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A Place in the Crowd

Two guys, one with a walker and the other with a cane, sit at opposite ends of a long table at the boarding home.

"Hey, there. How are you doing?"
"Getting along. Getting along."
"Better than me."
"Oh, I don't know about that."

The guy with the walker is William George Gaskins. He's small and bald and wearing a white undershirt. The guy with the cane is Robert E. Lee. He's grizzled and grinning and wearing a black T-shirt and black baseball cap. Gaskins fidgets with a coffee stirring-stick; Lee fidgets with the key to his room. After a while, they get to talking.

Gaskins: "I must have been in jail in every state in the union. For vagrancy. The worst states are West Virginia and Mississippi. They hardly feed you. And if you say anything, they beat you half to death."

Lee: "I was a disc jockey in Detroit for station WJBK. I called myself 'The Rockin' Rebel,' 'The Rebel With a Cause.' And that cause was to play rock and roll from three to seven. Your little chunk of heaven from three to seven!"

Gaskins: "I hated guns and knives. I was mainly a poison person. I got revenge on people. If I got into an argument and someone hurt me bad, I'd say, 'Hey. Forget about it. Let's go have a cup of coffee.' Then they'd go to the restroom and I'd put cyanide in their coffee."

Lee: "I was in the early wave of the Berry Gordy Motown. Stevie Wonder. The Miracles. The Supremes. The Temptations. I knew them all. I was as popular as Wolfman Jack. Maybe more."

Gaskins: "They call me 'Red' because I used to have red hair. I'm five-feet-one and 132 pounds. Dynamite comes in little packages. I've tried to live up to that."

The Barth Hotel has stood at the corner of 17th and Blake streets like a red-brick sentry since 1882. Although it started out as a warehouse, the building soon became a hotel for travelers disembarking at Union Station: miners, cattlemen, entrepreneurs, prostitutes and swindlers. One magazine called the Barth "Denver's Courtesy Hotel, where the comforts of home prevail in the midst of the bustling activity of the commercial district which surrounds it." Even then, it was a refuge.

Gaskins: "I've been traveling since the day I was born. Mom and Dad were telegraph operators and they went wherever Western Union sent them. In Atlanta, they took mother off the train and I was born. I've been traveling ever since. That's 82 years."

Lee: "I was born in Detroit. Dad was a machinist and Mom was the wife of a machinist. Growing up, I was an expert on the race riots. You had to fight your way out of school. Which wasn't always easy. Looking back, it was pretty tough."

Gaskins: "Buddy, I was one step ahead of reform school. My dad died when I was ten and they put me into a military academy. I had the heck beat out of me more than once, so I ran away. I got money by panhandling. I was so little and all, people felt sorry for me. Then I got mixed up with the wrong crowd and started taking narcotics and shooting paregoric painkiller. That's what they used to give babies to help with colic. I used to take yellow jackets, too. In Chinatown I took quite a bit of opium. I wasn't no angel."

Lee: "I graduated from the Wayne State University speech department, where an instructor directed the Lone Ranger radio show. I wangled an audition and got hired. I was Lieutenant Coats, and I was going to fight the Injuns without any interference from the Lone Ranger and his Injun friend, Tonto. It went like this: 'Hi-ho, Silver, away!'"

Gaskins: "I killed a guy in Chicago. A bully from the neighborhood. I don't even remember his name. Bill Gaye, I think it was. We was in the theater. The same one where they got Dillinger. We got into a fight and I had a black eye and a bloody nose. I must have been about sixteen years old. He went to the restroom and I did it. With cyanide. I killed my antagonistic friend. He just went to sleep. Then I called the usher and said, 'What's wrong with him? He won't wake up?'"

Lee: "I also did Challenge of the Yukon. A dog was the featured part. Yukon King. There was a guy named Ted who played Yukon King. He went around going 'Woo! Woo! Woo!' He was very proud of that."

Gaskins: "How were they going to prove I killed him? You have to perform an autopsy within 24 hours after they take it. And it's almost impossible to find cyanide or arsenic. I guess the worms ate him a long time ago. He's not a bully anymore."  

In the late Sixties and Seventies, dozens of old buildings tumbled to the ground downtown, only to be replaced by high-rise offices and condominiums and parking lots. Hundreds of poor, mentally ill, disabled and elderly people lost their homes, and some were forced out onto the streets.

Before the wrecking ball hit the Barth, a nonprofit that would come to be called Senior Housing Options, Inc., bought the hotel and transformed it into an affordable housing complex. The organization renovated the five-story building from top to bottom, but kept many of the historic touches--tin-plate ceilings, an oak mezzanine, overstuffed couches, antique chairs, lace curtains and a vintage desk clock.

