Total Science, a junglist duo from the U.K., is behind the Snake Pit's DJ booth. Their beats have the primal feel typical of British electronica, but faster. Think Underworld on ephedrine. It's a fitting soundtrack to the night, because outside it's Trainspotting -- only on crack, not smack.
Dave Maddux, the club's manager, is standing at the edge of the 7-Eleven parking lot at 13th Avenue and Pearl Street, one of the most notorious drug corners in Denver. Just as he's lamenting the disintegration of the neighborhood, two men approach each other with subtle nods and strike a deal. Under the bright glare of the street lights, one of them pulls a brand-new crack pipe out of a small cardboard box, discarding the packaging in the corner trashcan. They head toward the alley to try out their purchases.
Maddux hardly blinks. In the last year, there's been so much crack dealing -- and in recent months, violence -- that he's come to expect it. But not accept it.
The crack zombies have driven away about 40 percent of his business -- "You can't walk a block without someone coming up to you and saying, 'You looking?'" -- so Maddux made it his mission to push back.
Tonight, like so many nights before, he holds court in front of the Snake Pit. But this warm July night is different. He doesn't know it yet, but tomorrow he and the club's owner, Tom Oberbroeckling, will have a falling out over the business, and Maddux will quit.
But because he and Oberbroeckling are longtime buddies and Maddux has invested so much in the club -- he's managed the Snake Pit for five of the eight years it's been open -- he won't give up his street sweeps. After a weekend away, the 41-year-old former banquet manager, whose true desire is to teach high school English, will agree to come back and walk the streets a few nights a week, yelling at any crackhead who dares to walk by, while completing his last semester at Metro State College, where he's earning his teaching certificate.
Maddux has called the cops so often they recognize his voice. He knows the regular users who come on foot and the ones who come by car. He can even rattle off their license-plate numbers. He knows the dark spots in the alleys where they go to smoke up their ten bucks. He knows the dealers by their street names. And they know him.
"They'll walk right up to me, and if I haven't seen them in a while, they'll say, 'Yeah, I did nine months in County,'" he says.
When Maddux first started managing the Snake Pit, the biggest menace on Capitol Hill was the occasional wino. Not anymore. Last month, Maddux found himself in the middle of a chase. A crack dealer running from the cops smacked right into the six-foot-two-inch, 240-pound Maddux. The guy fell down but made a quick recovery and took off again. With Maddux in pursuit, the dealer took something out of his pants and threw it over a fence. When Maddux caught up to him, he tackled the guy and held him down until the cops came. The police then went to retrieve the discarded item. It was a .45.
While Maddux made his nightly rounds a few weeks ago, a dealer looked out of an apartment window a block away and noticed him walking below. The dealer rushed outside, sprinted up to Maddux and said, "I know you. You manage the Snake Pit. You're the one always in our shit," Maddux recalls. "Then he lifted up his shirt and showed me his gun."
Maddux's boyfriend, a soft-spoken architect, was with him that night and freaked at the sight of the gun. "It took him ninety minutes to calm down," Maddux says. But the fact that he wasn't bothered by it bothered him. Adds Maddux: "That was the start for me realizing how insane it is that I've come to accept this as normal."
If the last few months are any indication, it just may be. In the early hours of April 18, a man walked into the 7-Eleven and pointed a crossbow at the clerk, then left the store and hopped into a Jeep. The clerk notified the police, who caught up to the guy and tried to pull him over. But the man sped away and then crashed into a light pole at 12th Avenue and Lincoln Street, where he got out and aimed the crossbow at them. The officers opened fire, and the man died a couple of hours later. On June 3, Eric "Tattoo" Humes pulled up to an apartment building on 12th Avenue and Pearl Street, where he was apparently going to sell drugs to two women. Instead, he pointed a gun at them, demanded cash and began shooting. Catherine Dixon died; Debra Bellamy survived. Police have made ten aggravated-assault arrests between Logan and Clarkson streets and 11th Avenue and Colfax between January and June; there were fourteen aggravated-assault arrests in all of 2002.
