One Man's Junk
Bill Good's head is like a giant lightbulb. No matter where he is or what he's doing, ideas flutter up to him like moths on a summer night. From time to time, he'll pluck one of these notions out of thin air, examine it and say, "Hmmm."
"I just get ideas," he says. "I don't know where they come from. But once I get them, I have to sit down and build a prototype to see if it works. It's like a puzzle. I have to see if it can be solved. It's an obsession."
Which brings us to his house, a white clapboard house on the industrial fringe of north Denver, in the Globeville neighborhood. He's lived here for a decade. Lived here, worked here and invented here. In the process, he's amassed a mountain of stuff. Spare tires. Fiberglass insulation. Scrap lumber. Aluminum pipes. Motorcycle engines. Propane tanks. Weedwackers. A meat slicer. Two refrigerators. A hang glider. A canoe. And old cars -- fifty old cars.
To the city, this stuff mountain is an illegal eyesore. But to Bill, a 78-year-old retired book dealer, it's a storehouse of spare parts and used machinery, better than a dozen Pep Boys. Whenever his internal lightbulb flashes on, he simply walks out to his yard and finds the materials necessary to bring the idea to life. A handlebar for a Yamaha motorcycle? Beside the shed. A clutch for a '75 Plymouth Arrow? In the box by the fence. A seat for a girl's purple Huffy bicycle? By the tractor trailer filled with aluminum wheels.
Bill has spent a decade acquiring this inventory, a decade scouting classified ads, garage sales and salvage yards. Half of the time, even he doesn't know why he'll return home with, say, an eyeglass-fitting apparatus. He'll stare at it for a while, rip out some gizmo, and then, inspired, shuffle toward his garage in pursuit of his grandest invention yet: a perfect Dodge Colt. His dream is to build the ultimate midget racing car (a souped-up version of a compact car). Every item in his yard -- every box of alternators, every stack of mufflers, every gutted motorcycle -- is part of this grand goal.
"It's all about racing," Bill says. "All of it."
But it's all about to end. According to Denver zoning codes, Bill Good is running a junkyard. And where he lives, this type of junkyard is not allowed. So the city told Bill to clean up his yard or face a $999 fine, thirty days in jail, or worse.
Bill's reply: "No."
Zoning inspectors have issued him tickets, fined him $750, impounded fifteen of his cars and hauled him all the way to the state Supreme Court (where he lost), and still Bill says no. Even now, as the city contemplates cleaning his yard for him and sending him the tab, Bill stands defiantly -- before a toilet seat, a pile of racing slicks and a Colt with a megaphone exhaust system -- and proclaims: "The Constitution says we are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That's what I'm trying to do."
Long before the Colts, the house on Clarkson Street and the battles with city hall, Bill Good was "The Baron." This was just after World War II, when Bill returned from the South Pacific and found himself zipping around the dirt tracks of the Mississippi Valley Racing Association in a midget car numbered 37.
"I drove every day, seven days a week," he recalls. "I was pretty good, too."
Before each race, he'd stand at the starting line in a tuxedo and carefully remove his top hat, jacket and white gloves. Then he'd put on his helmet, bow to the crowd and rip around the track.
"Oh, they hated me," Bill says. "I'd get up there and say, 'These local guys cannot compete against The Baron.' And the crowd would boo like you wouldn't believe. No one had ever done something like that before. It was all showbiz back then. Just like pro wrestling is now."
Since there's no place to sit at Bill's house -- not with his inventory of stuff -- we head to a nearby McDonald's to talk. Bill settles at a window table with an extra-large cup of coffee and a large cup of ice. He fishes out the ice with his fingers and crunches loudly.
"It was great fun," he says. Crunch, crunch, crunch. "But what I really want to talk about is the corruption at the city."
In fact, that's all he wants to talk about. "It's unbelievable, these guys," he says.
And he wants to talk about it very loudly.
"It's their deal to destroy me!"
