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The White Stuff

The White Spot is more fun than working with miniature donkeys, says Mike.
John Johnston

On Thanksgiving morning, the White Spot parking lot holds nine cars -- two of them ancient Pinto station wagons -- and one bright-yellow cafe racer of a motorcycle. A well-dressed man and woman, not old enough to be grandparents but much too dignified to ever go sledding, sit on the floor or act in a skit, are settling objects in the trunk of their shiny Lincoln Town Car. Grownups on the move, but needing a cup of coffee, they think they've picked a Denny's clone, a Coco's wannabe, an anonymous way station with clean plate-glass windows.

But Denver's White Spot is no clone; rather, it's the last in a noble line of coffee shops. Once there were eight White Spots in the metro area. Today there is just this single outpost, at 800 Broadway, owned and operated by Tony Clements, whose parents started the business in 1946, the same year that Tony was born.

Several years ago, word leaked out that this White Spot, too, would soon be erased, and a giant office/loft development would take over its space. Yet the White Spot remains open 24/7, with half-price hamburgers still the special on Wednesday, all the regulars still ensconced at the counter, Aggie the Waitress still showing up for work after thirty years of White Spot service, Tony still wearing a Hawaiian shirt into the place every day.

The dry-erase board reads: "Special Today Turkey dinner w/ all the trimmings $14.45 or 12.45 sr/jr." Other than that, though, it's business as usual at the White Spot, with the standard cast of characters scattered around, just as they would be on a normal weekday at 11 a.m. There are cowboys, comb-overs, neat and haggard men with the look of disbarred lawyers, perhaps a lone hooker -- but also several toddlers, a Samuel Jackson look-alike in a cashmere sweater and gold chains, and a table full of sixteen-year-old boys. Behind their T-shirts, the orange booth is patched with duct tape.

There's no denying that this White Spot -- successfully designed decades ago to evoke early-'60s optimism, largesse and American hygiene -- has seen better days. The roof leaks. The type on the signs has faded. Patches in the acres of vinyl are worn down to threads. Although buildings constructed in the California Coffee Shop style were intended to look cutting-edge modern, this one, built in 1961, has turned into an old relic of the New Frontier.

"Sit down here and let me fill you in," says Tony. "A few years ago, I'd become involved in negotiating to buy this property, but I had a stroke, and it put me out of commission for nearly a year. When I came back, the land had been sold to Rickenbaugh Cadillac. They also purchased other buildings on this block. The idea was to turn it into a development, and the deal's been ongoing. I don't know what's kept them from closing up on things here -- they could do a huge office or a residential thing. I imagine they could give us thirty days' notice at any time. I have no way of knowing, so we keep on."

And in spite of the uncertainty, he says, business is fine.

Not only that, but this White Spot has hung on long enough to become a true classic. "In this month's Smithsonian, there's a story about California Coffee Shop architecture and the people who want to preserve it," Tony says, a little incredulously. "They call them 'googies' now!"

The buildings, not the preservationists.

Named for Googie's, a long-plowed-under Southern California roadside restaurant, the genre has indeed become hip, if the proliferation of Web sites devoted to it is any indication. Googie fans from around the world flock to the Bob's Big Boy of Burbank, the movement's shrine. In cities across the country, devotees of both moderne architecture and endless cups of coffee are mobilizing to prevent the destruction of the round- and kidney-shaped restaurants that once evoked the worst in urban tackitude.

The White Spot, with its expansive, burnt-orange interior, soaring roof and huge plate-glass windows, is a vintage googie. In fact, it was designed by Lou Armet, inventor of the California Coffee Shop style -- also referred to as Jetson-age, Flintstone-moderne or, my favorite, Populuxe -- who was hired by Tony's father to build the centerpiece of his White Spot empire.

(The fact that the building is an architectural gem does not appear to concern the folks at Rickenbaugh, who, indeed, still plan to develop the property. Although Kent Rickenbaugh is out of town, he had his secretary answer questions about the proposed project. For example, is it possible to build residential units on top of a classic coffee shop? "No," she says. When will the project break ground -- and so wipe away the White Spot? "Soon.")

