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Route of Ill Repute

Brett Amole

It must be Sunday, because Sword of the Lord is faith-healing on the 15 bus.

"I'm Sword of the Lord," he proclaims upon boarding RTD's East Colfax line. "I've come to save souls and heal the sick. Amen!"

Like his faith, Sword of the Lord's afro is big and wild. The many pockets of his cargo pants overflow with fire-and-brimstone comic-book tracts. He stands in the aisle, one meaty hand clutching a steel pole for balance when the bus jolts forward, the other hoisting a Bible with a torn cover.

"I command you, Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ, to afflict these good people no more!"

The good people of the 15 bus look anywhere but into Sword of the Lord's burning eyes. He has the cocked-pistol look of a man who has visited hell so recently that he can still taste the sulfur.

Then a pimply-faced girl wearing a three-sizes-too-big black sweatshirt advertising a vampire role-playing game makes a crucial mistake: She covers her mouth and coughs.

Let the healing begin.

With four giant, booming, boot-on-metal strides, Sword of the Lord covers half the length of the bus to press his Bible against vampire girl's forehead. "Satan, I command you in the name of all that is holy to get out of this child of God's lungs. Out, Satan!" he says, swinging the Bible off her brow like he's backhanding a racquetball. "Out! Out!"

The girl gently puts her hand on his wrist and smiles up at him, apparently beatified, playing it just right.

"Thank you," she says. "I feel a lot better."

"Hallelujah," replies Sword of the Lord, calmer now, his purpose fulfilled. "Yes, yes, praise be." He shuffles back toward the front of the bus, plops down in the first empty seat, and soon launches into a feverish discussion of Old Testament numerology with himself and the empty air.

Sword of the Lord's schizoid chattering is quickly absorbed into the sonic backdrop of the 15. His manic discourse joins the squeal of hydraulic brakes, the rattle of doors opening and closing, the disembodied, metallic voice of the driver announcing stops, the chiming of the "stop requested" signal, and the whispering cacophony of hip-hop, rock and new-age music seeping from personal-stereo headsets.

Every two blocks, the bus stops to load and unload passengers. Sword of the Lord, who is a frequent RTD rider but only preaches on Sundays, disembarks at Downing Street. A short, crusty, middle-aged man outfitted head to toe in Grateful Dead tie-dye -- pants, shirt, socks and beret -- boards and paces the aisle, peddling a classic East Colfax selection of wares. He's selling a twelve-pack of paper towels (two bucks), a vinyl copy of AC/DC's 1985 hard-rock album Fly on the Wall (ten bucks), and twenty dollars in food stamps (50 cents on the dollar, minimum two-dollar purchase).

Every day and every night, all day and all night, RTD Route 15 buses cruise both sides of East Colfax Avenue. Serving 11,000 passengers every 24 hours, route 15 is the busiest public-transit line in the Denver metro area, and the undisputed, heavyweight-champion freakiest.

"The 15 is not only a bus, it's a moving clubhouse of Colfax culture," says Ghulam Qureshi, an RTD training supervisor who drove the route for five years. "Just like you can't have Christmas without Santa Claus, Halloween without pumpkins or Thanksgiving without turkey, you can't have Colfax street culture without the 15."

The one-way fare on a 15 bus is one dollar and fifteen cents, which covers the transportation. The never-ending sideshow is free. Late night is prime time. Take a ride.

Colfax and Broadway, eastbound, 12:55 a.m.

Eastbound 15 buses originate at the Auraria campus, but where the going gets weird is where the weird get going: Colfax and Broadway. The RTD stop here boasts three enclosed bus shelters. After dark, they turn into clear-plastic lairs for junkies, street urchins and derelicts spilling over from Civic Center Park. These dwellers of the night buy and sell drugs, pass bottles, bum smokes and bus transfers, and panhandle change.

At night, Route 15 buses stop and wait for a few minutes at Broadway and Colfax to allow riders from intersecting lines ample time to make their connection. During this interim, members of the bus-shelter party posse will often follow a whim and hop on the bus with no particular purpose or place to go. This trend makes the Colfax and Broadway stop a four-star attraction on the 15 freak parade.

Tonight's leading man is wearing a plaid sportcoat, unlaced shoes, brown polyester slacks and Coke-bottle glasses. He looks to be in his mid-forties and is staggering drunk. He more or less falls into his seat. He slowly swivels his head, stopping to stare at the attractive twenty-something lass to his right, who is returning to her Cheesman Park apartment after a night of LoDo club hopping.

