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The Misfits

Doyle Robinson has found his place -- in with the outcasts.

He was terrified. At any moment they could leap forward, press a screwdriver to his throat and mug him -- in front of God and the whole world. In fact, the way they were glowering at him, they could do much worse.

"Hi," Doyle Robinson offered. "How you doin'?"

He was standing on the cold brick steps of a beaten-down park at 16th and Arapahoe streets, surrounded by some of the roughest kids he'd ever seen. Runaways. Gutter punks. Heroin addicts. Devil worshipers. They were all huddled together, studying him, a mass of combat boots, matted hair, pierced body parts and suspicion.

 
John Johnston
 
In from the cold: After years on the streets, Gutter Boy found a haven at Sox Place.
John Johnston
In from the cold: After years on the streets, Gutter Boy found a haven at Sox Place.

Doyle had come downtown with a church friend from Parker to distribute candy bars, soda pop and personal-hygiene items as part of a Christian inner-city outreach program. But nothing in his twenty years of working with young people had prepared him for this. He didn't do drugs. He didn't like punk. He was just a middle-aged white guy from Arkansas with a mini-van. How could he possibly connect with them?

So he stood there in his nice clothes and his wire-framed glasses and his teddy-bear body, an outcast among outcasts. He handed over his gifts, lingered a while and finally left.

But he came back. Again and again. He was still afraid, still uncomfortable. Yet something about those hard-core street kids struck a chord deep within him. In the faces of the lost and angry children of downtown Denver, Doyle saw himself.


"I was hungry and you made me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me." -- Matthew: 25.

Doyle Robinson recites that passage over and over. It gives him focus, validation. He asks himself: "If Jesus returned to earth in a physical form, where would he go, and what would he do?"


When Skyline Park was dedicated on a drizzly November day in 1976, it was hailed as "a dream within a dream," the crowning achievement of a massive redevelopment project that would remake the face and future of downtown. Using a canyon riverbed as inspiration, noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin envisioned his project as an urban oasis surrounded by benches, shade trees and cafes.

Then the street kids came. They straggled over from Capitol Hill and the Platte Valley, gathering in the recesses of the brick-and-stone rectangle that stretches from 15th to 18th streets along Arapahoe. Near Skyline, they found panhandling opportunities, public restrooms and fast food. In the park, they found temporary shelter from the wind and rain, a semblance of safety.

But merchants complained. Tourists complained. Pedestrians complained. By the early '90s, it seemed all of downtown was complaining that Skyline Park had become a den of drugs, casual theft, litter, petty crimes -- and worse. Police rumbled through on their motorcycles, banishing skateboards, busting junkies and dope dealers, issuing citations for everything from spitting to jaywalking to sitting on the grass.

Opposing forces mobilized behind pointing fingers. Some wanted the park redesigned; others wanted it preserved. Back and forth they went, year after year, proposal after proposal.

And still the street kids came. City officials and downtown boosters didn't understand it, but to the homeless youth, the reason was simple: At Skyline Park, misfits could find each other.


Doyle grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, the second-youngest of six kids. His family was loving, hardworking and devout. They hosted backyard barbecues, went to church on Sundays. It wasn't Norman Rockwell, but it was close.

Still, the Robinsons had their troubles -- particularly Doyle and his dad. No matter how hard they tried, they could never bridge the barrier between them.

Doyle's dad's name was Wilfred, but everyone called him Pee Wee. He was short, wiry, handsome and scrappy, a James Dean type reared in Depression-era Texas. He'd quit school in the sixth grade, sold jackrabbit ears for bounty, and taught himself how to fix anything with gears, switches, motors or sprockets. He fought, cussed, gambled, fished and hunted, even when fishing and hunting were out of season. As a kid, he once climbed a tree and took a dump on the head of his sleeping brother.

Doyle, on the other hand, was clumsy, sensitive and excruciatingly shy, a perennial wallflower who didn't date until he was eighteen. Pee Wee's attempts to bond with his son -- and there were attempts -- almost always ended in disaster. When they went hunting, Doyle sat shivering beside a tree for what seemed like hours while Pee Wee stalked his bucks. When they went fishing, Doyle rocked the boat, disturbed the water, tangled his line and left Pee Wee ranting and raving.

It was different with Doyle's two older brothers. Pee Wee coached their baseball teams, took them water-skiing, horsed around. With Doyle, there was mostly silence.

Although he and his father would later reconcile, Doyle harbors only two happy childhood memories of his dad. Once, when Doyle was a toddler, Pee Wee returned from work, picked him up and smiled. And then, when Doyle was eleven, his dad waved him over to the driveway and told a friend: "Look at this kid. He has great hands." For years afterward, Doyle's hands -- his big, meaty hands -- were the only part of his body he was proud of.

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