In a Sentimental Mood: The Quest for Ambience in a Sterile, Modern World

I wanted less Bastille and more Ella Fitzgerald while swimming.
I wanted less Bastille and more Ella Fitzgerald while swimming.

Last weekend, as I was floating the length of the Olympic-size sulfur-water pool at Glenwood Hot Springs, I was rudely interrupted by Bastille. You know Bastille -- the rock n' whatever arena-boy band that has stepped into the Train/Coldplay/U2 position of bland, ubiquitous retail rock. My mini-vacation and Bastille just didn't jive -- and more important, the experience of swimming in a pool heated by nature nestled between mountain tops underneath a star-filled sky wasn't meant for Bastille. It wasn't meant for a random Pandora station at all; the experience needed sonic curation.

Whenever I go out to eat, stay at a hotel or do something that I couldn't do at home, I'm looking for an atmospheric experience. I know, this is a hefty request for the real world outside of my doorstep, but if I am going to spend money to do an activity that I could very well do at home for free like sleep or eat, I'd like an element of fantasy or escapism to go with my experience. I am an atmosphere junkie.

See also: The Denver Eye's Tom Lundin talks mid-century modern and Lakeside's Masonic roots

The former interior of the still-standing Rossonian Hotel.
The former interior of the still-standing Rossonian Hotel.
Courtesy of the Denver Eye.

Thinking Bastille's music sucks isn't why I didn't like hearing it while swimming -- it's because it didn't match the experience. Like many Colorado mountain towns, there is a certain feeling many of the older structures hold; to me, a night swim in a hot springs attached to 1890s red sandstone building called for something more like Ella Fitzgerald's version of "In A Sentimental Mood" over the loudspeaker.

I've long tried to understand my own desire to go back in time just to spend a night dining or dancing in forgotten and or now non-existent establishments. I'd love to dine at the Red Slipper Room or Baby Doe's Matchless Mine. I've dreamed of grabbing a late-night smoke and a show inside the Rossonian (see last week's cover story for the history of this Denver landmark) or walking around Lakeside Amusement Park in the early 1900s when the twinkling lights were all perfectly in place and the trees were still young.

I wish for old times not because I'm merely a "nostalgist"; no, it's I want more, aesthetically, out of my modern life. I want velvet curtains and tall booths and waiters and waitresses in bow ties and high heels that want to serve you. I want textured wallpaper and Googie-style lettering on menus. I want magical things like "revolving" restaurants and intricate neon arrows pointing toward the door of a bar to beckon me in off the road and inside for a drink. I want atmosphere.

I'd rather eat at a fake '50s diner than a restaurant that thinks corrugated metal belongs inside where humans can see it. I'd take a grilled cheese at Gunther Toody's any day over a sterile experience at Which Wich, a fast-casual chain where you have to write your order on a paper bag with a Sharpie. Have you ever spent time inside of a Which Wich? It's like most slapdash corporate sandwich machines -- a yellow and brown room full of plastic and metal fixtures with a few mass-produced photographs bolted to the walls. I think you're supposed to inhale your sandwich before the new country song pissing its way through the sound system finishes and get out of there as fast as you can. But I suppose that's why it's called "fast-casual" -- you're not supposed to be there for long, if at all.

Granted, I take full advantage of the convenience of modern life -- I am a person who wears sweatpants in public and frequents Starbucks. I breeze through the Hackers-like post-apocalyptic Tokyo Joe's every once in a while after the gym to grab a plastic container of salmon and vegetables, only to inhale it on my way home while driving. I mindlessly wander the warehouses of Target and Costco, filling my basket with economy-size versions of everything I don't need while the fluorescent light cuts into my brain and makes me tired. I am an active participant in the convenient, ambiance-free world I have come to detest.

Luckily, thanks to thousands of other people who also long for a future that looks and feels more like the past, I can spend hours looking at the places that no longer exist through the graces of the Internet. I can scan images of dead malls of yore, peek at themed restaurants and drive-in movie theaters, virtually visit hotels and motels from the '50s with kidney-shaped pools and wander miles of streets dotted with neon lighting -- even if they only exist on a screen or in my mind. Is it healthy? I don't know. But it can't be any worse for me than the harsh reality of a consuming a $10 burrito in a place that feels like it was decorated to look like the inside of an air-conditioning unit.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies



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