CRACKS, TRACTS & COLFAX
In the beginning, there is Tower Road. A vanishing point leads east toward I-70 and the rising sun. The view offers not just amber waves of grain, but purple mountains' majesty as well. Downtown Denver hangs fifteen miles to the west, a few water towers impersonate giant golf balls on the horizon, and traffic--except for Kenny Be and me on a motorcycle held together with duct tape--is nonexistent.
This is how the venerable strip must have appeared to pilgrims who made this trip long before I-70 existed, when Colfax Avenue, today still the longest continuous street in the country, was the official Gateway to the Rockies--a fitting commemorative to Schuyler Colfax, vice president under Ulysses S. Grant, who spent considerably more time hunting and fishing in the great Colorado outdoors than sitting behind a desk in Washington.
Then, as now, as travelers hit the road, the smell of cow manure hit their nostrils. Today it wafts from either Frontier Feed or the Candle-Lite Motel, both relics of the Grapes of Wrath era, by which time Colfax already had marked the way west for a generation. Feeling Okie as all get-out, we shoot up the dirt driveway to inspect the motel, which seems to have no tenants, no front office and no pop in the pop machine--too bad, since the sign says it still costs only ten cents. And yet, the Candle-Lite is not an unpleasant place, occupying the summit of a hill overlooking the scenic origins of Colfax. A sunburned man who arrives in a pickup truck confirms this.
"It's a very pleasant place," he says. "I like it here. Shit, there's people done lived here seven years."
We could stay another seven hours, but the day is young and we have thirty miles of main drag to cover if we are to follow Colfax to its inevitable conclusion. Immediately, almost alarmingly, we hit a clot of suburban sprawl. The rustic charm of M&M Western Wear, with a fiberglass horse on its roof, abruptly gives way to a Kmart/Pizza Hut/sports bar stratum that continues all the way to Chambers Road. Wasn't this a prairie dog village last time I looked? Where wild grasses once swayed, satellite dishes have sprung up.
But history holds firm at Bowl Aurora, located conveniently across from Fitzsimons Army Hospital and just down the block from the squeaky clean Family Motel. Bowl Aurora lurks within an Eisenhower-era building, complete with turquoise accoutrements and the more up-to-date admonition: "No sagging, no colors, no `obscene' language." What we find inside are five lanes full of small children, all bowling enthusiastically.
"Youth leagues," explains Mary Weber, the bowling fanatic behind the counter. "As soon as they're potty-trained, they can bowl." Summer and even winter, when Bowl Aurora runs an after-school program, complete with snacks--but no sagging, whatever that may be.
"Oh, there's gangs," says Mary. "We got some gang members in the apartments right behind us. But I think this is the better part of Colfax. I wouldn't be working here if I didn't like it, I can tell you that." Even so, Mary feels no need to cozy up to Colfax nightlife when she gets off work. For a good time, she says, "I go home and crochet up a storm." Unless it's Friday night, when she bowls on the Friday-Have-A-Ball league, or Saturday, when she plays for the Saturday Swingers with Jody, a lifelong bowler from Sheridan, Wyoming, who also works at Bowl Aurora and whose turquoise eye-shadow matches the decor perfectly.
Two miles west of Bowl Aurora, Colfax takes on an official strippishness, becoming a mobile mall for cheap furniture, pawn shops and billiards. A median divides the east- and westbound traffic; in places it is even decorated with big clumps of marigolds and wheat, presumably Aurora's official vegetation. There is a shabbiness in the air, but also a boosterishness, a feeling that Colfax will rise again. Could it be emanating from I.B.I.?
That's the International Baking Institute to you. Its president and founder, Larry Redinger, meets us in the hallway. He is a large, fit man, with a bullet-shaped head and bulging eyeballs. He is dressed all in white.
"Are you interested in the culinary arts?" he demands.
"Kind of," I say.
"Well, come on in," he sighs, leading us into a room filled with stainless-steel equipment. A lone student sits at a table. She is hooked up to an oxygen tank, but a cigarette burns beside her.
"How do you like your Colfax location?"
"It is good," Mr. Redinger intones. "I believe we enhance the neighborhood, we're going to contribute to the community."
