Amid the nourishing chaos of city life, we urban dwellers find ourselves brain-deep in startling juxtapositions. Mid-morning one Tuesday, a formation of squawking geese sweeps its shadow across a used-bookstore window, dimming the dog-eared covers of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, and Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. An instant later, at this busy Capitol Hill intersection, two cars screech and crash together in a horror of twisted steel, fumes and fire.
Two blocks away, the grand, neo-Gothic hulk of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where the pope once said Mass, stands neighbor to a storefront cafe called Mount Everest, where blissed-out diners high on the Dalai Lama dive into bowls of vegetable thukpa. Not sixty seconds' walk eastward, we find Kitty's Adult Video, a windowless shoebox where bared flesh is the sacrament -- insofar as that flesh can be made real by digital means. Thirty blocks east of that, the glad-handing surrogates of John Elway, the city's venerated football saint, peddle sporty Mustangs and huge Ford Explorers. Across the street and down the way, members of a Greek social club sip Metaxa behind closed doors and play their cards close to the vest.
As any Denverite would guess, these happy contrasts arise on Colfax Avenue, the thirty-mile ribbon of hopes, dreams and hustle stretching from the tumbleweed prairie east of Aurora to the foothills of Golden. Gold diggers fueled by visions of wealth once trekked west along Colfax's dusty trail en route to Central City, Idaho Springs and Leadville. Civic boosters have long chosen to call it the longest commercial street in America (who knows?), but however it measures up, there's no missing the bold, sometimes bawdy path bisecting the heart of a city that, like the ever-changing avenue itself, is still deciding what it is and what it means to be. For more than a century, Colfax has embodied most of the possibilities.
Two warring habits of mind still define what, in the bloodless argot of urban planning, is called "the Colfax corridor." Old-line bluenoses, battle-weary vice cops and occasional bus riders clutching their parcels to their bosoms see it as the ninth circle of hell -- a neon-flooded strip of honky-tonks, no-tell motels and franchise clutter with no redeeming virtue save that the traffic lights are timed for quick passage. Only last week, a new Denver law seeking to restrict the movement of street prostitutes specified Colfax -- East and West -- as its main focus.
At the opposite pole, gentrifiers, redevelopers and the proprietors of candlelit restaurants offering thirty-dollar slivers of foie gras and $200 bottles of Chateau-Figeac tell us everything has changed since -- well, when? Since pint-sized strip-joint magnate Sid King shut the Crazy Horse Bar on East Colfax two decades ago? Since the bent-nosed prizefighters and contentedly boozy linebackers who frequented Eddie Bohn's Pig n' Whistle on West Colfax vanished into the record books, along with the Pig itself? Since Colorado lawmakers under the Capitol's gold-leaf dome foreswore four-drink lunches across the street at the Quorum, also long gone?
Excited by Colfax's unmistakable new vitality -- here a sparkling block of flats, there a daring vista of glass and steel, now a sleek new boîte catering to the Armani set -- one community newspaper recently proclaimed The Street "Denver's Champs Elysees" in the making, a notion that might prove equally startling to the average Parisian and the proprietor of Smiley's, "World's Largest Discount Laundromat."
Plucky visionaries dream of reviving a streetcar line on Colfax (estimated economic impact: $1 billion); the Regional Transportation District says it hasn't got the cash to build it. But those looking for culinary, cultural and social variety will still find it at every turn. How about a plate of exotic begue-alicha -- lamb with turmeric sauce -- at the Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant a block east of Colorado Boulevard? Or try some vapor therapy at the venerable Lake Steam Bath, just west of Federal, which has been breathing life back into its patrons since 1927. Maybe you'd like an afternoon loll in Civic Center Park, beneath the Denver City and County Building's graceful spire, or a beer and a burger at the low-down, teeming Roslyn Grill on Capitol Hill. Take your choice. Choose your company. Bask in the unpredictable bombardments of city life.
What would Schuyler Colfax do? Born in New York City and raised in Indiana (he helped organize that state's Republican Party), the man for whom Denver's street of dreams is named became Ulysses S. Grant's vice president in 1868 and, legend has it, once implored a half-sister living in Denver to spend the outrageous sum of $2.50 on a dozen eggs so that his customary breakfast needs could be met in the egg-deprived Wild West. Stiff-collared, mutton-chopped old Schuyler and his boss, the notorious rye-swiller Ulysses S., no doubt would have enjoyed cutting a swath through the shot-and-a-beer joints of East Colfax, there to get sloshed on sheer promise, at every stop more vividly Imagining a Great City. -- Bill Gallo
6:50 a.m.: 21481 East Colfax
Sunrise is still a half-hour off, but above the great sweep of plains to the east, the sky is already tinted the color of Dreamsicles. At the point where I-70 starts Colfax Avenue on its way west, though, most dreams have been on hold for decades. This twenty-acre property at 21481 East Colfax, on the frontage road that will soon turn into Denver's equivalent of Main Street, has been on the market for over a year. It holds a handful of tumbledown buildings, including a burned-out motel and a falling-down house both dating from the '40s, when this area east of Aurora was the true Gateway to the Rockies, those mountains just now touched with the opalescent glow of a new day.
Highways sped up the way west, moving development in that direction, too. But progress -- if that's what you want to call it -- is finally headed over here, too. So Stu Mosko, who has the 21481 East Colfax listing for Fuller & Company, bills the $2.5 million parcel as a "future development site," not a fixer-upper. "I'm still having trouble getting this particular property sold," he admits. "We haven't had a lot of interest because it's a commercial/industrial, highway-related development. Everyone's expectations of the engine that would be DIA were overstated, and it's taken longer than some people thought."
Still, prosperity is on the horizon. Just last week, the Arapahoe County commissioners just approved a proposal to put 4,000 homes on the prairie east of here. -- Patricia Calhoun
7:32 a.m.: The Monroe Tavern,
3602 East Colfax
Only so many ways you can fold a dollar bill, hoping it will multiply. Only so many times you can rub George Washington's head with your thumb for good luck. Then it's gone. Gone. Thirst, or the deeper thing that makes thirst, gets the best of ritual. The man on the barstool lifts his chin at Tiny, and Tiny, with his bull neck and his Virginia-ham forearms and his bulging Illinois Law Enforcement T-shirt, rolls down to him in the dark. Tiny has twenty solid years of these mornings behind him. Been here. Done this. He silently refills the man's beer mug and, with unexpected delicacy, plucks the dollar bill from his fingers. Call the man Lou. Call the dollar bill Lou's last dollar bill. Folded and creased and, until this moment, his. Then Lou gets a look. Tiny looks straight at him for a second with his knowing blue eyes. Then Lou sees Tiny's broad, fleshy back moving away.
"I'm just tryin' to stay out of trouble," guy on the right says. He's talking to no one in particular. "I already been in trouble," he says. Lou pays no attention. Instead, he looks up at the TV again. This morning's movie, which everyone's watching in almost total silence, is about this very weird small town -- you know, crazy -- where every June 27, the people who live there get together in the town square and put their names on slips of paper in this big cardboard box. Then they draw names out of the box, and the loser, a woman, has to stand in the middle of the crowd. Then the crowd stones her to death. Of course, it's not always the same woman. Not every June 27. "Sometimes they stone a man to death," Lou says.
"Keep killin' people," Tiny says from the far end of the bar, "ain't gonna be anybody left in that town."
No one laughs. Ten guys crammed against a little half-moon bar in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and not one laughs. Lou doesn't laugh, either. It was his last dollar. Folded. "I crashed and burned pretty good last night," he tells the guy on his left. That one rubs a scraggle of beard with the back of his hand. "I hear ya," he says. He gives Lou a Newport and a look. So Lou puts a dime and a nickel down next to scraggle-beard's little wad of singles. Just like always. A dime and a nickel. But the dollar is still gone.
Up on the TV screen, the hero is telling the state police how these strange people in a small town drew lots, then stoned a woman to death in the town square. The state police obviously don't believe him. Especially when they all go to the town and nobody there knows what the hero's talking about. They don't know. Or they're not saying.
"That's one fucked-up town," guy on the right says. "Anyway, the woman got stoned is still RIP. Or DOA. Something."
"Let's get stoned," Tiny says. "The other way."
About 8:30, two security guards walk in the back door, still in their uniforms. They order beers. Just off work. The smell of work is still on them. Tired guys. Happy to be off. They have dollars. Little stacks of dollars, Lou sees. But when Tiny goes to draw their beers, the tap coughs and sputters. Empty keg. Lou doesn't hesitate.
"I'll change that out -- for a beer," he says.
Tiny crosses his big arms and gives Lou his blue-eyed look. "Yer beggin' now, ain'tcha?" he says.
"Yeah," Lou answers. "Badly."
On TV, the hero is in jail. A guy wearing a dark suit, guy with a neat beard, is just coming in to see him. "Hello, Mr. Smith," he says as the cell door clanks behind him. "I'm Dr. Carroll. Feeling any better this morning?"
"Nah," Lou says into the air. "He's not feeling any better. I already seen this movie." -- Gallo
9:14 a.m.: Lakewood Lanes,
8025 West Colfax
Standing at the worn counter, Debbie Moss smiles as she types on her laptop. An unlit Budweiser sign looms above her; two grandchildren play near the dormant fryer. "A lot of nice people come here," she says. "Some of the people who come here used to set pins by hand when they were kids."
Debbie's blue sweatshirt is emblazoned with the image of Tinkerbell and the words "Find magic in every moment." In a way, she has. For the past five years, Debbie and her husband, Robbie, have operated this twelve-lane alley, built in booming, post-war 1946. The rapture may be a slog at times, and "the hours" are the toughest thing, Debbie says, since Lakewood Lanes is open from 9 a.m. to about 11 p.m. daily, seven days a week. Yet even though business is down a bit from last year, she's not complaining. After all, she used to work in a bowling alley -- and her husband rolled a 300 game not long ago.
The noise? "I don't even notice it," she says. What does get her attention is something odd, like the sound of the vintage pinsetter sputtering when it doesn't return some wooden soldiers correctly. But, knock wood, the same mechanic who helped install those automatic pinsetters in the '50s will drop by to keep the machinery moving, so the enterprise rolls on.
It's a comfy fit. A few dozen regulars are here for the weekly senior open bowl, a friendly session that begins the day and lasts until everyone has bowled three games at the bargain rate of $1.50 a game. The bond of amateur sport isn't the only incentive. A box of quarters rests on the counter, the reward for special feats, such as getting a strike with a green or gold headpin. There's steady traffic to the silvery treasure chest, where winners -- Skeeter, Elmer, Roy -- sign in sometimes shaky script, then take their winnings. With ready cash, a pro might want to pick up something at the counter: grip tape, or some Easy Slide professional sole conditioner. Most pocket the coins.
"They're all looking for one of those new quarters," Debbie says.
Jerry Writebol, a seventy-year-old retired pipefitter, takes a break from the thrum and pours himself another cup of brew. Coffee and three boxes of brightly iced Winchell's donuts fuel the event. As a courtesy, smoking -- if done at all -- is by the door, since some of the kegglers are on oxygen.
"It's a good place to be for the fellowship," Jerry says. He's met plenty of friends here but enjoys one special bond, he says, nodding at a lanky man in a dark shirt. "That's my son, Lance," he explains. "He has a prosthetic."
The younger Writebol, an out-of-work network administrator, stands and adjusts his posture, takes a few short steps, then delivers a solid roll that scatters seven pins. After his ball returns, he lines up again and releases, missing a spare by a hair. He smiles. "My left leg was amputated last May," he says. It didn't stop him from bowling, even though his artificial limb fits differently every week. "My main goal is to have all three games above 100," he adds. And spend time with his dad.
Debbie fills a carafe at the tap and pours the water into the coffeemaker behind the counter. Despite what appears to be a bullet hole in the front door -- "some kids with an airgun a few months ago went down the street," she says -- she thinks Colfax is a good place.
"We've never been robbed. Never had any trouble," she says, rapping the countertop for luck. Knocking on wood.
Crashlackichhhhs. -- Ernie Tucker
10 a.m.: Herbs & Arts
2015 East Colfax
Colfax is often considered Denver's hard-luck street, a place where dreams can die or just fade away.
But there's a secret side to Colfax, a magic that floats just above the asphalt and even perfumes the air. However sad your story, however bad things might seem, Colfax offers a solution.
You can cast a spell.
The scent emanating from Herbs & Arts -- the scent of hundreds of sacred herbs and charmed oils -- will either draw you into the store or send you fleeing down Colfax.
"A lot of people come in here because they like the smell coming off the street," says John Kulsar, who bought the store with his wife, Kaewyn, three years ago. "Others walk ten feet inside and turn around and leave."
Herbs & Arts is one of a handful of establishments clustered along this stretch of Colfax that cater to those interested in paganism, shamanism, Wicca and a half-dozen other ancient spiritual practices. Paganism, the pre-Christian religion of Europe, emphasizes connections to the natural world, marking time by the phases of the moon and worshiping a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Wicca is a pagan practice that emphasizes goddess worship and has been adopted by many women tired of patriarchal religions. The magazine rack near the cash register reminds you that this is no 7-Eleven: The feature story in the current New Witch magazine is titled "Find the Perfect Coven."
But while his store is full of books on witchcraft, Kulsar is quick to point out that most practitioners are kind people with good intentions. Paganism's bad reputation is the result of centuries of Christian persecution, he says, as those who followed the ancient arts were singled out for daring to continue mixing herbs and potions. "People in rural areas would go to the old lady in the forest who knew about herbs," he explains. "They were the healers. Most of the people they burned as witches were women."
Kulsar is a soft-spoken man with a bushy beard and flowing locks. He could easily be an extra in The Lord of the Rings, and he proudly shows off a collection of hundreds of herbs and oils that looks like something straight out of the movie. The sacred oils are made in the store during specific phases of the moon. Chaste Tree Berry oil, mugwort, frankincense, fennel -- there's an herb or potion for anything that troubles you, from insomnia to trying to quit smoking.
Last year, the Kulsars opened the Oh My Goddess! coffeehouse down the street at 1526 East Colfax. That establishment features readings by psychics, drumming sessions and sensuous murals of naked goddesses in all their splendor. Oh My Goddess! also offers coffee specials on "We're not Starbucks Wednesdays," when there's not a frappuccino in sight. -- Stuart Steers
10:07 a.m.: Golden Hours Motel,
11080 West Colfax
When Paul Kim, the present owner of the Golden Hours Motel, is asked about John Hinckley, who tried to kill then-president Ronald Reagan almost 23 years ago, he responds with a blank expression that slowly turns quizzical. "I read about him in the newspaper," Kim says. "He stayed here?"
Did he ever. For two weeks in March 1981, Hinckley roomed at the Golden Hours before traveling to Washington, D.C., where he wounded Reagan and permanently injured press secretary and future gun-control advocate James Brady. Since being found not guilty by reason of insanity for the shooting, Hinckley has lived rather quietly at St. Elizabeths Hospital in D.C. -- but he recently returned to the public eye. In late November, his clumsy gunplay was dramatized in The Reagans, a mini-series produced for CBS but shunted off to Showtime after conservative critics complained that the production was historically inaccurate, as if any bio-pic has ever been otherwise. (Hinckley has previously been characterized in at least two made-for-TV movies, 1991's Without Warning: The James Brady Story and 2001's The Day Reagan Was Shot.) Then, on December 17, a U.S. district judge granted Hinckley six unsupervised get-togethers with his parents in the Washington area, sparking the ire of Reagan family members.
The press coverage that followed this decree immediately grabbed the attention of Kathy Lee, a producer for the Lewis & Floorwax Show on KRFX/The Fox. In 1981, Lee's parents not only owned the Golden Hours, but they lived there with Kathy, then eight years old, and her two sisters. "All of us remember him," she says of Hinckley.
