Al Avram has an irresistible East Coast/macho/wiseguy/velvet growl, and the best thing he says with it is this: "You know, I got an explanation for that."
Which is handy, because Al has a lot to explain. His name, for one thing, which is Al Avram in some circles and Carroll Alan Abraham in others. And don't forget Cayull Alshi Al-Avram, the moniker that graces Al's driver's license and may even be the name he was given at birth. "But I got an explanation for that," Al says. "I'm a Sephardic Jew, but sometimes people think I'm some kind of rag-on-my-head camel jockey. So my contention is that I can change my name just like you might want to change yours from Weiss to White." You know, informally. "Sure," Al agrees. "Like, say you're born Elizabeth, and someone calls you Betty--is that an alias? I don't know. Maybe it is."
It is if there happens to be a separate felony record attached to two of those aliases. But not only does Al have an explanation for his various names and their related charges, he's the one who mentions them in the first place. "See, where I'm from"--which could be Pittsburgh, Israel, Argentina or a place called Cakmak, Turkey--"everyone was mobbed up, as they say," says Al. "You couldn't help it. But we had standards. I know that sounds funny, but we didn't touch drugs or prostitution. I finally hadda leave. In Pittsburgh I would've wound up..."
Even more "mobbed up"? Even more likely to be busted for armed robbery, RICO conspiracy, receiving stolen goods and...? But, really, what does it matter? You now know the Al of twenty years back, because Al himself introduced you to him. Before you today, however, is a simpler Al--a man who wants nothing more than to create "a place like in New York or Pittsburgh, where the food is good, plenty and plain. No radish carvings or things of that nature. Three to nine bucks a plate. Specialties, like stuffed lobsters, like a veal chop with the bone in. What I want," he sums up, "is an Italian-type lounge." Run by a Sephardic Jew who once checked the "Hispanic" box on a liquor-license application. Still, not even Al's sworn enemies--and there are several--can accuse him of making a substandard fettuccine con pollo or pork chops i vongoli.
"Oh, yeah," he says, "you gotta come down for pasta. Anytime. I'm here from about nine in the morning to eleven at night." You gotta. What you do is, you go down to the southeast corner of 13th Avenue and Pennsylvania, to the building that once housed Zenobia's and Malfunction Junction, and see if you can find anything resembling a restaurant. Hint: Al calls the place the Beau Brummel Club, in the hope that it will become known as the B.B.C. Problem: There is no sign reading Beau Brummel Club or B.B.C. For that matter, to date there is no liquor license for either the Beau Brummel Club or the B.B.C.; the restaurant license is but two weeks old. And once you finally get inside the place, you won't find much in the way of fixtures. Or waiters--Al is the only employee. Hidden bonus: Even though the restaurant does not seem to exist, you may still get a damn good meal--free. It's been known to happen, particularly if the diner is willing to lend a sympathetic ear to Al's tale of neighborhood woe, to wit:
"I'm being persecuted by one of these neighborhood watch groups. They call themselves the Unsinkables, and they are run by a little megalomaniac short guy named Jorge and his sidekick, an off-duty cop known as Tony the Thug."
What? Can't a former felon get a break? "Nobody's persecuting Al," says Denver police officer Tony Burkhardt, who indeed works with the Unsinkables off-duty but does not answer to Tony the Thug. "What it is, is he's persecuting me! He's dirty and a felon and he's throwing a wrench into the gears."
On the one hand, law enforcement officials across the metro area have spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where Al got the down payment for not just one, but two, bars. On the other hand, they still don't know. "Look, I'm 56, and basically this is gonna be my retirement place," Al says. "I intend to be involved in this neighborhood. I am the first to admit I've made mistakes, but hey, give me a chance."
Armed with a tiny sponge mop, Al Avram is wetly, but supremely, suave. One of the pipes above the B.B.C. has burst, and water is pouring through the ceiling he has just painted. Beneath the downpour, Al is unfazed in his casual outfit of jeans, crewneck sweater and Topsiders. His hair is a distinguished silver-gray, his eyes Paul Newman blue. It apparently takes more than faulty plumbing to get to Al. "I got a lot of enemies," he admits, "but don't forget, I got a lotta friends, too. Now, if I start to pontificate, stop me."
