No Man's Land

The unincorporated Adams family.

Pockets of open land sometimes appear just over the Adams County line. Bordered on the north by I-76, with a dense clump of Westminster off in the distance, this section of north Denver is a barren stretch of used-car dealers, scrapyards and cornfields. Some of its occupants look set in stone -- the family truck farm plugging away with its fourth generation and second coat of paint, for instance. The rest seem ready to melt back into the ether -- the bingo hall, the latest 99-cent breakfast joint, the drive-up coffee spot no one thought would last in the first place.

Unincorporated Adams County is the exact opposite of a covenanted community. Here, a fireworks stand is a respected corporate citizen.

"They're legal," Cathy Morales points out. Her fireworks lot, at the northeast corner of 52nd Avenue and Sheridan, is just a half block over the county line. "My family's always sold fireworks. My dad started at this particular place eighteen years ago. We lease it every year."

The soft sell: Cathy Morales (left), Victor Sanchez and Bernie Drayton at the vacant lot on Sheridan.
The soft sell: Cathy Morales (left), Victor Sanchez and Bernie Drayton at the vacant lot on Sheridan.

The business plan is simple: rent an empty lot with few annoyable neighbors; set up a tent, phone, table, one or two chairs, cash register, porta-potty; string power cords and maybe a few of those plastic patriotic pennants. Throw up a hand-lettered sign reading: FIREWORKS! BUY ONE GET ONE FREE! Then, from Memorial Day weekend to long after midnight on July 4 itself, with the sounds and smells of gunpowder thick in the air, sell the hell out of bottle rockets and smoke bombs.

"I love it," Cathy says. "It rushes by. It's so fast, so much to do. You go, go, go, make money, watch people have fun. But this season was horrible. We paid $6,000 for our lease, and then came the ban on fireworks, and we lost it all."

But she continues on with the yearly cycle of things you can sell from a tent in a dirt lot, moving into roasted chile and fresh produce in August and September, adding pumpkins and a small haunted house through Halloween. Then Christmas trees. She'll concentrate on her used-car lot the rest of the winter, then return to this spot in April with bedding plants. Her various business ventures may look basic, but they're part of a subtly expanding empire.

"When I'm not here, I'm on the road," Cathy says. "I drive to New Mexico for the chile, or Rocky Ford for melons. It's what I've always done."

At 35, she looks back on a childhood that prepared her for doing just this. Her parents worked together, expanding fireworks lots as they went along and eventually starting a used-car dealership. Cathy married, worked eight years as an orthodontist's assistant, then returned to her genetic roots as an outdoor vendor. She and her husband blended into the family business. She inherited this particular fireworks stand from her father, started another at 72nd and Pecos, and three years ago took over the car dealership from her brother, who'd gotten it from their father. Her husband likes the cars and spends most days at the used-car auction, where he is reached by phone many times a day. The Moraleses live in Cathy's parents' house, and she can imagine her two daughters continuing in this vein until the various generations and professions of the Morales/Elliott ménage are inextricably entwined.

"We're right for this life," she says. "I like being outside, all the different people, how you never get the same thing for too long. My friends call me trailer trash, but I don't mind. Once I was so sleepy I crawled into the freezer trailer and went to sleep, which is just what they'd expect me to do."

The trailer in question is one of two on the lot, a small refrigerated room currently loaded with burlap sacks full of New Mexico chile. Beside it, three roasters hooked up to tanks of butane turn slowly, emitting the magnificent north Denver smell of fall.

"The crowd this year is white people all the time," Cathy observes. "At our Pecos lot, it's all Spanish."

Cathy's Italian herself, but she married into a Mexican family. At work, particularly at the car lot, where the buyers consist largely of Mexican nationals with Mexican driver's licenses, she speaks elementary Spanish. "I understand it better than I speak it," she admits. "I've been around Mexican people all my life. My whole family has. Italian and Spanish together is kind of a north Denver thing."

So is chile in the fall. It's hard to resist the smell, even when your ancestral cuisine doesn't include instructions for what to do with the produce. Making subtle distinctions between twenty grades of chile may be a hip culinary trend, but Cathy's customers are a lot more down to earth. In autumn, they buy bushels of roasted chiles and throw them in the deep freeze. During the course of the winter, chile ends up on everything -- a steak, a plate of spaghetti, a pan of enchiladas.

"One guy came in and bought nine bushels of the chubby stubbies, the poblanos," says Bernadette Drayton, Cathy's longtime assistant. "I don't know what his plan was."

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