Today, kids growing up in such a transitory environment would probably be kept on a short tether, but young Kathy was allowed to interact with any guest she wished. Her favorites were followers of the Grateful Dead, who turned up in force at the Golden Hours whenever the band was in town. There were limits, however. "My mom said I couldn't hang outside with them," Lee points out, "because she said, 'Those people like to smoke happy smoke.' And I'd be like, 'What's happy smoke?'"
By these standards, Hinckley was rather nondescript: He favored brown pants, brown jackets, brown button-down shirts and a semi-conservative hairstyle. Still, he made an impression on Lee even before he drew a bead on the chief executive. She and her sister Linda, two years her senior, loved to jump rope or play on the stairs at the motel, "and he would hang out where we were playing, buy everyone sodas and sit there and watch us, ask us questions," she says. "I remember him asking about Jodi Foster. He told us, 'She's my favorite movie star. What do you think about her?'"
Hinckley would later explain that he thought he could impress the child star by slaying Reagan. But even before he gained national notoriety, considering that Foster's Taxi Driver character was a child prostitute, Hinckley's inquiry could have been interpreted as molester talk. Lee didn't take it that way. "He just seemed like a normal person asking questions," she says. "It wasn't that we were afraid of him or thought he was creepy. Believe me, there were way creepier people. There was one guy who lived at the motel full-time who never wanted the maids to clean his room and always carried a paper bag with him. We never found out what was in the bag." In a youthful attempt to torment him, Lee and her playmates "used to stick naked Barbie dolls on his door."
Before Hinckley could receive such treatment, he split without paying his bill; according to Lee, his father later covered the outstanding balance (reportedly $55.40). The next time she saw him was on television at a friend's house immediately after the shooting. "I'm like, 'Wait a minute. That guy lives at our motel,'" Lee remembers. She returned home to discover that cops and the media already had the Golden Hours under siege.
The police investigation determined that Hinckley had purchased most of his meals across the street at a McDonald's (#418), differentiated from other restaurants in the hamburger chain by a row of seats made to look like Western saddles. Newspaper articles from the period suggest he may also have headed to 935 East Colfax for a March 11 screening of Taxi Driver at the Ogden Theatre, a movie house that eventually became a concert venue. Promoter Doug Kauffman, whose company, Nobody in Particular Presents, purchased the Ogden a decade later, was told by someone who claims to have been at the same show that Hinckley did indeed catch the flick. His source -- former Denver resident Kirby McMillan Jr., aka Mojo Nixon, whose hit songs include "Elvis Is Everywhere" and "Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child" -- isn't exactly unimpeachable. Even so, Kauffman sounds a cautious, albeit wry note. "The current ownership of the Ogden Theatre takes no responsibility for Mr. Hinckley's actions," he deadpans.
The Lees were guiltless, too, but Kathy's parents and her oldest sister, Diane, still had to fly to Washington, D.C., for a pre-trial hearing. By the time they returned, things had calmed down at the motel. Lee doesn't recall any particular demand for Room 30, the unit Hinckley rented, but she does say weird things seemed to happen there up until her parents sold the motel in 1986. On one occasion (she's not sure if it was before Hinckley's stay or after), she and a maid discovered that a forty-something man had committed suicide in the bathtub, leaving behind only a scattering of cocaine and a spoon.
Paul Kim, who bought the motel over two years ago, hasn't had anyone specifically ask for the Hinckley suite and says he couldn't satisfy such a request even if someone offered to pay more than the going rate of $35 per night "because I don't know which one it is." Indeed, there have been plenty of changes at the Golden Hours since the early '80s. The pool where Lee once played is gone, and all of the room numbers are different, running from "101" through "128," with a "131" thrown in for good measure.
From Lee's description, though, it seems clear that Room 120, on the motel's second floor, used to be Room 30. Inside it, a maid named Rachel (she keeps her last name to herself) is tidying up with a vengeance; she tosses a pair of old phone books out the open door to the pavement below, where they land with a thwap! After saying she's clueless about Hinckley's stay at the Golden Hours, she heads to another room while giving casual permission to visit the one she left behind -- and a lovely space it is. Green and blue carpeting with occasional stains and tears. Twin beds with floral covers that sort of match the thick, multi-colored curtains over the adjacent window, but not really. A gold lamp with a dusty beige shade. A phone with a piece of duct tape on the cord. A light-red armchair covered in smudges. And nothing at all on the walls -- not even a plaque commemorating the room's one confirmed celebrity occupant.
The McDonald's doesn't sport any references to Hinckley, either -- and, even worse, the distinctive saddle seats are gone. But at least the store manager, Denese Klocker, is up to speed on the Golden Hours-Hinckley connection, having heard Lee talk about it on the Fox during a live remote at nearby Lakewood Fordland in December. Days later, the ruling allowing Hinckley's unsupervised trips from the hospital was announced, and Klocker found it "kind of scary," she says. "This is his old hunting ground. What if he were to walk in here? I wouldn't even know him."
Neither would anyone else in the neighborhood. John Hinckley's gone, and he's mostly forgotten. -- Michael Roberts
10:30 a.m.: National Temporaries, Inc.,
410 East Colfax
"Work Daily, Pay Daily" reads the grimy, battered sign above the door. The McDonald's across the street has already stopped serving breakfast, so you know it's getting late in the morning -- indeed, too late to snag the best pick of temp jobs at this day-labor service, where men are loaded into vans and, under the pretense of pruning trees or sweeping floors, probably shanghaied to some underground bunker and shot full of extraterrestrial strains of anthrax. No such luck for the eight down-at-the-heels guys watching TV in the cramped lobby of National Temporaries, feet propped up on dirty knapsacks, staring numbly at what appears to be a battalion of midget KKK members storm-trooping the set of Jerry Springer. They're waiting for a job to come through. They may sit here all day, waiting, ears tuned to the voice of the dispatcher at the front desk, equipped as it is with that sole, indispensable piece of office apparatus: a lava lamp.
Of course, there's no guarantee these people will get any work at all today, but at least it's quiet and warm and dark in this storefront, the former home of Colorado Comics. The huge windows are now covered with sheets of black paper instead of X-Men posters. There are also memos taped up beside the door offering assignments: one looking for carpenters, another for, specifically, ladies with "printing experience." The most curious of all, though, is a piece of paper that reads: "People with laundry experience needed. Must have good attitude and be neat and clean." On the floor directly below, someone is airing out a pair of decrepit brown boots that look like they've been trashed by a bulldozer for the last three weeks. And in a loop of ironic self-reference straight out of Catch-22, there's a notice on the wall requesting the services of a new dispatcher -- a position for which none of the men lounging under a large "No Loitering" sign is apparently considered qualified for. -- Jason Heller
11 a.m.: Lafarge Spec. Aggregates,
19301 West Colfax
You could look long and hard before you came up with an operation manlier than rock mining. Dynamite the granite out of the mountain. Truck it down the hill to the giant cone-and-jaw crushers. Slam it into smaller chunks, from the finest dust to six-foot boulders. Load the pieces, up to 80,000 pounds at a time, onto rigs to be hauled all over the state and used in road construction, landscaping and riprap for flood control.
Big deal. If you measured work in headaches and not just sweat, you'd know that Barb and Linda do the real heavy lifting around here.
"We gotta be a mother confessor, a big sister," Linda says in a tone of voice that leads you to believe she doesn't maintain a deep reserve of respect for the Carhartt crybabies. "The guys come in here and you hear their stories" -- here her voice changes to that of a toddler tattletale -- "of their kids, their jobs, their wives." She shakes her head. "Bunch of sob sisters, I swear. We're the mother confessors of Lafarge."
Barb nods. "All their whining and crying."
"Sometimes," says Linda, "you just want to pull out a gun and go postal, I swear. Every now and then, somebody's got an attitude problem."
"Just like us," Barb cautions.
"Everybody's entitled to one," agrees Linda.
Both women shake their heads. It's lunchtime, and the bosses are gone. So what? Barb and Linda have a combined forty years of experience working at the scale house on the eastern boundary of the aggregate mine ground into the Hogback where the plains swell into mountain. Who's going to bother them now?