Al is charmingly but deliberately vague when explaining exactly what he did for the twenty years before he began running a Thornton bar/motel with his ex-wife in 1991. California and a country club are mentioned in passing. A career of "sales, working with various people, electronics" is alluded to. But Al is very definite about when he started to follow his current dream: At the start of 1993, "a real estate lady" began showing Al some Denver bars. Zenobia's appealed to him, and he closed the deal within the month, putting down $25,000 in cash and signing a note for the remaining $50,000. "I don't know what it was," Al recalls. "It couldn't have been the food, which was Greek cooked badly by Iranians. And the live music! We're talking groups with the guys with rings through their lips, and things of that nature! The crowd was maybe 21 to 25. Kids! They can drink five bucks' worth of beer and break up an 85-dollar chair."
Al did not intend to cater to that element. He was angling for the over-thirty crowd. So he set about transforming his place into an Italian-type lounge--hold the Italian food. "See, it was too close to Greek," he explains, "so I decided, I'll make it into a Mexican cantina and call it Barbarosa's."
He ousted the lip-ring music and installed Elvis impersonator Danny Rome, who came with his own karaoke system. Then he yanked out the pay phone, because, Al says, "it was attracting six, seven guys at a time just hanging around the phone, and hey, I know these guys are doing business out of my bar and things of that nature."
Next, he changed the jukebox selection to "oldies, Mexican and Italian standards," and the place began attracting postal workers--the kind of patrons Al enjoyed shooting the breeze with over a cup of coffee. "A lot of afternoons I doubt if I sold fifty bucks' worth of booze," he remembers. "It just wasn't that important to me. During the day, when I was around, it was a nice place."
Nights, apparently, were different. "I'd never seen so many fights from the stage in my life," says Danny Rome. "It was a rock-and-roll crowd, and they all thought I was lip-synching. It was tough; there was some kind of problem."
This wasn't the first time Rome had worked through a problem with Al, either. With his band, Rome had played a several-months-long engagement at Thornton's Hacienda Plaza Inn, which is still owned by Al's ex-wife. "Something went wrong there. We had a real good thing going, too, so I wish I knew what it was. Anyway," Rome says earnestly, "Al has always had good intentions and helped out."
"Actually, I miss Al," says another local musician who spent time on Barbarosa's stage. He asks to remain anonymous because, he says, "I love Al, but he's scary. If he knew I were talking to you I'd be in trouble. But I do love him. He wanted to run a class joint, but he served the beer in plastic cups. He had this thing about serving people a cheap steak, salad and a potato. He was particularly fixated on the potato. You can't go wrong, he'd say, if you serve people steak and a potato."
Before long, Al had both those staples available for purchase at Barbarosa's. As far as he was concerned, this was the start of something big. He liked his clients; he liked the neighborhood. At first, he even liked the Unsinkables. "They came around and explained they were doing a neighborhood citizen-patrol-type thing," Al says, "and I says, great, I want you guys to stop in here for a coffee or a cappuccino any time."
But that was before then-Unsinkables president Jorge Merida paid his first call. "He came in here full of innuendo," Al recalls. "He tells me he runs this neighborhood, and he doesn't want to see certain of my customers in here ever again. The next I hear, he's going around saying I'm running a haven for crime figures, if you can believe."
Merida denies saying anything of the kind. When asked about his opposition to Al's enterprise, he responds, "You know, you sound really, really naive, like you don't know a thing about crime."
Merida characterizes Barbarosa's as an "irresponsible business. What Al brought to this neighborhood was fights, drunks, garbage and dirt," he says. "We didn't like it at all, and we told him to stop." Such pronouncements have been the business of the Unsinkables since the neighborhood group was born six years ago. "We decided we live here and we don't want it destroyed," Merida explains. Stopping the deterioration, he says, involves a lot more than walking the streets to keep them safe. "You talk to landlords, you find out why apartment owners let traffic go in and out at odd hours, you ask people to clean up their garbage," he adds. "You do all that and you plant flowers in the summer. We're not into strong-arming anyone."
