We almost take the scooter from my place to Highland. But then Sean has last-minute reservations about riding without a helmet, and regardless of how engaged-to-a-beautiful-girl he is and how comfortable and happy I am with my hetero relationship, there's still a certain amount of awkwardness when two dudes share one seat of a small, motorized bike. Going 15 to 20 mph. For three miles through downtown. So we call a cab, a decision we almost immediately regret.
I don't mind giving cabbies directions — in fact, I prefer to, because it keeps them honest and keeps down my total. But when I have to repeat turn-by-turn directions three or four times while waving my arms in corresponding directions because the driver neither speaks English nor drives like she's ever visited Denver before, and then the driver can neither make change for my cash nor work the credit-card machine when it comes time to pay, I start thinking things like: Are you the permit-holding driver of this cab, or just the scheduled driver's wife covering his ass because he landed himself in jail or would rather be at the bar? I don't say this out loud, of course, but I do tip her less.
By the time we walk through the doors of the Arabian Bar (3360 Navajo Street), around 8:30 p.m., we're both ready for a beer — the taste and toxicity of the Sam Adams longnecks we drank while waiting 25 minutes for the cab having long worn off. A healthy Monday-night crowd is shooting pool, fiddling with the classic jukebox and punching buttons on the Wild Double Up poker machine, so we belly up to the bar next to a guy salting a fried-chicken-and-mashed-potatoes microwave dinner with a Peppermint Schnapps shooter-turned-shaker and reading a coverless paperback. There are no mysteries to the Arabian's dirt-cheap, cash-only pricing scheme: Domestic bottles are always $2 ($1.50 during happy hour), and the dozen or so handles of liquor on the counter behind the bar have laughably low prices written right on them in black Sharpie. Seriously.
The bartenderess, a sweet, talkative young woman who has tended bar at the Arabian for three years because her grandfather used to be a regular, brings us two Bud bottles. She does a shot of Cuervo with a customer and shakes off the agony of shitty tequila taken with no lime or salt before telling us that the owners, in their late sixties (him) and seventies (her), have had the Arabian for seven years and don't really tend bar anymore, save for a random Saturday or Sunday afternoon. They also operate the West Side Bar (778 Mariposa Street), a place the "she" in "they" has owned for almost forty years and bartends at more frequently. While we've got the bartenderess's attention, we ask about the singles and five-dollar bills hanging from the smoke-stained ceiling tiles. Not long ago, she tells us, a few regulars were in here drinking alone and stuck 'em there for good luck. "That's all I know," she says.
We grow bored watching the Bears narrowly lead the Colts on the sole, corner-mounted TV, so Sean feeds the jukebox (three songs for a dollar: Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens, Ray Charles) while I go outside for a smoke. Except for the noise pollution of the #6 and #52 buses speeding by, this corner is dark and quiet. Across Navajo, a young man tries in vain to get his bulldog to pee on a small plot of grass; across 34th, the Highland Tavern — which opened less than a year ago in the spot where the Coors Tavern had stood for more than a hundred years — glows faintly in all its gentrified glory. The stillness reminds me of my last trip to the Arabian, a trip when neither I nor my friend Scotty knew to bring cash and we couldn't find an ATM machine within a few walking blocks (the Highland Tavern was still under renovation). We ended up borrowing cash because there were no five-dollar bills in the ceiling tiles and we weren't quite drunk enough to call it a night, but I haven't made the same mistake this time. I check my wallet to make sure I still have a twenty, then go back inside.
For two more hours and four or five more Bud bottles, we play pool for free, watch the Bears eventually beat the Colts and shake our heads in frustration as the Rockies lose to the Pirates in the bottom of the eleventh. We speculate about the rustic "Wire of the Old West" display on the wall behind the bar and the padded orange fiberglass booths that look like they were rescued from a '60s-era A&W drive-up. We smoke cigarettes on the small side stoop and laugh about the seizure-inducing motion light. But mostly we just drink ice-cold beers in a blue-collar bar on a warm summer night.
And wish we had more cash.
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