The soft sell: Cathy Morales (left), Victor Sanchez and Bernie Drayton at the vacant lot on Sheridan.
The soft sell: Cathy Morales (left), Victor Sanchez and Bernie Drayton at the vacant lot on Sheridan.

No Man's Land

Pockets of open land sometimes appear just over the Adams County line. Bordered on the north by I-76, with a dense clump of Westminster off in the distance, this section of north Denver is a barren stretch of used-car dealers, scrapyards and cornfields. Some of its occupants look set in stone -- the family truck farm plugging away with its fourth generation and second coat of paint, for instance. The rest seem ready to melt back into the ether -- the bingo hall, the latest 99-cent breakfast joint, the drive-up coffee spot no one thought would last in the first place.

Unincorporated Adams County is the exact opposite of a covenanted community. Here, a fireworks stand is a respected corporate citizen.

"They're legal," Cathy Morales points out. Her fireworks lot, at the northeast corner of 52nd Avenue and Sheridan, is just a half block over the county line. "My family's always sold fireworks. My dad started at this particular place eighteen years ago. We lease it every year."

The business plan is simple: rent an empty lot with few annoyable neighbors; set up a tent, phone, table, one or two chairs, cash register, porta-potty; string power cords and maybe a few of those plastic patriotic pennants. Throw up a hand-lettered sign reading: FIREWORKS! BUY ONE GET ONE FREE! Then, from Memorial Day weekend to long after midnight on July 4 itself, with the sounds and smells of gunpowder thick in the air, sell the hell out of bottle rockets and smoke bombs.

"I love it," Cathy says. "It rushes by. It's so fast, so much to do. You go, go, go, make money, watch people have fun. But this season was horrible. We paid $6,000 for our lease, and then came the ban on fireworks, and we lost it all."

But she continues on with the yearly cycle of things you can sell from a tent in a dirt lot, moving into roasted chile and fresh produce in August and September, adding pumpkins and a small haunted house through Halloween. Then Christmas trees. She'll concentrate on her used-car lot the rest of the winter, then return to this spot in April with bedding plants. Her various business ventures may look basic, but they're part of a subtly expanding empire.

"When I'm not here, I'm on the road," Cathy says. "I drive to New Mexico for the chile, or Rocky Ford for melons. It's what I've always done."

At 35, she looks back on a childhood that prepared her for doing just this. Her parents worked together, expanding fireworks lots as they went along and eventually starting a used-car dealership. Cathy married, worked eight years as an orthodontist's assistant, then returned to her genetic roots as an outdoor vendor. She and her husband blended into the family business. She inherited this particular fireworks stand from her father, started another at 72nd and Pecos, and three years ago took over the car dealership from her brother, who'd gotten it from their father. Her husband likes the cars and spends most days at the used-car auction, where he is reached by phone many times a day. The Moraleses live in Cathy's parents' house, and she can imagine her two daughters continuing in this vein until the various generations and professions of the Morales/Elliott ménage are inextricably entwined.

"We're right for this life," she says. "I like being outside, all the different people, how you never get the same thing for too long. My friends call me trailer trash, but I don't mind. Once I was so sleepy I crawled into the freezer trailer and went to sleep, which is just what they'd expect me to do."

The trailer in question is one of two on the lot, a small refrigerated room currently loaded with burlap sacks full of New Mexico chile. Beside it, three roasters hooked up to tanks of butane turn slowly, emitting the magnificent north Denver smell of fall.

"The crowd this year is white people all the time," Cathy observes. "At our Pecos lot, it's all Spanish."

Cathy's Italian herself, but she married into a Mexican family. At work, particularly at the car lot, where the buyers consist largely of Mexican nationals with Mexican driver's licenses, she speaks elementary Spanish. "I understand it better than I speak it," she admits. "I've been around Mexican people all my life. My whole family has. Italian and Spanish together is kind of a north Denver thing."

So is chile in the fall. It's hard to resist the smell, even when your ancestral cuisine doesn't include instructions for what to do with the produce. Making subtle distinctions between twenty grades of chile may be a hip culinary trend, but Cathy's customers are a lot more down to earth. In autumn, they buy bushels of roasted chiles and throw them in the deep freeze. During the course of the winter, chile ends up on everything -- a steak, a plate of spaghetti, a pan of enchiladas.

"One guy came in and bought nine bushels of the chubby stubbies, the poblanos," says Bernadette Drayton, Cathy's longtime assistant. "I don't know what his plan was."

Cathy and Bernie have known each other long enough to have given up any trace of a formal boss-employee relationship. One day, when Bernie was minding the stand, she was overheard saying this to Cathy by phone:

"Yeah, I got slammed with customers and everything and you weren't here, but you know what? I could care less if you're here, because let me tell you, you're not missed. If you like me so much, why don't you bring me a hambooger? I'm starving out here. [pause] No, I don't want any of that homemade crap. Bring me a hambooger."

