Smoking at Paramount Cafe and 86'd from Coyote Ugly: Happy birthday, 16th Street Mall
Remember Units clothing store at the Tabor Center? Pick a stretchy item, wear it fifty different ways -- even wrap it around your perm.
Being the inappropriately dramatic individual I am, it would be appropriate to say I have a love-hate relationship with the 16th Street Mall. But both love and hate are words that are too strong for my feelings about the mall. Although I'm inclined to admire anything built around the activity of shopping, I've never much cared for this particular strip of commerce. Mostly because it has lacked the key component to what I think makes a good mall, indoors or out: atmosphere.
When I started thinking about the strip of pedestrian pavement that just turned thirty -- and will celebrate with a birthday party at Skyline Park at lunchtime today -- I realized that it wasn't about hate or love. It's about the downtown of my home city. And lots of memories involving drinking, drugs, cigarettes, boys and shopping.
Those ribbon thingys just scream "Established in 1984."
There are many advantages to being a first-born; for this story's purposes, the perk was getting to spend lots of time with my mother, since my competition hadn't been born yet. I remember many exclusive mommy 'n' me shopping excursions throughout childhood, from Cinderella City to Buckingham Square to the 16th Street Mall's Shops at Tabor Center. I distinctly recall a preschool-age me being placed on a carpeted platform that covered the wheel well of the 16th Street MallRide.
This was thrilling for many reasons, but mostly because it meant being in a moving vehicle without a seatbelt on. (My mom told me that I once called her from a grade- school friend's house and asked her to please come pick me up, because there weren't enough seatbelts in the family's car for me to have my own. Apparently, I was told that if I ever felt unsafe to call her -- and I'm guessing that she hadn't thought I'd taken her seriously. I did. To this day, I won't ride in anything without a seatbelt, and I still call her when I feel unsafe. Now, that's a moral compass.)
Mom and I rode seatbelt- and sibling-free to the Tabor Center to go shopping -- and I remember wanting to buy clothes at Units so, so bad. Units was this bizarre retail store inside Tabor that sold separates that could be worn in multiple combinations and in multiple ways -- like a less inappropriately sexualized version of American Apparel, but with more elastic. On second thought, maybe I'm thinking of Contempo Casuals rather than Units. I know for sure that store existed outside of the realm of my imaginary spandex dream world, because I still own a skirt I bought from Contempo with an elastic waistband that long ago lost its snap.
Regardless, in my corner of the '80s, outside of a Catholic school uniform, I only wore dance and workout attire. I can't tell if this was due to my personal interests (see commercial below) or, looking back, what seems to be an overwhelming fashion trend of the era. Whatever it was, Units fit right in with my dream closet: stretchy fabrics that fit my beanpole body and could withstand hours and hours of self-choreographed dance rehearsals to Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It for the Boy," which I would later debut to an audience of no one.
As an adolescent, my interests still included shopping, but I bided my teenage time with my favorite activity: looking at boys while smoking. The 16th Street Mall was definitely the place for this. Sitting at the Paramount Cafe for hours with my best friends, I would stare through the short-order window at a boy who worked in the kitchen who was so, so dreamy. (He later became my boyfriend, and a very naive teenage me found out he was not so, so dreamy, but instead, a methy raver twenty-something who kicked a cat down a flight of stairs. Don't worry, we broke up. And there are way better stories about him that involve drug deals, jungle juice and sampler platters from Old Chicago -- but my mother reads this column.)
I distinctly remember the taste of the Paramount's air, a mix of fried food and a sooty, dead building-materials smell coming from across the street -- a result of ancient structure demolition in preparation for the soon-to-be-wowing-shoppers-like-Tabor-did Denver Pavilions. I'm surprised I could smell anything at all, considering it was the late '90s and I was just another teenager smoking cigarettes inside a restaurant.
I have lots of awesome and terrible memories of the Denver Pavilions, too -- from dates that turned into dramatic blowouts at Cafe Odyessy to getting roofied at the club from hell, Beyond and blackout-wasted in the padded bathrooms of its companion hellhole, Spy.
Sorell FX: Demo Reel - Cafe Odyssey (Prepare to be bored to death.)
In particular, I vaguely remember visiting Coyote Ugly in the Pavilions sometime in 2005 -- only to be kicked out less than an hour later. Apparently, if you're piss-drunk at 2 p.m. on a Sunday and you decide to take your shoes off at the bar and refuse to put them back on, the Coyote Ugly staff will ask you to leave. As it turns out, they don't care if you've just put twenty dollars' worth of songs in the jukebox; they'd rather let the other four bar patrons enjoy 180 minutes' worth of Billy Joel without you. You get to stand outside and yell at your on-again-off-again-on-again-never-again boyfriend on your Sidekick instead.
Like the 16th Street Mall, I, too, was born in the '80s, meaning I lost out on the proverbial good ol' days of downtown -- a time prior to the pedestrian mall's existence when retail architecture was stylized and drug stores were a place to hang out and it wasn't considered loitering. But I am a proud Denver native, one of a few I know who have lived through growing pains that seem to mirror this shitty little city's own beautiful, sometimes-forced feeling of modern life.
And I've come to accept and embrace the concept that in order for Denver to be big, we continually have to shut down, revamp, renovate and, sometimes, demolish. A terminal beggar for any scraps of the past, I am one of those annoying people who finds the old to be the most beautiful, architecturally speaking. I have dreams about the Cooper Theater in Glendale, its bright-orange rotunda still shining as if it were never torn down in 1994. I go to Lakeside every year, mostly just to stare at the Richard Crowther ticket booths that I pray will never be demolished. And not so secretly, I wish I could have seen the I.M. Pei-designed paraboloid entrance to May D&F's flagship store in its heyday.
But I can't. I can, however, accept that the future of Denver inevitably yields more overhaul. Maybe in thirty years, I'll look at the 16th Street Mall in the same way I do the dry cleaners that used to be a Big Top convenience store -- a place that, at one time, was beautiful to someone like me.
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