Four Guardian Angels meet in the 1400 block of Ogden Street at dusk for their weekly march up and around Colfax Avenue, where they patrol the streets and alleys, looking to deter gang activity and other crimes — and to search for new recruits.
Three wear the recognizable Angels uniform: red berets, red and white T-shirts, black pants tucked into combat boots. They pat each other down for weapons, then sniff each other's breath to check for alcohol and peer into each other's eyes, looking for a drug haze — a ritual that Angels across the country perform.
A 24-year-old skater in a black ball cap and sunglasses falls off his board when he sees the trio a few minutes later, standing straight with their arms crossed. He remembers a visit the group paid to his junior high school a dozen years earlier and walks over to talk. He tells them he's been jumped before and wishes there were more people around to help — people like the Guardian Angels.
The fourth Angel stands in the background, listening. He doesn't wear a uniform anymore, and although his speech is slightly slurred and he occasionally stumbles and forgets things, he isn't drunk or stoned. When it comes time to close the deal with the skater, who looks like a good recruit, it's this man who gets his phone number.
Sebastian "Iron" Metz founded the Guardian Angels' Denver chapter in 1993. An energetic character who talked a mile a minute and felt a duty to help those around him, Sebastian built the group into a visible force on Capitol Hill in the 1990s and early 2000s. He loved the excitement and adrenaline of guarding neighborhood streets, intervening in fights, sometimes detaining criminals and waiting for the cops.
But in 2005, Sebastian underwent a rare and complicated heart operation that caused him to suffer several strokes. The resulting damage to his brain left him a different man physically and mentally, with little short-term memory and an unreliable long-term one. His family came apart and he could no longer hold a full-time job.
"'Brain damage' is derogatory," Sebastian says with a matter-of-fact demeanor. "I prefer to say 'a slight case of brain death.'"
While Sebastian fought to keep himself together, the Angels began to disintegrate, losing their office space, their headquarters and their clout on Colfax. But now Sebastian is back.
On Ogden, the other three Angels take the lead as they continue their "safety patrol" up to Colfax and then west. A woman in front of their former headquarters at 620 East Colfax pushes a shopping cart full of old newspapers and struggles for her words. "Angels do exist," she tells Sebastian. "They're not created beings to be worshipped."
Three cops in a police cruiser honk and wave as they pass.
A big, bald bouncer in front of the Roslyn Grill who goes by the name of "Tiny" asks one of the Angels what the hell he's going to do with the flashlight he carries if he runs into some real shit out on these streets. The Angel, Carl "Doc" Webster, just smiles, flips on his light and shines it into Tiny's eyes.
Founded in 1979 by a New York City McDonald's manager named Curtis Sliwa, the Angels originally patrolled that city's crime-ridden subways. An almost entirely volunteer organization, there are now Angel chapters nationwide and in ten countries. Uniformed members, who travel in groups of two or three, look for trouble and try to stop it. They are trained in basic first aid, self-defense, conflict resolution and how to make citizens' arrests, but they are prohibited from carrying guns.
A woman smoking a cigarette outside the Roslyn wants to know what happened to the free self-defense classes the Angels used to host. The group's leader, Ryan "Arch Angel" Warren, promises her they will return — just like the Angels.
They march westward, toward the Capitol. Sebastian jokes that the group looks like a bunch of old men who are on patrol because they can't find a good bowling league. But at least the other three are in uniform. Sebastian is on blood thinners that keep him from intervening if something goes down — one good stab or slice and he'd be a goner. Since the red beret immediately marks someone who is ready for physical confrontation, Sebastian can't wear it in public. "It guts me that I can't patrol in uniform," Sebastian says, "but I can still help with the recruiting."
A man on a bike with long dark hair rides by slowly. "You guys are still around?" he asks with surprise.
"You betcha," Doc says.
Sebastian Metz was born in New York City in 1964, but by the time he was five, his hippie parents were ready to escape city life. So they bought a cheap milk truck, painted it red, packed up their three kids and two dogs and explored the country, all the way down to Mexico. The Vietnam War was raging, and when the family got back to New York, there was no end in sight. Conscientious objectors, Sebastian's parents sold their belongings, took the dogs to a shelter and left again — this time for "Drop City," the infamous hippie commune near Trinidad. After that, the family resettled in Canada.