The Rogue of Five Points
The Count of Five Points is playing a tape of himself reading Edgar Allan Poe in a sonorous voice:
"From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were--I have not seen
As others saw--I could not bring
My passions from a common spring--
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow--I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone--
And all I lov'd--I lov'd alone."
That's all of Poe's 1829 poem "Alone" that the Count remembered, but he kept talking to himself on the tape: "I first learned it when I was in jail"--a thirty-day excursion from many years ago that he doesn't go into--"and it dawned on me, this poem applied to me 100 percent. And I remembered it through all the years. Edgar Allan Poe must have been a pretty lonely man, also."
Count Bacon, the 71-year-old sign-making impresario of Five Points whom everyone on Welton Street knows, likes his lonely-man status. "If I lose sleep over what happens in the world, I'd go crazy," he says. "It doesn't pay to get involved in too much of it. Now it's just me and my little black hole."
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Since he started receiving Social Security benefits six years ago, the Count paints signs only occasionally. He walks with a cane now, and his mobility is limited. Mostly he keeps to himself, and it's possible to walk past his storefront and miss the gaunt, wizened man inside. Chances are, however, that he's watching you.
Count Bacon seems to prefer the solitude of his dilapidated storefront, which he's converted into a home, to the streets of Five Points, where a much younger, much wilder Count used to frolic--when Five Points itself was bustling, too. He spends his days in a rickety chair next to his unwashed front window, listening to one of dozens of classical composers he's taped off the radio: Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin, whose "Funeral March" the Count finds especially moving. As he listens, he watches people pass by on the street: Men and women, old and young, students and merchants and bums and parents and dopeheads, engaged in their own dramas and dreams and hustles.
"I'm in the front row of watching the world," he says. "The good, bad and ugly." He should know. His own life has been equal parts of all three, and something of the mystique of the Western hero--adventurous yet solitary--surrounds him. Western paraphernalia such as hats and holsters fill his home; his favorite movies are Westerns (particularly those with Clint Eastwood); and the Count once was an accomplished performer in rodeos--motorcycle rodeos, that is. The self-taught Count's cultural sensibilities range from poetry and music to Westerns and bottom out at porn flicks.
He's sort of an anti-hero and actually looks a lot like a black Lee Van Cleef, the villain of many spaghetti Westerns, with his thinning hair, wiry frame, Western shirts and leather headband. He's so thin that his muscles and face have a hard, hollow edge to them. His eyes are by turns cold and, if never really warm, then at least sadly sympathetic to the demands of living.
A silver-plated .22-caliber handgun nestles in a holster that's nailed to a table; all he has to do, when his passions collide with those of his neighborhood, is lean forward from his chair to be armed. He claims to have two other weapons in the place--his grandson Joel says he has seen a shotgun under the bed--and the Count warns you that if you piss him off, he has a shotgun booby-trapped to blast a hole through you.
"If you fuck with me, I'll blow you right out the door," he says with menace, walking, as always, a line between truth and hyperbole.
There's some basis for his fear of intruders. In the mid-Eighties, he recalls, he was shot four times by the jealous boyfriend of a young woman he was seeing. The Count says he was shot with a .357. ("Knowing him," says his son Carlton, "it could have been just a .22.") One bullet shattered his leg and almost forced an amputation; another went--perhaps in some cosmic irony--through one of his testicles. He was laid up in the hospital for eight weeks, says his daughter, Donna Burrell, but he refused to see anyone but his ex-wife. "He wouldn't let anybody come to visit," Donna says. "He always insulated his family from anything that happened to him down there."
The Count even insulated the guy who shot him. "Daddy knew who it was and didn't turn him in," Donna says. "He's very protective of those people down there. He'll give you the sense he knows why they came to this point, because he's been at that point. I don't know--it's like the loyalty of the street.
"He's always taken people in. He would not let anybody lay out in front of the shop on a cold night. Now, he might be sittin' there with his shotgun pointed at 'em the whole time, but he won't leave 'em on the street."
The Count is quick to shoo away loiterers who stop for more than a few seconds outside his shop, usually muttering something about how "there are too many niggers around here." On any given day he may throw you out if you get on his nerves, or he may let you stay but refuse to talk.
His place, though, is where many who have just gotten out of jail go when they need a friend, or $10 or $20. Tippy Toe, 38, has just gotten out of the slam--again. The Count's crib is her first destination. "I knew him at thirteen," she says. "He looks after me good, darling. When I get in trouble, I got a friend."