Mister Plaid works his mouth a few times, the wheels in his head spinning oh-so-slowly as he struggles to come up with just the right pickup line. "Hey-eh-hey," he slurs. The cutie busts up laughing. Undeterred, he repeats himself to every female who boards the bus, sounding like Larry the Lounge Lizard slamming 40-ouncers with Fat Albert. "Hey-eh-hey. Hey-eh-hey. Hey-eh-hey."

When the doors finally close and the bus lurches east, he stares out the window into lonely oblivion, rebuffed. Two stops later, a huge woman in a floral-print dress, who is also staggering drunk, gets on and looks around in vain for a seat on the packed bus. She's obese and drunk, but she's not old or disabled, so no one's obligated to offer her a seat, and no one does. Then Mister Plaid speaks up.

"Hey-eh-hey." He pats his lap, indicating that she should sit. She flops down on him sideways and flings her arm around his shoulder for balance. Mister Plaid immediately begins groping her ass with both hands. She either doesn't notice or doesn't care. "Hey, sweetie, how you doing?" she asks.

"Hey-eh-hey," he says, several more times. Then, to the amazement of all who have borne witness to this budding on-board romance, Mister Plaid doubles his verbal repertoire.

"Wannagettadrink?"

"Sure, baby, you got any money?"

"Yeagotmoney. Wanagettadrink? Hey-eh-hey."

The woman reaches up to yank the yellow stop-request cord. The couple gets off at Josephine Street, and they stumble arm in arm down the sidewalk toward a neon martini glass on the horizon.

Colfax and Lafayette, eastbound, 1:14 a.m.

The Black Leprechaun is in the house. Or, rather, on the bus. In any case, he's in full effect.

"I am the Black Leprechaun," the Black Leprechaun hoots, bouncing in his seat and clicking his heels like Dorothy wishing her way home. "I grant wishes if I love you, and I give whammies if I don't."

Impish in stature and character and prone to wearing sunglasses at night, the Black Leprechaun is a singer of songs and a teller of tall tales about his glory days as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. He also is probably the most famous eccentric who joyrides the 15. Almost everyone who travels on the East Colfax bus with any regularity has at least one Black Leprechaun sighting to his credit.

"The first time I met the Black Leprechaun was about four months ago," says 23-year-old Bonnie McGee, who rides the 15 from her residence near the Bluebird Theater to the Auraria campus, where she studies Spanish and music production. "He got on the bus and immediately started improvising love songs and serenading everyone. I thought it was really sweet, because he was feeling it so hard and was so passionate about it. The 15 can be pretty tense in terms of atmosphere, and he really lightened the mood."

McGee has been riding the 15 at least twice a day for about a year. "You never know what to expect," she says. "The seediest stuff goes down in the wee hours, but this one time in the middle of the day, I sat down next to this guy and I sort of brushed against his shoes, and he said, 'Don't touch my shoes! You're dirty!' And then he just started going off about how I had dirty shoes and a dirty mind, then started calling me dirty white trash, and a dirty white rag, and this and that. The driver heard what was going on, and he asked me, 'Is that man bothering you?' And I yelled, 'Yes, get this man off the bus right now,' and the driver pulled over and kicked him off.

"That's one thing that's good about the 15, is the drivers. I'm never too worried about my safety, because it seems like the drivers always have my back."

Colfax and Monaco, eastbound, 1:38 a.m.

Driving a 15 bus after sunset is RTD's trial by fire for new drivers. "Driving the 15 in the morning is okay, because then your passengers are more the early risers, the serious travelers, people who are going to work, the commuters. But in the afternoon and after dark, it's a lot of bums, a lot of trouble," says supervisor Qureshi. "The drivers with seniority take other routes. The afternoon and night-owl 15 shifts go to drivers who are lower on the totem pole.

"But it's good training, because if you learn to handle the 15, you can handle any route. On the 15, you learn to deal with all the sob stories, where they try to come on the bus with a bad transfer and they act all innocent. They say, 'Oh, the other bus driver gave me this by mistake,' or they try to pass you a photocopy of a monthly pass," continues Qureshi. "Driving the 15, you learn to recognize these counterfeit passes. And you learn how to deal with those who just say, 'I don't have any money. Can I please have a ride anyway?' -- which is, you say, 'Just this one time,' and then you stick to that. You don't let them ride for free again.

"If you're too soft, if you're too see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, they'll walk all over you on the 15. But if you stand up too hard to them, you'll get beat up. And if you get beat up driving the 15, that's an on-the-job injury, and you don't get paid for the first two days of an on-the-job injury with RTD. So driving the 15, you have to learn to take the middle way, because the regular riders, they spread the word on which drivers are lenient and which are hard-core, just like the drivers get to know the regular problem riders and what stunts they'll try to pull.

"The biggest thing on the 15 for driver safety is, a lot of the passengers act like kids. They're drinking on the bus, smoking pot, and you have to tell them to get off, and they get mad because they're already drunk. Or they're taunting one another, starting fights, then they come to the driver and they want you to be the parent. They're saying, 'He said this to me; he said that.' But we train the drivers not to intervene. If big trouble starts, we tell them, 'Drive the bus to a safe spot on the side of the road, pull your parking brake, open the doors and call dispatch, so dispatch can call the police.'"

On the 15, this happens "pretty much every day," he says.

But all's quiet tonight on RTD bus 2011. There are only four passengers, including one who has been riding this same bus peacefully for hours upon hours, up one side of Colfax and down the other, an old, portly man with a long white beard, wearing a denim shirt and carrying a wooden cane. When this eastbound bus reaches the end of the line at the RTD East Metro Facility at Colfax and Highway 225, this man will disembark, slowly cross Colfax and wait out ten minutes of turnaround time at a shelter outside of a Waffle House. Then he'll get back on, cheerfully greet the same driver, and ride all the way to Auraria, the western terminus, where he'll start all over again.

"A lot of people use the 15 as a shelter," says Qureshi. "They ride it in winter to stay warm, and in the summer a lot of people get on it just for the AC. They sleep on the bus. They spend all their time on the bus. I think a lot of them are homeless, but some of them are just lonely, and they ride the bus to be around people. It's sad for the drivers to see."

The bearded old man is seated in the front of this nearly empty bus, in the section reserved for elderly and handicapped riders. Across from him, seated behind the wall shielding the driver, is a man with frizzy black hair wearing a tattered blue ski jacket and slumped over a hand-lettered cardboard sign.

"God bless you and your family," it says. "45% of my body is burned. And I have an artificial leg. I can not work. I pray in Jesus Christ's name that many people will help."

The man's face is grotesquely disfigured by scar tissue. He looks like he is made of wax and melting. He picks his nose often, and whenever a rider gets on or off the bus, he rattles a red plastic cup in front of him. He, too, carries a cane. He says nothing. Around his mouth, which is frozen partially open by the scarring, is a white ring of chemical residue, a sign he has been inhaling spray paint or glue.

Until recently, this man and his brother resided in the Route 15 RTD shelter at Glencoe Street, directly across Colfax from Continental Liquors, a tiny shop that specializes in cheap malt liquor and fortified wine and whose convenient location makes it a favorite of hard-drinking Route 15 regulars. Continental Liquors is old-school Colfax.

Mod Livin', the upscale retro furnishings-and-accessories store that occupies the same building, is decidedly new-school.

"It's time for a change in demographics," says Mod Livin' owner Erick Roorda, who purchased the building -- inheriting the liquor store's lease in the process -- and opened his store about three years ago with his wife, Jill Warner. "It's time for everyone to recognize the difference between what Colfax has been and what it should be."

The homeless burn victim goes by Jerry, but Roorda calls him "the screaming cane man," an appellation inspired by Jerry's reaction to Roorda's repeated requests, which escalated to demands, that Jerry refrain from drinking and begging for change outside Mod Livin'.

"He turned into a one-man retaliatory force," says Roorda. "He gets real threatening with that cane. He got meaner and meaner, until every time I'd approach him he'd scream at me, then hop on a 15 bus and disappear."

Last fall, with the help of Denver Police Department District 2 community resource officers, Roorda and Warner obtained a restraining order prohibiting Jerry and his brother from coming within a hundred yards of Mod Livin', a range that includes the Glencoe Street RTD shelter. After serving Jerry with the order, Roorda says he and his wife documented 32 separate occasions on which Jerry violated it, often by hurling insults at Mod Livin' customers from the RTD shelter across the street.

Earlier this year, Roorda signed a criminal complaint against Jerry, and a warrant was issued for the disfigured vagabond's arrest. He was taken into custody in April and served ten days of a thirty-day jail sentence (the remaining twenty days were suspended).

At a pre-detention hearing that month, however, a judge called into question the legality of the protective order, arguing that it appeared to inappropriately restrict Jerry's access to public transportation. That same judge directed Roorda to try harder to find a way to "co-exist" with the screaming cane man.

Roorda says that's not about to happen.