If a business "blatantly refuses to realize that we're trying to improve the neighborhood," Merida says, the Unsinkables set up a meeting with its owner. For example, the 7-Eleven at 13th and Pearl was once the site of forty to sixty arrests each month. "We just approached them," Merida says. "They sat down with us, with good heart and honesty, and said, `We think you're full of shit.' But that changed. Now they contribute ten to twenty bucks a month."
That money goes to pay the off-duty police officers who accompany the Unsinkables on their patrols--an expense most neighborhood businesses consider reasonable. Al did not. "He would not work with us," Merida recalls. "He came to our meetings and tried to manipulate us into his point of view, which was that all the garbage from Colfax should be allowed to drift down toward his place."
"Well, look," Al explains. "My position was this: I only been in this neighborhood a week and a half--my door is open to whoever wants to walk in. They're telling me my patrons come out of the bar and make noise. Well, excuse me, but big deal--who would live near a bar and not expect that? Then he starts asking for donations for his little group! I'm not up for that, and I told him so."
Within a month of Barbarosa's grand opening, Al says, Merida was making his life (and his customers) miserable--and at the most inopportune moments. "One time me and my ex-wife are talking about some things," he says, "and this Jorge bursts in yelling about we better clean up our act, and I'm sorry but I'm not a guy you wanna threaten."
Want proof? Here's what Al claims to have said to an underage customer: "Put your hand in your pocket, pull out some ID, and it better be the right ID or I'm gonna break off every one of your fingers and shove 'em up your ass"--which Al patricianly pronounces "ahss."
Such displays of temper did not endear Al Avram to the Denver Police Department. "We immediately started receiving complaints about that place," recalls Denver vice detective Michael Patrick. "When it was Zenobia's, we investigated a couple of things, mostly teen night, but the owners always worked with us." Al was different. "Everything just hit so rapidly," Patrick says. "He had people in there so intoxicated they passed right out, and he just denied anyone was drunk. He gave my officers fits."
Officer Burkhardt, who worked the Barbarosa's area both on- and off-duty, was among the most vocal. "It seems that each night I work," he wrote to the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, "I handle some sort of incident that originally began in or the people come from this bar."
More specifically, what he remembers is responding to complaints of "people creating crimes, domestic abuse, drug dealing. And that guy Al made it worse. The minute he opened up, there was more crime," Burkhardt insists.
"Barbarosa's had hardcore drinkers," remembers neighborhood landlord and Unsinkables member Don Koller. "I'm a big guy and it takes a lot to scare me, and I didn't feel comfortable there at all. I avoided it and never went near the place."
Barbarosa's customers were "not your upscale persons, okay, but not street people, either, so who took away their right to drink in a public place?" Al asks. "Then this Jorge starts saying maybe I should close down early. Meanwhile, I'm thinking about staying open 24 hours a day, which they should like. I mean, hey, wouldn't it help if my patrons sat around for a few hours after last call eating steak and eggs and things of that nature?"
No, it wouldn't. No sooner did District 3 Sergeant R.L. Samson get wind of the plan than he wrote to Excise and Licenses, asking the department to put a stop to Al. "I took the occasion to briefly talk with the owner," the officer wrote. "I expressed my concern that if he stayed open 24 hours that it would attract a lot of `scumbags' to the area. He replied that he already had a lot of `scumbags' frequenting his bar."
"I can explain that," Al says. "Sure, I had problems, but really just two incidents." In both cases, Al felt it necessary to evict a drunk--one an employee, one a customer--each of whom reappeared with cops in tow, crying brutality. "Cop cars come roaring up!" Al recalls. "This idiot tells them I pulled a gun on him! I'm dressed in a suit and tie! And they decide to believe this drunk who's actually weaving and refuses to press charges!"
