The Mouth That Roared
Begin with the tattoo and Leonard's big, bald head, because the tattoo that screams from atop Leonard's big, bald head says it all.
On Wednesday, September 1, Leonard Carlo had just returned from a trip to Alamosa when the manager of his Colorado Springs bar delivered the bad news: Two investigators from the state Liquor Enforcement Division had raided the place. They'd looked around, mumbled something about an "anti-profanity" law, and then seized 29 of Leonard's favorite signs.
"They came in like the motherfucking gestapo," Leonard says. "Fucking storm troopers."
At this point, it should be noted that Leonard is fond of certain colorful words and that those colorful words appeared liberally on those 29 signs. As Leonard sees it, he was simply advertising the rules. And advertising them in no uncertain terms.
"What the fuck?" he says. "I like doing it and I like saying it. What the fuck is wrong with that?"
Nothing, except for state liquor Regulation 47-900, which prohibits licensed bar owners and their employees from allowing "profanity, rowdiness, undue noise, or other disturbances or activity offensive to the senses of the average person."
So in August, after investigators received an anonymous complaint that Leonard "had some really bad signs, with raunchy language," they took it upon themselves to uphold decency. And after they did, Leonard, who'd been in the bar business for 35 years with only one infraction (for too many people in the place), suddenly stood to lose not only his 29 favorite signs, but possibly his liquor license.
Facing that prospect, Leonard climbed in his truck and drove straight to Snake's tattoo parlor, where his buddy tattooed the following words atop his big, bald head: "Fuck U. Leave Me the FUCK Alone." Snake then colored each letter red, white and green. (Leonard is Italian.)
"Yeah, it hurt," Leonard says. "But not as much as them taking my fucking signs."
The gesture, Leonard insists, was more than symbolic. He intends to get his signs back (the most expensive ones cost $40 each). He intends to speak the way he wants. And he intends to march all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary.
"I can hardly fucking wait," he says.
He can see it now. He'll stand in the courtroom, one hand on the Bible and the other on his big, bald head, and he'll gaze over at the jury box and the prosecutor's table and the judge's bench, and he'll give them a piece of his mind: "If you're going to take away my freedom of speech and due process," he'll say, "you'll have to start from the neck up."
Leonard's II stands at the end of a strip mall in the 2100 block of East Platte Avenue, several miles from downtown Colorado Springs. The same block houses Dan's Barber Shop, Dominick's Things, Stuff, Etc., Sinister Tattoos and Hemp-Hurray. Leonard's is the spot painted red, white and green.
"Because I'm a wop, that's why, motherfucker," he explains. "I'm going to put Mussolini up next, because El Duce had 150 mistresses. He's my idol."
Leonard's II (the bar's full name is Leonard's II Fucking Much) is the sequel to the much-loved original Leonard's, which was replaced five years ago by a Walgreens. The new bar, which Leonard calls "his last stand," is dim and slightly seedy, not a fern in sight. A couple of 50-cent pool tables occupy one corner; a big-screen TV and tinsel-lined karaoke stage occupy the other. There are the usual black vinyl-and-chrome stools, cashew and Beer-Nut dispensers, video trivia games, life-sized cutouts of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Broncos memorabilia and a jukebox with everything from Santana to Dean Martin to Dr. Hook to 'N Sync. The bar is in back. And that's where you'll find Leonard.
On this afternoon, he's wearing dark jeans and a dark T-shirt, sitting in the shadows and nursing a glass of cranberry juice. He normally prefers Christian Brothers brandy ("about a quart a day"), but he sips this drink "because it helps me piss." He cackles at the thought, yells, "Hey, cocksucker!" to a guy at the other end of the bar, then spontaneously breaks into song, harmonizing with the bawdy tune on the jukebox: "You Gotta Blow Me All Night Long." Leonard is usually a Sinatra man, but this particular tune "has such a beautiful melody," he says.
His face is weathered, deeply lined, and when he grins, which is often, his skin crinkles like a leather work glove. His hands could crack walnuts. With his mischievous eyes, Roman nose and bristling white whiskers, he also looks like one of the Seven Dwarfs. Leonard, the Surly Dwarf.
