The Truck Stops Here

Jessica Thornton, YMCA of Metropolitan Denver program executive.
Tony Gallagher

On a recent afternoon that threatens rain, Thomas and Anthony are already waiting when the black and yellow Compass truck rolls up to Argo Park. The two boys race their BMX-style bikes along 47th Street parallel to the truck, skidding to an impressive, rubber-laying halt as the big vehicle noses over to the curb.

"Hurry up, man," Thomas says as Pierre French, the driver, steps out of the cab. "I'm hungry."

"Hold on," says French, who wears a Miami Dolphins hat backward on his bald head; he prefers to move slowly. He eventually produces three pizzas. "It's my birthday," he says. "Dana's bringing a cake, too." Dana Dubis, French's partner, arrives a few minutes later with a creamy cake.

Thomas, fourteen, and Anthony, thirteen, begin tucking into the pizza. A moment later, Thomas's brother, Rico, tears up on his bike. He has knee pads strapped on over his blue jeans.

"Outta my way," he yells, dumping his bike on the grass while he is still technically moving. "I'm hungry." The nine-year-old inhales a third of a piece of pizza on his first bite.

More kids trickle in toward the truck, mostly on beater bikes. Three girls sidle up to the back of the truck. "You gonna do art?" asks Hilda, seven, in a whisper. Dubis digs in the back of the truck for supplies -- a one-gallon container of white Elmer's glue, construction paper and markers. She brings out a big blue tarp and spreads it on the ground. The girls sit on it and start cutting paper.

French has grander plans. He hands Thomas a bag of water balloons. "Go fill these up," he says. The boys take off on their bikes to Thomas's house, across the park. While he waits, French pulls two speakers from the back of the truck and turns on a CD. "It's hard to find music they like without cussing in it," French gripes. "None of that bad, bad stuff here. We can't play that."

A few minutes later, Rico returns alone from the water-balloon-filling expedition. He's soaking wet. "Can I have a piece of cake?" he asks. French cuts him a piece the size of a brick, and Rico takes a huge bite. The Compass food is the first he's eaten all day.

Argo Park is an oasis of velvet green lawns a stone's throw from the Mousetrap at Logan Street; it's bounded by East 47th Street to the south and railroad tracks to the north. The surrounding houses are small and well kept, with nice gardens and iron window bars. A vibrating DA-BOOM bass line hums through the air constantly.

Part of the park was built on contaminated soil. But that could hardly matter less to the kids who swarm over it in the summer. The park boasts the Bill Swift baseball diamond, a large grassy field, a small playground and a popular outdoor swimming pool.

It did, anyway, until the pool was closed two years ago for repairs. It was scheduled to be ready for this summer's crowds, but delays and funding problems have scuttled the schedule. As a result, with less than two months remaining in the outdoor swimming season, the pool remained a dry hole in the ground surrounded by chain-link fence.

Having neighborhood kids roaming at loose ends over the long summer days was just asking for trouble. So as the break from school approached, several Denver nonprofits got together to try to fill the gap. One of them was the YMCA, which directed its four-year-old Compass program to Argo Park.

The idea of Compass, which was begun by the YMCA of St. Louis, is simple: If there is no rec center in the neighborhood, bring one there. To tote its activities to the people, the Denver Y has outfitted two rental-size black and yellow trucks.

Each is set up more or less the same way. In the back, on the right, is the sports equipment: every kind of ball a young boy or girl could ever need, bats, jerseys for games, tennis racquets, Frisbees, soccer goals, Hula Hoops and hockey sticks. The shelves on the left side hold books, crafts and games. The cabinet mounted on the back wall is for snacks and sidewalk chalk. Craft projects plaster the walls above the shelves.

At first, Compass had to sell itself to Denver-area neighborhoods. Now they ask the trucks to please come by. Sometimes the trucks set up shop at a park; other times, they commandeer a housing development. In a few instances, they've parked at local schools. This summer, the Y's two rigs have split their weekly rounds between Churchill Downs, a pale-yellow housing development near Yale and Quebec; the Parks Apartments, a development at Exposition and Hampden; and Argo Park. Anywhere from ten to fifty kids can show up on a given day.  

"Once the kids realize we're here, they start pouring out," says Dubis. "All we ask is that they tell us their names. A lot of people are like, 'Can I sign up?' But you don't have to do any of that. Then it's juice and a snack, then arts, crafts and a sport." During the summer, it's pretty much all fun and games. While school is on, the Compass workers are also available to help kids with their homework.

"It's been awesome," says Gina Swenson, community manager for the Churchill Downs complex. "It gives the kids something to do and keeps them out of trouble. We have a basketball court and swimming pool, and there's the creek, but that's all we have down here." Swenson says she's seen dozens of kids -- not just from Churchill Downs, but from other nearby projects as well -- swarming around the Compass truck.

"It gets them outside and being part of the community," she says. Compass also seems to keep their minds off mischief; Swenson says she has seen a drop in vandalism at Churchill Downs since the Compass truck began setting up in the housing development's parking lot. "I know it makes a difference," she says.

