I Drink, Therefore I Am
For years you have had the same fleeting thought as you drove by: Jeez, that place looks old. I'll bet it hasn't changed since 1944--or 1896, or the Seventies, or Prohibition. And as it turns out, looks are rarely deceiving. Because one day, when you finally stop and open the door, history pours out.
A-FRAME LOUNGE RESTAURANT
8801 Highway 76, Commerce City
Her boots let everyone inside know she's coming, heels clanging on the flagstone. The inner door swings open, letting in a nuclear blast of daylight, and her. Her jeans and tank top are skin-tight, worn, clean. Her hair is French-braided. About one-third of her teeth are missing. The look on her face is pure eagerness. Happy hour! Showtime! Four p.m.!
You follow her into the cool basement, where the bar part of the business runs the subterranean length of the building. (Upstairs, in addition to the gas station, is Brenda's Cafe, which closes at 2 p.m. Someone--Brenda?--has painstakingly decorated the walls with Mickey Mouses.) In the bar, two bikers are playing pool. A dozen more patrons are drinking aggressively. You look through the bartender's cotton-candy bleached hair and run smack into one of the meanest faces west of the Pecos. At this point, you could walk up and ask her for a Coke. You could. But will you? Nope.
The bikers think you're hunting for the ladies' room. The Budweiser bikini girls on the posters, whom you see through a tangle of plastic plant life, don't seem to think anything. You pretend you're in a museum, and in a way, that's true. This exhibit dates from 1976, and these people are historical re-enactors, playing the roles of the hippie redneck bikers you drank with during the nation's bicentennial year. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Crank. Not an unfriendly bunch.
On your way into a bar like this 22 years ago, you would have been nervous. Mid-afternoon happy hours, you suspected, were sort of a cul-de-sac on the road to Adult Life. On your way out, however, you would have been full of goodwill, beer and thoughts of a particular destination: someone's gold Impala with the vinyl roof.
Hey! The Impala is still here, flaking and fading in the parking lot.
"I bought this place because it is such a cool old building, and the whole thing is made of poured concrete," says the A-frame's new owner, Scott Schafer. The touches he brought with him stand out like you did in the bar below: a large, talkative green-and-yellow parrot behind the gas station's cash register. A rusted 1931 Chevy in the service bay. At Schafer's invitation, you take a self-guided tour up narrow stairs to the fourth floor of the building, a sort of showroom in which a burnt-orange vinyl sofa sits at a weird angle, flanked by display racks designed for a snack food that was surely discontinued in 1977.
They are building a fancy new gas station across the highway. When it's done, who on earth will pull off the road and come here?
BLUE BLAZE BAR
5300 Washington Street,
Unincorporated Adams County
The blue adobe building rises like a mirage from the shoulder of a dirt road, leaving just enough room between the walls and traffic for you to park your car. The blue is distinctly un-American--turquoise, languorous, tropical. The door has glass brick cut-outs, a tiny diamond-shaped peep window, a vintage stainless steel handle. Pull it, and inside are...
Men. Short men in straw cowboy hats and diamond-snap shirts, speaking nothing but Spanish. In the doorway you are framed in a square of light. Caramba.
"Hey," says somebody's grandfather. "Let me love you."
Kaboom! The jukebox explodes with norteno. Voices rise a pitch. You edge into the bar--"Come on, I said, let me love you, call me Ruben..."--and ask for a Coke.
"You got ID?"
"For a Coke?"
You got ID, so now you got a Coke with no bubbles in it, syrupy sweet.
Oh. It's not all men. Two women in short lace dresses are drinking and laughing and smearing their plastic cups with orange lipstick.
Below, the floors are hardwood, sealed with decades of black dirt. The bar and the pool room are separated by arches of old mahogany. The bar stools, if thoroughly scrubbed, would be right at home at a Gunther Toody's.
The two women get up and walk toward the door, dragging you in their wake.
"Hey, where you going? I was gonna love you, you know? You know? You remember?"
Out in the parking lot, a hatchback crammed with five adolescent men idles, boxing you in. You get in your car and ease out. At the last moment, they move to let you pass. Little men, in menacing hairnets.
The Blue Blaze has been coloring this corner of unincorporated Adams County for at least eighty years, according to bartender Jeanne Payan, who used to bring her Italian grandma here to dance to live polka music. Her mother came here, too, "to do that north Denver Italian bar thing," Jeanne recalls. But by the time it was last sold, a few months ago, the bar had hit hard times. "Drug dealers," she says plainly. "The parking lot was full of them. It's lonely out here, and unincorporated. Perfect for drugs."
The new owner, Rosa Olivas, has had considerable success with Tequila Rose's, known around town as Denver's only gay Mexican bar. But Rosa's plans for the Blue Blaze are uncertain, Jeanne says. Liquor-board officials have strongly suggested she get rid of the name and even the color of the bar, to erase any unpleasant associations.
But although the current crowd is disjointed and uncomfortable, Jeanne admits that she would hate to the see the Blue Blaze become a place with no past.
"And it certainly should be blue," she adds. "My grandma said it always was."
321 East 45th Avenue, Globeville
Although the Portulaca (pictured below) is now known as the Porch, or Dick and Jane's Spot, it could also be called the Patina, because all the old surfaces--the stainless-steel footrail on the bar, the brass threshold under the monumental slab of a front door, even the ancient beer-bottle opener nailed to the wall--are worn bright by decades of contact with human hands and feet.
