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High Noon

When it's springtime in the Rockies . . .

All of Denver's panhandlers must be over at the State Capitol, lobbying to make marriage legal only when the two participants are not of the same sex, but of the same religion and, probably, on the same page of the hymnal.

This week they sure weren't hanging out along the 16th Street Mall, that alleged panhandlers' haven, that scourge of the West, that blight through the heart of downtown.

If the mall looked any brighter, the city would have to issue shades at the Aurora border.

True, the approach up California Street, the primary route conventioneers will take once the new, improved Colorado Convention Center is finished in December, lacks what those in the marketing biz would call street appeal. The liquor store just past 15th Street -- centerpiece of the derelict block that could, if rumors and dreams come true, hold a Target someday -- specializes in bombers, Sutter Home, lottery tickets and copies of The Buzz Magazine, a four-color local adult monthly whose March issue featured an interview with Sage of Bada Bing, which bills itself as "Denver's Premier Escort Agency." (This in a city that was all a-twitter last fall after employees of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau dared to accept an invitation to visit the nearby Diamond Cabaret, a bureau member, for an after-work event.)

And it's also true that, farther up California, the local sights included one stinky fellow sitting on a trash container, picking his bare, grimy feet while another rooted through the contents of that container. Welcome to Denver, the smell-high city!

But every step closer to 16th Street, the city just looked better and better. It smelled better, too.

I was heading toward the mall with the same city booster who'd challenged me six months before to walk the sixteen-block stretch at prime scary time -- not 2 a.m., when the bars let out, but sundown, when panhandlers and other urban animals were reportedly frightening away not just tourists, but locals. I'd accepted that challenge, and during my stroll had encountered nothing more fearsome than 1) a transsexual having trouble walking in his/her high heels and 2) a lobbyist, which is really just a panhandler in a business suit talking on a cell phone ("Mall in the Family," October 23, 2003). When I reported my findings, the booster said that I'd just gotten lucky that evening. Try lunchtime, he said.

Since then, the city has come up with a new proposal for handling panhandlers, one that would ban them from a four-block stretch of downtown. Meanwhile, "ambassadors" will walk the mall, keeping the peace and welcoming tourists. The $175,000 ambassador program starts next month; the city's homeless commission will discuss the panhandling containment plan on April 12.

It's high noon for the 16th Street Mall.

This town may not be big enough for the both of us -- at least, not for both of our perceptions -- I told the booster, inviting him to be an eyewitness this round. And so, at exactly twelve noon Tuesday, we set forth down the mall, courting danger -- and sunburn. The single scariest sight this time: the $75 carved-wood sculpture of a bear that doubles as a toilet-paper holder, standing in the window of one of the souvenir shops along the mall. If this was the best example of Colorado culture that a tourist could find, we were in a very, very bad way. But further investigation in other souvenir shops -- and there are more than a dozen along the mall -- revealed much better gifts for the folks back home. Giant alligator totems. Replica six-shooters. "Genuine" gilt aspen leaves. Rubber tomahawks. Buffalo Bill action figures (right next to Swabby the Pirate action figures). Refrigerator magnets featuring everything from a moose's butt to a confetti-strewn view of the mountains with downtown in the foreground, along with the words "Mile High City." Even magnet manufacturers have surrendered to the draw of "The Mile High City," Denver's once and future slogan.

Every seat at every outdoor cafe was packed. Every seat on the mall itself was filled -- some with tourists, some with office workers on their break, some with the employment-impaired enjoying the sun.

At Curtis Street, we spotted the first person asking for a donation -- in exchange for a song. "Is business good?" I asked, dropping a dollar in his saxophone case. "Very good," he replied. "But if you want to hear something great, there's a little girl playing in the next block." Even our buskers are generous.

Skyline Park, once ground zero for complaints about undesirables, was still fenced off, with signs promising that the renovation project would be finished in Spring 2004 -- a date the city's clearly going to break. The kids who used to congregate at Skyline have scattered to other parts of the mall, where they still draw complaints. We spotted a handful of them in front of McDonald's, bothering exactly no one. If the mall looked any better, Denver would have to beat tourists off with a stick.

Across the way, still another souvenir shop. "This could be the portal to hell," said my fellow traveler, pointing to the overpriced Conestoga wagons, the dusty University of Colorado mugs. (CU memorabilia is going slowly these days.)

If Denver's portal to hell is a souvenir shop, this city's doing just fine.

At Welton, we encountered our second street musician: a man playing "Springtime in the Rockies" on his clarinet near a planter filled with flowers. "Okay," the booster admitted. "This looks like utopia."

Such a utopia that the fellow who sells fifty-cent hot dogs was enjoying a nice, expensive lunch at an outdoor table at one of the Denver Pavilions restaurants. Such a utopia that rather than being asked for handouts, I was handed fliers about Jesus (he's coming), the Latino Voting Project, a seminar on medical marijuana -- each delivered with a silent smile.

Finally, after a seventy-minute stroll up one side of the mall and down the other (with time out for souvenir-store stops), we spied our first genuine panhandler outside of Marlowe's. By the time we reached him, he was on a pay phone in the center of the mall, talking quietly. The sign on his back read: "God bless you and your family. 45 % of my body burn, artificial leg. Can't work."

"He's giving panhandling a good name," sighed my companion.

In all, we spotted exactly one crime: a bike on the mall, which is forbidden. Then again, its owner was just walking alongside it, talking to his friend, enjoying the sun, the day, the city. It looked like heaven.

"Next time," the booster said hopefully, "you should really try eight in the morning."


Sex and This City

Colorado's facing disastrous shortages of cash, of water, of common sense. So why are our state legislators devoting so much of their day to excessive fretting about sex? When they're not panicking about same-sex marriage, they're worrying about sex education or the ludicrous possibility that some teen previously as pure as Rocky Mountain spring water might be corrupted by the cover of a magazine he spots in a bookstore, or a poster advertising a play in the window of a theater.

Under the proposal originally floated by Representative Ted Harvey ("F-Bombed," January 22), the owner of that bookstore and the producer of that theatrical performance could be thrown in jail if "a reasonable adult person would find that the material or performance lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors."

Why not just throw legislators in jail if they fail to display serious political value?

But Harvey and his cohort in the Senate, Doug Lamborn (a Republican from Colorado Springs, as if you couldn't have guessed), have escaped the hoosegow for now. Last week, HB 1078 -- the bill that had been amended, tabled, then resurrected from the dead -- was finally killed by the Colorado Senate. And free speech is free again -- or as close as it can get to it in this state.

Representative Shawn Mitchell was speaking pretty freely at the legislature last week, pushing his bill that would give parents greater leeway in letting their kids skip sex-ed classes. And while Democrats claim that the bill finally approved on Friday simply returns Colorado to the status quo, Mitchell says it's actually "a greatly improved version of what we had before." Now schools will be required to give parents more details about the content of the curriculum, as well as more information on their right to opt their children out of the class -- and no longer will parents have to offer a religious reason in order to do so. "A parent can opt out for any reason," he says.

And has Mitchell opted his children out of sex ed? "We've allowed them to participate, and then we visit with them afterwards," says the Broomfield Republican. "We've had practice; we have seven kids. After the third, you lose the blush."

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