dog was the featured part. Yukon King. There was a guy named Ted who played Yukon King. He went around going 'Woo! Woo! Woo!' He was very proud of that."

Gaskins: "How were they going to prove I killed him? You have to perform an autopsy within 24 hours after they take it. And it's almost impossible to find cyanide or arsenic. I guess the worms ate him a long time ago. He's not a bully anymore."

In the late Sixties and Seventies, dozens of old buildings tumbled to the ground downtown, only to be replaced by high-rise offices and condominiums and parking lots. Hundreds of poor, mentally ill, disabled and elderly people lost their homes, and some were forced out onto the streets.

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