At the moment, though, what the I.B.I. has primarily contributed to the community is a shelf of dusty gingerbread houses and a course catalogue that includes these rules: "Eating, drinking or the use of tobacco products will be forbidden in the production/lab area." And students are not permitted to wear "sandals, clogs, thongs."
Shouldn't a person's underwear be his or her own business?
Less than one-tenth of a mile later, underwear is big business at O.K. Fashion. The window features slinky, sinuous cocktail dresses, T-shirts proclaiming that "Jesus Was a Black Man" and prepackaged swatches of artificial hair to dress up such ensembles. Kenny gravitates toward packages of Tomo Underpants for Men while I gaze at a very inadequate black bra featuring gold braid and two feet of gold fringe.
"You try on," the Asian proprietress tells me sternly.
"It's too small," I say.
"No, no! This bra, supposed to be the breasts up! Up!"
She nudges me into a mirrorless bathroom, throws the bra after me and shuts the door. A few minutes later, my breasts up! up! somewhere around my chin, I emerge. What with my farmer tan and all, I cut quite a figure--even on Colfax Avenue, which has seen just about everything.
But I do not buy the bra. Instead, up! up! onto the motorcycle for a quick trip to the Ah-Wah-Nee Motel, with its neon Indian head sign. We turn into the alley and are slightly unnerved to see that the entire motel grounds are surrounded by a high, no-nonsense chain-link fence. The office has bullfighter-print wallpaper and a tiny service window; the smell of salted fish hangs heavily in the air. A young Oriental woman appears behind the barred window. When I ask her for postcards or beaded belts, she shakes her head in disbelief.
"Are you sure you don't have old souvenirs around here somewhere?" I press. "A lot of these old motels used to sell them."
"Not this motel," she says, disappearing from her window.
Back in the driveway, we admire the pseudo-Tudor architecture of the Ah-Wah-Nee. I do not fail to notice several venetian blinds being twitched apart by nervous fingers. Just then, a very stoned woman who resembles Whoopi Goldberg on Star Trek: The Next Generation comes tearing around the corner, her turban askew. Unable to speak, she grunts at us, then collapses on the sidewalk, panting. Three very menacing companions are right behind her. A chambermaid who has been ambling through the courtyard ducks behind a dumpster. Two words, I think: stray bullets. I crank up the motorcycle and away we go, escaping through the alley, emerging into a flock of black missionaries in Sunday clothes who have just been dispersed from a Baptist church. Clutching briefcases full of tracts, they head for Colfax. We head for a Dairy Queen at Syracuse Street.
We sit in the perfect 82-degree day listening to a cacophony of police sirens and car alarms going off at regular intervals. I fight the urge to label this the most disenfranchised bit of street I have visited since my last trip to Hell's Kitchen--but I decide that as an official Colfaxian atmosphere, it is historically correct. All around us, people--some of them not a bit trustworthy-- are on their way from here to there. Cons have gone on since the beginning of time and have certainly gone on--and on--on a grand thoroughfare like Colfax. As I ponder this, a young man from California attempts to sell us an imitation vinyl briefcase. Today and today only, he'll throw in a full-body massager made of 100 percent plastic.
Back on the road, we cover several more miles evenly dotted with wig shops, check-cashing storefronts, auto parts places and a meat shop with the wonderful name of Bun-Busters. Two blocks west of Monaco, the ambience takes a radical turn for the genteel. We attribute this to Dutch Boy Donuts, a 47-year-old corner edifice marked by a beautiful neon windmill, where an elderly man in a lime-green retirement jumpsuit is eating applesauce donuts served by a sweet-faced grunge-style waiter.
Hey, what's this? The Bluebird Theater is a porn palace once again-- showing Triple-X movies and attracting harlots of both sexes in ripped black stockings and leather? No, wait. It's merely the extras from Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, the Hollywood production on location here for the day. (I thought their teeth looked suspiciously sound.) Star Andy Garcia is just pulling up in his little convertible, and a phalanx of fifteen-year-old female autograph hounds is trying to nail him, but they are stymied by a production assistant and an off-duty Denver cop, neither of whom will reveal their names.
"Colfax," sighs the production assisant, "is a lot of work. You have so many people to deal with. People walking up. Wanting to know what's going on. Wanting to know if William Forsyth has shown up yet."
