"Sometimes we itch all over. We think it's because of the gas leak," says Timmy Moen, a lanky 27-year-old with bloodshot eyes glued to League of Legends, a multiplayer video game. When he turns on the heat, flames shoot from the vent, he complains to his 24-year-old roommate and best friend, Noah Bardwell.
Noah blushes. He is also Timmy's landlord.
The two live at Boystown, a ramshackle house in Villa Park, a predominantly Latino neighborhood on the west side of Denver. Their home is a social hub for a group of washed-up Peter Pans, sick with lung infections and consumed by endless gin drinking, weed smoking and video-game playing. Many nights the two stumble to bed, pass out, wake up, puke and do it all again — that is, if they ever leave their gaming chairs at all.
The Boystown door is never locked. Inside, the dust-caked floor is uneven to the step. Ignored electric guitars and beat-up amps are stacked haphazardly in the corner of the living room. In three dirty bedrooms, dirty sheets cover dirty mattresses surrounded by dirty clothes.
The kitchen — half hallway and half breakfast nook — looks into a small room: the gamers' command center. At the back of the room, a hand-built table supports a gargantuan computer monitor and three small monitors; the computers glow and hum next to a high-end speaker system. Cigarette ash covers everything, including mounds of prescription pill bottles, dried marijuana stems, empty flasks, crushed beer cans and crusted plates.
At any time of the day or night, Boystown may be packed with gamers, queers and punks. Or the house may be dead quiet. Either way, Timmy is likely to be hunkered down in a tattered office chair in the command center, duct-taped headphones covering his ears. His fingers will be tapping at a keyboard and mouse, only breaking to pack a bowl with weed, crack open a beer or light another cigarette.
Chris Nelson loves cigarettes. Trying to quit, he has banned himself from Boystown.
"I've got to warn you, I'm grumpy," he says, grabbing two quarts of sesame sticks from a well-stocked pantry and lumbering down to his basement bedroom at Knox House, a tidy community home in Barnum, not far from Boystown.
"Last couple of years, I've headed over there once a week, and we'd play video games, smoke cigarettes and drink beer," he says. "It's hard to go over there and not partake. I've been over there two times, and both times I cheated. I've got to stay home. It sucks. I really want to be over there."
But with a baby coming next month, this thirty-year-old, curly-haired, flannel-clad bear has to kick his habit. This time, for real — for the kid, for his partner, and for his own health.
"Everything is more enjoyable with cigarettes. Drinking coffee is better with cigarettes. Reading is better with cigarettes. Eating is better with cigarettes. I enjoy it all more with cigarettes."
"I'm kicking so much ass. I'm awesome," Timmy tells himself, his pale, gaunt face lit blue by his monitor.
Even when Boystown is filled with friends trying to reconnect, it's tough for Timmy to turn away from his video games.
Tonight he's playing League of Legends with strangers around the world. On their screens, they share a bird's-eye view of their "champions" battling each other on the "Field of Justice." To the noob — the uninitiated gamer — the visuals appear muddled and incoherent. Gamers study hard to understand the game, and Timmy has put in the time.
"A lot of my friends judge my video-game habit. I've always been open about it, but my friends talk so much shit about it," he says. "I didn't become a full-time gamer until two years ago. I needed something to make me want to live again. Video games are a great way out when you feel like shit."
"Playing video games is a good way to ignore things," says Noah, dwarfed by his mammoth monitor.
"When you've got low self-esteem, you've got to start somewhere," says Timmy, staring into his much smaller screen.
At fifteen, Timmy was a budding hawk in a pacifist, Unitarian community. "I was for the Iraq War. I was really into war and war movies. I grew up on Saving Private Ryan," he says, scrolling through YouTube videos, looking for the trailer for Memphis Belle.
He finds it, clicks "play" and watches the Greatest Generation's finest bomb the Third Reich. A Voice-of-God narrator booms: "We asked these boys to become men. We asked these men to become heroes, but whatever the danger, whatever the odds, we asked them to come home again."