There's No Place Like Dome
On a terrace 5,500 feet above sea level, Ted Polito Jr. leans over and lets me in on a little secret: People pray up here, he whispers. They're not supposed to, because this is Colorado's Capitol Building, but they do anyway.
They usually come on Fridays, two men and two women, trudging up two formidable sets of stairs and into the gilded atrium that's known as the dome. There they gather in a circle, holding hands, eyes closed.
Ted can't hear them from where he sits, but he knows they're praying. Up here, he supposes, surrounded by sunlight, fresh air and blue sky, they must feel closer to heaven.
"Hold it!" the tourist says. "Just a second, now...Got it!"
"John?" his wife asks. "Are you reading these things?"
"These things. Are you reading them?"
"These plaques. Are you reading them?"
"Because they have Pikes Peak."
"Pikes Peak? I don't want to see Pikes Peak. I want to see the Mint. Where's the Mint?"
"I don't know. Ask the man."
And Ted says: "See that building that looks like a clock tower?"
"Behind that building?"
"You mean we can't see it?"
"Oh. Well, where's Pikes Peak?"
Ted arrives for work when the only sounds on the third floor of the Capitol are the soft hisses of the heaters and the muffled knocks of workmen polishing brass.
"I'm here!" he announces, boots clunking on the marble floor. "Let's go!"
He unlocks a door labeled "To the Dome," and the climb begins: 93 steps through the innards of the 114-year-old building, 93 steps above the state offices and legislative chambers, 93 steps past steel scaffolding, support beams and rivets, 93 steps through dust, stale air and faded paint, until Ted finally stands atop the stairwell, chest heaving.
"Whew!" he says, rubbing his thighs. "That makes your legs burn."
A few seconds later, we enter the dome, a vast and airy wedding cake -- make that angel's food cake, since there's a hole in the center looking down onto the ground floor -- of a chamber surrounded by tall windows, Corinthian-style columns, neo-classical ironwork, gilded wood fixtures and panels of gold and white. It feels at once like a church, a museum and a monument.
From the two circular observation terraces, one inside and one outside, you can see Mount Evans looming like an iceberg over the western horizon, an old man in a wheelchair sunning himself outside an East Colfax Avenue storefront, two schoolgirls dancing in circles at Civic Center Park, the slow crawl of traffic along Interstate 25. From the dome, you can see it all.
Ted, who has seen it all before, shuffles to a desk at the south end of the chamber, where he begins his morning ritual: Unlock the drawer, remove the phone, place the phone at the center of the desk, call his boss. Walk the perimeter, open the terrace door, walk the perimeter again, return to his desk. Fish a pocket radio from his knapsack, untangle the cord, slip on the headphones and wait.
His mornings have begun this way for almost three years now. As dome attendant, it's his job to answer questions, distribute brochures and offer tours from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week. It is a simple job with simple rewards: a smile from a stranger, a clear sky, a few moments to think. And here, in the third-highest capitol building in the United States, Ted couldn't be happier.
"When I first got here, I was very scared," he tells me. "I had to hold on to the walls because it was too high. Now I like it. I meet a lot of people from different backgrounds. Africa. England. Ireland. Turkey. India. That's all I can remember."
He leans over and taps my arm.
"Oh, yeah -- and China."
Ted is 26. He was born and raised in Arvada, the youngest of eight children, and lives at home with his mother and father. He has Down's syndrome, but according to those who know him, that's never stopped Ted from being Ted. In school, he studied in traditional classrooms, taking special oral exams. He even slipped on the purple mascot's costume of the Arvada West High School Wildcats.
"That's his biggest strong point," says his mother, Nora Polito. "Anything with dancing and music, Ted's great at."
He's also pretty good in front of a camera. In 1987 Ted starred in a CBS-TV movie about teens with Down's syndrome called Kids Like Us.
"I played Alex," he says. "It was great. I had my own chair. My own makeup girl. And I signed a few autographs, too."
Ted also displayed a charm that now serves him well as a Capitol tour guide, a post he was assigned through a cooperative program with the Jefferson County Schools. Although he has worked a number of other jobs, including data entry for the Arvada Police Department, dome attendant is his favorite. Walk up the stairs, and there's Ted, grinning from ear to ear: "Hello. Where are you from?"
"He feels pretty easy around people," says his mother, "and he's really proud of his job. That was one of our goals: Get him out there where he can go to work every day and be a little taxpayer."
Ted stands five feet tall, weighs 108 pounds, wears glasses and has dark-brown hair. On this day -- and every other day -- he wears a Western shirt, a rodeo belt buckle, a pair of cowboy boots, a pair of blue jeans folded at the cuff, and a cowboy hat.
"I have three hats," he says proudly. "A black one, a tan one and a white one. I like the white one best. It blocks out the sun and the rain. It's made of plastic, too, so it lasts a long time. I think it's beautiful."
During quieter moments in the dome -- usually first thing in the morning -- Ted thumbs through back issues of American Cowboy magazine and daydreams about his heroes: Buffalo Bill, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and Chuck Norris in Walker, Texas Ranger. He slips on his headphones, tunes his radio to KYGO and starts singing like Garth Brooks. He snaps his fingers, throws his head back and lets loose a passionate warble that startles even the pigeons.
"I love cowboys," he says. "They're very mysterious people. And they're good riders, too. But I also like Indians a lot. They have a belief in peace."
He leans over and taps my arm.