"The whole reason we needed a restraining order is because we can't peacefully co-exist. He's just too nasty. I called the police on him one time when I was walking my dogs outside the store, and he told the cops my dogs had tried to bite him," he recalls. "Please. I have two eighteen-year-old shih tzus. They hardly have teeth."

Colfax and Colorado, westbound, 2:26 a.m.

She wants to know if anyone else who's waiting for the westbound 15 "knows where to get any shit." She is 27 years old, heavyset and Native American. There is a dirty, bloodstained bandage wrapped around her right hand. She pulls a sweaty clump of cash from the pocket of her jeans, which are too tight for her. She counts it in the light of a street lamp. She has a ten, a five and two ones. She needs more. And she needs to get some shit. She wants to know if anyone wants to come get some shit with her.

"I'm going to see a friend at 13th and Pearl," she says.

A wicked symbiosis exists between the 15 and the bustling black market for crack cocaine.

Ground zero for crack on Capitol Hill, as Mary Alice knows all too well, is 13th and Pearl. Crackhouses abound in apartment buildings surrounding that intersection, and crews of dealers work street corners for two blocks in any direction. The 15 makes it easy for couriers to shuttle drugs back and forth between Aurora and Capitol Hill without worrying about police pulling them over for routine traffic stops.

The 15 also makes it easy for crack smokers anywhere on Colfax to hop a bus to the hot zone and perhaps even pick up a new sugar granddaddy on the way.

The bus comes, and when she gets on, she sits in the very front, behind the driver, and counts her cash again and again. A ten, a five, two ones. A ten, a five, two ones. There's an old man across the aisle, his hair balding in patches, wearing a black Members Only jacket that was fashionable in 1986.

"What's a pretty thing like you doing with just that little bit of money?" he asks, grinning like a jester. She smiles back, nervously, and crosses the aisle to sit next to him. She's going to get some shit, she says. Thirteenth and Pearl. Does he want to get some shit?

He doesn't say. He asks, "How old are you?"

"Twenty-seven."

"What's your name, sweetie?"

"Mary Alice."

She counts her money. He looks her over. They can each taste the other's desperation. Their body language reeks of silent transaction.

He asks if she's married.

"I'm engaged," she says.

"How come you don't wear a ring, then?"

"I'm afraid someone would cut my finger off to get it."

He cackles. "That's smart thinking," he says.

He's old enough to be her father's father. When she gets off at Pearl Street, she motions him to follow.

Colfax and Downing, westbound, 3:33 a.m.

The bus's brakes hiss like a dragon as it pulls to a stop. The door opens, and a woman's angry voice says, "Can you just tone it down a little? No one asked for your opinion."

The voice belongs to a woman in her forties who gets on the bus, wearing loose black fishnet stockings, a tube top and a Wal-Mart display case's worth of costume jewelry. She's addressing a younger dude with a heavy beard who's dressed in a white T-shirt, jeans and paint-stained boat shoes. "You fat bitch," he shoots back. "Mind your own business, all right?"

The bearded dude turns his attention to a gutter-punk girl in a midriff-baring tank top carrying a canvas backpack, a portable stereo with the tape deck ripped out and a small blanket tied into a bundle. The bearded dude is hitting on her. She's clearly high on something, pupils black-pooled, laughing for no reason.

She says, out of the clear blue, "I'm so fucked up, my feet can barely fit in my shoes." Her shoes are low-top Nike cross-trainers. She has no socks.

"Well, why is that, honey?" her suitor asks.

She leans across the aisle and whispers in his ear.

The dude draws back and says, "Honey, you gotta stop doing that shit."

"Oh, I don't," the gutter-punk girl responds. "Not anymore. You don't know even how bad it is. I'll show you."

She takes off one shoe to expose a swollen foot. Infected track marks circle her ankle, garish splotches of purple beneath the harsh white fluorescent bus lighting. She's been shooting up -- into her feet.

"Honey, that doesn't look good," the dude says. "Oh, here's my stop."

He gets up. The woman in the fishnet stockings bids him a fine adieu. "Just get your happy ass out of here, sicko," she mutters.

"You ugly bitch," he says. "You must hate your life." Passing the driver, his voice turns from pitying to cheerful. "Thank you, sir. Have a great night."

Gutter-punk girl tries to put her shoe back on her swollen foot. She keeps standing up, putting one leg up on her seat and then losing her balance and falling over.

The bus reaches Colfax and Broadway, and she finally manages to stuff her foot back in the shoe. She takes so long gathering up her stereo and bundle that the driver misses the green light. Then she limps off in the general direction of her future.