"I grow the beard to aggravate people," he says, with his coarse sandpaper voice. "When I first started growing it, my wife hated it, so I grew it to piss her off. Then she started liking it, so now I shave it off on her birthday."
Leonard likes to talk, and he talks a lot, although not in detail about his personal life, and not in response to a particular line of questioning. Instead, he walks to the back door and points out a small sign that captures the essence of his personality: "You say tomato, I say fuck you."
"If I was talking to Jesus Christ, I'd say the same fucking thing," he says. "But it's not just the word. It's the right to say the word."
Leonard has been exercising that right for almost his entire life. He picked the word up from his dad, Leonard III, a bootlegging pool-hall operator in Pueblo, who, when he was in the company of his paisanos,uncorked dirty words like bottles of wine.
"My old man said it. My old man's friends said it. All the men said it. All the boys said it," Leonard recalls. "In the Italian community that I was in, it was hereditary."
Then Leonard joined the Navy, and after that he worked eighteen years in a steel mill, so whatever little speaking etiquette might have rubbed off from his churchgoing mother, he soon washed away with the grime on his hands.
To emphasize the point, he gestures toward another sign: "The only urine test you'll get out of me is a taste test."
"Am I offensive?" he concludes. "I am. What the fuck?"
During his 66 years, Leonard has been many things, including a husband for 44 of those years, a father of four children and a grandfather of twelve. But as far as he's concerned, he was placed upon this earth to stand behind a gleaming wooden bar with a towel, a shot glass and a dirty joke. "I was born on a pool table," he says, and he's been involved in the bar business one way or another since he was sixteen. All told, he's owned ten of his own restaurants and bars in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, including the Glory Hole, Dante's Inferno, Kojacks, The Egg & I, The Lair Lounge and the Kachina Lounge.
"I love the industry and the people in it," he says. "I'm here seven days a week, all day and all night long, and when I'm gone, I can't wait to get here. I love everything about this place."
What he loves most is passing down the bartending traditions of his old man, including the Carlo motto: "Cleanliness is next to godliness." There's not a single cigarette butt in the urinal, not a single napkin on the floor, not a single maraschino cherry in the ashtray.
"My bar never smells like a bar," Leonard says. "If the weather is nice, the front and back doors are open at all times. Who wants to walk into a bar and smell afterbirth, farts and puke? I've got the number-one cleanest bathrooms in Colorado. I demand it. If nothing else, this place is clean, clean, clean."
Unless you count his signs, which are dirty, dirty, dirty.
Leonard has always been the type to post his rules, announcements and occasional epiphanies. Even when he ran restaurants that catered to families, signs cluttered the walls. But since children and senior citizens were often present at those places, the placards were rated G. "I respect that shit," he says. "Kids don't need to be anywhere near a stinking bar."
But by the time he opened Leonard's II in 1994, Leonard's internal censor had fallen off the wagon. His friends say it happened on his sixtieth birthday, when Leonard made himself a promise: Since the first twenty years of his life had been devoted to his mother and the next forty devoted to his wife, family and career, the next sixty would be devoted to Leonard.
Or, as Leonard puts it, "I'd been sucking everyone else's dick for sixty years, so I decided, what the fuck?"
One of the ways that newfound independence manifested itself was on the wood-paneled walls of his tavern. To wit: At the end of the bar where waitresses pick up orders, Leonard posted a placard saying, "Do not fucking stand here." At various locations around the tavern, he announced, "No Fucking Tap or Draw Beer, Children, Animals, Tabs or Checks" and "No Fucking Free Water or Pop." And on the back wall hang the names of those banished forever: "No more fucking nasty mouth whore Mexican Barbara," "No more fucking whore ass trouble-making cunt bitch Melissa," "Fucking Nothing for the Fucking 3 Kunts (Kunt Lynda Kay, Rat Sherri and Ratcunt Bonnie Sue)!"
"All of the people who are up on that wall are up there for a reason," Leonard says. "My reason!"
