We Are Capitol Hill

When Stephen Elliott was murdered in an Alfalfa's parking lot last year, it shocked neighbors right down to the bone. Down to the bone, that is, for about 72 hours.

When Stephen was 22, with no explanation to anyone, his father put a gun to his head and killed himself. Though there'd been an uneasy friction between Elliott and his father, the impact of the suicide drove Elliott into an emotional brick wall. His adult personality reflected a detachment from others; he dripped with cynicism and used stiff witticism to gain response from his friends and enemies. If a friend spoke over Elliott while he was pontificating, Elliott was known to shoot back, "It's not polite to interrupt your betters."

Around this time, Asimus and Elliott became close college drinking buddies -- but sophisticated ones. Asimus called Elliott by his last name only; eventually, that's how all of Elliott's friends would refer to him. They were able to sit at a bar well into the night, stretching out conversations -- usually about literature, music or art -- over several glasses of wine. Elliott was a fierce debater, capable of verbally bludgeoning his competitors. Asimus recalls one time at the symphony when a baby started crying. Elliott turned to the mother and said, "People who can't handle children shouldn't have them." Elliott also confided to Asimus the quirks of his existence: that he hated the physical act of reading; that his intellectual weakness was simple math problems; that he considered himself bisexual.

Elliott's bookshelf still holds tomes on reason, logic and mathematics, and he was also capable of consuming obscure, abstract books such as Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers and Clarice Lispector's The Foreign Legion. (At one point during his late teens through his early twenties, Elliott became entranced by astrology. He eventually debunked it, though, and rarely confessed his youthful intrigue.) He had little tolerance for whimsy, emotion or conversational gibberish; not surprisingly, his skin was thick, too. His prickliness came at a price, though: Few of Elliott's friends think they really knew the man.

Lofty ideas: Mark Asimus didn't like Elliott at first but grew to enjoy drinking wine and having intellectual discussions with him.
Anthony Camera
Lofty ideas: Mark Asimus didn't like Elliott at first but grew to enjoy drinking wine and having intellectual discussions with him.
A Capitol Hill offense: After Elliott's murder, Mani Powers went to the police station with E.J.
Anthony Camera
A Capitol Hill offense: After Elliott's murder, Mani Powers went to the police station with E.J.

"He felt alienated his whole life," E.J. Yodder says. "As he grew older, that's how he actually wanted it. That's all he had known." After Elliott completed his master's degree at DU, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program in computer science at CU. Though he continued to study the piano with great passion, he'd conceded he wasn't going to become a touring musician and would need a "real" source of income. He figured he was good at complex mathematics.

When Elliott spoke, he had a habit of bringing the tips of his fingers together, as if he were grasping an imaginary softball. The gesture was decidedly pretentious. Looser friends, like Ivan Suvanjieff, would pretend to remove the ball from Elliott's hands and pass it around to others in the room. Elliott never acknowledged the joke. "We were openly mocking him to his face, and we wouldn't utter a word!" Suvanjieff recalls. "Which made him the coolest person in the world or the most unaware person in the world. And I'd like to think he was the coolest person in the world."

In 1986, Elliott's mother died, painfully, from cancer. Elliott had commuted between Boulder and Arvada to visit his mother in a hospice and told Asimus he'd been "surprised" at how warm the caretakers were. "He was very moved by their kindness," Asimus says.

And on the other side of Elliott's petulance, there was a sweet generosity. While he continued to work on his Ph.D., Suvanjieff was struggling to publish an art and literary magazine called The New Censorship. Elliott volunteered his copy-editing skills and typeset the magazine at no charge. He often took Suvanjieff out to lunch and purchased several of Suvanjieff's artworks each year. He also bought the editor/artist a dictionary.

Elliott admired friends like Suvanjieff because he saw in them people who were willing to starve for their passion. Elliott wasn't. He was a classical pianist who wouldn't bother sitting on the bench if he couldn't play for more than three hours. He didn't play for friends or at parties, but he'd manipulate the ivories for five, six hours at a time, a smoldering pipe in his mouth and a glass of burgundy close by. If he couldn't work through a piece flawlessly, he'd hammer on it for several hours. He played Ravel, Prokofieff.

But the lifestyle of a gourmand isn't cheap. Elliott knew if he wanted time to play the piano at an international level, he'd have to score big financially. Computers were the ticket. "He wanted to buy time, like everyone else," E.J. says. "He wanted to just play the piano and have a glass of wine -- but what he really wanted was just time to think."

In 1989, Elliott, Asimus and a group of tight friends began hanging out at Footer's, a fine Italian restaurant located just across the street from the gourmet food store that would become Alfalfa's in Capitol Hill. The spot became the center of Elliott's social circle. He and several friends sat at the bar almost nightly, stringing together rich conversations, sometimes taking on strangers who made the mistake of sitting next to them.

E.J. was Footer's wine manager, overseeing some 400 bottles. She had grown up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, attended Penn State and earned a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. She'd lived in Spain for a year, then Washington, D.C., before coming to Colorado on a whim. She had a sister here but knew no one else. When she arrived, she sold wine for three months, then took the job at Footer's.

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