The Importance of Being Ernest

Monica Thomas is in the enviable position of being able to say yes to almost all the requests she gets--and she rarely gets the same request twice.

"Now, who is that woman in Arvada?" Thomas asks herself. "She called for permission to dress up her RTD stop, to change it with the seasons. Last time it was an Easter thing--she wanted to put a paper egg over the top of her trash can. Another time she was going with a turn-of-the-century theme. She wanted to put lace on the trash can and make it look like one of those women back then. I said sure. It's a galvanized trash can. As long as you empty it, you can do whatever else you want to it."

Since assuming RTD's Adopt-A-Stop coordinator position last August, Thomas has supervised the estimated 300 bus stops--out of more than 10,000 in the entire Regional Transportation District--that are maintained not by municipal maintenance workers but by private parties who, for whatever reason, have taken personal responsibility for them.

Although emptying the trash is all that's required, some enthusiastic adoptive parents have gone on to paint, primp and otherwise beautify their RTD stops. A few have even sanded down the benches to eliminate splinters and make waiting there less abrasive.

In an outlying, little-used area, keeping trash removal current could mean a quick weekly visit. But in a neighborhood where buses are crowded and fast-food restaurants proliferate, the person who adopts a stop might have to clean up twice a day. In return for their efforts, these volunteer janitors receive an eight-by-ten-inch space on a bus-stop sign where they can have any message printed.

Such organizations as the Golden Nuggets Kiwanis Club, Colfax on the Hill and the Rotary Club of Arvada have adopted more than twenty stops each in order to further their community-improvement goals. But many of the stops have been claimed by individuals--one "Citizen Kane," for example--for reasons that Thomas can only guess at. And she's not about to try.

"All I know is, some of them really get into it," she says. "Which is good, because we were supposed to have a big marketing campaign, but so far the program's just word of mouth. As far as I know, we're the first in the country, but I've gotten calls from other states. How they find out about us, I don't even know, but we still have a long way to go. The ones that do it, though, they take it real serious."

Perhaps nowhere more so than in the downtown neighborhood bordered by LoDo, Coors Field and the old-style upper stretches of Larimer Street, where winos and club-hoppers mingle with working people and the residents of five government-subsidized apartment buildings.

Here, on the west side of Larimer between 18th and 19th streets, you might spot a small sign posted above the bus stop--but only if you're really looking. It reads: "In loving memory of Louella Walker."

An elderly man with a slur to his voice interrupts his shopping-cart-pushing trip northward to explain. "She was a resident around here somewhere," he says. "Rode the bus all the time."

Thomas thinks that may be true; she offers a few more clues. "A man named Art Diaz has that stop," she says. "Louella Walker was his mother."

"I don't think so," says Flora Garcia, who lives nearby and has two Adopt-A-Stops of her own. "What Art Diaz was was Louella Walker's...companion, isn't that what they call it? She was an old lady and she had lost a leg, and he pushed her everywhere in that wheelchair. Church, the movies, the zoo. He's a difficult man, and he's hard to talk to, especially about her. But he misses her, because, you know, he don't hang with anyone now."

Although Art Diaz is nowhere to be found and so cannot explain why he adopted a stop in Walker's name, the concept of a bus-stop memorial makes perfect sense to Flora Garcia. Volunteer labor makes sense to her, too. Laid off by the Gates Corporation thirteen years ago, she stayed home for ten years nursing a crippling case of phlebitis and then offered her services to the Volunteers of America, where she worked as a greeter in the dining hall for two years. For the past seven months she's been a receptionist at the Mi Casa Resource Center for Women on Kalamath Street. On nice days, after a stop for morning mass at St. Joseph's Church, Garcia drives to work. If the weather's bad, she takes the bus.

Which is how she first happened to see a small sign advertising the Adopt-A-Stop program. Last November Garcia signed up for two, both in memory of her son Ernest R. Talmich, who died in 1996 at the age of 37.

"I took the one at 20th and Larimer because it's right across the street from my apartment," she explains. "I wanted a way to have him right near me, you know? And I took another one at 20th and Blake because it's right at Coors Field. Ernie was all thrilled because of the stadium, and he was crazy about sports."

Maintaining both stops hasn't been easy. The very first month, someone stole the "in memory of Ernest" sign from the Coors Field stop--and as for 20th and Larimer, the trash that collects there is enough to try the patience of a full-time janitor, let alone a middle-aged woman with blood clots in her legs.

"We're in this in-between area; it's full of transients, winos, beer bottles and what have you. On the weekends, these kids come to LoDo just to get drunk," she says. "I can barely lift the trash bags sometimes. A few months ago I was inches from a nervous breakdown. I'm hauling this bag thinking, 'Ernie, you're gone, and I'm still working so hard for you.'

"Yes," she admits, "he was a good person, but I always worried about him so much. If you have young children, you don't know, but you may find out what I went through with Ernie."

The third of her four children, Ernie was the quiet one and possibly the smartest one, Garcia says. At eleven he entered the St. Andrews seminary program, hoping to become a priest. "Naturally, that didn't work out," she recalls. "The priests gambled a lot, and they got him interested, although I can't put it all on them, I guess. Then he got involved with bad kids and got in trouble. He was even in Canon City--my son in Canon, yes!

"And he hid everything from me, because I was a strict parent. I worried he was on drugs, and I would confront him, and he always said, 'Oh, Mom, why do you listen to people?'"

Two years ago Ernie was living in Grand Junction, operating heavy equipment and raising kids with his second wife. "He died suddenly, of an aneurysm to the brain," Garcia says. "People said he was on drugs then, too, but it didn't say that on the death certificate. It said 'aneurysm to the brain.'"

She thinks about her lost boy as she hauls bottles from the "Ernest Talmich" stop at 20th and Larimer. The trash there is getting to be such a burden that she's thinking of giving up the spot.

Not so the stop across from Coors Field. "It's a beautiful, beautiful spot that I will always keep," she says. "The trash isn't as bad there, and the stadium is a lovely sight."

Even if the people who catch the bus at that stop don't notice the reference to Ernie, she says, they can always think about baseball. And that would have pleased Ernie, who thought about it constantly.

"So that's what I do," Flora Garcia concludes. "I don't know how else to keep his memory.


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