Folks passing by peer in and wave. The Count takes his cane and raps on the window--he rarely leaves that chair--to get the attention of some of the people he recognizes (almost everyone) and likes (far fewer). Businesspeople, dope pushers or construction workers are liable to poke their heads in. Most stay a while--when the Count lets them.
"If you look at Five Points, he's about the only thing they haven't touched," says Donna. "He knows everyone, and they leave him alone."
The Count has lived on the Points since the early Seventies and has seen the neighborhood at its peak and in decline. He spent time there in the Fifties and Sixties, when "there used to be a lot of activities down here," he says, "and you didn't have to go far to get things." He was part of the urban renewal of the Seventies, says local businessman Al Richardson, when, even as the neighborhood was in decline, Welton was being landscaped and the Count was busy painting signs for most of the businesses on the block.
Today the area is relatively moribund. "There's nobody down here," says the Count's next-door neighbor, Earl Sherman Mason. "I remember when Five Points was jammed 24 hours a day. Even to the black people, it's become a hellhole."
There are hints of rejuvenation. Gentrified Victorians. Light rail. The cleaned-up Rossonian Hotel, still looking for a tenant. The Casino Cabaret, being remodeled just next door to Count Bacon's home. But mostly there are the results of the Count's handiwork. Many merchants even hold on to old signs the Count painted for them. Music-store owner John Selman still has one for "Welton Street Merchants Impact Fund Booths." In a back room at James McGee's barbershop is an eight-foot-long sign, tan on burgundy, announcing: "Betty's Furs and Mink Novelties," a shop McGee's ex-wife used to run in the neighborhood.
"Count, to me, has a talent that's outstanding," says Selman, who's known him since the Fifties. "He's painted a sign for everybody down this street at one time or another. Count was a loner to some people; some see him as just another of these street people. He had more talents than he displayed."
No big sign advertises the Count's storefront home, but several little ones adorn its ragged exterior. In the windows are "Dress Code: No Bras, No Panties, No Clothes" and "Break In Again and Get Shot." The house has no shortage of warnings to potential intruders, including one on the doggie door out back: "This hole is for my dog. Others will be shot."
The home itself is part workshop, part hermitage, a cornucopia of creativity, chaos and decay. Bugs flitter around the place, and the plastic mug from which the Count drinks his milk or microwaved coffee looks as if it hasn't been washed in ages.
"I'm a bachelor," he says. "I don't need no Waldorf-Astoria."
One wall is covered with Polaroid pictures of women the Count has befriended, or bedded, or both, over the years, behavior apparently not altered by his advancing age. A bumper sticker instructs readers to "Save a Mouse; Eat a Pussy." There's a little drawing labeled the "Sure Solution to the Negro Problem" in which a naked white woman is bending down in front of a black man. A gun is rigged to shoot him if his penis becomes erect.
When the Count works at his easel (which isn't often these days), you can't talk--even Ho, his mangy mutt, knows enough to stay quiet. Accompanied by street sounds--on this day a passerby sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"--the Count steadies himself with his cane and paints with a sure hand.
He doesn't remember all the work he's done--only that "a few thousand" signs sounds right, and a tour of his work in the neighborhood would mean getting out of his seat. Anyway, he says, he's not particularly proud of the bulk of his work. "I don't sign my name," he says. "I always felt it was a little inferior. Never had something I considered a masterpiece."
Instead, he'd rather point out a painting and sketches by his brother, Charles, who died a few years ago. One is a color scene of a river cutting through a canyon; the other is a grease-pencil sketch of a young Count Bacon, who resembles Smokey Robinson when he was with the Miracles.
Other props fill the place--an out-of-tune piano in back, a huge, Russian-looking teddy bear with a leopard-skin hat presiding over a chess table. What commands the most attention is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with leopard-skin accents. On the large, CHiPS-style fairing, the Count's name is painted in gothic letters, and there's a leopard-skin heart in the center. Attached to the rear wheel is a wooden cart for Ho with a sign that reads, "My name is Ho and I do turn tricks."
The dog might be the only living thing in Five Points that Count has never threatened to throw out of his shop. Ho is as eccentric as her owner, humping a piece of foam one day, wrestling for long minutes with a broom the next, sometimes moving uncertainly about in what seems to be a psychedelic haze.
The pair still go riding sometimes, Ho strapped bravely to the cart. Joel says his grandfather, decked out in chaps and wearing a helmet adorned with glitter and wings, looks like "a cross between Wyatt Earp and Batman."
For fifty years, Charlene Jordan has run a beauty shop in Five Points, a block away from the Count's place. When she took a trip to Europe in the late Seventies, he painted small placards for her with the names of all the countries she was to visit.