Some of his signs are scribbled on cardboard, and others are professionally crafted. But all feature Leonard's own unique linguistic phrasings: "Puse Dripping, Kunt Eating Kunts, Asshole & Shit Eaters Worsters Kock Suckers."
Crude, yes. Juvenile, certainly. X-rated, definitely. But 100 percent Leonard.
"He loves his signs," says Leonard's manager, Kelli Cates, who settles at the bar with a glass of water and three Advil. "It's just his way of getting the message through to our thick heads."
She pops the Advil, swallows some water.
"I've known him since I was eleven, and I'm 35," she says. "Leonard can't say a sentence without saying 'fuck.' He's always been like that, he's not going to change, and if people don't like it, they can kiss his butt. It's not that he's trying to be mean, but fuck -- see, if you hang around him long enough, you'll start talking that way -- that's just the way he is. That's his forte. And he'll be like that until they carry his ashes out of here. And you know something else? I miss those signs."
Ed Jones, an El Paso county commissioner and longtime friend and customer of Leonard's, explains it this way: "I've been knowing Leonard for thirty years. He's always run nice lounges. Nice blue-collar lounges where people can come in after work with a little paint on their jeans, have a few cold ones and shoot the bull. He's a good friend, good to his employees, and if anyone needs help, he'll give it to them. But if you cross him, that brings out the Sicilian in him."
Jones adjusts his toothpick, sips his cocktail. "Now, Leonard has always been potty-mouthed," he continues. "If he didn't say a potty word, I'd think he was sick. It's not so much that you love to hear Leonard curse, but he has a right to say what he wants to say. People don't come in here looking for the signs. They come in to relax and talk. If you don't like what he says, you can go to another bar. And there are lots of other bars far more insensitive than this."
He's biased, Jones admits that -- but in his opinion, the people who frequent Leonard's come in for the personality. And Mr. Personality happens to be Leonard, who isn't so much belligerent as he is cantankerous, not so much on the offense as out to jerk your chain. When people walk into Leonard's, they know exactly what they're getting. Besides, after listening to Leonard's spew for a while, the shock wears off.
"Although we live in a very conservative community and a very religious community, there has not been one letter in the newspaper protesting Leonard's bar," Jones says. "You'd think people would be out here protesting, but they're not."
In his own defense, Leonard strolls around the bar pointing out signs that are not potty-mouthed, like this upside-down placard: "If you can read this, put me back on my bar stool." There are also photos of grinning friends and patrons, copies of the Ten Commandments, photos of his grandson receiving a medal from the Marines, even a picture of puppies -- the offspring of his dogs, Fuck You and Motherfucker.
"This is like my front room," Leonard says. "When you come in here, you come in as my guest. But if you abuse that, you're gone. And if you're gone, you're gone for good, because if you fucked up bad enough to get tossed out the first time, you don't deserve to come back."
But out of all of Leonard's guests, not a single one has ever complained about his language or his signs, which are not visible from the sidewalks, parking lots or side streets because of the bar's blinds and tinted windows. "Never. Never. Never," Leonard insists.
Leonard's has also been regularly inspected by liquor-enforcement investigators who never mentioned the placards, either. During one such inspection in December 1997, Brian Osterhouse gave Leonard's II a clean bill of health. Although Osterhouse had noticed the signs, he told investigators in October that he did not remember exactly what they said. To the best of his recollection, he said, the signs were well-crafted, "kind of nice" and might have said "No Fucking Tap Beer," "No Fucking Profanity," "Fucking Men" and "Fucking Women."
The signs hadn't concerned him at the time, Osterhouse recalled, because they contained what he considered commonly spoken language. If he'd heard someone saying the same words on these signs, for instance, he probably would not have taken enforcement action. But Osterhouse admitted that he hadn't seen the signs that were confiscated this past August.
Six weeks after they took those signs, investigators interviewed the bar's neighboring businesses. Although none of the merchants said he was offended by the signs, a few mentioned that Leonard usually appears "half-drunk."
Leonard shrugs. "Do I have a cross outside and a sign that says church?" he says. "No. I have a sign that says bar."
In mid-October, the state also received a complaint from a man who lives across the street from Leonard's II, but he'd never been in the bar. He phoned investigators only after he read about the controversy in a local paper.