Both women wear sweatshirts and jeans. Barb moves her long hair in and out of a giant clip on the back of her head. Linda wears a large, craft-fair turquoise-and-silver ring on every finger and leans out the door to smoke her cigarettes. The trucks stop in front of their office to get weighed, then roll by and out of the mine.
The quarry is classic Front Range Colorado. Where else could you find a hard-rock mine surrounded by a popular Jefferson County Open Space hiking and biking park on one side, an amusement park on another, and some of the priciest real estate in the area on one more border? And all of it not two miles up the road from Denver West and Colorado Mills, one of the busiest retail centers in the state.
The business spreads over 200 acres up into the hills. About half of that has been mined out over the past three decades, with the pace of extraction accelerating. As Denver has grown, so has the demand for rock. Twenty years ago, about 750,000 tons of granite left the grounds each year. Now the mountain loses about three million tons annually.
For anyone who's counting, that means that Barb and Linda have probably watched about 100 million pounds of granite roll by. They've survived three different owners. The tapestry of their lives is covered in a fine granite dust.
Next month, Barb will celebrate her 21st year of working here. She lives only two miles away and rarely misses a day. Sometimes she drives over to the mine on a snowmobile. Linda's husband hauled gravel for a while; her brother still does. "It's like the Simon boys," she explains, nodding as a truck rumbles by in a cloud of gray dust. "Shit, the whole family's into trucking."
"It's a hard way to go," Barb sighs.
"Sunup to sundown," agrees Linda.
"All summer," nods Barb. "If you don't make your money in the summer, you're in trouble."
"I've seen trucks go out of here at 100,000 pounds," says Linda. "'Course, the legal limit is 80,000. That was years ago, though."
"And now all the trucks have to go up the road and onto I-70," says Barb. "They can't drive through Golden anymore."
"The residents don't like the Jake brake to disturb them," Linda explains in her nasal, nah-nah, fake sympathy voice. "I kind of like the Jake." She loosens her lips and makes the low growl of a truck gearing down -- puttttllllrrrr. "It's a nice noise."
"I remember when Magic Mountain opened next door," Linda says. "I played for the opening of it when I was thirteen. I played clarinet for Colorado's only all-girl band. You had to quit when you turned fourteen. It was only for little kids."
Looking over at Heritage Square, she adds, "It was supposed to be a big theme park. They were talking about selling to Disney. It's gone downhill, but I love those shops they have up there."
"It's old-timey," says Barb.
On a busy summer day, between 800 and 900 trucks pass by the scale house, carrying 28,000 tons of rock out of the hill. Occasionally Linda and Barb talk to the men over their radios or lean out the side window and shoot the breeze. "Some of these drivers we've known since they've been teenagers," says Linda. "Like Kevin DeCarlo."
"Oh, yeah," Barb nods. "He worked his butt off."
"I think he started before he was eighteen," says Linda. "'Course, nobody checked back then."
"Here comes Frankie Joe!" exclaims Barb as a driver in a white cowboy hat drives up, waving. "He's been here as long as I have."
"Oh, God, yes," says Linda. "Frankie Joe. And Tony Spano, the Bellios. They've been around since I started."
"There's more and more women drivers every day," Linda adds.
"It's the only way a single woman can work and make a man's living these days," says Barb.
"Unless they've got some high white-collar job," Linda replies.
"We don't make a man's living," Barb says.
"Oh, no," says Linda. "We don't make a man's living." -- Eric Dexheimer
12:30 p.m.: St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store,
7100 East Colfax
There isn't enough space to house all the stuff that people drop off at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store -- definitely not in the crowded warehouse out back, and maybe not in the entire universe. Inside the warehouse door, mounds and mounds of donated goods are piled twenty feet high, suggesting the world's biggest and most cluttered closet. Distribution outlet for the three St. Vincent's thrift stores in Denver, this place swells with new inventory each week. Clothes are the most commonly dumped items, followed by books.
Sorting through the detritus is a full-time job for a small staff that shows up six days a week to grapple with the coats, dog-eared paperbacks, rattan rockers and too-scratched records. They can't get to it all, which is why three gigantic green dumpsters are permanent fixtures in St. Vincent's parking lot. Every Saturday, staffers unload what they can't process, and every Saturday night, savvy late-night trash-pickers rifle the throwaways.
"Sometimes we've just got to junk it," says Sheryl Higsby, one of the store's managers. "And we get these people out here digging the dumpsters, which worries me. We don't want anyone to get hurt going in there looking for stuff, because who knows what all makes its way in there? Sometimes we call the cops. A lot of the time it's the people who are really hard up. They don't even want to pay for anything at all."
Around Higsby's neck is a gold pendant that reads "Classy Lady"; on her hip is a "Jesus Loves Me" keychain. Like many of the people who work for the St. Vincent de Paul Catholic parish, Higsby's doing God's work: helping the poor by finding use in unwanted things. She's always on the lookout for coveted items, like working TVs and box mattresses with unexposed springs. Thrift stores get plenty of blankets and scarves and men's tuxedo pants; furnishings and appliances and telephones are always in short supply. And despite the mountains of merchandise in the warehouse, Higsby says donations have been slower than usual lately. So have sales.
"There's a lot of things we're running low on," she says. "Business is hard since Christmas, both in the shop and back in the donations. People are just spent out. They don't want to spend any money, or maybe they're not getting rid of things as much as they used to. That's just the way the world is right now." -- Laura Bond
1 p.m.: Heritage Square,
18301 West Colfax
Why are empty amusement parks creepy? Is it because they always seem to have that '70s horror-film carnival music playing just a little too slowly in the background? Maybe it's one-too-many cop dramas that end up with the psycho guy with the knife hiding somewhere in the carousel. Whatever. It's midday Tuesday, middle of winter, and Heritage Square looks like it's been hit with a dirty bomb.
There's a single car in the vast parking lot that spreads out behind the giant archway proclaiming this "A Victorian Shopping and Entertainment Village." At the faux-Old West village square, one person is visible: a guy trimming a tree.
Julie sits alone in the Music Hall's ticket booth. "All the actors are on vacation until January 23," she explains. No one will be around until then. Go see Gini, she recommends.
Up the street, a man bathed in shadow cracks open the door of Notz Landing (A Family Fun Place 2 Eat) and looks out. "Hey, Ron," he says in a low voice. "Oh. I thought you were Ron. I have a guy comin'." He withdraws into the dark store.
The Christmas Tree is open, though, as it is every single day of the year save three: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. The two clerks gossip about how Heritage Square is withering. "Everybody drives by, but no one comes in," says one.
"I miss Heritage Square the way it used to be," adds the other. "When everybody used to know each other."
"Remember when they used to barbecue outside? It smelled so good."
Go talk to Gini, they suggest.
Since it opened in 1957 as the Magic Mountain theme park, this amusement center has served two seemingly conflicting purposes. With its rides, fishing pond, haunted house, restaurant, narrow-gauge train, playhouse and alpine slide, it is a full-service family attraction. Yet the land also serves as a legal buffer between the gravel pit to the south -- which owns the place -- and encroaching Golden residences to the north. The mining company uses Heritage Square to keep the granite dust and dynamite blasts from bothering the homeowners.
The park did have its heyday. But then one manager defaulted on a long-term contract, let the place go to hell. And when Lafarge bought the gravel-mining operation a little over a decade ago, the mining executives -- used to blasting and moving rock -- seemed unprepared to run a Victorian Village.
So today the place is in flux again. No one knows what will happen next -- especially Gini Casey, the on-site property manager who works out of a small office on the west side of the complex. Yesterday she was told that this would be her last week on the job.
"I don't know," she says, as she eats lunch at her desk. "I don't know. Heritage Square has lost money for years and years and years. We've got about six stable businesses in the place: the Christmas Tree, the Wings of Eagles [a Native American art gallery], the Garden Spot, the Music Hall and the Fish 'n Farm. But it's one of those places that has played the phoenix so many times. So who knows?"
Even Lafarge seems conflicted about what to do with Heritage Square. According to Gini, the company spent $250,000 updating the place last year: new paint, necessary building repairs. But two crucial projects -- rewiring much of the electronics and updating the fire-safety system -- were stopped in the middle of the work. "Everything has been on hold since November 1," she says.