She recalls a swashbuckling Count from years ago: "Once upon a time I had a fashion show, and the Count was dressed all in a white suit--he was gorgeous--and a big white hat. He wasn't supposed to be up there, but he just got up and started modeling that fine suit. He likes to show off when he knows he's looking good."
The Count was in his element. Son Carlton describes him as "one of the last symbols of slicksters and hipsters, slick girls and daddios."
Now Five Points is dominated by small shops instead of nightclubs. Across the street from Charlene's place is Joe's Shoe Repair. Leonard Dixon runs it--everyone thinks he's Joe, but Joe is long dead. Years ago, Dixon says, the Count drew a circle on a wall in back of the shop and bet Dixon that he could fire a .22 rifle shot into the circle while facing the other way and aiming with a mirror. Count was drunk, so Dixon figured he'd win handily. But the Count nailed the shot, took $75 and, "now that he's sober," Dixon says, "the man won't give me a chance to get it back."
The Count is a giving man--to the right person. Many of his friends appear to be women in their thirties or forties who have known him since they were teenagers. They may sweep his floor or clean his bathroom in exchange for some liquor. "They do it for me," the Count says. "I'm a charming little nigger."
But not charming to all. A man who recently came in to panhandle 85 cents for a beer got the bum's rush. "Get out of here!" stormed the Count. Later he reflects, "I'm not a mean guy, but I don't take no shit."
A few days later, three men and a woman are outside his door, passing around some smokes on a chilly day. Count bangs on the window, his face in a frown, and when he gets their attention, he swipes his hand through the air to get rid of them.
"Fuck you! I ain't movin', goddammit!" the woman shouts back through the window. The Count laughs and says, "I remember when she was born."
A moment later she enters the shop, introduces herself as Charlotte and starts heaping praise on him: "He's been here the longest, he's the most wisest..."
Charlotte works as a meat-cutter, she says, "but I'm a drunk, so here I am. I'm an old comer who just keeps coming."
Pretty soon they're talking about changes in their neighborhood; the air is rich with smoke and perfume. The Climax, on Washington, is gone, she points out, and so is the old Star service station next to the Roxy. As the light rail swings past, she starts to praise it. Then she abruptly changes her mind, angry that nobody who rides it ever shops in Five Points, despite city officials' speeches about reviving the area.
The Count is a realist about it. "They're talking about resurrection," he says. "There's no such animal. Dead is dead. You can't bring it back."
Some change, however, is inevitable. His storefront may get a facelift out of the current construction project for the planned Casino Cabaret. The Count's in no danger of being evicted, but he knows that someday that could happen, too. "It ain't what I see," he says to Steve, the construction crew's hazardous-materials guy. (Several on the crew drop in regularly on the Count.) "It's what I'm expecting to happen. It makes no difference. We all have to leave someday. One day where I'm sitting will be torn down. It's a different atmosphere, a different class of people."
Steve gets to see another side of the Count's personality: his fondness for "fuck movies." The men trade tall tales of sex and booze. The Count's been off the drink for a few years, but he still likes younger women. "I'm a family man," he explains to Steve. "I done fucked their grandma, their mom and them. And I got a pretty dick--not that you're interested." Lest there be any doubt, the old goat reaches for a Polaroid to show to Steve.
Steve replies with a yarn about the time he went to jail for, he says, blowing up a guy who owed him some money. Eventually they get back to the movie, and the Count narrates a scene he'd been anticipating between two women. He's in the middle of discussing with Steve whether the Artist Formerly Known as Prince "has developed tits," when a guy comes in off the street and asks, "Anybody need any codeine?"
The Count explodes: "If you come in here and ask me about dope again, I'll call the police. Now get out of here!"
The Count's reputation in the neighborhood for drinking, sex, general irreverence and telling tales is secure, but his neighbors like to tell other stories, too. They talk about the Count's "photostatic" memory, his ability to cite lengthy passages of Scripture or poetry off the top of his head, his skills as a chess player, his talent on the piano--rusty but serviceable on "Old Rugged Cross" or "One O'Clock Jump."
Carlton says, "My dad had a concept of himself as a poet-warrior. Like Cyrano de Bergerac: 'I'm going to compose a poem before I pull out my rapier and stab you.' He'd make me quote Shakespeare in bars."
Norman Harris, owner of Wise and Harris Liquors, talks of the Count as a quizmaster on such facts as who was the first black to die in the Revolutionary War. "He has that elephant mentality," says Harris. "Whenever he's in a bar, after a few drinks, he likes to talk history--what the Romans done, what Hannibal done. He don't like to gossip. When he comes into a conversation, he takes it over."
