The Mayday Experiment: Dancing With Old Denver

Aside from when I was a baby in New Jersey and two years in Ohio for grad school, Denver has always been my home. But a home is a different thing from a community: You can have many communities, and in the age of the Internet, those communities can be vast and disembodied, spanning continents, age ranges and interests. Often when people talk of community, what they mean is a neighborhood, club, a school or a church — but in reality, we all inhabit a multiplicity of communities at once.

When I began the Mayday Experiment, part of me was thinking that I would find a sense of belonging somewhere, that my journeys might lead me to find where “home” is. This was, of course, a question that I thought I had already answered: I came back to Denver after grad school in part because I missed it; I was ready to commit. Little did I know then what that meant; the increasing expenses and pressures on space now have me wondering if I will even get to stay – especially if Denver doesn’t take the step of legalizing tiny houses by the time I’m done. I had always assumed that by the time I was done building, legality would be secured – after all, tiny houses have become a big news, a growing movement. But if anything, communities in Colorado have become more intransigent, with Commerce City “evicting” a tiny-house newcomer to our state a scant eighteen hours after it had arrived.

But for the moment, thanks to my family being here and my wanting to be near my eighty-year-old mother, I am committed to staying…however I can, in whatever shape that takes.
But even without my family, the various communities I belong to here have deep roots, and it is difficult to think of leaving them behind. Without kids, you depend on friends as you get older — and in an aging community, we need one another more and more. Some friends have floated the idea of creating a “retirement village,” others talk of teaming up to buy land, but nothing has congealed. With the recent addition to the community of the Wonder Tower in Genoa, I even find myself looking to the windswept plains, a part of the state that I have always held dear, despite the beauty and allure of the mountains.

Two of my communities held gatherings on Sunday, weirdly scheduling massive photo shoots that couldn't have been more different. In the morning, artist Bonnie Ferrill Roman organized a photo shoot at the Denver Art Museum inspired by a historic coming together of all the female artists in Los Angeles at the Houser and Wirth gallery two months ago. Over 700 women artists appeared in that photo, dreamed up by Venice artist Kim Schoenstadt, and that spawned a similar effort in Brooklyn, with 600 women artists appearing at the Brooklyn Museum.
I was proud to be a part of the effort in Denver to record our history: Women artists having been largely left out of art history for many years, and we still fight for equity and recognition, so recording our numbers at this moment in time for posterity felt like making our small mark on a changing city. Still, for as many of us as there were (289), there were just as many missing, especially younger women. But since word spread largely via Facebook and e-mail lists, the granular effort could only hope to grow each year, which is Bonnie’s intention.

Then, that evening at 8 p.m., outside 1614 15th Street building, a group of ex- and aging punks gathered in an unruly clot on the sidewalk, drinking Jaegermeister out of plastic cups and trying desperately to recall familiar sights from blurry drunken nights long ago, working to recognize the younger faces we remembered behind the gray hair and ravages of time.
The occasion was the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of Rock Island, the legendary dance club that opened in the shadow of the now-long-gone 15th Street Viaduct, where we had all danced, played, hooked up and caught a roster of incredible bands from Skinny Puppy to the Proclaimers. The photo shoot, organized by Paul Italiano, former DJ and owner of FashioNation (still clothing us all after all these years, along with the next generation of surly teens), had us lined up in front of the club with former DJ (and Westword photographer) K-nee Hamblin, teetering on a ladder and waving passing cars through between flashes.

I started working at Rock Island shortly after I turned 21 — around six months after the club opened — moving from busser to barback and eventually inhabiting every job there, though most famously managing the House of Toast, a snarky nod to getting around the city’s cabaret license requirements by providing “food.” I rehabbed the House of Toast’s sparse menu when I took it over (adding the ever-popular cinnamon toast and cleaning former food out of the walk-in that had grown unrecognizable and sunk the club’s health-department rating), and eventually moved up to bartending, cocktail waitressing and occasionally deejaying in the basement under the tutelage of club DJ Tracy Jones (who, sadly, has passed away, I learned at the reunion photo shoot).

My youth at Rock Island was marked by incredible memories, all-night parties and frequent brushes with celebrity. I was fondled by Johnny Rotten, told Bjork to “get [her] skinny ass out of my way” when I was overladen with a tray of drinks (to be fair, I didn’t know it was Bjork, and she didn’t speak much English at that point, I imagine), danced with Madeline Kahn and told Tom Petty that he sucked after a particularly drunken set.
But given that I was usually working hard when I was at Rock Island, not partying, I didn’t know many of the people at the reunion — save for the staff and people I had stayed in touch with. Nevertheless, the photo shoot was fun, and we all hung out in the street the way people used to every night when the club let out ("You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here"), hearing stories from both before and after my time there, punctuated by bear hugs from long-lost friends.

At both photo shoots, I found myself marveling at how many faces I knew whose names I didn’t – a function of living in the same place for so many years. We see the same people again and again until we just come to know one another by osmosis; when Denver was smaller, it was a phenomenon that seemed even more common. That sense of familiarity is part of why I strive to stay in Denver, despite how unfamiliar it becomes day after day. The people are what has always made the place.

Yet still…are either of these groups my community? Are they pieces of my past, part of my present...or my future? In truth, my community is a vast diaspora – from friends who have moved away to friends who have never lived here, from people I’ve shared night after night with to people I have never met in person yet feel closer to than people I see all the time. As I suspect is true for many people, you can be nowhere without missing someone, but that sense of the familiar face, of the shared memory, is something you can only get from being in a place for a long time.

I cling stubbornly to each face as fervently as I do the favorite landmark or quirky piece of architecture disappearing under the wrecking ball. As Denver re-shapes itself, for some of us it will always be preserved in the memory of what it was, even as new memories are built by new people on the ruins of our youth.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell.  See more of her work at

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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy