9 a.m., Main Terminal
Flight attendant Eric Blake looks at himself in the mirror of Stapleton Terminal Barber Shop and waits to be noticed.
"Pretty handsome, right?" he says, without a trace of irony. "I'm growing out a flat-top, I've got the greatest job in the world, it's my first week working--I'm doing great."
"So you've never been to Stapleton before?" asks barber Dave Brown.
"My first time," Blake confirms, shrugging his dark-blue jacket into place and surveying his reflection one last time. "I'm a San Diegan flying out of Chicago. See you."
After Blake leaves their shop, Brown and partner Jack Lynd hold out for a few beats before they start laughing. They laugh so hard they have to sit down, each on a classic Sixties barber chair. Across the room, Johnny Richardson, who has shined shoes alongside Lynd and Brown for 25 years, looks up coolly from his newspaper, then goes back to minding his own business.
Imagine someone making his first flight into Stapleton during its last month as an airport. The barbers couldn't say why, exactly, but it was funny--he's got the greatest job in the world, he's doing great, he thinks he understands it all. Brown and Lynd have been at this Stapleton barber shop for 35 years now, and they still don't quite get it.
Not that they haven't tried, of course. They've paid scrupulous attention to every development in both the tonsorial and aviation industries.
"I certainly kept up with ever' plane there was," drawls Brown in his Missoura accent. "It was like the unveiling of a new car. It was very exciting. They would promote the heck out of those planes. When the jets came along, they'd fly the bartenders and barbers around for an hour or so, as a public-relations thing. See, we were the folks who got your undivided attention for fifteen minutes, and if we wanted to talk to you about jets, we could."
In 1960, when Brown and Lynd signed on at the new barber shop in the main terminal, the connecting concourses were little more than pens made of chain-link fence; passengers entered planes by rolling stairways. The airlines atoned for these primitive conditions with spit-and-polished personnel. Regularly trimmed hair and glossy shined shoes were the rule. "It seemed like a good franchise to buy into," Brown recalls. After working for the shop's original owner, Brown and Lynd bought out the business in 1963. At the time, a haircut cost $1.50. Today the same cut will set you back $8.
"Oh, we went through a bad time in 19 and 69," Brown remembers. "The long hair came in and business fell off 50 percent. The pilots saved us, though. They had to keep trimmed up."
"Well, the airlines tried to enforce a dress code," Lynd corrects, "but it didn't always work. Some of the fellows were, uh..."
Brown supplies the word. "Rebellious."
"There you go," says Lynd.
"Make sure you take note of that," Brown notes. "When you ask Dave a question, Jack answers. When you ask Jack, you get Dave."
"But for advice, you need Dave," Lynd adds. "He's about the best marriage counselor in the world. He's held together more marriages--and caused more divorces, come to think of it..."
"Oh, now," Brown interrupts, and the laughter starts up again. Once more, Richardson looks over. This time he's in mid-shine, buffing a pair of high-rent black loafers attached to a silver-haired businessman.
A pilot appears in the doorway. A loud pilot.
"This place is doomed!" he yells. "I'm gonna get the last haircut you boys do, isn't that right?"
"You bet," Brown yells back. "Cost you eight bucks."
"Not now, though," the pilot booms. "I gotta go to Oakland."
"No, let me," offers Lynd. In what seems like a practiced move, he removes the pilot's coat and hat, puts them on himself and pretends to leave the premises.
"Yeah, I'm a pilot," the pilot says, about to make himself comfortable, Oakland or no Oakland. "But it's not exactly at the top of the page, is it, boys?"
"He's also the proprietor of the Lucky Star Bar and Grill in Lucerne, Colorado," Lynd says proudly.
"Where we do live polka music for old guys like Jack," the pilot confirms.
For the past few weeks, Jack Lynd's been thinking about life as a polka-loving old guy. He hopes to begin that life on March 1, the day after Stapleton is scheduled to close, and the day after he and Brown exit the barbering business. They will not move their shop to Denver International Airport, although both consider the new facility "the most fantastic thing ever to hit Denver."
"But I been doing this for forty years," Lynd says. "I started with English polo ponies, actually, and then I began on people. Now I got some land in Kansas, and I plan to be a little dirt farmer."