"We're talking three or four incidents that I can recall," protests Officer Burkhardt. "He pulls a gun on a guy. He beats up a guy!"
So, okay, there was a .22 target pistol behind the bar at Barbarosa's, Al explains patiently, but not for use on patrons. And as for the beating, well, "one of my customers leaves to go to the restroom, and this drunk takes a sip of his beer. I say, `Hey pal, you're leaving.' And he hauls off and takes a punch at me, see. So I decked his ahss. Then I tossed him out into the street."
Anyway, Officer Burkhardt is an "abusive asshole," Al continues. "He complains he comes in here to do his inspections and is greeted with cold silence. Well, what--we're supposed to fuckin' applaud him?"
Well, it wouldn't have hurt. Because by last July Denver authorities were hot on Al's trail. Detective Patrick was beginning to wonder how Al Avram had been granted a liquor license in the first place.
"He lied," Patrick says, "by omission, shall we say." In other words, while Al listed one felony on his liquor license application, he conveniently forgot at least three others, as well as two five-year-old arrests for "exhibiting a firearm" and possession of a "controlled narcotic substance" in southern California. (Al can explain that, too. He spent two days in jail because his pants were covered with pool chalk. After that, he says, charges were dropped.)
Patrick learned all this in a phone call from Detective Paul Reffitt of the Thornton vice squad. Reffitt, who did not respond to numerous messages from Westword, has filled three hefty files with the Al Avram saga. In short, they reveal this: In 1991 a company known as Contelex bought the former Best Western Capri Motel at 84th Avenue and I-25, renaming it the Hacienda Plaza Inn. Contelex had its share of sub-entities and management arms, but this much--although not much else--is clear: It was Al Avram and his then-wife who had bought the place. They paid $350,000, which appears to have been loaned by Al's wife. As for Al, he's described on his Thornton paperwork as an "entrepreneur, investor." Although the couple kept the motel business going, it was the restaurant/ lounge that really grabbed their interest. "We had the Glass Menagerie," Al remembers. "They did Top 40, show music, they'd even been on Johnny Carson. What a class act."
Which is more than Detective Reffitt could say for the Avrams. They were serving liquor after hours, tipsters reported, and even though Al's name appeared nowhere on the license, he was managing the bar. Reffitt dropped by the Hacienda Plaza often, discovering a building-department violation on each occasion. He finally concluded that Al was the power behind the throne, and when he checked up on Avram, he discovered the aforementioned felonies, as well as the distressing fact that there really was no way Al could be a retired general in the U.S. Air Force, as he had recently claimed. By December 1991 Al's name was purged from all Hacienda Plaza paperwork, but employees claim he remained on the premises.
And what premises they were! Ballroom and banquet facilities were rented out to a series of Mexican Independence Day promoters--despite the fact that none of the resulting blowouts occurred on Mexican Independence Day. Employees observed children, ages five to ten, drinking beer out of baby bottles on the premises. A restaurant health inspector recoiled at the sight of "flour infested with weevils, liquor adulterated with insects...and cook wiping hands on apron!" Whether or not food was actually served at the Hacienda remains a mystery, although the interior of the dishwasher had to have gotten "filthy" somehow. (The Hacienda ambience has not improved. A recent lunchtime visit revealed exactly no one dining at what is now called Senor Benjy's Tex-Mex, and a sad marquee trumpeted the existence of "Lunch, Din Specils.")
Stool-pigeon members of the waitstaff finally convened to tell Detective Reffitt their stories. They were constantly being told to "push booze"--to bring customers drinks whether they'd been ordered or not, they said. And the hotel rooms, despite their $44-per-night price tag, were a mess. "Oh, one room has a flood," one chambermaid related, "or the other room falls apart, or uh, furniture comes apart, or the TV blows up." When asked about those years, Al's ex-wife responds with a stifled yelp. "Ah, you just blew me away!" she says. "No! I don't know anything! I'm divorcing the guy! I would prefer just to get on with my life. I don't know anything. I mean, this is unbelievable. I want to just keep things quiet!"