When told about that, Leonard laughs out loud. "I've been in business 35 years," he says. "Do you think I'd be in business 35 years by violating the law? You can call up the mayor and the chief of police, and they'll say I'm low-key and just want to be left alone. I'll stand up before anyone and say there are no shootings, no stabbings, and no bing, bang, boom."
Colorado Springs police lieutenant Skip Arms concurs with Leonard's assessment of his tavern. "It hasn't cropped up as one of our problem bars," he says, "so I guess it's low-key. It hasn't been a problem place."
That's because Leonard considers himself "a businessman," and one who's not above compromising. A year before his signs were seized, Leonard removed two of his favorite posters after police asked him to (okay, and the city took him to court). One featured an enlarged birthday snapshot of his best buddy, Gary Chase (who has since died), his face between the enormous bare breasts of a 300-pound stripper named Ample Annie. The other showed Leonard's grinning mug between the practically nude butts of two nineteen-year-old hardbodies.
"If I'm in violation of the law, cite me," Leonard says. "Let me plead my case before a judge and jury. If I did wrong, okay. I've got no problem with that. But there was no due process with my signs. These motherfuckers just started pulling things off the fucking walls!"
And that got his Italian blood boiling. Now he wants the governor and the attorney general to return his signs personally.
"It's like Mussolini says: 'In your heart, you know I'm right,'" Leonard proclaims. "I love my country, but I hate my government. And thank God they did this to me, because I'm hardheaded and stupid enough to fight it. This time, they fucked with the wrong bald-headed wop motherfucker."
For the state, the issue is simple: Regulation 47-900 prohibits profanity, the permission of profanity, and activity that is considered offensive. And Leonard's signs more than qualify, officials say. Robert Dodd, the assistant attorney general handling the state's case, calls Leonard's language "completely over the top."
"It's defamatory to individuals by name. It uses racial and gender epithets. It's beyond mere profanity," Dodd said during an October hearing. "If this speech is protected, then there's not speech that's unprotected. This is the most extreme variety."
But it's not just what Leonard wrote on his signs; it's where he displayed them.
Bars serve alcohol, and alcohol lowers people's inhibitions and makes them "perhaps more likely to become involved in altercations," Dodd points out. The X-rated signs in Leonard's bar, he argues, "could easily result in, at minimum, disagreements leading to altercations and all manner of disorderliness." So the state has "a public safety basis" for prohibiting foul language in bars, he says. "The purpose of the regulation is not because people don't like profanity and don't want to hear it. The issue is the location."
Nonsense, says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Denver chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state on Leonard's behalf in September. Silverstein calls Regulation 47-900 "blatantly unconstitutional," "antiquated," "moribund" and "more a joke than a serious constitutional issue."
After all, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear time and time again that a state cannot willfully censor speech. In one case during the '70s, the court ruled that California could not punish a man for proclaiming "Fuck the Draft" on the back of his jacket.
"The court said, 'One man's vulgarity is another man's lyric,'" Silverstein says. "And profanity is certainly Mr. Carlo's lyric. He loves four-letter words."
But even if the regulation were constitutional, Silverstein says, it's hopelessly vague. And nowhere at the Liquor Enforcement Division are there written guidelines, policies or even training manuals defining "profanity" or "offensive activity." State officials have admitted as much. And if the state doesn't have guidelines, how is Leonard supposed to know what he can or cannot say?
Should he eject customers who say "damn"? How about "hell"? Should he censor R-rated movies, like Platoon, that happen to flash across the bar's TV screen? Should he scan every newspaper, magazine and tabloid in the tavern for bad words and X-rated ads? Would he get in trouble if someone left a copy of Playboy in his bathroom? And what about the tattoo on Leonard's head? Under regulation 47-900, is he prevented from walking into his own bar?
"I have not seen any legal authority giving the state special power to ignore the First Amendment simply because beer or hard liquor might be around," Silverstein says. "The state has been unable to trace any kind of trouble to the signs or the language on the signs."