Although the Barth is worn around the edges, faded and a little musty, tenants like it just fine. For $550 to $1,400 a month, depending on the level of supervision required (federal programs cover the fees for many of them), they get modest rooms, clean sheets, warm meals, medical care and outside activities like fishing trips to Washington Park or an afternoon of bowling. And while the neighborhood has become very upscale, local businesses watch out for the down-to-earth Barth. One group, LoDo Cares, has been particularly generous: Every holiday, the organization stops by with presents; when a tenant has a birthday, LoDo Cares gives him or her a card, a five-dollar bill and a personal gift.

Last Wednesday, one woman turned 77. She got a carton of cigarettes, a pack of ballpoint pens and an Anne Geddes journal with babies on the cover.

For the 62 men and women who live there, the Barth is home.

Gaskins: "I could catch a freight train and not bat an eye. If they were going thirty miles per hour, I'd get them. You just ran from one boxcar to another. Instead of riding inside, you rode on top. Boy, I've seen body after body taken off the freights. I was lucky."

Lee: "When Stevie Wonder hit, he was a phenomenon. 'Fingertips' was his first big record. I used to host sock hops where he'd come out and do his thing with his harmonica. Afterward, he'd come back out and ask, 'Mr. Lee, could you get someone from the band to let me use their equipment?' Then he'd play the trumpet or the drums and impress the hell out of you. You'd figure, here's this little blind kid, and you'd show him the high hat and the cymbal and then he'd do a rendition of 'Johnny B. Goode' that would blow you away."

Gaskins: "I was a busboy on an oil tanker. I've been to Europe, Nepal, Katmandu, Hong Kong. All I need is a couple of pairs of pants and two T-shirts. I'd pack one day and be in China within a week. Then I'd come back, pack again, and off I'd go to India."

Lee: "When Stevie Wonder visited the offices in Motown, he'd fumble around and bump into things. He never asked for help. He never complained. He'd do this for about two minutes and that was it. He didn't need to go through it again. He remembered where everything was. You only had to show him once. He was an amazing kid."

Gaskins: "There's not a thing patriotic about me. Nothing flag-waving about me. I wanted to eat and sleep, so I tried to join the Army. But the recruiter said, 'Little boy, come back when you grow up.' So I crossed the Canadian border and signed away my American citizenship and joined the Army there."

Lee: "In 1985, I went to Hollywood. Which was something I always wanted to do. I did acting parts in Days of Our Lives--I was a judge--and General Hospital. And I was a tour guide at Universal Studios. It was the best job I ever had. Movie stars were everywhere. I never got autographs. To me, that was kind of demeaning. So I never did it."

Gaskins: "I get restless. People talk about living fifteen years in one house, but if you put me in one house for twenty years, I'd be a raving maniac. Not me, baby. No way."

Lee: "I moved to Denver and worked for KOA, KLZ and KHOW. There was a guy here who stole my name from me. Another Robert E. Lee. When I took it back, he acted like I was interrupting his career. It turned out he was from Michigan and used to listen to me. He was doing all my bits. When I got them back, it was like stealing from myself."

Gaskins: "They say, 'Never drink the local water. Buy bottled water.' But I've never bought a bottle of water in my life. I don't intend to. The local water doesn't hurt the locals, so why should it hurt me? I drink the water and it doesn't do a thing to me. I've had more trouble with American water than I've had with the water overseas."  

At the Barth, tenants rise at dawn, straggle down to the lobby and begin their daily routine of medicine time, meal time, activity time and visiting time with volunteers, who help out with legal papers and errands.

For much of the day, tenants are free to come and go. They sign out at the front desk and wander to McDonald's for a cheeseburger, McCormick's for a glass of beer and El Chapultepec for a little jazz. But mostly they wander to the benches outside, where they sit back and watch the world pass by.

Sometimes, the world watches back. Pedestrians raise their eyebrows at the wheelchairs on the sidewalk, occasionally stick their heads in the door. Nearby merchants complain about tenants bumming cigarettes from customers. Tourists call the front desk: "Can we reserve the banquet room?" "How much is the penthouse?" The Barth's residents get a kick out of that.

Friday morning is entertainment time at the Barth. Precisely at 9 a.m., Jack Eads and his partner, Joann Bankston, take their seats in the front of the lobby. With him on the accordion, her at the organ, and a one and a two and a three, they perform a blistering rendition of "Roll Out the Barrel."

Jack and Joann are blind. They've been playing here for over a dozen years. Some days, the lobby is packed. Other days, like this day, there's only a scattering of people: two men sit stiffly in the back, staring out the window. Two other men, one with a red baseball cap, the other with a cordless phone, sit at a table near the front desk.

"Hey," says Jack O'Brien, the man in the cap. "Wanna dance?"
"Get out of here," says Larry Rodriguez, the man with the phone. "Can't you find a woman do dance with you?"

"There aren't any women," O'Brien says.
"What was that?" Joann barks.
"Oops."