"Well, I hate Colfax," says the cop. "I work here every night, and I hate it. You get more and more of the same kind of--well, I could tell you the PC word for them, but I don't speak PC."
"Dirtbags," I suggest.
"Yeah," the cop agrees. "A lot of them are just so wasted that you can arrest 'em over and over again and they don't recognize you from one bust to the next. And prostitution. Whoo."
One way or another, it seems Colfax promises your fifteen minutes of fame: either as a movie extra or as a well-publicized Aurora john. "Watch yourself," the cop adds. "Colfax is an unpredictable street."
Indeed, who could predict that fifteen minutes later Kenny and I would be attending Holy Communion at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Colfax and Logan?
The church, the Pope's home away from home last August, is very gildedly formal and the parishioners very un-, many in track shorts, T-shirts and black ankle socks. The altar boy is a woman in her forties, and the collection take is delivered by a wiry man in work pants and Adidas shirt and shoes, whose full-body genuflections have an element of jazz/funk about them. The priest tells us to go in peace.
We do--right across the street to Denver Drug & Liquor, where there is a small but piquant selection of magazines, including Outlaw Biker, Skin & Ink and Out. Oh, and Reader's Digest. We meander past the Gold Nugget Disco, a Jesus thrift shop, the Senate Lounge. Inside, there is not a senator in sight, but we salute Colorado's lawmakers nonetheless for having the perspicacity to recognize Colfax as an official Heritage Corridor this last session. Then, in the shadow of the Capitol, we see something else worthy of investigation, if not historic designation: the rubber lingerie at a store called Uzi.
Owner Mary Gustafson sits behind the counter in white tights emblazoned with black clocks, platform boots with seven-inch heels, white cotton-candy hair and bright red lips.
"Oh, I babysit a lot of people," she says, "because they don't know why they're in here. I either ignore them or put on some really awful music."
"Is that what we're listening to now?" Kenny asks.
"Oh, no," Mary says, "this is a band called Scatology. I have much worse. You know what scatology means, right?"
Yes, but we're in the dark as to the function of what look like foot-wide rubber fan belts studded with giant erasers. Perhaps they, too, are designed to push the breasts up! up! They are considerably more expensive than the chest enhancers at O.K. Fashion, but business is brisk. "All this is very big right now," Mary says, "especially in Europe."
"And how would you describe this?" I ask.
"Fetish/fantasy," she replies. "It's huge. People think it's old men who want to molest little girls. It's not. It's thinking-people's erotica."
"Do people ever come in here and want you to, uh, service them?" Kenny asks.
"Oh, yeah," Mary says. "But I only know three women who really know how to beat a man. I give out their numbers."
And then there is the small but steady stream of rubber-underpants fanciers who want Mary to model samples from their collection, but please--where would she get the time? "Or they get all coy and say, `Oh, I have a foot fetish,' and I'm like, `Who cares?'"
When Mary does care, it's for something illustrious, like a visit from Kenny Be, whom she has admired all these years. She even unlocks the magazine cabinet and allows Kenny to peruse the Adult Baby Catalogue, featuring diapers, frilly knickers and the like--in large sizes. And, as we leave, she says: "You guys, remember, if you ever need anyone to say a quote for you and you can't find someone, just give me a call."
This could come in handy, but right now it is Kenny himself who is trying to weasel into the narrative. "Write down something like, `We breezed right past the stale air of the government offices,'" he demands, as we breeze right past the stale air of the government offices at Colfax and Broadway. We continue over the Colfax viaduct and into the west side, where a pitiful, almost co-dependent sign reads: WEST COLFAX WELCOME. Looking up from the sign, we see the first of eight million used-car lots (BUY HERE, PAY HERE) and one adult theater. If you've seen one adult baby in frilly knickers, though, you've seen them all. We keep going until we reach Rosen's Deli.
Eva Rosen, who married into the Rosen deli dynasty and came to work here thirty years ago, is one tough broad. She has a loud voice that, if you do not take into account the humor in her eyes, can sound downright martinettish. She remembers when Colfax was the main drag between here and California--when tourists from New York would think her deli was a mirage but discover differently when they bit into her stuffed kishka.
"What is a kishka, anyway?" I ask.
"Guts!" she booms. "And write down `guts.' It sounds nicer than `intestines.' We don't have it anymore," she adds.
