After last call at the Church, where techno legend Carl Cox had just rocked a sweaty, stylish crowd, laughing throngs of Fourth of July weekend revelers buzzed past both ends of the alley running behind the club.
Deep in the shadows, hidden behind a fort of blue recycling bins, Bear and his crew of homeless drunken brawlers lay in wait.
Inside the Church, employees closed the club down, making sweeps, picking up scores of partially empty beer bottles and plastic cocktail cups and tossing them into mammoth garbage cans. Outside, the young and beautiful dispersed and the alley fell silent. Then, at 3:12 a.m., there was a tremendous racket. Church bouncers came out the back door to empty said garbage into the alley dumpsters, creating the distinct clatter of glass bottles avalanching into metal echo chambers.
Bear calls the sound "Swill cup jackpot."
"Swill cup" is street slang for any random, potent and invariably nasty potion of alcoholic beverages -- whiskey, gin, Purple Pucker, jug wine, backwash dregs of a warm Tequiza, whatever -- blended in a single container and then chugged.
Swill cups are typically associated with gutter punks -- nihilistic homeless youths in their teens and early to mid-twenties -- yet Bear is clearly no gutter punk. He's Native American, in his late thirties, with a meaty, hulking presence that leaves no doubt about where he got his name. He wears a bandanna, Willie Nelson style, around his long black hair. He's fond of yanking up his tank top to shock strangers with the scars of violence crisscrossing his chest, stomach and back. And he's just as fond of telling the story behind each one. Knife fight in Minneapolis here. Dude in Gallup who got him in the back with a broken bottle there. That one across his stomach, hell, Bear's not really sure about that one. He just woke up in Phoenix one morning bleeding.
"But I finally found the son of a bitch who cut me," Bear reports. "And then I broke his fucking neck." To illustrate, he makes a quick neck-breaking motion in the air with his hands. This is how all his stories about the fights end. He makes the hand motion, declares "I broke his fucking neck," and then laughs out loud in a barking, demented chortle -- part Beavis, part Dr. Evil -- that eradicates any lingering doubts over his don't-fuck-with-me-ness.
The big man's minions are more generic drifters. One's a speed smoker named Lars, who's wearing a mesh ballcap advertising a feedlot in Kansas and a green Army jacket decorated with intricate Magic Marker tapestries of demons, skulls and burning eyes. Buck looks like Kurt Cobain might have if the grunge rock god had lived to see the Twin Towers fall -- all dirty blond hair, scruffy chin, pained blue eyes and thrift-store flannel. And then there's Shithead, as Bear and Buck call him, who never says a word and has a long, banjo-picker's beard, a black eye and a dirty cast on his left arm from elbow to wrist.
Like Bear, Lars, Buck and Shithead are all about the free-swill jackpot.
The four wait a few seconds after the bottles clank into the dumpsters for the bouncers to go back inside. Then they creep out from behind the row of recycling bins encircling their home base, a loading bay notched in the back of the Chancery office building. Lars takes up a sentry position at the 11th Avenue end of the alley. Buck and Shithead clamber into the dumpster and start sifting through the bottles and cups inside, handing any that still contain even a minute trace of liquid over the side to Bear.
Bear concocts the swill cups, pouring the dregs into a coffee thermos, a plastic orange-juice jug and an empty milk container, all the while keeping a wary eye on 12th Avenue. Bear and his merry men aren't the only boozers on the streets of central Denver tonight who know of this bounty. Fistfights and howled curses in the middle of the night between competitors are common in this particular alley, a fact to which residents of the Poets' Row apartment buildings that line the west side of Sherman Street can attest.
The Las Vegas filmmakers who paid homeless men to fight on camera for last year's controversial underground documentary Bumfights: Cause for Concern Volume 1 could have spared themselves the expense by merely setting up a few cameras on tripods overlooking Capitol Hill's Bumfight Alley. Here the clanking of bottles is a Pavlovian call to arms.
Two or three minutes into their dumpster diving, Bear and his companions are besieged by a rival company of street dwellers, three men Bear later identifies as "those punk motherfuckers from the park." They cross a parking lot littered with rave fliers, coming toward the alley and spreading out into attack formation. Bear sounds the alarm by mimicking the raucous call of a crow. He then sets down his swill cups and walks a few steps toward his foes, waving his arms in the universal gesture for "Bring it on."
Buck and Shithead launch an artillery barrage of empty beer bottles toward the interlopers, who duck and scurry. Bear laughs. Meanwhile, on the other side of the alley, Lars is hastily rearranging the recycling bins to block access from 11th Avenue. Once he's formed a retaining wall, he runs the length of the alley to join his three comrades. Shithead stops throwing bottles and instead resumes sifting, handing swill to Lars, who ferries the bottles and cups, plus the precious thermos and orange-juice jug, to a chain-linked alcove behind the Palisade apartment building. Lars stashes the goods in a corner, next to a dry pile of human feces.
Buck keeps throwing bottles, sniping at the intruders, who repeatedly dart toward the alley, then dart back into the parking lot, cowering beneath the hail of glass. Shithead keeps handing swill to Lars, and Lars keeps stashing it. Two, maybe three minutes later, Bear suddenly snaps at Buck in a slurred voice, "Stop that shit. Work on that other one, bro."
Buck hops out of the dumpster he's in and into the one next to it. Shithead makes a last sift through the first dumpster and then follows suit. While they're mining for swill, Bear steps toward the edge of the alley and crosses his arms like a doorman defying entry. The three men in the parking lot slink forward, their body language acknowledging Bear's alpha-male status.
"Come on, man, we're not looking for a fight; we're looking for a party," says one, coming up close to Bear. He babbles about sharing the wealth and how if he had a bottle he'd share it, and on and on, failing to notice Bear subtly, slowly, shifting his weight, assuming a fighting stance. And then Bear pulls back his right arm and hits the man in front of him in the sternum with a huge open palm that makes a hollow thwap sound, like a steak hurled against a concrete wall. The receiver of the blow appears to leave his feet and fly backward for a step, then he lands, his arms wheeling like a cartoon character struggling for balance, skitters backward about ten feet and collapses. One of his buddies rushes to his aid while the other stands stock still, staring at Bear -- a bad move, because a second later Bear pivots and clocks him with a left cross to the temple that drops victim number two.
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Suddenly feeling gregarious, or simply ready to get his drink on, Bear says to Shithead and Buck, "Fuck it. Let 'em have the rest," and stalks back to the loading dock, tossing "Bring the swill" over his shoulder to Lars.
For all their trouble, Lars, Buck and Shithead get about a quarter-gallon of swill apiece, which they quickly pound. Bear guzzles a full gallon. They are victorious. It is a small and sad victory, perhaps, but in a small and sad way, they have beaten the system: They're getting drunk for free.
The next morning, the roar of fighter jets flying at low altitude in a Fourth of July display jolts Lars and Buck from their slumber. Bear and Shithead are nowhere to be seen. Lars gathers all the swill cups and drains the dregs from each into an empty beer bottle, making a little hair of the dog.
"Here's to you, and here's to me, and here's to America," he toasts, then chokes it down.