So did Al. But life was no more peaceful at Barbarosa's. On July 23, 1993, its liquor license was revoked on the grounds that Al hadn't told the whole truth on his application. During the first week in August, the former owners arrived to take possession of the restaurant fixtures on the grounds that they hadn't received their monthly payments.
"They took cases of steaks," Al says indignantly. "And they devastated our liquor supply--I'm talking cases of Grand Marnier, even. People saw them do it! I told them never to come back."
"Al," sighs Detective Patrick, "was just constantly pushing his luck."
Do you need to be told that Al bounced back?
"So I don't have a liquor license, so what," he says. "I'll get someone to do it for me." Last month, a restaurant-license application for the B.B.C. was submitted by one Edward Lucero. "A great guy!" Al says. "He's a sixty-year-old guy who's never even had a parking ticket in his life. He bought the building."
Edward Lucero is easy to reach at his office, which is located, wouldn't you know, at the Hacienda Plaza Inn. When asked about Al Avram and the B.B.C., Lucero's immediate comment is: "Not open to my knowledge. Not me."
After a pause, he admits that he does indeed own the B.B.C. building, and that he has applied for a restaurant license. "But no food is being served there yet," he says, "and not to my knowledge will Al Avram be running it, I don't know, we gotta talk about all that. Not me. I can't help you. Not me."
"So, no problem," Al concludes. "He owns the building, he'll get the license, and I'm not the owner anymore, I'm a busboy! Hey, I'm serving food right now, and we oughta post our application for a license in a week or so. Jorge, I'm sure, will protest, but hey..."
But hey, Merida may be too preoccupied. Last month he resigned as leader of the Unsinkables, reportedly telling the group it was time for a new management style.
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"Yeah, it sure is," Al agrees. "He's been running around here confronting people, asking them for their ID, harassing people, walking right into apartments...I seen him and his gang taking hits on poor old drunks. They should stop that."
And besides, he adds, there's a new group in town, an offshoot of the federal Weed and Seed program, located in that nearby 7-Eleven. "I have to tell you," Al says, "these guys are different. They're really gonna lend a hand. And I told them, `Hey, I want you guys to eat your lunches here, half-price.' That's legal and that's fair."
"What we do is different," agrees Weed and Seed officer Joe Montoya, a former District 4 cop who spent two years of off-duty time walking the streets with the Unsinkables. "As Weed and Seed, we don't so much patrol as we take care of a lot of calls. And actually," he says of the Unsinkables, "I would advise them that you have the right to talk to someone, but you can't detain them. I would advise them to start using the low-key approach."
So would Jennifer Macy, who walked with the group as a member of city councilwoman Cathy Donohue's staff. "I don't want to judge the Unsinkables on one incident," she warns, "and I know they have done wonderful things for their neighborhood. But yes, I do have concerns. We started on a patrol and it almost immediately ended in an arrest. As far as I could tell, all the man was doing was covering his face, and he ended up being arrested for resisting arrest."
"I saw incredible good being done, and I saw some things that maybe weren't quite right," says neighborhood businessman Don Koller. "I think you're violating civil rights when you stop people and ask them for their ID without cause. There's a big difference between `Hi, can you help us, we're out trying to stop illegal activity' and `What the hell are you doing here, beat it.'"
Koller is particularly concerned, he says, because he's building a recording studio and wants his "weird-looking" clientele to feel as comfortable on the block as "people in three-piece suits and Bally shoes." If they don't, his new venture will fail. Meanwhile, he's been discussing this with none other than that optimistic starter of businesses himself, Al Avram. "He's running a cute little club now," says Koller, who admits he steered clear of Barbarosa's. "You know, fancy shmancy. The pasta, which he's never charged me for, is really fantastic, and I hope he opens up soon."
"And we will," Al confirms. "Next week, I think. I mean, what do they got on me, anyway? Nothing," he decides. "Nothing but innuendo.