And it's been tough even without the owners' mixed messages. Colorado Mills and Denver West have cut into the retail businesses, and the people who manage to find the 46-year-old place tucked beyond the Hogback aren't spending money the way they once did. "I feel bad," says Gini, with genuine sadness. "Some of us were brought up here as kids and then brought our own kids up here."
She looks out the window at a huge red sandstone mound humped up next to her office like a giant buried ball. "That's the original Magic Mountain, you know," she says. "Some people say it was man-made. Other people swear to heaven it wasn't."
After watching Heritage Square slowly fall into disrepair, Gini has her own opinion. "If you look at the far side, where it's deteriorating, it's clear that it was built up," she says. "I've tried to talk to Lafarge about fixing it up, but I haven't gotten anywhere."
Outside in the village square, the tree trimmer has been replaced by another lone worker. A woman in a jean jacket operating a gas-powered leaf blower walks slowly in front of the locked stores. She herds a cloud of dust down the empty street. -- Dexheimer
1:30 p.m.: Dulcería El Pachangón,
9515 East Colfax
A wedding cake sits in the window of the panadería next door to Dulcería El Pachangón, and it looks like it's been sitting there for a while. The three white layers are sloped and sagging, and the little plastic bride and groom teeter precariously on their frosted tower. A similar benign neglect marks many of the small businesses that line this block: a used-furniture store, a restaurant-supply house, a convenience store selling cheap porcelain knickknacks imported from Taiwan and Hong Kong. A vaquero strolls the sidewalk in green boots, eating tacos from a bag, passing a woman who's pushing a shopping cart full of clothes to nowhere in particular. There's a line for the pay phone on the corner, but no one seems in much of a hurry to use it. It's a languid afternoon.
Inside Dulcería El Pachangón, owner Ricardo Costa is getting ready for a party. He is always getting ready for a party. Quinceañeras, weddings, children's birthdays, baptisms -- if it's worth celebrating, Ricardo is there to make it sweeter. He stocks enough candy to make a niño's mouth water for a full year, from one birthday to the next. His shelves are crammed with Mexican confections: cucumber/chili lollipops, whole tamarind pods, small plastic bottles full of sugary mango-, apple- and orange-flavored goo, rose and peanut cookies. The shop smells like marshmallows and hums with mariachi.
Ricardo sells some goods by the pound -- $1.99 for an assortment of hard candies, for example. But his major business staple is the piñata. Every nook and cranny and corner shelf is stuffed with these crepe-paper sculptures, in every size, shaped like donkeys, cats, vampires, fire trucks. Bart Simpson, Ernie and Bert, and colorful stars with ribbons and aluminum trails hang from the ceiling, dangling over the heads of customers like bats in a cave.
And Ricardo doesn't mind that these creations are all fated to be beaten to death by sugar-crazed kids.
"You don't see what you want? I'll get it for you," he says, making a swinging gesture with his arms, like he's hitting a piñata with a bat. "Give me one week. I can get anything made. Your husband, your boyfriend -- anything you want." -- Bond
2:36 p.m.: East High School,
Colfax and Detroit
Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are lowering the flag, a sign that the end of the school day is near. It's oddly comforting to know that high school kids in all the mountain states are performing this very ritual at this very time.
Sitting on a bench in front of the flagpole are seniors Joy Reynolds and Danielle Vialpando, students at the Denver School of the Arts who come here for classes they can't get there. Today was to be their first day in "social problems," but a substitute teacher, seeing lots of kids leave after they realized their regular teacher wasn't in, signed a bunch of them out. So now they're sitting here on this bench, on this improbably warm afternoon, waiting for their friends to get out of class. A security guard dressed in a green DPS jacket walks by but doesn't question why the girls are out early. In fact, he says what they're thinking: "Damn it. I'm glad it's over. Almost."
They laugh. And when the massive school clock strikes 2:45, the doors bust open and the still, quiet air is punctured by noise. So many of the kids look so young and tiny. Others look like they're in their twenties. The girls appear confident in their chunky high-heeled boots, cute skirts and jeans. The boys are all low-slung pants and attitude.
Once Joy and Danielle leave, Dwon Buskey takes their place on the bench. The senior plans to go home, do some schoolwork, then go to his construction job. Two guys and a girl come up to him, wondering who his benchmate is. A reporter? "Don't you have to have permission to talk to students?" one asks. Responsible, these kids. Me, not so much. I just shrug. "She's smooth," Dwon says. "Looks like one of us just sitting here."
Dwon and his friends start discussing school trends. "We got a group of twins here this year. There go two of them," Dwon says, nodding toward two girls dressed in matching pink velour pants and black quilted jackets. And then there are the "buttons" a lot of the girls are wearing -- including the girl at the bench. They point to her sparkly belly-button ring. "Only Jezebels wear those," says the tallest of the three boys. She asks what a Jezebel is. He doesn't answer, but his mocking laughter tells her it's not good. "These girls are bad. They be having sex right after school," he says. Boys.
Most of the kids do have sex on the brain. Maybe it's the weird weather: Sixty-degree days in January are enough to confuse the birds and bees into thinking it's spring.
Inside East, a broad range of kids mix in the classrooms and in the hallways. But out here, they segregate themselves. Spanish-speaking students flock together; preppie blond girls walk side by side; black boys laugh and mock-fight in one circle; black girls dance and pay the boys no mind; a duo of classic band nerds pass by. All of them talk on cell phones.
Three girls who've taken Dwon's place talk about what the other girls are wearing. When the security guard walks by, they swap stories about him. And when a teacher passes and says hello, they say hi back, all sweet. But as soon as he's out of earshot, they rip on him, too. Girls.
By 3:30, most of the kids have been picked up by parents or gotten rides from friends. Almost as quickly as the noise came, it goes away. All is quiet outside East High. Until tomorrow. -- Julie Jargon
3:15 p.m.: Caribbean Marketplace,
2936 East Colfax
Raymond James was born in Trinidad, a small island at the southern edge of the Caribbean, and he knows most of the Tobagonians, Jamaicans, Bahamians and Bermudans who live in his adopted town of Denver, where he moved nine years ago to train as a professional marathon runner.
"Give me one hand, I can point to them all," says James in a thick patois, gold chains hanging from his dark, slender neck. "Everyone knows everyone. It's very, very small community."
Caribbean Marketplace, his tiny shop next door to the Caribbean Bakery, is one of the few formal enclaves for the community. The store's inventory is small and specific: James sells banners for South American and British cricket teams; incense and oils from Africa; custom-made T-shirts emblazoned with reggae symbols and images of Bob Marley. Soca and dancehall music are always on the stereo, token reminders of a faraway place.
"It does get lonely anytime you're in a place that's far away from your real home," James says. "It's always good to have a big family. That's very important in an island culture. So, that's part of why I have the shop. So other people who are here can have some memories of home, feel some feeling of their family."
James hasn't seen his mother in four years; the trip to Trinidad is so long and expensive, it's impossible to go very often. Instead, he connects to home through reggae.
"In the summer, I leave the door open so people who walk by can hear the music," he says. "The Caucasian people, they hear it and come in, too. Everyone likes it. It's a good vibe. It makes you think of the islands and a happy time." -- Bond
3:45 p.m.: Frontier Club,
18881 East Colfax
The name of the joint implies "country." But a flip through the Frontier's jukebox yields only a handful of classic country songs, buried amid No Doubt, Train and other twang-free CDs.
At the bar, though, the stuff of country songs is flowing freely. "It's my sixtieth birthday, " says Earl, a short, droopy-eyed man. It sounds like a line from a veteran barfly who has perfected the art of scoring free drinks. "I'm drunk," he notes.
Earl says he's also an ex-Navy SEAL, ex-POW, ex-soldier in Vietnam. "I write songs," he says. "Country, old-time rock and roll." How many you got? "A hundred and twelve." He attempts to sing his favorite original, "Golden Years," which paints a bleak picture far removed from the title's usual associations. He stumbles through the song's chorus, blowing the words.