"Except for Russell Means," he whispers. "He likes to hate people. Like Christopher Columbus. And I'm Italian, you know."
"Hold on tight to your ears," Ted says. "They can be a loud bunch."
A horde of middle-school students clatters up the steps and floods the dome. They press their noses to the windows, scramble around the interior terrace, then stand on their tiptoes trying to poke their heads through the brass railing that rings the hole in the center of the dome.
"Can we jump? Can we jump?"
"Stop pushing me!"
"Come on, guys," the teacher says. "I don't think your parents would like it if they had to scrape you off the floor. Get back here."
Ted watches the commotion calmly, his hands folded on his desk. This is what it's like sometimes, he says. "Loud." In addition to the mid-morning invasion of schoolchildren and the trickle of individual visitors, dome life revolves around a regular schedule of Capitol tours, which begin every 45 minutes. Usually the schoolkids, like most tourists, prefer to wander at their own pace. But if they want a tour, Ted springs into action.
"Let's start with the churches," he'll say, extending an arm like a maître d'. "Here we have the Baptist Church. The Scottish Rite center. The Jewish center. And the Church of the Immaculate Conception."
Next, the landmarks.
"Pikes Peak," he'll say, running a finger along the information plaque. "Altitude: One-four-one-one-zero. Sixty-three miles away."
Occasionally, Ted will throw in a personal review as well.
"Lookout Mountain is my favorite," he'll say. "I have a hero called Buffalo Bill Cody. He's buried there. And if you look between these two buildings, you can see Longs Peak. I think that's neat."
Most visitors want to know the same things: If that's real gold on the dome, how much gold there is, where it's from, how often it's replaced and when it's going to be replaced again. Those answers are: Yes. Forty-seven and a half ounces. Florence, Italy. Every thirty years. And 2021. If Ted doesn't know something, he'll look up, ask his boss or say, "I don't know." It's not the most informative of tours, but that's what the brochures are for. Besides, Ted says, the question he's most often asked -- especially by schoolchildren -- is whether visitors can climb the spiral staircase beside his desk.
The conversation goes something like this:
"No," Ted says.
"Because there are lots of safety issues."
"Because you might fall down and get hurt. Maybe even die."
"Has anyone ever died?"
"Not here," Ted says. "They did it on the third floor."
"I don't know. It happened a long time ago. Before I was even born. There's a crack in the floor where he landed."
"I don't know. I just heard about it."
"People do dumb things sometimes," Ted concludes.
The schoolkids scramble around the terrace and press their noses to the windows. Then the teacher stands on his toes and tries to poke his head through the center railing.
Ted is nervous. A rumpled old man in a blazer, baggy slacks and baseball cap leans unsteadily against the railing, clutching an empty plastic bag. He's traveling around the country, he says, and visited Denver because he likes the mountains. He was here thirty years ago and stopped by now because he wanted to see if anything at the Capitol had changed.
"I don't remember this many steps," he says, swaying back and forth from foot to foot. "I thought it would be more interesting, but it's not."
Ted grimaces. People like this make him uncomfortable. Last December, a man was arrested for screaming at the portraits of presidents Lincoln and Carter in the third-floor gallery. "He was bombed," Ted adds. Before that, another disheveled man stumbled out to the terrace and screamed profanities at the city. "The police found a bottle of Scotch in his bag," Ted says. And before that, a bag lady grabbed onto Ted's wrist for no reason and wouldn't let go. "I get scared with people like that," he says. "They're very unpredictable."
As the old man launches into a story about how his bicycle was stolen, a woman wearing slippers and a sweatshirt bounces into the dome with a small girl in tow. The woman's left eye is purple and her teeth are missing. She swings a stuffed pink bunny in one hand and drags a purse on the floor behind her.
"Wow!" the girl squeals. "Look!"
"Crystal! Get back here!" the woman yells, scrambling after her.
Ted checks his security pager, which will summon state patrolmen in seconds should he press a red button, but he decides instead to stand back and watch. The woman and the girl dart around the dome and then, after a few minutes, they head for the stairs, where already the old man has begun his descent, grabbing the handrail with both hands and swinging his legs onto the steps like he's climbing into a rowboat.
Ted follows them.
Fifteen minutes later he returns, thumbs hooked through his belt. He escorted the woman and the girl from the building, he reports, then made sure the rumpled man navigated the stairs safely.
"I have to make sure this place is safe," he says. "That woman was walking funny and swinging that bunny rabbit like it was a baby. Everything is under control now. Yep. That's my job."
The afternoon sun slides across the sky, and calm returns to the dome. The tours have ended for the day, and the last few visitors are just about finished. A father strolls along the outside terrace carrying his son on his shoulders. A young couple holds hands before the plaque of Chief Ouray. Ted sits at his desk, headphones in place, twirling the telephone cord.
Soon he'll return home, flick on the TV and watch Golden Girls reruns, or his favorite parts from Dances With Wolves. He'll visit with his parents, settle down to a plate of spaghetti -- his favorite -- then chat with a cousin who's supposed to stop by. At 10:30 p.m., he'll climb into bed. The next morning, he'll start again.
But for the moment, all is as it should be in the dome. Ted has his music. He has his blue sky. Up here, 93 steps above the traffic and deadlines, Ted is very much on top of the world.
The father heads down the stairs, and the couple soon follows. Ted waves goodbye, then slips on his headphones. He turns up the volume, snaps his fingers and begins to sing.
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