After that, a woman in office clothes appeared, saying she'd come to pick up a pot of homemade green chile. Or maybe it was a load of burritos? Bernadette knew nothing. She can tell you how to make green chile -- there's a lot of "you get a lump of pork about this big" and "then you put in some flour" -- but she only sells the raw material. On the other hand, maybe Cathy made a pot last night? Well, check back tomorrow. At this stand, there's a lot of check back tomorrow. Meanwhile, back to today.

It started about 8 a.m., when Morales employee Victor Sanchez showed up, unlocked the gates of the chain-link fence that constitutes the compound's only security, and began sorting through the Big Jims from Brighton. At 8:15 he paused to admit a small motorcade from the Adams County building department. One of the men nailed an official notice to a stake: The owner of this lot, one Stephen Friedlander of Rockville, Maryland, had been warned about the scrap wood, trash and slash that litter his lot, in particular the wooded section east of the chile stand. Since he hasn't stepped up to mitigate this "environmental blight," Adams County will spend the next few days doing it for him, and he'll pay.

At 11 a.m., a silent white man in a white truck pulled up, purchased a bushel of mixed Hatch and waited for Victor to roast it. Just then, an itinerant salesman with a load of sports duffels in one hand and a hard plastic briefcase in the other walked onto the lot. Barely out of the zit years, wearing brilliant-white gangster/lounging shoes and a goatee, he parked his wares next to a pile of chiles and spat out a monologue at breakneck pace:

"The company I represent is like totally overstocked so I'm hitting the streets to promote the product which is normally 25 bucks today I give it to you for twenty or two for forty which is twenty each when you add it up! What's in the case? Oh we sell guns, no background check required, no permit, ha ha, just kidding. Barbecue tools. Check 'em out. Nice! Today just twenty dollars. You interested?"

No sale.

"How 'bout you, dude?" he said, turning to Victor and whipping a handful of Walkman headphones out of his jacket. "Look at these! I'm hitting the street! They're overstocked! Nice, huh? Huh?"

"No!" Victor yelled, employing the few words of English he claims to speak. "No! Stop! No!"

"Okay, dude. Have a nice day."

The morning slam hit: two carloads of picky old ladies in battered Toronados. Victor hopped to it. Then Cathy arrived, having taken her kids to school, gauged the chile supply on 72nd and Pecos, visited her parents at their stand at 64th and Lowell, and run by the used-car lot to check accounting. Bernadette came to work a half-hour late, bringing not hamboogers, but hot, homemade burritos served with extremely fresh green chile. She assembled the Styrofoam plate almost fussily and watched while her boss ate. Then she cleaned up and went to help with the Big Jims.

Cathy Morales has her eye on the Adams County crew. She's never walked all the way through Stephen Friedlander's seven acres of land, but the presence of the county's backhoes makes it newly interesting.

"My dad talks to this guy Friedlander when he leases the land every year. I don't know much about him except he's a lawyer in Maryland. And now I know he didn't clean up all this garbage, which is stupid. A lot of people could do it for him cheaper than Adams County."

"He could have hired my cousin's grandma," Bernie points out. "She has that demolition company with her son Junior."

"He could have," Cathy agrees.

Thinking about the land, the big trees and chunks of busted-up concrete, she remembers that neighborhood kids play somewhere in there; you can hear their voices. You hear other things, too.

"Some old Indian told me it used to be an Indian place, maybe a burial ground? He came here last week to buy chile, and he said the Indian place was back there in the woods, and that's why they couldn't ever sell it. I also heard something bad about an underground sewage line. They been trying to sell it since we been here. The surveyors have to come out every time it goes on the market, but it doesn't sell."

She decides to take a look around, walking back into the woods through waist-high stinging nettles on what might once have been a road, her many gold chains glinting in the sun as they disappear into her ripped workout shirt.

"It might have been a landfill once, too," she says. "See those vents sticking out of the ground? And old manhole covers -- what's with that?"

Passing an ancient La-Z-Boy and a pile of tortured rebar, she finds herself on a ridge above a dry creek bed. Willows and cottonwoods rustle in the wind, dulling the sounds of the trailer park and Denver's Willis Case Golf Course off the far reaches of the property. Then she comes upon a gaping hole exposing a large, old concrete conduit.

"They want $500,000, is what I hear," she muses. "But something's wrong with it. It would cost a lot to clean up. Look at all this. It's huge. Was it always for trash, or what?"

What. Deep in the underbrush, she comes upon the largest cottonwood of all, rising from the grip of a gigantic domestic rose bush. With twelve-foot woody canes and huge orange hips, it's the kind of plant that was put here on purpose and then, in the face of complete neglect, prospered.

"Five hundred thousand dollars," Cathy repeats. "My family could think about buying it, maybe. Maybe a piece of it. I really want to open a Mexican restaurant. There isn't one on Sheridan for miles. People ask me to make them chile, and when I'm in Mexico, I get these great rolled tacos with the red sauce. I just love them, and you can't get them here..."

And she'll put this latest deal together when? In her spare time?

"I just need a little piece of this land," she decides. "And you know, I love to cook."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.


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