"Know what happened on this day last year?" Earl asks. "I lost four of my daughters. They burned up in a wreck in Junction, Texas." He turns away. Is this guy pulling out all the stops for freebies? He turns back. "See my eyes?" Yep. They're both red and glistening, and the right one drops a tear that gets stuck in a crease in his tanned cheek.
The bartender pours Earl a shot of Southern Comfort, on the rocks, on the house. By Earl's right elbow is a sign that reads: "I'm trying to see things from your point of view, but I can't get my head that far up my ass."
"Fuck life," Earl says a couple sips later, dragging a crooked index finger through the air before him. "Fuck it." He tilts on his stool. "I get by. Do all right."
"Your Cheatin' Heart" floats from the jukebox, and a round-robin sing-along starts up as various bar patrons sing lines from Hank's classic. "Shut up," a woman whines to her singing buddy.
Two songs and one drink later, Earl sits behind the wheel of his truck beside a younger man. A setting sun lights his frontier-worthy face. "Get stoned?" he asks, offering a bowl.
Today really your birthday, dude? "No, it's not," Earl says. "I'm sorry." His partner giggles.
Your daughters really die a year ago? "Yes, they did," he says, squinting into the sun. "That part's true." -- Marty Jones
3:45 p.m.: 7-Eleven,
17881 West Colfax
Guys who come in here work in trades that spatter: paint, drywall mud, transmission grease. They walk in under the sign reading "Join the low-carb revolution" but sensibly ignore it.
"You get to know what they buy, what food, what kind of cigarettes they smoke," says nineteen-year-old clerk Lesa Holycross, who has enough downtime to hone her own junk-food preferences. "I like the spicier nacho Doritos. They're my new favorites."
Lesa grew up in the double-wides just north of the store, separated from it by a thin band of RVs parked on pads. To the south, across Colfax, is another RV park. A large percentage of the neighborhood looks as if it could roll away on impulse. That, and the crisscross of Highways 6 and 70 on the near horizon add to this 7-Eleven's first-stop-on-the-road-trip ambience. Technically, the double-wides are mobile, but they're surrounded by signs of permanence -- a rosebush, a pile of bikes in every size from toddler to teen, a sternly quiet German shepherd with his own Dogloo. (A plastic German shepherd, as it turns out.)
"I like it there," Lesa says. "Also, it was all my mom could afford after my dad died. Suicide. I still live with my mom. I can walk to work."
Lesa's in no hurry to move on to another place of employ, although she wants to be a vet someday. Always has. The fact that Waggin' Tails -- a sort of party pit for dogs whose owners are on vacation -- is located just down the street keeps this foremost in her mind.
"You could still be a vet, Lesa," says her co-worker, who has just come in from a cigarette break. "And don't forget it."
Lesa's manager comes in from the back room wondering if this conversation is going to be "short and sweet," in which case it's okay. The hot dogs turn on rollers under heat lamps. The Gulps are as Big as ever. -- Robin Chotzinoff
4:15 p.m.: Lancaster's Western Wear,
18885 East Colfax
To find the West, head east on Colfax to Lancaster's. A display case by the front door holds enough spurs for several ranches, a stand of books includes such titles as Imprint Training for the Newborn Foal, and rows of beautifully crafted saddles are joined by reins, ropes, horseshoes, bits, bridles and other ranch necessities. You won't find Corona's Udder Butter at Rockmount Ranchwear in LoDo, and, according to Lee Lancaster, you won't find cowboys there, either. "Rockmount -- that's what cowboys wear in Hollywood," he says. "If you have a horse or a cow, I have what you wear." (The clothes and boots are in the back of the store, almost an afterthought.)
Lee and his brother, Larry, bought the business in 1992 from their folks, Sandy and Darlene Lancaster, who'd opened it in 1971. The mortgage for the family home nearby had "boondocks" written in the blank for the property's address, Lee says. But these days, the city is approaching, addresses and all.
He steams a $600 beaver-felt hat for a longtime customer, in the process shattering myths about cowboy clothes. "Today's cowboy is an athlete," he says. He wants to look "preppy. That's why you see the button-down collars and the starched shirts." As Lee brushes the hat, a pair of pro cowboys from the National Western Stock Show step in. They're here to get their hats shaped and to buy protective gear from Larry's "Rock-N-Roll Rodeo Gear," a bullriders' supply department inside the store.
Years ago, there were more locals who rode horses and bulls, real cowboys who stopped in to shop at Lancaster's. Now most of the company's business comes from folks out of town and out of state. Denver barely warrants the handle it's been saddled with. "Cowtown?" Lee asks. "I wish it were more of one." -- Jones
4:15 p.m.: Golden Terrace RV Park,
17801 West Colfax
You can smell 7-Eleven's watery coffee from the Golden Terrace RV Park, an official Good Sam park that has quite a few vacancies. Nancy Green, who's unloading groceries into her huge and spotless RV, recommends the place. She and her husband have lived here for a solid year, not counting weekends, when they drive their mobile house to their house in Victor.
"Your slabs are not as big, but you're not paying the high prices, either," she points out. "There's a nice laundromat and two pools in the summer -- not that I use them, but maybe I should." The Greens once had a house in Lakewood, but they gave that up the second their kids left home, and Nancy hasn't looked back. She walks up to Kipling every day for exercise, lunches at Applebee's and just generally enjoys her freedom. "Although you know that old story," she says. "Your kids are gone, but when they invite you for Thanksgiving, they ask you to bring the dinner." To get back at her kids, she spoils her grandchildren in the time-honored manner, taking them to Colorado Mills for hours whenever they ask.
On summer nights, she likes to observe the traffic going in and out of the Winery liquor store, just over the fence. "I don't drink," she says, "but maybe I should. There's not usually much rowdiness; it's not encouraged. One night last summer, someone got rowdy with the bad language, and he was kicked out of the park. I'm sure he found a better place -- for him. If you wanna be a gangster, why, just don't live here, is all."
But if you want to live here, why, just apply. Your slab will be clean, your access to the spicier Doritos unparalleled, and your sense that you've somehow escaped the urban grit justified.
"You can see the pollution, but you're not in it," Nancy confirms. "Which is good. As I drive east on Colfax, I can feel that gunk coming down around my windshield." -- Chotzinoff
4:40 p.m.: Denver Drug & Liquor Company,
400 East Colfax
Rush hour strolls into the Denver Drug & Liquor Company in Reeboks and Ropers, pumps and motorcycle boots. Feet shuffle patiently as the line at the cash registers creeps longer and longer. Cigarettes, candy, quarts, forty-ouncers. Aspirin, maybe, or an Odwalla and some toilet paper, or a run on scratch tickets, but mostly it's smokes and beer.
The sinking sun casts long shadows across the Avenue. Quitting time for office stiffs, top of the morning for the night crew. And right here, the sign says, is The Coldest Beer On the Hill.
Outside is the endless procession, a soft parade of the slinking, the staggering and the strutting. Button-down suits on cell phones, gym suits on pay phones. A man swathed in three or four coats, expectorating violently and repeatedly. Leather vests, denim vests, down vests, all framing bare chests -- just like on Cops, there seems to be a shortage of actual shirts but a profusion of headgear. They come, they go, speaking of Michelob and Marlboro.
Within one block of Denver Drug is all the glorious commerce an urbanite could desire. There's cheap Chinese, cheap Japanese, cheap Nepalese. Pizza, barbecue and some of the best burgers in town. You can buy a documentary about Colfax or a Green Lantern comic book, the Moody Blues on vinyl or a first edition of Edward Bunker's Dog Eat Dog, a state senator or a tuxedo. You can even choose between salvation and a short rye: the Jesus is the Answer Thrift Store is out of business, but the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is still going strong. So are the Roslyn, Nob Hill and the Congress Lounge.
But the men and women in line at Denver Drug know what they want. Smokes. And beer.
"Give me a pack of those Braves."
"MGD and a scratch ticket."
"A carton of Marlboro Reds and this here beer."
They come, they go. The only fixture on the changing scene, the perpetual presence during rush hour on the Hill, stands resolutely on the other side of Logan Street, greeting Denver Drug patrons as they enter and exit, then scrambling to hold up his two cardboard signs to the stalled traffic. WILL KIDNAP MOTHER-IN-LAW FOR BEER, says the first one. VOTE FOR ŒSPIKE,' says the second.
Black pants, black shirt, red bandanna, black leather jacket, black shades, gray beard, a St. Louis Rams cap -- Spike has that outlaw look, but the soul of a reformer. Morning finds him on the steps of the cathedral, reading his Bible. By rush hour he's over here, raising campaign funds.
"If I become president, you can be vice president," he offers. "I'd change the streets. I'd get rid of those SUV buggers and make everyone ride motorcycles."
A mail truck pulls up at the light. Spike roars into the window, "Where's my Christmas card?"
The light changes and the truck pulls away. Spike waves him on.
"I'm not out here to hassle nobody," he says. "I just like to have fun. You want a drink?" -- Alan Prendergast
5:45 p.m.: Colorado Mills,
14500 West Colfax
The lanky, speckle-faced girl who mans the front line at Hot Dog on a Stick -- wearing the signature multi-colored dome hat and bright-red shorts -- may be the only person who secretly hopes the crowds never come to Colorado Mills. Conceived during the economic boom of the late '90s and opened in the bust that followed, the place has been plagued by low turnout since November 2002. Its operators blame everything from the war to post-Christmas consumer burnout, while others wonder if people even know that Colorado Mills is out here on the fringe of civilization -- also known as west suburban Lakewood.
Whatever the reason, the place is so dead today that every little noise cuts through the late-afternoon calm: janitors banging brooms against dustpans, shoppers shuffling across waxy parquet floors. When a kid drops a penny down a black wishing-well contraption that sits outside the Dress Barn -- "Just one more thing to get you to throw your money away," one shopper notes -- the noise echoes through the Mills' quiet canyon of nearly 200 shops and restaurants.
There's nothing really wrong with Colorado Mills, which boasts many of the usual mall amenities and embarrassments. There's a movie theater, a Cinnabon, a Sunglass Hut. There are specialty shops for nerds and knife enthusiasts (Games Workshop and Merlo's Cutting Edge, respectively), craft stores and outlet stores and an entire store devoted to potpourri. There are things mall-goers of yore could only dream of, like the Walden Family Playhouse, the ESPN Skate Park and Jillian's, a brain-jangling mega-arcade that rings with an automated symphony of video-game soundtracks and virtual-reality stations.
But even Jillian's is quiet today. In the food court, an entire sheet of head-sized pastries languishes beneath the warming light of the Cinnabon display case, uneaten and unloved. Cashiers in retail shops read books and talk on their cell phones, no customers to distract them. Chatchke-laden kiosks offer everything from wigs to manicures to hermit crabs with brightly painted shells, but no one's buying. When Nick Carter croons from a huge TV that hangs suspended outside Gart Sports, it hits: There's no one here to hear Nick Carter sing.
That's because what's missing from Colorado Mills are teenagers -- the stock in trade of any mall worth its weight in salted soft pretzels.
Where are the teenagers? Not on the floor of Hot Topic, where Blink-182 blares out of a sound system to an empty room. Not in Spencer Gifts, that repository of fake-poop props, edible underpants and gag gifts only a pre-sexed adolescent would find amusing. Where are the kids avoiding homework, deceiving their parents, sneaking smokes, hanging out -- cruising, contemplating shoplifting, scoping for makeout partners, commiserating over the excruciating boredom of life?
According to Edgar, an eighteen-year-old senior at Lincoln High School, they're at the Denver Pavilions. Or at the movies. Or bowling -- which is what Edgar wishes he were doing right now. He raced his best friend, George, from Lincoln to Colorado Mills' half-empty parking lot after school let out. Edgar and George agree that the race was the most exciting part of their afternoon. They rarely come to Colorado Mills, and every time they do, they remember why they stay away.
"This place sucks," says George, who's wearing oversized khakis and the all-knowing smirk of a seventeen-year-old upperclassman. "It's too far from Lincoln. I miss the Villa."
"It's empty. It's gay," adds Edgar. "It would be better if they had an upstairs. All you can do here is walk around in a circle. You hang out, buy stuff. It's boring."
Edgar says he doesn't go to malls to meet girls -- those, he meets in class, or on the street. George came to the Mills with his sister, Vanessa, and his girlfriend, Jessica, and two other friends from Lincoln.
"This place is fun if you're with your friends, because it's so big," says Jessica, who goes to a mall, usually the Pavilions, about six or seven times a month. Today marks her second visit to Colorado Mills. "I usually don't come here, and I've seen better. It's too far away from everything. But I like the food court. I like the candy place."
The group moves through the corridors in a pack, drawing glances from shoppers. The cashier at Sunglass Hut looks up from his book to see George snap Jessica's bra and Vanessa chase Edgar and the other boys. Some of them cuss; George and Jessica occasionally kiss. When another small group of kids passes -- a girl with pink hair and a "Rock Star" shirt and a boy wearing eyeliner and leather -- the two camps eye each other slyly, like packs of lions.
"They need to get more people in here," Jessica says. "Vanessa needs to find a boyfriend." -- Bond
6:30 p.m.: Congress Lounge,
308 East Colfax
The Congress Lounge has been a fixture of legislative drinkfests for four decades, and tonight two congressmen sit in a booth sipping cocktails. It's still early in the session, and the others have yet to stake out their stools.
A handful of regulars are lined up at the bar, heads hung low over the drinks that the bartender pours tall and stiff. Strains of '70s soft rock interlaced with Norah Jones emanate from the jukebox, and a Chuck Norris movie plays on the televisions, sans sound. Despite it's being just past happy hour, there is little joy in the place. The Red Room up the block is the place for hipster cool and tasty beverages. The Congress Lounge is where the rest of Colfax comes to get drunk -- good and fast. The bartenders ID everyone and are even known to check a ten before starting to pour.
Cigarettes are sold individually, for a quarter, and in the span of a half an hour, four bums come buying. The $3.50 cigarette machine is out of their range. Several other people pop their heads in but turn around and walk out, the scent of desperation and inevitability too strong for them. Even though Terezia Kesmarki, who bought the place last August, ripped up the spunky carpet and rearranged the decor, the Congress is still the bar on this strip of Colfax that you've always wondered about but enter at your own peril. -- Amy Haimerl
8 p.m.: Mezcal,
3230 East Colfax
Bienvenidos to the new Colfax Avenue -- the strip between St. Paul and Cook streets that's undergoing gentrification with gusto.
Following the upscale path paved by Tommy's Thai and the Goosetown Tavern -- along with longtime neighbors the Bluebird Theater and Goodfriends -- there's now Mezcal, a Mexican cantina that's been packing 'em in seven nights a week since its December opening.
"We realized pretty quickly that this is exactly what the neighborhood needed," says Mezcal general manager Pablo Torres, as his staff of twenty-something hipsters buzz around the joint restocking the cooler and handling the dinner rush. "People are just so psyched to have an option like this in the area."
As daylight and thoughts of work fade away, a wide range of customers bask in Mezcal's warm, prayer-candle light. Pierced and tattooed Colfax music scenesters. Socialites in snakeskin pants and black stilettos. Two frazzled parents with three tiny towheads in tow. An aging hippie in a fleece vest and scuffed clogs. A stylin' gay couple -- one in a midnight-blue velvet coat, the other sporting a silver concho belt and cowboy boots.
Outside the large glass windows, a scraggly homeless man staggers down the street and a punk teenager speeds by on his skateboard. Inside, Shakira belts out "Whenever, Wherever" in Spanish over the rising clatter, as the chatty bartender pours margarita after margarita under the watchful eye of the neon Virgin Mary, who holds court over dozens of bottles of tequila.
By summer, this stretch of Colfax will be home to two more nightlife destinations: the Atomic Cowboy, being brought to us by the couple behind B-52's and Brasserie Rouge; and Cafe Star, from the owners of Trattoria Stella in Highland. They'll be perfect hangouts for residents of the block's new Chamberlin Heights condo development, with its funky Wits Java and Jazz coffee shop.
