Imagine it's the year 2020, and the city of Denver is beginning to rebuild from a cataclysm that all but leveled it. Eight years earlier, as the story goes, one woman emerged from the wreckage and guided twenty survivors to the abandoned Denver Art Museum, where they settled, living on canned food. The woman established a new system of "Constitutional Anarchy" in the city and created gardens and clinics to serve the population as it was rebuilding. But just as Denver came to life again, the woman was poisoned by a religious cult, leaving the citizens to soldier on without their leader.
Now imagine that you're a twenty-year-old Arapahoe Community College graduate who penned the above scenario in a short essay, and it won you a $30,000-a-year scholarship to a college of your choice.
Salvatore Bohrer doesn't have to imagine.
Last spring, after Bohrer finished his associate's degree at ACC in Littleton, school faculty ushered him into a room with his family and announced that he had won the award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Named for the late Canadian-American entrepreneur and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Washington Redskins and the Chrysler Building in New York, the scholarship is given to community-college students nationwide who want to continue their studies at four-year institutions. Bohrer was one of 51 students to win it this year, out of 1,000 applicants. He is the first from a Colorado community college.
"I cried," he says about that day. "There's video."
While other beneficiaries have used the money to attend universities such as Stanford or Harvard, Bohrer chose Long Island University's unusual Global College program so he could travel the world, conducting field research overseas with accompanying professors. The program will allow him to see firsthand how technology intersects with culture, a "fascination" of his.
On September 18, Bohrer left for Taiwan. From there he'll travel to Thailand, India, Turkey, then who knows where. It's his first time living outside of Denver, but he's less anxious than thrilled. "I have an opportunity to become someone I haven't imagined," he says. "It'll be a discovery, not knowing where I'll be."
While his course of study seems non-traditional, it follows years of atypical education for Bohrer.
Growing up in Englewood in a ninety-year-old mill shack with no TV, Bohrer had plenty of time to come up with his ideas. His father, a truck driver, and his mother, a henna-tattoo artist, slept on a couch in the living room (and still do) while he and his brother got their own rooms. When the central heating broke a few years back, the family replaced it with space heaters. During the winter, Bohrer escaped to an old barn the family used for storage. There he would read, write and smoke cigarettes until his ink froze in the jar.
In grade school, Bohrer often felt he had a better sense of how he should learn than his teachers did. In fourth grade, he was slapped with a C in English class — not because he didn't do the reading, but because he refused to write book summaries after he finished. It would take time away from doing even more reading, he reasoned. "I was at the point where I was being held back," he says. "It seemed pointless to me."
Bohrer later attended Colorado's Finest Alternative High School in Englewood, a non-traditional public school where he was able to study at his own level.
After that, he enrolled at Arapahoe, receiving scholarship money to help cover tuition. His first class was an ethics course, which steered him toward semiotics, or the study of how meaning is created. It was a fitting start.
"We're in an interesting place right now in how we interpret our place in the world," he said, sitting at Stella's Coffee Haus on South Pearl Street in a purple Andy Warhol shirt before his departure. "We seem to feel that we have come along as far as we can. There's a sense of hopelessness with our current political circumstances. Our faith in democracy has eroded. There's very little sense of cohesive duty or course."
He cites the First Friday art walk on Santa Fe Drive as an example, noting that artists tend to "imitate an established style," forever recycling what's already been done. He tries to fight that tendency in his own work, he says.
Sallie Wolf, one of three professors who nominated Bohrer for the Jack Kent Cooke award, calls him extremely creative. "I found that he was an original thinker and quite curious, so that he goes above and beyond the requirements and gets truly involved with the subject. He is a wonderful scholar," she says.
Lance Rubin, another professor, echoes that: "He's got this aura and charisma. He's an exceptional student. He's what every professor dreams of: someone who isn't there because they have to be, but because they want to be."
While the essay won him the scholarship, it also caused some fallout. His then-girlfriend's father said he should have used the money to attend prestigious Bard College in New York, where he was also accepted. He stopped speaking to Bohrer when he chose Global.
And then there were friends who cut off communication for another reason. "They'd say, 'You're leaving, we're staying. Why should we have a relationship?'"
Bohrer is well aware of the community he's leaving behind, a group of peers who debated and swapped stories in Denver's hazy diners before last year's smoking ban took effect. While the legislation impeded Bohrer's habit, it also meant nothing less than the annihilation of his creative environment.
"The institution of the coffee shop or the bar, where people sit together over these little activities, has been incredibly influential," he says. "The smoke-filled room is where these things are created."
Still, Bohrer promises that he'll keep in touch: He bought a cell phone for the trip and filled his MP3 player with music from friends' bands to share abroad.
In addition to his clothing and passport, he also packed a sketchbook, a laptop and a book on rhetoric. And cigarettes, for those smoke-filled rooms along the way.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.