"I'm going to travel," Brown says. "I've cut hair for people from all over the world, and I learned a lot about other people's culture. I'm going places. And yes, man, I will miss this place."
"Well, you got to miss it," Lynd exclaims. "It's its own little city. Days go by so fast."
"Hmm," says Richardson. "Yes. It's a small city. Not because I know everyone. I keep to myself."
Even so, during his two dozens years here, Richardson's seen "lots of people, lots of exotic hides." But recently, he adds darkly, "people have taken to wearing the sports shoes that do not need a shine. Oh, well. When we close down here, I believe I'll just get something doing in the city."
Outside the barbershop, the terminal is quiet. Vacationers are between vacations. Skiers stumble about solo rather than in holiday droves. And the White Paging Telephone Woman, she of the lousy Spanish accent and measured cadences, seems to be hallucinating.
"Mr. Xanax," she intones. "Mr. Paul Xanax. Please come to a white paging telephone."
10 a.m., Concourse C
The carpeted ramp leads down to a row of metal detectors where all is businesslike--except for the corner where security guard Alfa Yohannes, tall, skinny and poet-eyed, has Alicia Shepherd in a headlock.
"Actually, we're called pre-board screeners," Yohannes says, still tickling his colleague. "You know: I screen, you screen, we all screen..."
"Get away from me, stoopid," Shepherd says.
Yohannes and Shepherd don't know whether they'll be offered jobs at the new airport, but neither is particularly worried. "People be losing their jobs around here, but we'll be okay," Shepherd says. "Besides, he thinks he can work as a musician."
"I be writing songs all the time," Yohannes agrees.
"Yeah, oh, baby this, oh, baby that," Shepherd smirks.
"I have some fun on the C concourse, man," Yohannes sighs. "It's the best concourse. We don't take things too serious here."
These two may not, but their superior, Roberto Lonardo, certainly does. This is immediately made apparent by his dress shirt, which features a loop of white-and-blue braid over the left shoulder to set Lonardo apart from the other, lesser screeners.
"We confiscate knives, handcuffs, Mace," Lonardo says. "Big, long scissors, big, long knives. Not that people really want to use them for weapons. Half the time it's stuff they got for Christmas and don't even want. Since we got United Express on this concourse, we get all these Aspen people, with all that jewelry setting off the metal detectors. We get Martina someone, the tennis player. Personally, I've even found sex objects. Once I found, oh, this is embarrassing...Well, it looked like a penis."
Lonardo blushes. Screening out further revelations, the conversation turns to the future. This group works for International Total Services, which contracted with the city for the Stapleton job. "Our company's going over to DIA to work for GP Express," Lonardo says. "I don't know what they'll offer me or what I'll do. But I'll miss this concourse. It's a good concourse."
It's also an almost-empty concourse. Past Lonardo's station, the view gives way to a sad stretch of boarded-up delis, neonless beer signs, banks of arrival-and-departure TV consoles devoid of screens. The odor of microwaved Pizza Perfecto hangs in the air.
At the very end of the concourse, custodian Thang Nguyen pushes a loaded cleaning cart into a barely used bathroom. He's worked here since 1985.
"I am going to new airport?" he says doubtfully. "I hope?"
10:30 a.m., Main Terminal
A man in a running suit sleeps fitfully in a black leatherette chair. Sitting nearby is a woman in a suit, Walkman on her head, listening her way through a pile of National Dynamics speed tapes. A thin stream of traffic flows past, consisting largely of older people wearing younger clothes--leggings, aerobics shoes, big T-shirts with messages, even special Evian bottle holders on shoulder slings. In and around them, like tugboats among the pleasure craft, come janitors wheeling cleaning carts.
"I been doing this fifteen years. I must like it, huh?" says Alla Austin as she scans the floor for things people leave behind--airline tickets, address books, money. "People are getting more and more cautious all the time, but not cautious enough," she warns. "I'm Custodian One. You wouldn't believe the things I find."
"Things no one should have to see," agrees Maria Ornelas, in Spanish, from a ladies' room stall where she works in rubber gloves. "It's a good job. Steady. I have done it for five years, and I will do it at the new airport. But people leave bad things behind."