"This is the oldest bar in Colorado," one guy says, gazing into the cloudy mirror behind the bar and speaking with mistaken authority, because this building, as near as anyone can figure out, has been around since 1930 but only began serving alcohol in 1960.
"It was the old Slovenian Hall before that," says Rich (but you can call him Dick) Gallegos, who bought the place three years ago but has been coming here since childhood. "Then it was a Polish club with drinks, and the truckers used to come here before work for burgers and the chili bowl. The guy who owned it used to make a bowl of chili and sell it to the guys who worked at the foundry and put all his kids through college doing that. I wanted this place so bad...and all he ever said to me was, 'When you got the money, we'll sit down.' Finally I got the money, and we sat down."
Included in the deal was one-third of the original back bar from the old Windsor Hotel, which once occupied a solid block of downtown Denver. Someone had installed two tubes of neon to update the Victorian relic. Dick, his wife and their patrons have continued the decorating process, adding a homemade aluminum-foil trophy celebrating the Broncos' Super Bowl victory, a Broncos dream catcher, a candle to the Blessed Virgin that reads "Look deep into her eyes and let her look into yours," and a deadpan plaque that announces "Free Beer Tomorrow."
"I also have a bunch of Elvis stuff to put up around the place," Dick says proudly. "I'm the first Hispanic ever to own it."
"What?" shrieks a guy named Dominic, who is helping out behind the bar. "You? You're Mexican?"
That could account for why the Porch now makes the best green chili you've tasted in years. A woman known only as "Mom" is cooking up some right now. At the same time, she is wondering out loud when Dick and Dominic are planning to do the chores she gave them yesterday. But what's the hurry? Next door is a horseshoe pit, and if you hang around here long enough, someone will suggest that everyone walk over for a game. So you do.
Federal Boulevard and1st Avenue, Denver
The neon arrow you have admired for twenty years leads nowhere.
"No, dude," says bartender Lonnie Lujan, "that was in Prohibition. They had a fruit stand up here since 1897. Then they put the speakeasy down in the basement, and you just kind of made your way down."
Today the bar is upstairs, done up in plastic paneling and Budweiser posters, with nothing but fifty-year-old linoleum and a refrigerator at least that old to attest to its origins in the alcoholic roots of time. The jukebox is playing rap. A woman in her fifties is dancing with a toddler in a patch of sunlight. "A future customer," Lonnie says. "It's a good bar. You're drunk, you're outta here."
Can you see the basement?
"Okay," he says, sighing deeply. "Watch the phone," he yells to the crowd in general. "I'll be back up in, oh, three days."
If you go through the cool damp all the way to the back of the cellar, past piles of old bottles and heaps of dust, you get to the narrow room that was the site of the secret drinking. Nothing is left but a wall of mismatched, mislaid brick. Still, if you look...
"But I don't," Lonnie says. "I don't know what kinda people used to be down here, but I hear noises. I had a dream about it twice. You're gonna think I'm crazy, but you know how that white fog comes up out of the ground in London? Well it was coming up out of this basement, and I was hanging by my neck from this pipe right here. I was all in white."
And the noises he hears?
"I don't know how to describe it," he says, walking quickly up the stairs and shutting the door. "I don't know what kind of people they must have been. I just don't know."
7605 West 44th Avenue,
You have entered the future--the future as it looked back in 1967. This future is sleek red vinyl and shiny black formica, with burnt-orange glass globes hanging over the booths. On the white brick wall outside, black letters spell out the words FINEFOODS and COCKTAILS, and a neon martini glass cements the allure of the neighborhood lounge. Everyone you know who lives around here has felt its pull, even if you know of no one who's been tempted by the Chinese menu. The bar is ellipse-shaped, allowing the bartender to move suavely between patrons. The eight people sitting here on their black vinyl stools are at ease, yet they seem to be moving fast, into the rebirth of the swingin' lounge, into an atmosphere so space-age it could almost be California, into a future so bright...
No, says the waitress. Into the landfill. In a matter of months, Vern's and the liquor store of the same name that adjoins it will be trashed to make room for a Walgreens. Both businesses will reappear in a new strip mall a couple hundred yards away but far from the two main arteries that have always given Vern's its fast-moving, future-facing patrons.
"I always thought of them as an above-the-average crowd," recalls Vern Vohaska, who sold the bar last year but continues to run the liquor store and, as the owner of all the land on this corner, brokered the deal with Walgreens. "They were junior execs, on their way home from work."
In a case of careful positioning, Vern had worked at, consulted for, co-owned and managed more than a dozen bars and restaurants before he decided on the career-making bar he would name after himself. He picked out this building in 1967, when it was called Mario's. "There was a liquor license, but the Greek guy that owned it, whose name wasn't Mario, was trying to do the Eye-talian pizza thing," Vern remembers. "It wasn't doing too well."
Vern thought that was because the location was just a hint too far west of the north Denver Italian community--not exactly Frank Sinatra land. Luckily, though, it also sat just east of the farming communities that had yet to incorporate as Wheat Ridge. In short, it was perfect. He built the round bar himself, bought some new fixtures, opened for business and watched Wheat Ridge grow up around him.
"The planning board still comes in here after their meetings," says Tom Little, Vern's new owner. "Recently, they asked me what we were going to do about the neon martini glass."
Not because they thought it was an eyesore, but because they felt it had become a symbol of Wheat Ridge. Little already suspected as much--longtime patrons were bugging him to save bricks from the bar when it's demolished. He talked the matter of the sign over with Vern, who at first didn't believe it. Then they agreed to find a way to mount it near the strip mall.
You'll still see it as you drive west.
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