Right now the Count is reading the Dorling Kindersley Visual Encyclopedia, and he challenges a visitor by asking how old the Earth is (15 billion years, according to the Count). He's liable to spontaneously toss out part of a Hamlet soliloquy, lines from Poe's "Annabel Lee" ("She was a child and I was a child/In a kingdom by the sea"), or references to black writers such as Richard Wright--writers that allow him to, as he puts it, "get mad at the white man." It's difficult to tell whether the Count is being sarcastic or earnest when he says, "'Nother fifty years, we'll have something called equality."
"Education is the beginning," he continues. "Black people need to start reading about their heritage. You can't take white out of white or niggers out of niggers. They have to purge together."
The most interesting book he's read is the Bible, but not because of its spiritual teachings. "I believe in the Bible 'cause of its historical data," he says. "I don't believe in religious shit. If it weren't for the Bible, niggers would be free."
And yet the Bible speaks to the Count's view of racial oppression in America. "I believe there was a Christ and they hung him to the cross," says the Count. "He disobeyed Caesar, and he hung his ass. Disobey the white man's rules, they lynch you or put you in jail."
Though always willing to interpret a story, the Count doesn't claim to have all the answers. "I don't boast I'm the smartest," he says. "Just the most well-read." And maybe the quickest-tempered. Carlton remembers his diminutive father getting into fights, and Crayton Jones, who runs the C&B Cleaners up the block, adds, "Count ain't nothin' to play with. He might shoot you."
His temper and his "when-I-don't-want-to-deal-with-you-you-got-to-get-out" attitude make him "hard to get along with," says brick mason Leroy Prince. "If Count don't like you, he didn't have nothin' to do with you."
Crayton Jones allows that he "has his attitudes sometimes," but he adds, "Count is a very brilliant man. If he'd been a white man, he'd have been a millionaire."
Across the street, Dixon dismisses the thought, saying, "If Count ain't had that habit of drinking, he'd be rich."
He didn't start out rich. Count Bacon was born Clarence Eugene Bacon ("I'm not gonna tell these niggers my name is Clarence," he scoffs) in Evanston, Illinois, in 1925, the second of four children.
"Everybody in my family was a ravin' beauty," he says. "Ain't no ugly kids." He remembers one day when his mom took him and his sisters out to a flower garden and told them that's what they were: flowers.
During the Depression he worked odd jobs for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and in the Forties he was drafted into the Navy ("I didn't join nothin', baby"). There he learned welding and saw action in the Pacific during World War II as a member of a construction brigade. When he returned from the war, he entered a Chicago trade school to learn sign painting on the GI Bill.
He worked for several years in Evanston as a welder and occasional painter, married once and had two kids, then married again. A sister-in-law lived in Denver, and Count was intrigued by the West; he loved cowboy movies and, though he didn't ride horses, was a talented motorcycle rider, the urban equivalent. "My brother-in-law had me thinkin' you could shoot mountain deer out your back door," he says. "I thought Denver was just in the movies."
He first visited on a bet that he couldn't bike the 1,100 miles from Chicago to Denver in twenty hours. He won that bet, liked the scenery when he got here and, anyway, suggests daughter Donna, "Dad felt he'd end up dead in Chicago--the crowd he ran with was on the wild side of just about everything."
So the Count decided to come west. His Harley-Davidson "was the first thing that went on the trailer--and everything else had to fit around it," Donna says. The family, which now included ten-year-old Donna and two younger boys, Carlton and Jay, arrived in Denver in June 1959 and settled into a home at 34th and Gaylord.
He missed Chicago but felt the racial scene out here was more tolerant. He easily found work as a welder and spent time fashioning missile silos for Martin Marietta--which was his primary occupation until the mid-Seventies, when his eyes and lungs went bad. "The life of a welder is 25 years, and I went 10 years beyond that."
In between the nine-to-five, the Count painted signs and partied a lot. "He's probably been 86'd from every black bar in Denver," Carlton says. "Everyone of that generation knew him." The Count also joined a club of black motorcyclists called the Angels of Denver; the twenty or thirty members used to cruise to Deckers, Idaho Springs, Central City, and sometimes as far afield as Dodge City, Kansas.
The Count, recall some of his former riding partners, could talk a mean game on the cycle and could also back it up. By his own account, he was a veteran of 127 motorcycle rodeos in Illinois, of which he won 87, performing tricks like driving sideways around a circular wall.
He always seemed to be more suited to the daring of motorcycle stunts than to the humdrum of domestic life. He married his first wife, Dorothy, as a 21-year-old just out of the Navy in 1946. "All we did was the three F's: fuss, fight and fuck," he says. "That was the way we lived." They had two sons, Clarence Jr. and David, and then separated. They kept seeing each other, but when the Count met his second wife, also named Dorothy, he divorced the first and got married a month later.