If it weren't for these diatribes, Bill might seem to be just another mild-mannered grandpa -- one with milky blue eyes, receding white hair, tan windbreaker and dark slacks -- visiting the restaurant for a Tuesday-afternoon snack. But these diatribes quickly blow his cover.
"The city doesn't want me to comply," he shouts. "They want to punish me!"
An elderly woman looks up from her McNuggets.
Bill pops another ice cube in his mouth.
"Sorry," he says. "I get carried away because I've been messing with this so damn long. Where were we?"
After WWII, Bill traveled around the Midwest in a flathead Ford V-8 racer owned by a guy named Pop Williams. Together they collected trophies, fans and memories.
"What basketball is today, racing was then," Bill recalls. "Whenever we showed up, the entire town turned out. Everyone would scream and holler. Reporters wrote articles about you. People took you out to dinner. Girls followed you around like groupies. It was quite a deal. You made serious money, too. After you'd race in Iowa, they'd take you out to a cornfield, boil a fifty-gallon barrel of water, throw in some corn and drink beer all afternoon. We were treated like heroes."
And ever since he was a kid, that was the kind of hero he wanted to be. Bill grew up in Denver, with a father who worked for the post office and a mother who was a dental technician. One night when he was fifteen, he snuck his dad's '38 Ford sedan out of the garage and issued a challenge to the city's midnight street-racing champion, a smug older kid with a '37 Ford Club Coupe.
"Did I beat him? You bet," Bill says. "He was more cautious on the blind corners and would hit the breaks, but I just hit the gas. It was stupidity. Blind stupidity. It was an illegal race, and I was driving a stolen car. But there was talent involved. Racing was just something I could do."
Before long, Bill discovered that he could also build his own hot rods. By the time he arrived on the midget-car racing circuit, he was spending almost as much time in the garage as behind the wheel.
"You're always improvising," he says. "You're always working on better ways to do this and better ways to do that. That's just part of the deal."
During his racing days, Bill earned quite a reputation as a speed demon. "When you're young, you think you're bulletproof," he says. But in 1952, at a race in Columbus Junction, Iowa, he found out otherwise.
"I hit a wall and broke my back," he says. "You know those little things that stick out on your spine and hold your muscles in place on your vertebrae? Well, I broke them off like a xylophone. That put me out of the racing business for a while."
Then he sold vacuum cleaners. And aluminum siding. And used books. "I was just trying to survive," he says. But in the musty world of old paperbacks, novels and textbooks, he discovered another talent: collecting. For the next thirty years, Bill owned book dealerships, including A Book Scout's Den and A Better Book Buyer.
It was interesting work, though not exactly profitable, and it also introduced him to the network of secondhand goods that would come in handy later when he was compiling his inventory. But while he often had his nose buried in one novel or another, Bill still kept an eye on the midget-racing circuit. What he saw amazed him.
"They were racing Pintos," he scoffs. "They're lame. Totally lame. I knew I could build a car that would run circles around a Pinto."
So that's what he set out to do. At the time, which was by now the late '80s, Bill happened to be driving a yellow '76 Dodge Colt coupe. One day on his way to the bookstore, that lightbulb turned on: The Colt had a hemispherical combustion engine, which he liked, a variety of gearing, which he also liked, and a solid frame, which sealed the deal.
Since there were so many makes and models of Colts created between 1972 and 1979, he could mix and match parts to customize his racers to the specific demands of a track. If he had enough Colts to work with, the possibilities were endless.
By 1990, Bill had amassed dozens of Colts -- all makes, all models, all colors and all styles. He rented a warehouse off Brighton Boulevard and tinkered to his heart's content. On occasion, even at age 68, he'd take a few laps around the track behind the wheel of a mini-sprint car, which used a motorcycle engine.
Off the track, he polished his plan: He'd assemble a car for a few thousand bucks, race it on the circuit and recover his investment within months. If he happened to wreck that car in the process, he'd just pull a spare Colt off the lot and return to the drawing board, where he designed the special air-filter system that was the key to his plan.
"Imagine a roll of toilet paper," Bill begins.
Now picture the air filter in your car. Holding both images in your head, unroll a long sheet of toilet paper, wrap it around the filter, then attach it back to the roll, kind of like a pulley system.
"Think of it like a typewriter ribbon. Same principle."
Now imagine that the paper on this roll is actually a special air-filtering paper (think coffee-filter paper), and that the roll has been designed to turn in perfect unison with the transmission of your car (using a speedometer cable), so that every time you hit the gas, a clean belt of paper loops around the air filter.
"Think of it like a typewriter ribbon."
No more replacing dirty air filters every few thousand miles. No more tinkering with the carburetor. No more worrying about passing smog checks.
"It would keep your car running clean, and everything would run smooth," he says. "It would improve the overall efficiency of the engine -- power, the gas mileage -- and there would be less air pollution, too. It would be just a great deal."
A deal he designed, built and installed on a '76 Dodge Colt coupe at his workshop off Brighton Boulevard. He tested the device under different driving conditions, eliminated the quirks and kept a careful record of the results. "It worked perfectly," he says. "So well that I thought some automobile manufacturer would be beating down my door."
Instead, city hall came knocking.
In the early '90s, the city decided to crack down on parking scofflaws during Stock Show season. Up until then, Bill had parked his prototype under the I-70 overpass across from his warehouse, in a spot where his landlord had told him to park. But one day when he arrived at his workshop, his prototype was gone: The city had towed it and three more of his cars to the impoundment lot. When Bill tried to get them back, the parking attendant couldn't find them. Bill's Colts were lost -- and along with them, his air-filter invention
"They stole my prototype," he says. "I spent a year's work and over a thousand dollars, and suddenly it was gone. It was a real heartbreaker. Nobody knows what happened to them. The city investigated but could never find them. I think some sheriff's deputy took my cars and sold them."
Bill sued, and the city settled out of court. He walked away from the ordeal with $1,400 and a piece of advice: "If you really want to do this inventing stuff," a city official told him, "then go out to an I-1 industrial zone to do it."
So Bill did. He sold his bookstore and bought a century-old two-bedroom house on Clarkson Street that had a big garage, two large lots, and neighbors who didn't seem to mind a little hammering, welding and Colt stockpiling.
"I thought if I moved to an industrial zone like they told me, I'd be able to do my inventing and the city would leave me alone," he says. "Wrong!"
Bill unfolds a sheet of yellow legal paper and sets it on the table. To prove he's a serious inventor, he's itemized the following short list of original creations:
A) Light-Rail Nerf System: "I designed a bumper for a light-rail car that would push people out of the way rather than hitting them -- Nerf them out of the way. It was a fiberglass thing mounted over a frame. I also designed a portable barrier to set at busy intersections to prevent cars from going on the tracks. This is serious. It could save lives."
B) Hitchhiker Kit With Reflective Sign: "I'd see these guys on the road, and I'd figure they could use a sign made out of glass-bead-reflecting board that they could cut out and wear around their necks and say 'Utah' or whatever. People are more apt to stop if they know where you're going."
C) Cannabis Purée: "This was in the Sixties. I found out that everyone was making brownies with marijuana and eating them at concerts, but it was always a gritty, nasty thing. I was going with a girl at the time, and we wrote a cookbook called Pot for the Pot. We found out that by using a mortar and pestle, you could grind the marijuana into a fine powder. And if you mixed it with brandy, you could make a paste. Then you would use the paste to make cakes and things. This was in the '60s, you understand. I also made a marijuana-leaf stencil that I got patented."
D) Reader's Digest Stash Kit: "In the bookstore business, there are millions of Reader's Digests. And you can't recycle them, because they have a plastic spine. So I took a punch press and punched out the center of the magazine so you could have a little area to stash things in."
E) Plastic Bottle Hourglass Kit: "I took two large soda bottles, the two-liter kind, and designed a lid where you could screw them together. Then you fill them with sand to make a huge hourglass. I thought it was a great way to teach kids the way an hourglass works."
F) Flame Retardant Tuxedo and White Nomex Gloves and Spats: "In order to drive a race car today, you have to have a flame-retardant suit. So I designed this tuxedo. This would be like the Baron thing again."
Bill sips some coffee.
He has a theory as to why the city is after him. In 1998, Denver voters approved a bond project earmarking $1.2 million to extend 51st Avenue through the land between Washington and Franklin streets near an old sewage-treatment plant. But after the bond was approved, Denver City Council instead voted to dead-end 51st at Downing Street. The council didn't want the road to run through a park it was building.
Bill considered the council move an act of election fraud, since voters had approved the road extension, and he said so publicly. Afterward, Denver zoning inspectors came calling. Now Bill thinks Councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who represents his district, has a vendetta against him.
Consider the evidence, he says. There's an auto-recycling yard behind his house, a construction site across the street, an auto-repair shop around the corner and a forklift operation across the alley. At every turn, there are industrial dumpsters, work trucks, warehouses, piles of supplies and dozens of old cars. His yard fits in perfectly with that backdrop, yet the city still orders him to clean it up.
"Look at where I live," Bill says. "It's an industrial zone, not Highlands Ranch. My neighbors are slaughterhouses, an old waste-treatment plant and warehouses. There are no paved streets, no curbs, no gutters and no streetlights. No one who lives out here gives a shit what I'm doing. I'm not hurting a single soul. Then they say I'm running a junkyard? I've never sold a part in my life! I'm not paranoid. I'm not some nut. I have proof. And the proof is that they took fifteen of my cars and sold them."
At city hall, officials breathe a collective sigh when they hear Bill Good's name. In the interests of diplomacy, they characterize his case as follows: Occasionally, a city resident wants to start a business or set up some other venture, perhaps even invent the perfect Colt. So he prepares elaborate plans and amasses huge inventories of stuff. But for whatever reason, the resident's idea never quite materializes. And still he continues to collect inventory. After a while, his yard resembles a Superfund site and the neighbors complain.
The city has seen this happen with inventories of everything from used tires to plastic milk jugs to, yes, Dodge Colts.
"We all have ambitions, but, unfortunately, we've never seen any vehicle that he's built," says Vincent Ferrer, a zoning inspector. "We've determined that the same vehicles on the same location have been stored there a number of years, and there's never been any movement. He's not doing anything with those vehicles other than storage. It's just a nuisance junkyard."
And the city decided this long before the 1998 bond vote. In 1996 his neighbors had complained about Bill parking his cars along the street. The city investigated, saw the Colts in his yard, and eventually filed three cases against him. Each case worked its way through Denver County Court, Denver District Court and the state Supreme Court. And at every step of the way, Bill lost.
Although Bill lives in an industrial zone, the courts determined, it's not the type of heavy-industry zone that would allow him to stockpile fifty Colts.
"Just because they live in an industrial area does not mean the owners can let their properties go to hell," says Councilwoman Ortega, who insists that Bill Good is just one of many junkyard operators that inspectors are targeting across the city. "Regardless of what he's doing there, if he's got stuff piled in the yard and it's not stacked and there are no aisles, he's got to bring it into compliance. He's got to follow the law, just like everyone else."
Back at his house, Bill stands with his hands in his pockets in front of yet another Colt. No matter what the city does, he vows not to surrender.
"Why should I?" he says. "I don't want to sound dramatic, but when the city tramples over your constitutional rights, you've got to fight. I know they're going to keep working on me, but I'm going to fight them until I'm dead."
Look at this silver-and-purple Colt, he says. It has been fitted with a beefy frame, roll cage, oversized radiator and megaphone exhaust system. If it had his air-filtering device, which Bill has not been able to duplicate, it would beat the pants off of a Pinto or whatever they're racing today.
"All it needs is a few things and it's race-ready," he says.
But the way things are going now, Bill doubts the car will ever make it to the track. Instead, it seems that his perfect Colt, like the rest of his ideas, is destined to fade away.
Until the light goes out.
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