Rodriguez is the resident manager. He's been at the Barth thirteen years. He and O'Brien had been talking about the construction of a new office complex next door.

"In 1986, we still had cheap places to go," Rodriguez says, picking up where they'd left off. "Now they surrounded us with high-priced restaurants and hotels. You used to be able to get a beer across the street and it would cost you a buck, maybe a buck and a half. And you could get a burger for maybe two bucks. Not anymore."

"Yeah," O'Brien says. "The other day I asked a bartender for a Bud and he said, 'That will be $2.75.' And I said, 'What else comes with it?' And he said, 'Nothing. Just me.' And I said, 'But I don't want you. I want a Bud.' He said, 'That will be $2.75.'"

Rodriguez laughs. With his thick mustache and frizzy hair, he looks like Freddy Fender. In fact, back home in Pueblo, most people don't know his real name. They call him Freddy.

"We're elderly and handicapped around here," he continues. "Most people are on Social Security. Those who are on assisted living only have fifty bucks to spend for the whole month. A lot of them would like to go to a ballgame, but they can't afford it. And even when tickets are donated, a lot of them don't want to go because once you get inside you like a soda or hot dog, but they don't have the money."

"The food here is not that great," O'Brien adds. "But it's passable. We have spaghetti, pork chops, a full menu."

Jack and Joann play a polka.
"When they started the construction next door, a lot of people here were afraid they'd have to move," Rodriguez continues. "When they see everything going on around here, and they see that it's all new, they worry they'll tear down this building and make it a hotel. I know the director has had offers. But if it does close, 62 people will have nowhere else to go."

The two men sit in silence.
"Hey," O'Brien grins. "You wanna dance?"
Outside, the construction crews churn away in the hot morning sun. In the lobby, Jack and Joann play "America the Beautiful."

Gaskins: "I've been here off and on since 1985. I was on a passenger train from Miami to Seattle and the conductor said we had a half an hour, so I looked around and ran into this place. When I'm traveling, they keep a room for me. Because I pay for it."  

Lee: "I've been here a year. My daughter handles my affairs. I keep telling her, 'Find me more affairs.'"

Gaskins: "This is a family-style place. They do everything they can to make it like a big family and not an institution. It's the best place I've seen. And I've seen a lot of places. Everyone knows everyone. If you're sick, they know what's wrong with you. I've been to five funerals already."

Lee: "I like it here okay. But then again, I have nothing to compare it to."
Gaskins: "This is the only home I've got. You kick me out, and where will I go? I disowned my family. They were aggravating me. They think I have a mental disability. I had my attorney write a letter and disown them."

Lee: "We used to have a blind man here. I liked to recite poetry to him. 'The Face on the Barroom Floor.' Stuff like that. When I'd do it, it was a big thing. The people at the next table thought we were crazy."

Gaskins: "I try to sleep 20 hours out of 24 hours. My feet are too swollen to wear shoes. I have a blood problem. My legs are weak and give out. I'm taking all kinds of narcotics and pills. But it's this walker that's holding me down."

Lee: "My health is good. In the mornings I go for bus rides. I go to Boulder, wherever. The bus depot is only a block from here. It's a way of killing time."

Gaskins: "I've been in the same room for three years. That's the longest I've ever been in one room. If you told me when I was traveling in Europe that I'd be here today, I'd say you were crazy. But, here I am."

The manager of the Barth, Kelly Sullivan, keeps two coloring-book pictures taped to her file cabinet. One is a lizard smeared bright red and the other is a purple butterfly. They were gifts from a tenant, reminders of how warm and inspirational life at the Barth can be.

One resident, a 54-year-old man with the mind of a child, was abandoned on the streets by his family. He survived by collecting aluminum cans, exchanging them for pocket money and sleeping where he could. One winter night about ten years ago, passersby heard screams coming from a dumpster. They found the man inside, suffering from severe frostbite. He was taken to a hospital, where he had both feet amputated.

When the man arrived at the Barth in 1991, he barely knew how to eat with table utensils. He didn't shower. He rarely talked. Now he bathes, shaves, eats with a fork and knows everyone's name--and their business. And each day, he slips on sneakers stuffed with socks, walks through the city and collects aluminum cans.

Gaskins: "Sometimes I wonder, 'What have I accomplished with my life?' All I can answer is that I've got a roof over my head and I'm eating. I'm still here. I guess I've accomplished that."

Lee: "I got a VCR and a bunch of old video tapes. I watch a lot of television. I've got a collection of old movies. This morning I was watching You Can't Take It With You, with Jimmy Stewart. Tomorrow I'll probably go for another exciting bus ride. I'll probably go to Boulder."

Gaskins: "In June of 2000 I'm going back to China, baby. Calcutta. Katmandu. Nepal. If my health allows it, I'll go. I can hardly wait. I'm getting restless again.


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