Maddux is well aware of the risks that come with confronting crack dealers -- especially gun-toting ones -- but he feels compelled to do something, although he has no illusions of curbing the the crack problem on his own. Even the Unsinkables, a neighborhood group that's been patrolling the area for years, can't seem to make a dent ("Shape Up or Ship Out," June 13, 2002). "I don't understand how they can be out there seven days a week, twenty hours a day," says Unsinkables president Kathi Anderson.
Police officers are at a similar loss. "It's like the waves in the ocean. It hits you really hard, and then it goes away, and then it hits you really hard, and it goes away," says District 6 Community Resource Officer Snow White.
A member of the force for fourteen years, White has seen it all. "The thing about crack is that you lose all caring about anything at all," she explains. The addicts' lack of discretion makes for easy busts. Between January and June, the cops made 319 drug-related arrests in the two-block radius surrounding the Snake Pit: forty for sales, 121 for possession and 158 for paraphernalia. What's hard is keeping the users and dealers off the streets.
"There's no backup in the justice system. We arrest the same people over and over again, and they're back the next week," White says. And the county jail is so crowded that "there's nowhere to put them."
One of the Capitol Hill regulars is Charles Miller, a crack addict with a ten-page rap sheet. "We bust him; he pleads guilty, and then he goes before a judge who apparently doesn't look at his history. He gets fined, and then he's back on the street," Anderson says. "Somehow, he always manages to pay his fines. The last time we busted him was four weeks ago behind the Molly Brown House."
There's no sign of Miller tonight, but there are other familiar faces. Like the guy who asks Maddux for two dollars so he can buy baby food. "Sometimes he says he needs money to buy cigarettes, but usually it's baby food," Maddux explains.
And then there's Payback, who jumps out of a car at 12:15 a.m. after sealing a deal. The driver, a white yuppie-looking guy in an old Subaru, speeds off, leaving the black man with the big Afro to look for his next sale. "You see that all the time -- white guys hanging out with black guys -- and it's not about racial harmony," Maddux says. That's the shocking change from crack's '80s heyday: The addicts aren't so stereotypical.
"They're not as grungy as you'd think, and that's what's flabbergasted me more than anything," Maddux says. "You see businessmen pull up in BMWs, Mercedes, Lexuses. Some of these guys are pretty clean-cut. And some of them are construction-type guys, the average-Joe union guy."
Regardless of their background or what they're rollin' in, the users and dealers know not to conduct business in front of the Snake Pit. In fact, they go out of their way to avoid Maddux's wrath. Still, the damage has been done, and only 146 people have passed through the door by midnight. That's eighty people fewer than normal for a Thursday, one of the club's busiest nights.
While walking down Pearl Street toward 14th Avenue, Maddux points out the startling absence of antennas on parked cars. "They break them off and use them as crack pipes," he explains. And Maddux has discovered another trick of the trade: A lot of the passersby whistle -- an indication that they have something to sell. "Sometimes it sounds like a bird sanctuary out here," he says.
He usually brings a gun on his walks, but the only thing he's packing now is a pair of handcuffs and a can of Mace. Most of the crackheads who walk up and down the streets don't bother asking him if he's looking to score or if he can spare any change. Except for Babyfood. He's apparently forgotten that he asked Maddux for money two hours earlier.
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Maddux is tired of hearing the same old stories and seeing the same faces. Which is why he can't wait to get out of the club scene and into the classroom, where he might actually be able to make a difference.
As proof of his passion, he pulls a check from the Colorado High School Activities Association out of his wallet. "I got this for judging a high school debate," he says. "How much geekier can you get?"
He worries about what will happen to the Snake Pit when he's no longer there to do his small part. But in the last few weeks, the cops started cracking down more, and he thinks it might be because of all his calls. Tonight, cruisers roll by every few minutes, and the addicts scatter like roaches when the lights turn on.
But they'll come back. They always do.