"I didn't want to get married," Count says. "I just wanted to get some pussy. I ain't never wanted kids--they just came anyway, and I loved them..."
A moment later he adds, "I did want a son, but that was the end of my want for kids."
Today the Count has little contact with his children. "I love 'em, I just don't like 'em," he says. "I don't want to be around them. My oldest son, if he walked in the door, I don't know if I'd recognize him."
His son Carlton, who probably resembles him most in looks and demeanor, is ambiguous about his father's mix of selfish indulgence and roguish charm but concedes, "I liked his audacity: 'Fuck the world, and fuck you, too, if you can't take a joke.'"
Only Donna seems genuinely fond of him. "We were buddies, we were friends," she says. "My mother's family was very upset with me for having this close relationship with him. They felt he abandoned his wife and children. But he was always good to me."
The Count and his second wife broke up in 1965, due to the Count's infidelity--"It got to the place where daddy wanted to live the single life more than he wanted to be married," Donna says--and the kids lived with their mother. Dorothy, who had never worked in the twelve years of their marriage, found a job as a microfilm processor at Western Electric. While the Count was all bombast and fire, Dorothy was "quiet, a teetotaler, very pretty and very quiet," says Carlton. "She read a lot. I had the feeling she went through something that cooled her out."
Donna likes to recall the good parts of her parents' marriage: "To see them together when they were good was fascinating. Because she was very intelligent, too. The way they talked to each other--it was like two people on a cloud."
Dorothy, an avid reader, encouraged the Count, who never got beyond his first year in high school, to educate himself. "The thing that broke my heart," says the Count, "was bein' in a conversation and not know what the hell someone's sayin'."
The Count says he has no regrets in his life, but Carlton disagrees. "Mom was the great love of his life," says Carlton. "After her, he kind of knew he screwed up. He didn't take relationships with women seriously. They were just entertainment."
The couple, though separated, didn't get a divorce until 1975. By that time, the Count's health had forced him out of welding and into painting signs full-time. He bounced around a few homes after the breakup, popped in on the kids once in a while, almost always drunk, then moved in the early Seventies to Welton Street, where the Wise Harris Arms apartments are today. A few years later he moved several doors down to his current digs.
By this time he had become an alcoholic; ironically, he lost a good gig painting signs on Budweiser trucks because he kept consuming the product.
Death hangs all around the Count, chasing him through the years. On a painted cross on the wall are glued black-and-white and sepia photographs of his family: His mother and father, two sisters and a brother, plus his two wives, all dead. Every time you point to the cross, the Count explains--again and again--that the only one not up there is him. "All his family losses," says Donna, "have made him more spiritual, 'cause he doesn't understand why he's here and everybody's gone."
As for the painted cross, he plans on adding some clouds and a sun to finish the scene, but he's nervous about the clouds because he doesn't want to get them wrong. He watches the sky outside. "I don't know how to start," he says. "Blue, white, gray, maybe a little silver...I don't want to mess it up."
Many years ago, before his family started dying off, Donna says, her dad seemed to be mellowing out. "He changed when his father died," Donna says. "It bothered him terribly that he wasn't there when his dad died. He was in denial." The Count sounds like it when he tries to explain how he's mastered the faucet-like ability to turn himself off to death. "I've got a powerful brain that I can divert from feeling," he insists. The only time he cried, he says, was at the death of his father. That was in 1959. He remembers kneeling before his father's casket, disbelieving: "'Daddy, get your ass out of that casket. You ain't dead. You're just bullshitting these people.' I cried like a baby, but that was six months later."
Much of the death in his family has a rude quality to it. His two sisters died of breast cancer. Alcohol helped lead to the death of his mom, in the late Seventies, and his brother, Charles, a few years ago. ("Wine killed him," the Count says.)
Son Jay committed suicide in 1993 by leaping off an eighteen-story building in Las Vegas. "That's what they say," the Count says. "I don't think I could have produced such an animal to jump off a building. He was on his way to being a dentist. He had no reason to kill himself."
The Count believes someone may have pushed him out, or, he says, "they were probably having a crack party, and he fell out."
As for himself, he says he quit drinking several years ago (the neighbors confirm it) at the behest of his mom, who he believes still communicates to him from the beyond. "She looked me dead in the eye," he says. "'You're a stupid motherfucker,' she said, and I quit that day."
He hasn't quit being ornery, though. Looking at the cross, he says, "My family better be in heaven, or I'll blow the place up.
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