Writing about writing is precisely what gets writers in trouble, but I can't resist. In fact, I can't avoid it: There is no other way to explain how I embarked on a 200-mile drive around Denver, stumbled across both a snowboard angel and a crumpet, and discovered that a house, in fact, is not a home. If none of this makes sense -- and the First Law of Writing is that it should -- bear with me.
During a slow moment last week, I was browsing through the phone book, when suddenly, it jumped out at me:
HOUSE OF CHANG
HOUSE OF CHANG BAR
HOUSE OF FIRE
HOUSE OF MIRRORS
HOUSE OF VENUS
HOUSE OF WINDSOR
All told, there are 33 businesses in metro Denver that consider themselves the official House of Something, and that's not counting the House Rabbit Society, which has nothing to do with any of this, but the Second Law of Writing clearly states that if you can get words like "house rabbit society" into print, you should.
Third Law: If you're struck by a "high concept" idea, such as visiting a large number of Houses of, wait until you can find a "news hook."
Fourth Law: Driving around is not the same thing as reporting.
Fifth Law: If you are driven to break a lot of Laws all at once, go right ahead, because you never know when you might have to write about a ballot initiative -- and at that point, believe me, you will need to be warmed by memories of your wild, rule-breaking days.
Greenwood Village has lost its HOUSE OF CABLES; in its former home is a tire-and-wheel shop. A few miles away, however, HOUSE OF SAIGON, located just below an orthodontist's office, is alive and well. At lunch hour, several Cherry Hills girls -- ages somewhere between twelve and fifty -- chew tenderly on spring rolls. I expect the HOUSE OF YORK to have an air of venerable British history, but it turns out to be a University of Denver apartment building with its own brand of timelessness. In its windows I spy a mug collection, a bottle collection, a leering Santa/elf and plenty of firmly drawn curtains. Spacious 1BRs with AC & Heat may or may not be available at this time. Judging from the foyer, which I buzz into on the heels of a woman holding a dog the size of a rat, the House of York may be a stronghold of grad students: The few people I see are well past thirty and move silently through the hallways, as inwardly focused as an order of monks.
So they might want to consider a visit to the HOUSE OF CARMEL RELIGIOUS GOODS, Wheat Ridge's best source for First Communion dresses, Pope busts and the entire product line of the Religious Card Company of Long Island City ("God Bless Your 25th Jubilee!"). If you're having trouble selling your home, this is the place to pick up that "Ask St. Joseph Kit, It Works!" Or peruse a crucifix-crammed jewelry case that holds a complete selection of lapel angels, including the Baseball, Basketball, Skateboard and RV Angel, guaranteed to bring the wearer not just protection, but success.
Although other destinations are calling me -- notably, the Houses of Blessing, Joy and Miracles, not to mention Osiris -- I can't tear myself away from the various 3-D Jesi, blue-robed Marys and vials of holy water. By the time I finally leave, clutching a Snowboard Angel and a wallet-sized O. L. of Guadalupe, I am just about ready for a Mai Tai at the HOUSE OF PELICAN, which I am sure will be an exotic Trader Vic's-like boozery, despite the Arvada strip mall address.
But, no, it's a house of...pelicans. Stuffed pelicans, pelican statuettes, pelican mobiles. Behind the pelican paraphernalia sit three tanned people.
"So what is this is -- a travel agency?" I ask.
"Yeah, and we do scuba training, and we lead trips to good diving destinations," a woman named J.J. responds. "The name is a little strange, but it was the founder's idea."
"Who's the founder?"
"Me," J.J. admits. "I love brown pelicans. They're unique and they're endangered. I love the way they dive and fly. As you can see, I have an entire pelican collection."
The HOUSE OF MUSIC has an entire electric guitar collection, dumped from a truck at midnight, by the looks of it. The sign says OPEN, but the only creature in sight is an arrogant house cat that stares at me through the plate glass. I look past him to hastily ripped-open cardboard boxes, tangles of amp wires -- where are all the musicians? Weeds are growing through the parking lot that contains a half-dozen cars, none of which appears to have been driven in the past decade. There's something a little too Miami Vice-like about the scene, so I shoot on south to the HOUSE OF STARRS BEAUTY SALON, hoping for a more soothing atmosphere.
Instead, I find a grainy black-and-white still from a WPA project. "Wanted," reads a hand-lettered window sign, "Hairdresser, With Following." Inside, a beautician with tightly curled red hair sits staring off into space, holding a comb, perhaps considering a trip next door to the Cordial Lounge, which offers dining, dancing and drinking.
Personally, I prefer the HOUSE OF KABOB, for its sheer truth in advertising as well as the bonus of a belly dancer who can balance a sword on her head. After that refreshing stop, I consider an afternoon's sparring at the HOUSE OF JUJITSU, or a practical outing to the HOUSE OF PLUMBING SUPPLIES. Maybe even a late meal at the aforementioned HOUSE OF CHANG, or a drink at the HOUSE OF CHANG BAR. But the map points elsewhere.
If you've ever been to an upscale southern Italian restaurant, you've got the feel of the HOUSE OF GREENE INTERIORS AND FURNITURE. I had never seen more bric-a-brac, gilded cherubs, noble Beethovens and plastic-covered lamp shades -- until I arrived at Commerce City's HOUSE OF RENTAL, where you can rent many of the same items, assuming anyone's around to do the paperwork. No one's on duty at HOUSE OF FLOWERS, either. In fact, the staff's taken a week's vacation, leaving behind a window display of stuffed sunflowers, a life-sized stuffed gardener and a blue cinder block. HOUSE OF GREY, by contrast, features a forbidding block of storefronts devoted to "commercial draperies," all of which are drawn.
The onetime HOUSE OF FLAVOR, just across the street, displays its own commercial drapery, a few folding chairs and a martini-glass sign that reads "RR Neighborhood Hangout"; the sidewalk in front is littered with beer bottles. HOUSE OF TV REPAIR looks almost as lonely, and no wonder: No one has their TVs fixed anymore; we trash them and drive to Circuit City for replacements!
I am starting to draw important conclusions: There's no one home at many of the once-great Houses of Denver. Many of these edifices are closed or uninhabited, and those few that are still occupied are increasingly threatened by encroaching artificial-nail parlors.
Sixth Law: Don't try to tell readers what it all means. They will figure it out for themselves, and if you're lucky, they might let you in on it some day.
The next morning, I wake up braced for a depressing trip to HOUSE OF WINDSOR, which I assume is a tatty apartment building. Instead, I find a state-of-the-art British tearoom, complete with crumpets, scones, tea towels and shelves lined with everything a homesick Brit could ask for, from Jammie Dodgers to Lemon Curd to Salad Cream. Despite its location -- right next to the Casino Dealer's School -- it feels like a set for Fawlty Towers.
This cosmic discovery puts me in the mood for one last visit: to the HOUSE OF SPIRITS, naturally, where I can wallow in oneness and maybe have my chakras balanced. But, duh -- House of Spirits is a small but bustling liquor store on Aurora's northernmost boundary, where a Church's Chicken blankets the land with the smell of fried okra. Inside, I begin writing down the names of intriguing liqueurs, such as Hot Damn! and Yukon Jack Permafrost Schnapps.
"Can I help you?" the clerk asks.
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"Well, what are you writing in that pad?"
"A novel!" I say, arriving promptly at the Last Law: When you don't know why you're writing but you don't stop, you can always call it fiction, even if it never is.