"Then why's it on the menu?"
"Nova Lox is on the menu. We don't have that, either," she points out.
"Do you make your own pastrami?"
"Where's it come from?"
Nearby, we find sustenance at The Den, a gay bar so discreet it has neither sign nor street number nor parking--and yet it's been thriving here on West Colfax for nineteen years.
"Good food, good service, fun times," explains the regular at the bar, who has clearly been enjoying the good service for hours. It being half-price day, our two premium beers come to only $2.30. Orange roughy and filet mignon are on special. Johnny Mathis is on the jukebox. The Den is small, intimate, clean, charming and very discreet. It makes me think (fondly) of Frank Sinatra and the Hoboken mob.
"You ever get any trouble from Colfax?" Kenny asks.
"Nope," says the Marlboro-man bartender. "If they come in here and don't like it, they just leave."
Two miles into Lakewood, Colfax sinks into unrelieved suburbanality. The vaguely disreputable car lots give way to clean, shiny new dealerships; boarded-up motels become AAA-approved motor courts; and corner parlors selling imitation uppers and downers surrender to steak-and-egg specials at the rate of one every two blocks.
But who could predict the unexpected oasis of Mystic Quest? At Saulsbury Street, it looks exactly like your basic strip-mall optician's, but what gets serviced here is your psyche. And while you're at it, you can pick up any number of magic crystals, pewter swords, hummingbirds, dolphins and unicorns.
"I need a quick, cheap psychic reading of some kind," I tell the long-suffering young woman who appears behind the counter.
"You can get a fifteen-minute tarot reading for twenty dollars," she says. (This, actually, seems to be the going rate for most fifteen-minute services on Colfax.)
"Since you're psychic, when someone calls on the phone, do you automatically know who it is?" Kenny asks. His question hangs in the air as all three of us squirm, until I psychically sense it is time to leave.
"Making fun of psychics," I observe, as we peel out of the parking lot. "What a waste of time."
"Too easy," Kenny agrees, as we head west into the foothills of Golden. At the top of the first rise is Gold Hill Cemetery, Denver's largest and most historic Jewish burial ground.
"Yeah, this is the Dead End, all right, nojustkidding," says a scruffian of a groundskeeper named Leonard who, despite his brawny arms and grown-up beard, is giggling. Leonard lays carpet by winter and cuts grass and rights headstones by summer. Despite the fact that he cannot read the Hebrew gravestones--he isn't Jewish at all, in fact--Leonard appears to enjoy working at Gold Hill.
I like it here, too. Right away I am proud of my dead co-religionists for being so very verbal. Compared to goyische gravestones, these are informative, moving and sometimes almost chatty.
The late Jack S. Shapiro, I learn, has "a genius for living that touched so many." A lamented Mr. Shpall is remembered this way: "He was a kind man with wisdom and strength. We loved him...and he loved us." And Dr. Charles Spivak (December 25 1861 through October 16 1927) was such a forward-thinking man that he had his own articulated skeleton donated to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, leaving only his spirit under the marker in Golden. His and many, many others are covered with the small white stones people leave to show they've paid a visit.
"Kinda sad," Leonard decides, as he shows us through the baby section, "but I guess death is going to happen to all of us, huh."
"Huh," Kenny says.
"Huh," I concur.
After all, all good things come to an end, and they are about to conclude for Colfax, too. We continue another four miles west until the street merges into I-70, but it's essentially all over except for the smell of raw sewage that slaps our olfactories as we pass Heritage Square. We recall that our trip began, many hours and thirty miles ago, with the smell of cow manure. Sewer to sewer, east to west, sunrise to sunset--there's an obvious moral here, if only I could get some colorful source to say it for the record.
Then, of course, I remember Mary Gustafson at Uzi, and go right to the nearest phone.
"Remember when you said you could provide quotes on demand?" I ask her.
"For sure," she replies.
"Well, here's the deal," I say. "Kenny and I drove from one end of Colfax to the other. It began with the smell of cow manure and ended with human sewage. What does it all mean?"
"Oh, well," Mary says, without missing a beat, "Colfax is a study in scatology. It's Scatology 101."
Maybe for Mary. But from fertilizer, great things grow--and we've barely begun to scratch the distressed surface of this particular street.
Pardon our dust.
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