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Just the 'Fax, man

Thirty miles of developments, drunks and dreams -- the ultimate road trip.

5:45 p.m.: Colorado Mills,
14500 West Colfax

The lanky, speckle-faced girl who mans the front line at Hot Dog on a Stick -- wearing the signature multi-colored dome hat and bright-red shorts -- may be the only person who secretly hopes the crowds never come to Colorado Mills. Conceived during the economic boom of the late '90s and opened in the bust that followed, the place has been plagued by low turnout since November 2002. Its operators blame everything from the war to post-Christmas consumer burnout, while others wonder if people even know that Colorado Mills is out here on the fringe of civilization -- also known as west suburban Lakewood.

Whatever the reason, the place is so dead today that every little noise cuts through the late-afternoon calm: janitors banging brooms against dustpans, shoppers shuffling across waxy parquet floors. When a kid drops a penny down a black wishing-well contraption that sits outside the Dress Barn -- "Just one more thing to get you to throw your money away," one shopper notes -- the noise echoes through the Mills' quiet canyon of nearly 200 shops and restaurants.

There's nothing really wrong with Colorado Mills, which boasts many of the usual mall amenities and embarrassments. There's a movie theater, a Cinnabon, a Sunglass Hut. There are specialty shops for nerds and knife enthusiasts (Games Workshop and Merlo's Cutting Edge, respectively), craft stores and outlet stores and an entire store devoted to potpourri. There are things mall-goers of yore could only dream of, like the Walden Family Playhouse, the ESPN Skate Park and Jillian's, a brain-jangling mega-arcade that rings with an automated symphony of video-game soundtracks and virtual-reality stations.

But even Jillian's is quiet today. In the food court, an entire sheet of head-sized pastries languishes beneath the warming light of the Cinnabon display case, uneaten and unloved. Cashiers in retail shops read books and talk on their cell phones, no customers to distract them. Chatchke-laden kiosks offer everything from wigs to manicures to hermit crabs with brightly painted shells, but no one's buying. When Nick Carter croons from a huge TV that hangs suspended outside Gart Sports, it hits: There's no one here to hear Nick Carter sing.

That's because what's missing from Colorado Mills are teenagers -- the stock in trade of any mall worth its weight in salted soft pretzels.

Where are the teenagers? Not on the floor of Hot Topic, where Blink-182 blares out of a sound system to an empty room. Not in Spencer Gifts, that repository of fake-poop props, edible underpants and gag gifts only a pre-sexed adolescent would find amusing. Where are the kids avoiding homework, deceiving their parents, sneaking smokes, hanging out -- cruising, contemplating shoplifting, scoping for makeout partners, commiserating over the excruciating boredom of life?

According to Edgar, an eighteen-year-old senior at Lincoln High School, they're at the Denver Pavilions. Or at the movies. Or bowling -- which is what Edgar wishes he were doing right now. He raced his best friend, George, from Lincoln to Colorado Mills' half-empty parking lot after school let out. Edgar and George agree that the race was the most exciting part of their afternoon. They rarely come to Colorado Mills, and every time they do, they remember why they stay away.

"This place sucks," says George, who's wearing oversized khakis and the all-knowing smirk of a seventeen-year-old upperclassman. "It's too far from Lincoln. I miss the Villa."

"It's empty. It's gay," adds Edgar. "It would be better if they had an upstairs. All you can do here is walk around in a circle. You hang out, buy stuff. It's boring."

Edgar says he doesn't go to malls to meet girls -- those, he meets in class, or on the street. George came to the Mills with his sister, Vanessa, and his girlfriend, Jessica, and two other friends from Lincoln.

"This place is fun if you're with your friends, because it's so big," says Jessica, who goes to a mall, usually the Pavilions, about six or seven times a month. Today marks her second visit to Colorado Mills. "I usually don't come here, and I've seen better. It's too far away from everything. But I like the food court. I like the candy place."

The group moves through the corridors in a pack, drawing glances from shoppers. The cashier at Sunglass Hut looks up from his book to see George snap Jessica's bra and Vanessa chase Edgar and the other boys. Some of them cuss; George and Jessica occasionally kiss. When another small group of kids passes -- a girl with pink hair and a "Rock Star" shirt and a boy wearing eyeliner and leather -- the two camps eye each other slyly, like packs of lions.

"They need to get more people in here," Jessica says. "Vanessa needs to find a boyfriend." -- Bond

6:30 p.m.: Congress Lounge,
308 East Colfax

The Congress Lounge has been a fixture of legislative drinkfests for four decades, and tonight two congressmen sit in a booth sipping cocktails. It's still early in the session, and the others have yet to stake out their stools.

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