Outside the bathroom, a tall, rangy man in a yellow crew-neck sweater, khakis and a lot of gray hair lopes past the Eel Skin Shop and toward Roger's Top Cone. At the entrance to the ice-cream shop, he stops and clears his throat.
"Hello, folks!" he says, loud enough so that the customers look up from their ice cream and coffee--and then, in the manner of travelers everywhere, quickly sever eye contact. "Now, folks, we'd just like to thank you," the rangy man continues. "Thank you for coming to Colorado and spending your bucks and skiing. Boy, do we appreciate it! Because of you, we have jobs. These people spend thousands of dollars here, and no one even bothers to say thank you! Isn't that right, ma'am?"
The chosen woman manages a smile. "I guess so," she says.
"And you're from Iowa, am I right?"
"Well, I was wrong. Listen," he continues. "I'm Big John."
At that moment three soldiers in desert fatigues walk by.
"Thank you!" Big John yells after them. "Thank you for serving your country and mine, boys! Hello," he says, turning to a young couple that has just joined the ice-cream line. "Where you from? Grand Junction? Well, where's the youth hostel there? Come on, you know."
"The old Melrose Hotel?" the man wonders.
"You just won a prize!" Big John hands him a Colorado skiing pin and several Colorado license-plate stickers. "Go down to the hostel and tell the man there you met Big John. Now I'd like to buy you an ice-cream cone and introduce you to the finest man at the airport: Roger!"
Roger Horoshko looks up from his automated espresso machine. The name tag on his lab coat reads "Captain Ice Cream." Horoshko once ran snack shops on three concourses; now this stop in the main terminal is all that remains of his ice-cream empire until he reopens two parlors at DIA. "I'm not the finest man at the airport," he says, a little embarrassed. "John is."
"No," Big John booms, "it's Roger!"
"It's Roger. And tell me, Roger, who was your tennis coach in high school?"
"Right!" Now Big John turns to the assembled crowd. "Who gives ice cream away to orphans whenever there's extra?" he asks.
"Roger?" someone ventures.
"Right! Sir, let me buy you an ice-cream cone."
"Why are you doing this?"
"I'm selling skiing. I'm selling Colorado. I'm a volunteer! It costs nothing."
Big John Schrant has been Colorado's unofficial ambassador since 1973, when he first began appearing at the Denver bus terminal, Union Station and Stapleton--a self-appointed, one-man welcoming committee. Before that he taught social studies at assorted Denver elementary schools as well as at East High School, where he was known for handing out pumpkin seeds to anyone who wanted some, sometimes even urging them to "try a seed instead of the weed."
Now 78, Big John often spends his days at Stapleton, walking around at a brisk pace, alternately praising visitors for coming to Colorado and throwing them pop quizzes. ("Now. Where's the Basketball Hall of Fame? Come on. You know.") Every other airport employee he runs into seems to be a former student, and even those who aren't merit personalized hellos. The only group Big John carefully avoids is the Hare Krishna contingent that haunts the outskirts of Concourse C. "Taking people's last dollar," he mutters. "Goddamn phonies. It's nice to be big and ugly around a phony. Like these right-to-lifers, these Jesus people, that goddamn phony Coach McCartney."
But this is not the stuff of a good boosterish chat, and Big John knows it. So he goes back to his warm, welcoming greeting, spreading it to everyone from toddlers to seniors to snowboarders.
"I've seen you before, dude," says a baggy-jeaned teenager with a sunburned face. "You should have your own movie or video or something. Are you gonna be at the new airport?"
"No," Big John says, with finality. "I go everywhere by bus, and it's going to cost eight bucks to get out there and back. That's too much."
2 p.m., Concourse D
Each concourse has its own smell, and oddly enough, Concourse D's is pastrami, even though all the delis have shut down. Each concourse also has its own architecture, depending on the era in which it was constructured. Concourse D's style is vaguely Soviet. Security supervisor Christopher Davis, instantly important in an orange blazer, doesn't know anything about mysterious odors or architectural schools. But he knows plenty about the history of this concourse, where he's been for five years.
"Man, this is the best concourse, because it's busy," he says. "All those flights. In and out. I've seen Pam Grier, I've seen what's his name, with his cowboy hat pulled down so we wouldn't recognize him. Ha! Garth Brooks. Got his autograph. I seen Gladys Knight with her dark glasses on, but I recognized her, too. Got her autograph."