The mobile gyms stop by each location twice a week. The trucks will become regulars in some neighborhoods for three months; in others, such as Churchill Downs, they'll hang around for a couple of years. As they tune in to the rhythms of a particular place, the Compass workers find that each has its own character. At Argo, the mostly Hispanic boys prefer baseball. At the Park, the kids seem to like field hockey best. (The Compass truck that goes there also takes along buckets; the Park's playground is almost entirely sand.) The Churchill kids, when given the choice, almost always select basketball. "You never know what's going to be cool," says Jessica Thornton, who coordinates Compass for the Denver Y.

Sometimes the kids just want to try out a toy they don't have. "The smaller kids, especially, ask, 'Can I play this or that?' And we'll get it out, and they'll play for ten minutes and then be done," Dubis says. A couple of weeks ago, the outdoor sports were rained out, so the kids decided to stage a hip-hop competition. Another day they outlined their shapes in chalk on the sidewalk. If the weather's really bad, Dubis makes up portable craft packets and drops them off so the kids can have something to do besides watch TV.

"I think that if we weren't here, most kids would be inside, watching TV," Thornton guesses.

"Today we were just hanging out with friends, mostly," admits Thomas. "Watching TV."

"Usually," adds Rico, who lives nearby, "we just chill. Or have rock fights."

Next to show up at Argo is Patrick, who races up on his BMX bike wearing sparkling-white vintage-style Air Jordan Nikes. "Can I have some pizza?" he demands. He asks for another piece while half of the first is still in his hand.

It begins to hail. Roberto runs through the storm to the truck as the rest of the kids huddle inside. His brother usually comes, too, but he got in trouble today, the first day of school, for having fireworks. Roberto also has a two-year-old sister whom he takes care of during the day; she's home sleeping now.

The skies clear, and the kids pile out of the truck. A teenager rolls by. He stands and watches, spitting sunflower seeds onto the sidewalk. "What's this?" he drawls. "Here savin' the ghetto kids, huh?" He smirks and walks away. A little while later, he wanders by again and watches some more before moving on.

"He's just an older kid," Thomas explains. "He don't play games."

Tucker and Monkey show up. French proposes a game in which two people toss water balloons to each other, taking a step back after each successful catch. The game lasts several minutes before disintegrating into a full-scale water-balloon war. Soon, buckets are involved.

Enrique, who has a thatch of dyed red hair, wanders by. Monkey dumps a bucket of water on him. Enrique retaliates by punching Rico. Rico pushes him back. Monkey tucks into another piece of cake.

Roberto and Rico take a couple of battery-powered bubble-makers shaped like ray guns out of the truck. They blow a few bubbles into the air before blasting them into someone else's face at close range, which is far more interesting.

Monkey threatens French with a bucket of water. "Don't do it," French warns.  

"Why not?" Monkey asks.

"'Cause you don't want to be wet. So don't be gettin' other people wet." Monkey dumps the water instead on Rico's bike.

"What's your deal?" Rico wants to know. "What is your deal?"

French climbs into the playmobile and retrieves a whiffle ball and two bats. The boys start whipping the bats around as if fighting off bee swarms. French focuses them long enough to choose teams. The gang walks over to a picnic shelter where a disreputable-looking young man with long hair has been hanging out. He sees the approaching crowd and slouches away.

French pitches. Monkey takes a monster cut and misses.

"That was way out here," he yells at French.

French shrugs. "So don't swing at it."

"It was a great pitch," Thomas yells. "You got whupped."

The sides switch. Thomas steps up to the plate. "You're a sissy," Anthony says. "Be a man."

Next up is a fourteen-year-old girl. French first shows her how to swing the bat. She misses the first pitch. Rico groans.

"Man, she's gonna be our first out."

"Hey!" French yells, whipping around to face Rico. He slashes his finger across his throat. "Cut it!"

"I'm just sayin'," Rico says.

"You don't even say," French says. "We're a team. We support each other."

Meanwhile, the outfield is disintegrating. Anthony tackles Monkey. Hymie, eight, wearing a red Michael Jordan muscle shirt, sees the game from across the road and comes tearing over on his bike. "Can I play?" he screams.

Monkey tries to push his way up to bat again, but Thomas stiff-arms him away. "Ladies first," he says, motioning for Hilda to take her turn.

"She ain't no lady," Monkey mutters under his breath. Anthony tackles Roberto at third base. French strikes out Monkey with a tricky under-the-leg pitch to retire the side.

"You can't be throwin' like that," Anthony protests.

"He swung at it," French says calmly. "Strike three."

Monkey switches tactics. "I NEVER get to pitch," he complains.

"Okay," says French. "One pitch." He directs Thomas to stand aside. Monkey grabs the ball and rears back like Luis Tiant. He heaves the ball more or less toward the plate.

The game breaks up two innings later when Monkey calls Anthony a bitch. French is furious.

"Go on," he tells Monkey. "Go on home. There's no swearin' here. Uh-uh." French shakes his head as Monkey skulks away. "I don't play that game."

Not until Friday, anyway.

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