 

Now the Town Car grownups have been seated in the White Spot's tres Populuxe back grotto and are reading aloud to each other, in German accents, from the classifieds -- they appear to be shopping for a downtown condo in the half-mil range. In their black turtlenecks and nerdy reading glasses, they make quite the display in the grotto, which is all turquoise plastic panels and underwater lighting.

"It leaks pretty bad back here," confides waiter Mike Morris. "I tell people we're doing a dinner-in-the-rainforest thing. But after 11 p.m., these are prime tables. This is where the crazy juveniles come. You literally have to tell them to sit down and shuddup. They sit drinking coffee for hours. What do they order? Not much, but they tip quite well. I was a kid like that myself; I know how it works."

Back in the burnt-orange main salon, a very old couple has ordered the first Thanksgiving dinner of the day, and they are exclaiming over its hugeness. Seconds are on the house, but they have barely made a dent in their fluffy, Cool Whip-laden Waldorf salads.

At the next table, a professorial old man in bow tie and tweeds negotiates a painfully polite conversation with an elegant Japanese man in a white silk turtleneck. Both have impeccable table manners. Over in a sun-washed corner, a haggard but scrubbed man in a faded windbreaker reads aloud to himself from a gripping novel. Or is it the Bible?

Aggie, who is working her 31st consecutive Thanksgiving, ministers to a crowd that is three-fourths regulars; the remainder are abject strangers, which may be the group that she loves the best. "Oh, happy Thanksgiving," she says, whether to her table or some other waiter's. "How can I help you today, what can I do for you?"

"They're regular, and they're old, and some of them are dying," Mike says matter-of-factly of his customers. "One of my women has cancer and can barely make it through her Cream of Wheat. Still, she asks me if I've ever had macaroons from the Brown Palace. Of course, I say no. She comes back a few hours later with a whole box! I hate to think what she paid for them. They were delicious."

New faces in the grotto: Carol Buckstein and Thyria Wilson, who have been friends for decades, ever since college. Thyria lives in the neighborhood, and the friends come here for the dependable food and the world-class people-watching.

"But I've never been seated in this grotto before," Carol says, peering through a window at a display of teddy bears and bouquets of plastic flowers arranged against a rock wall. "What do we have here? Dead animals? Dead blue teddy bears? Excellent! I'll have the traditional taco salad," she tells Mike.

"What comes with the Thanksgiving special?" Thyria asks.

"Just about what you'd expect...actually, I don't know," Mike admits. "Ah, Vermont cheese soup? Waldorf salad. Turkey."

"Oh, what the hey. I'll go for it. Go big, I always say."

Despite her unending appreciation for Denver's foremost googie, Thyria is no traditionalist. For her, this is the latest in a long chain of avant-garde Thanksgiving dinners.

"Once Mother and I went to Boulder for Thanksgiving, and we ended up at a 7-Eleven, and my mom had the traditional Fritos wrapped in turkey slices," she remembers. "I used to like turkey noodle casserole, so my mom made that. Another time, we both went to the Mayflower Dinner at the Denver Country Club -- you had to be descended from someone in the Plymouth Colony. Well, my ancestor was Isaac Allerton, one of the first guys in the colony, but they also thought he was embezzling and they kicked him out."

"I have something to say," Mike says. "I have wanted to work here since the first day I walked in, which was May 2, 1975. I applied ten different times, and they finally took me on. I was instantly comfortable here. I worked with miniature donkeys in Grand Junction for a while, but you know how that is, and here I am.

"It's my first Thanksgiving at the White Spot," he continues. "It's just as wonderful as I thought. I mean, just look at Aggie. I have to stand back at least once every day just to see what she's doing and learn from her. Here's what I learned today: Keep a change cup below the counter so you can pay your checks with exact change -- saves you from going home with several pounds of quarters."

Mike is summoned by the loudspeaker.

"MIKE, MIKE, YOUR ORDER. MIKE."

 

"I take my satisfaction," he insists. "I'm glad. No one has to tell me I did a good job when my shift is over. I know I did."

The praying man moves quietly toward the door. The old couple requests the largest doggie bag ever. The Japanese gentleman dabs at the corners of his mouth with a fresh, white paper napkin. Over on the north end of the counter, where the smoking is heaviest, a quartet of friends -- three men and a woman, all in tattered shoes and holey socks -- look forward to the dinner that's coming their way. Aggie just told them something, and they're laughing too hard to talk.

Let us give thanks.


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