By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
On a terrace 5,500 feet above sea level, Ted Polito Jr. leans over and lets me in on a little secret: People pray up here, he whispers. They're not supposed to, because this is Colorado's Capitol Building, but they do anyway.
They usually come on Fridays, two men and two women, trudging up two formidable sets of stairs and into the gilded atrium that's known as the dome. There they gather in a circle, holding hands, eyes closed.
Ted can't hear them from where he sits, but he knows they're praying. Up here, he supposes, surrounded by sunlight, fresh air and blue sky, they must feel closer to heaven.
"Hold it!" the tourist says. "Just a second, now...Got it!"
"John?" his wife asks. "Are you reading these things?"
"These things. Are you reading them?"
"These plaques. Are you reading them?"
"Because they have Pikes Peak."
"Pikes Peak? I don't want to see Pikes Peak. I want to see the Mint. Where's the Mint?"
"I don't know. Ask the man."
And Ted says: "See that building that looks like a clock tower?"
"Behind that building?"
"You mean we can't see it?"
"Oh. Well, where's Pikes Peak?"
Ted arrives for work when the only sounds on the third floor of the Capitol are the soft hisses of the heaters and the muffled knocks of workmen polishing brass.
"I'm here!" he announces, boots clunking on the marble floor. "Let's go!"
He unlocks a door labeled "To the Dome," and the climb begins: 93 steps through the innards of the 114-year-old building, 93 steps above the state offices and legislative chambers, 93 steps past steel scaffolding, support beams and rivets, 93 steps through dust, stale air and faded paint, until Ted finally stands atop the stairwell, chest heaving.
"Whew!" he says, rubbing his thighs. "That makes your legs burn."
A few seconds later, we enter the dome, a vast and airy wedding cake -- make that angel's food cake, since there's a hole in the center looking down onto the ground floor -- of a chamber surrounded by tall windows, Corinthian-style columns, neo-classical ironwork, gilded wood fixtures and panels of gold and white. It feels at once like a church, a museum and a monument.
From the two circular observation terraces, one inside and one outside, you can see Mount Evans looming like an iceberg over the western horizon, an old man in a wheelchair sunning himself outside an East Colfax Avenue storefront, two schoolgirls dancing in circles at Civic Center Park, the slow crawl of traffic along Interstate 25. From the dome, you can see it all.
Ted, who has seen it all before, shuffles to a desk at the south end of the chamber, where he begins his morning ritual: Unlock the drawer, remove the phone, place the phone at the center of the desk, call his boss. Walk the perimeter, open the terrace door, walk the perimeter again, return to his desk. Fish a pocket radio from his knapsack, untangle the cord, slip on the headphones and wait.
His mornings have begun this way for almost three years now. As dome attendant, it's his job to answer questions, distribute brochures and offer tours from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week. It is a simple job with simple rewards: a smile from a stranger, a clear sky, a few moments to think. And here, in the third-highest capitol building in the United States, Ted couldn't be happier.
"When I first got here, I was very scared," he tells me. "I had to hold on to the walls because it was too high. Now I like it. I meet a lot of people from different backgrounds. Africa. England. Ireland. Turkey. India. That's all I can remember."
He leans over and taps my arm.
"Oh, yeah -- and China."
Ted is 26. He was born and raised in Arvada, the youngest of eight children, and lives at home with his mother and father. He has Down's syndrome, but according to those who know him, that's never stopped Ted from being Ted. In school, he studied in traditional classrooms, taking special oral exams. He even slipped on the purple mascot's costume of the Arvada West High School Wildcats.
"That's his biggest strong point," says his mother, Nora Polito. "Anything with dancing and music, Ted's great at."
He's also pretty good in front of a camera. In 1987 Ted starred in a CBS-TV movie about teens with Down's syndrome called Kids Like Us.
"I played Alex," he says. "It was great. I had my own chair. My own makeup girl. And I signed a few autographs, too."
Ted also displayed a charm that now serves him well as a Capitol tour guide, a post he was assigned through a cooperative program with the Jefferson County Schools. Although he has worked a number of other jobs, including data entry for the Arvada Police Department, dome attendant is his favorite. Walk up the stairs, and there's Ted, grinning from ear to ear: "Hello. Where are you from?"
"He feels pretty easy around people," says his mother, "and he's really proud of his job. That was one of our goals: Get him out there where he can go to work every day and be a little taxpayer."