Jeff Koehn, who scans the travelers heading into Concourse D with what looks like a cattle prod, has already grown nostalgic for his job--even though he's only been at Stapleton a week.
"It's fun to see the pretty ladies walking by, although they're all going away and I'll never see them again," he says. "It's fun watching the businessmen throw you an attitude, but hey, you're friendly, it's your job. Or finding condoms in people's pockets with your metal detector--you don't say anything, you just smile. I wish they'd make this place into a mall so I could come back."
Further down D, a lone passenger boards the commuter plane for Grand Island and North Platte, Nebraska. How the mighty concourse--the oldest of Stapleton's five--has fallen.
"D was my favorite," recalls Lance Ross, former editor of the Stapleton Innerline newspaper. "It has so much history, a real roller coaster. At one point, it housed all of Frontier, People Express and most of Piedmont, USAir, American, Delta and Northwest. Then came all those changes with Continental and Continental Express. The very end of D has the best plane-watching in the airport. Great views of Runway 3/5/Left."
Now a publicist for MarkAir, Ross spent six years covering Stapleton with the zeal of a true aviation junkie.
"I probably sniffed one too many jet fumes," he theorizes. "As a boy in the Sixties, when other kids had pictures of Jimi Hendrix on their walls, I had airplanes." Ross first saw Stapleton when he was working for a public-radio station in Lawrence, Kansas, and passed through Denver on an assignment.
"I was in awe, I was intimidated," he marvels. "I thought, geez, how will I ever find my way around this big airport? To this day, people are as intimidated by Stapleton as they are by O'Hare. Changing concourses terrifies people, you know. That notwithstanding, there is still so much to Stapleton. The history, the people who came and went."
Ross's passions for airplanes and publications collided at Innerline, which "was not a house organ," he swears. "It really pissed off some people, in fact. And not to toot my own horn, but I helped break the DIA baggage-system story."
Most of his days at Stapleton, however, were spent schmoozing airline employees in their cafeteria, taking note of politicians scurrying down the concourses and marking the passing of the aviation greats.
"Probably the saddest story I ever covered was the night Frontier went out of business and the employees had a wake," he remembers. "Frontier. Absolutely vibrant one day and totally silent the next."
Ross loves his MarkAir job--particularly the fact that he works for two former Alaskan bush pilots--but it will be years before he gets Stapleton out of his system, he says. And he can't help but be galled at the lack of respect afforded the airport in its twilight days.
"For its sixtieth birthday, in 1989, I did an incredible anniversary issue," he recalls. "Then we hit the sixty-fifth anniversary, which should have been huge, and the marching orders from airport administration were that there would be no--repeat, no--activities! They thought it would take the focus off of DIA," Ross says bitterly. "Couldn't we have separated Stapleton from the political pros and cons?"
Probably not, as the airport history provided in Ross's very own sixtieth-anniversary issue proves. Stapleton--originally called Denver Municipal Airport--opened in October 1929, just one week before the stock-market crash. The airport was mired in controversy from the start. Why, people wanted to know, was it built so far from downtown Denver? Why should the city support a facility only rich people would use? And its cost--a whopping $143,000--was deemed unutterably extravagant.
5 p.m., Concourse E
Across marble plazas that architects once hoped would attract break-dancers, across seas of speckled carpets, through crowds of milling rodeo cowboys, Olivia Thompson speeds silently in her United Airlines cart. Her job is to pick up or deliver customers who can't make it on foot--or claim they can't.
"You get the good, the bad and the ugly," she says. "You need judgment. They stop you and ask for a ride. They tell you they just had foot surgery. What are you going to do, make them take their shoe off and show you?"
Not Thompson. She takes them at their word, although her stern, tribal-elderish presence helps weed out fakers from the start. "I had Mel Tillis and his grandchildren last week," she reveals. "Stuttering all the way, and a great tipper. Businessmen are the worst. They don't tip, and they're rude on top of it. All the same, I sure like my work."
So much so that she hopes to drive a golf cart on an actual golf course when she retires. But that won't be for two more years, and in the meantime, she plans to drive for United at DIA. "Be kind of stupid to quit this close to the end, wouldn't it?" she points out, then buzzes away to retrieve someone's arthritic mother.
The carts have always been one of the airport's most welcome amenities. "But I wish they still had the Baggage Bunnies," Denver historian Tom Noel says wistfully. "They were hired in the Fifties to sell newcomers on Stapleton. They wore very abbreviated outfits, they were young, attractive and friendly, and they helped with your baggage."
Noel has tried in vain to learn why the Baggage Bunnies were sent back to their hutch, but "there were never any articles when it ended," he says. "They should bring them back. Maybe at DIA?"
9 p.m., Concourse B
At a pay phone, a young executive is curled in a fetal position around his Filofax. No bars are open, and the sports-paraphernalia store has just sold its last troll-in-a-Rockies-uniform of the night. United flight attendants stagger toward home, rubbing their eyes (and their blue eyeshadow) under fluorescent lights.
A frantic businessman who gives his name only as Craig-from-Philly rushes toward his gate. How does he like Stapleton? "Yo," he says. "It's a dying-breed-type thing."
Flight attendant Mike Akers watches Craig-from-Philly disappear down the loading chute. "I'm not thrilled about the new airport," she says. "It's cost an amazing amount of money, and when we lay over here, they'll have to drive us all the way back to Stapleton for our hotel rooms. We'll need another two hours to get back. Which means I won't want to lay over here anymore. "What do you think of DIA, ma'am?" Akers asks a traveler as she takes her boarding pass.
"Questionable," the woman answers.
"Questionable?" the traveler's husband adds. "I'd call it stupid."
"But wait," says United pilot Oliver Mayes, who's waiting to board the same plane. "I like Stapleton, too, but there's no place to taxi here, and the winds blow all wrong. Every plane that lands here has to maneuver around on the same itty-bitty little runway. I've set out there for 35 minutes with an empty gate waiting for me, trying to explain that to my passengers."
"What do you tell them?" Akers asks.
"Well, I always point out DIA as we come in," Mayes says. "I say, hey, isn't it beautiful? The world's least-busy airport, and some day we might even get to land there."
Down the concourse at the exclusive Red Carpet Club, concierge Jody Oney twists her diamond-ringed fingers together and worries, in a motherly way, about Stapleton's fate.
"I wish I knew what will become of it," she sighs. "When I trade a car or sell a home, I always want to know where it's going, and if it's to nice people. Same with the airport. There's a sentimental attachment."
10:15 p.m., Concourse A
Concourse A is closing up shop for the evening. But since this, along with B, is home to United, which will be the major tenant at the new airport, there's a sense of promise in the air. For some people, anyway. As the last two flight attendants of the night fade away down a moving walkway, their words float back:
"...don't they have some kind of plan for us? I mean, they can't simply tell us to..."
"...sure, it's beautiful, with the tents and all, but it's awful far away..."
At the Marriot Travel Host Bar, now gated and locked, waitress Gentry Barfield ponders her future.
"It's not too complicated, girl," she laughs. "This airport will close, and I'll be out of a job. I'll be sorry. I like it here. One half of the food is actually quite good. I recommend the nachos and the popcorn."
The last soul left on Concourse A is janitor Richard Bonney, who is sweeping a square foot of a fantastically clean carpet with a tiny broom. Bonney has eight years of experience with the maintenance company, and he earned this plum assignment through seniority.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"So you see, I won't quit just now," he says. "I presume I'll go to the new airport and continue. Although I will miss this one. It's close in, and, do you know, I feel that it has better roads. I went out to the air show at the new airport, and I saw bumper-to-bumper traffic, I saw it for myself. So that's my personal feeling about the whole thing."
But change can be good, and there is much to anticipate at DIA. All those granite floors, for example. All that green carpet where the city ran out of granite. There is so much to think about that Bonney stops for a moment, leans on his broom and dreams of the future.
"What will happen to me out there?" he asks himself. "With any luck, I'll get to clean for United. It's an awfully popular airline, and the diversity of peoples from different parts of the globe, speaking languages like Spanish and Chinese!
"And," he adds, a little shyly, "they all give me compliments on how clean I keep the airport. I have my answer ready for them. I say, well, sir, we try.