Silverstein also contends that the state seized Leonard's signs without a warrant and then initiated an administrative proceeding -- one that ultimately could lead to the revocation of his liquor license -- without first giving Leonard a chance to defend himself. In fact, Silverstein suggests, the state moved ahead with that proceeding in order to punish Leonard for criticizing the liquor division publicly after his signs were taken.
But Leonard's isn't the only liquor-related business to offend the bluenoses at the Colorado Department of Revenue. In 1995, Broadway Brewing introduced a seasonal Scottish microbrew called Road Dog Ale, which featured a label designed by artist Ralph Steadman with this quote from Hunter S. Thompson: "Good Beer, No Shit." Using the anti-profanity regulation, as well as federal and state standards for beer labels, liquor-enforcement officials determined that "Good Beer, No Shit" was obscene.
The ACLU also sued on behalf of Broadway Brewing. And in court, David Reitz, director of liquor enforcement, and Renny Fagan, then the executive director of the Department of Revenue, offered some insight into how they defined "obscenity." It was common sense, they said: If a word is generally considered a swear word and "is not common in official discourse and would not be appropriate in a formal social setting," it probably would not belong on a beer bottle. Or in a bar, for that matter.
"It strikes me as common sense that a swear word is obscene and indecent and does not belong in official discourse in our state," Fagan said. "You don't see a swear word advertised in normal advertisements, you don't see a swear word in official publications that adhere to good taste. Coloradans know that liquor and beer is a regulated product. So to some extent, citizens look to the government as one means of enforcing social norms for both discourse and decency. And, therefore, the linkage is that a swear word does not belong on a beer bottle."
When common sense failed him, Fagan consulted a dictionary -- in this case, the second collegiate edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.
But Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Silverstein pointed out, lists two definitions of "shit": one meaning to "defecate," the other to "talk nonsense" or "attempt to deceive." And linguistics experts testified that "Good Beer, No Shit" is actually slang for "Good Beer, Really!" or "Good Beer, No Kidding."
The state nixed the label anyway, and in March, a district court judge sided with the state. The case is now on appeal. In the meantime, Road Dog Ale is being marketed under a new label: "Good Beer, No Censorship."
While Leonard awaits his hearing before the state liquor-license authority -- which will determine what action to take against Leonard's II, including the possible suspension or revocation of his license -- his suit against the state wends its way through district court. (Reitz says he cannot comment on Leonard II's situation while the case is pending.) In October, Leonard won a minor victory: Denver District Court Judge William Jones ruled that Leonard could post X-rated signs while his assorted cases are pending. But the judge also decided to let the state hold on to the 29 confiscated signs, even though he suggested they were seized improperly.
The decision was not a "get-out-of-jail-free card" for Leonard "to do whatever he damn well pleases," Jones cautioned. But until the legal issues are decided, people should consider Leonard's II "like Eddie Murphy on television," the judge said. "If you don't like it, turn it off. In other words, in this case, if you don't like what is said in the bar, don't go there."
Back at the bar, Leonard scribbles away on a legal pad, designing another sign. This one is for his office: "Do Not Fucking Touch, Look At, Feel, or Smell This Fucking Door."
After his case against Colorado went public, people from around the world wanted to talk with Leonard Carlo. The BBC interviewed him, and Rolling Stone spent several days with him in Colorado Springs. But although he's having fun, Leonard insists he's not in this for attention. His business hasn't been affected one way or the other by the media spotlight. In fact, he says, the attention might actually have driven away a few people. "Publicity," he scoffs. "Yeah, right. Like I need that bullshit."
But he did get a recording out of it: A buddy of his in the Oak Ridge Boys wrote a little ditty called "F***in' Leonard's," with a vocalist singing about Leonard's saga while Leonard himself recites a litany of dirty words.
Other than that, it's been business as usual, Leonard-style. On New Year's Eve, he threw out every bottle of beer in the place. "Beer drinkers are the cheapest motherfuckers in the world," he says. "It's all right for kids, but why go in a bar to drink beer? Come on. Have a little finesse. From now on, it's just wine and whiskey." And lots of four-letter words.
One's on the next sign he plans to make and post for all the world to see, state investigators included: "Fuck Censorship."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter