It's game day at Coors Field, where thousands of fans are enjoying America's alleged favorite pastime. A few blocks to the east, inside the Carioca Cafe, at 2060 Champa Street, a handful of Americans are reveling in a more revered, longer-lived pastime: drinking. The baseball fans who hustled past the Carioca on their way to the ballpark have no idea what they're missing. Neither does most of Denver.
Too bad. The Carioca -- the name is a Portuguese term for residents of Rio de Janeiro -- is one of the last real bars in downtown D-town, an 89-year-old, beer-blessed time capsule. While other taverns chase trends, the Carioca remains devoutly unconcerned with marketing: The sign outside is a spare, neon-red syllable: "BAR." Inside, the place sports a glorious wooden bar, deep booths, a tooled tin ceiling, a vintage phone booth and a grade-A jukebox stuffed with selections from Hank Williams, Elvis, Sam Cooke, the Isley Brothers, B.B. King, Freddy Fender and Los Fugitivos, as well as a few contemporary artists.
The Carioca plays host to a misfit collection of tippling seniors, war veterans, transients and ex-midway workers straight out of a Utah Phillips song. They're served by Tim Fink, who has to be the city's only one-handed bartender. What Fink lacks in fingers he makes up for in expert service and double-digit barkeeper wisdom. "This place is old and run-down, but it's not a dive bar; it's not sleazy," Fink says. "It's a common bar, the kind of bar you could find in a town in Kansas. That's why it's important to have it in the neighborhood. It's a regular place, and every city needs places like that."
Fink knows the importance of a common gathering spot. As co-owner and manager of the now-closed Muddy's coffeehouse just a few blocks away, he'd been bending an elbow at the Carioca for over a decade before he started working here, lured by the bar's cast of characters. Guys like Terry Buttons, who is just days away from his annual jaunt with a traveling carnival as a game operator. "I've been coming here since I was nineteen," Buttons says, a crooked grin slicing his tanned leather face. "I was 26 when they finally carded me."
Four decades later, he's the Carioca's unofficial historian. "What really attracted me was the movie stars that came here," Buttons says. "People don't believe it when I tell them I've sat in here with Raymond Burr, Dick Van Dyke, Chuck Connors -- even Danny Kaye and Mr. T. This used to be the most popular bar in the area." From the '50s into the '70s, Buttons remembers, the Carioca was surrounded by movie-production houses instead of parking lots. Some of the world's biggest film and TV stars wrapped up their shoots with a cocktail here.
While the stars are long-gone, Buttons points out other treasures. "That's the 'Tunnel of Love,'" he says, pointing to a Dagwood-style cartoon mural that covers the walls of the Carioca's game room. (In the Eisenhower era, this room was a whorehouse frequented by bar patrons and Denver johns.) The mural's creator, an ex-carny named Perry, painted the mural in the '50s, taking on-the-job drinks as compensation; the artwork was just recently divested of decades of grime. The opening frame depicts a happy couple riding a boat into an amusement park's Tunnel of Love. Following a few frames of domestic bliss (apparently the couple in later years), the mural ends with a scene showing the woman swimming out of the tunnel alone, her suitor's hat floating beside her. Is she fleeing the horrors of a domestic future? A murder scene? "I have no idea," Buttons says. "But Perry, he died right on that stool over there. Cirrhosis of the liver, I think."
Death has visited the Carioca at other times, according to John Kennedy, who bought the place six years ago after escaping from a 23-year career as a tax accountant. In the bar's early days, a patron suffered a fatal heart attack that went undiscovered until fellow customers attempted to rouse him from what they thought was alcohol-induced slumber. And fifty-some years ago, Kennedy says, "a guy came in, ordered a beer and a double shot, drank them, then fell off the stool, dead. He'd been shot. All they could figure was he wanted a drink before he died." All three men left for God's watering hole from the same stool at the east end of the bar.
Kennedy takes a more active interest in his customers' well-being. "I really admire some of these people," he says. "They lived through the Depression, fighting in WW II -- they've done it all in their lives. And I feel sorry for some of them. There's nobody left to take care of them. What's their life? They live in that little stinky apartment and they come down to the Carioca Cafe, and I take care of them. That's what I do." He's helped aging patrons move furniture, taken others to Denver Health for emergency medical treatment, and even done bed checks on regulars who are MIA. (They found one dead in his apartment.) "The old-timers," he says. "You don't see them for a couple days, you better send someone to go check on them."
But many of his senior-citizen, fixed-income regulars are being forced out of the area as their rents increase or their buildings are sold to developers. "The economic boom has hurt," Kennedy says. The subsidized residents now coming into the area fit a different demographic: The "affordable" lofts that just opened nearby at Stout Street are "selling for $250,000," he notes. "That's not low-income. That's ridiculous."
Still, the Carioca's old customers keep coming back. Even if they've moved out of state, they'll drop in when they're in the area. "They make sure the place is still open," Kennedy says. "I'd get crucified if I ever tried to shut it down."
Barflies that buzz into the Carioca on this night will quickly understand such allegiance. Granted, the beer and spirits list is lacking when it comes to high-end stuff -- "It took me four years to go through a bottle of Tanqueray," Kennedy says -- but the clientele more than makes up for any missing liquid assets. At the bar, a half-dozen Native Americans are talking quietly, just below the TV drone of Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck doing psycho-battle in Cape Fear. At a table, two twenty-somethings in shirts and ties end their day by sipping cheap beers and chatting with one of the quirkier regulars. "We decided to go adventuring," one young man says. "This is a place I'll never forget."
A moment later, Ernest Tubb's "Thanks a Lot" shuffles out of the jukebox. Robert, a regular here for decades, slides off his barstool and cuts an inspired, mutant jig. Patrons stop chatting and cheer him on with applause and wolf whistles. Behind the bar, Fink claps his one hand on the nub where his forearm ought to be. Robert stomps with glee, his bobbing head drawing attention to the fact that a large piece of one of his ears is gone. But that's all that's missing from this perfect moment of barroom fellowship.
Fink is proud to be part of the Carioca, a place "where I can go to meet good transients, good Indians, good Mexicans, good yuppies," he says. "It's a crosscut of the good people in the neighborhood."
Kennedy hopes the neighborhood's new residents will appreciate the Carioca's timeless merits and time-tested patrons. "Young people," he says. "I've had them come in here and talk to these old guys -- they're really intrigued. They'll ask me, 'How often does that guy come in here?' I tell 'em, 'Every day.'"
2060 Champa St.
Denver, CO 80202
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