"It'll be nice to have synergy with the other new places, really make this area a destination," says Torres.
The new LoDo? Maybe.
Call it EaCo. -- Julie Dunn
10:30 p.m.: Pleasures Adult Entertainment,
3490 West Colfax
Unlike walking up to a convenience-store counter with a handful of bills wrapped around a package of condoms, there's nothing discreet about going into Pleasures. Everyone knows why you're here. Nobody makes eye contact.
Aside from the clerk, nonplussed as he watches gay porn on the monitor next to the door, and a lone couple scanning the wall of porn, the place is empty. The only sound is the humming motor of the air conditioner that hangs just inside the darkened entrance to the video arcade. -- Dave Herrera
11:59 p.m.: Mon Chalet,
12033 East Colfax
The channel-surfing options in Room 11 at "Colorado's Finest Adult Motel" range from the award-winning Anal Ring Master (Channel 19, "Anal Features") to Leatherbound Dykes From Hell (Channel 22, "Bondage"), with gay porn, lesbian porn, interracial porn, new porn and vintage porn channels in between, on top and beneath, all piped in through Mon Chalet's dozen XXX television streams from a bank of VCRs in the manager's office.
In that office, the night manager, who is middle-aged, blond and weary but pleasant, wearing a cheap gold tuxedo vest and bow tie, is delivering a spiel over the phone: "In all our rooms, you get the water-column lights and the X-rated movies and the mirrors on the ceilings and on the walls. Our suites and semi-deluxe suites all have various features including ceiling swings and Love Machines, and some have steam showers and fireplaces and Jacuzzis." She pauses. "Thank you, sir. Have a good night."
Room 11 is a semi-deluxe suite, $94.95 a night plus tax Sunday through Thursday, $114.95 Fridays and Saturdays, not including a five-dollar returnable key and remote-control deposit. It contains three rooms. The first is the main room, which has huge mirrors on three of the four walls, as well as on the ceiling over the king-sized bed, which is equipped with a motorized vibrating mattress that, when turned on, shudders and clanks like an engine that's thrown a rod. The mattress is controlled by a dial on the headboard, next to a box of tissues, and an instrument panel containing the controls to the room's hi-fi stereo system and various lighting effects, including water-column lights on each side of the bed. In these engorged plastic tubes, continuous streams of bubbles rise though filters that switch the water's color from lime to gold to aqua to pink and then repeat the cycle. The bed frame is trimmed in flattened and soiled red shag carpet. Smack in the middle of the mirror on the ceiling is a hook designed to hold the chain that in turn holds the leather-and-canvas swing ("Mon Chalet's version of the Taiwan Basket"), which is stored in Room 11's closet. The second room, the bathroom, contains a toilet ("Sanitized For Your Protection"), a steam shower, mirrored walls and a bidet that spouts water like a breaching whale. The third room holds the Love Machine. The Love Machine is described in Mon Chalet's literature as "a sturdy furniture masterpiece and a piece of sculptured art designed for the more athletic expression of the sensual arts."
The Love Machine looks like a hybrid between a weightlifting bench and a torture device envisioned by H.R. Geiger. It's all metal stirrups and leather pads and bars and handles contorted into a surrealistic and slightly menacing, floor-mounted miniature jungle gym, disconcertingly oily to the touch.
"I thought it would have more moving parts," says Room 11's female occupant. "This thing looks more like I'm supposed to be the moving part all over it." She tentatively positions herself on the Love Machine. With the addition of a human form, the design's many ergonomic features begin to reveal themselves. "Oh," she says, laughing, adjusting positions. "I see now." She looks around the Love Machine chamber, which is roughly eight feet square, with wall-to-wall red shag and mirrors on all four walls and the ceiling, so that occupants may view themselves from a seemingly infinite array of angles.
"I feel like I'm in the back of some sleazy 1970s makeout van. And I don't even want to think about what's on this carpet. Gross. Eewww."
Mon Chalet is about half full tonight. There are ten cars in the parking lot, secured behind a metal gate separating the motel grounds from late-night Colfax foot traffic. Mon Chalet has 22 rooms, plus the nudist pool and Jacuzzi area, which is Mon Chalet's swinging centerpiece. Lit primarily with black lights, it holds a large heated swimming pool, a whirlpool in a mirrored alcove large enough for four adults ("six if they're being intimate"), and a dozen or so white plastic tables with matching chairs. One wall is decorated with a massive black-light painted mural of tropical birds. Water-column lights containing plastic fish line the walls. Classic rock blasts: Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Ozzy, Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"You know," says the young woman from Room 11, now disrobed and soaking in the Jacuzzi. "This whole place reminds of Ouday Hussein's vision of Western sexuality. Very cheesy and very twisted. I just don't see what about any of this is supposed to turn people on."
A hand-lettered sign in the pool area's entrance reads: "Do not wander around the parking lot in your towels. No walking around peeking in windows. If you're invited to a room that's fine."
There are three young, relatively attractive couples in the pool area, but none are flirting with the others, let alone inviting them back to their rooms. Instead, they all keep to themselves in the Jacuzzi or far corners of the pool, naked, alternately making out and conversing in conspiratorial whispers. In one dark corner, a lone older woman, seated in a plastic chair, watches the action from the deepest shadows, working on herself with one hand beneath her towel, smoking a cigarette with the other. -- David Holthouse
12:15 a.m.: Whiskey Bill's,
7290 West Colfax
"It's always raining in my head/Forget all the things I should have said." As the final strains of Staind's "Epiphany" fade, the buzz of several indistinct conversations take over.
"That's the prettiest song I've ever heard," declares Christina, a robust 33-year-old blonde, between pulls on a borrowed cigarette and sips of what must be her fifth or sixth vodka tonic. "It fucking explains everything." Even though she's smiling, loneliness oozes from her pores. It's obvious that she's trying to drink something away. Or maybe she's just bored.
Other than Christina, the only customers are five men spread out along the almost-empty bar. The TV sets, all tuned to the same station, compete with the neon signs to provide the joint's low-light ambience.
At the other end of the elbow-worn bar, Mike, the barkeep, slides the twenty-something in a black hoodie another round of his chosen poison for the evening: Jäger and Red Bull. And as the distinct riffs from AC/DC's "Back in Black" kick in, Hoodie whips out his air guitar and throws down, completely oblivious to everything and everyone around him.
"Can I bum another cigarette?" asks Christina, ignoring the two barely burned butts in the ashtray in front of her. "I quit everything about a month ago -- including drinking. But tonight I'm breaking all the rules. Shhhh, don't tell anyone," she adds, pressing a freshly manicured nail against her lips. "Normally, I wouldn't be here on a Tuesday night -- this is Tuesday, right? But I just came from the airport, and I really needed a drink."
Christina and Hoodie have monopolized the jukebox. Both are staggeringly drunk. And as the two of them lean against each other in front of the juke, deciding what to play next, a bar-stool philosopher who looks like a cross between Jesus and Sam Elliot and has been jabbering for the better part of the last forty minutes finally becomes intelligible in the lull. Apparently, he's been trading yarns with anyone who'll listen about love, lust and just plain getting it on. Never mind the fact that he's presently womanless and falling-down Otis drunk. Right now, he's Doctor Love.
"I wouldn't rub up against anything that Laura rubbed up against," declares the good doctor, his hand on the shoulder of a well-groomed forty-something who appears to be not only surprisingly sober, but enthralled. "Well, at least your wanker hasn't fallen off in the last two years -- but we're getting way off base here."
"Freebird" kicks in for the second time, followed by "Me and Bobby McGee," also making a repeat appearance. Christina returns to her seat at the corner of the bar and mutters something about not appreciating good music from the '70s and '80s. Just then, Hoodie sidles up. "I like good music," he offers with a Beavis-like cackle. Mike asks Christina why she played "Freebird" again; she denies playing it. "It reminds me of a friend of mine who died," she insists. "I would never play that." For the next five minutes, Hoodie and Christina haggle over who picked the track. Truthfully, both of them have been repeating each other's songs all night. It's safe to say that neither is fit to operate anything mechanical.
"I probably shouldn't drive home," Christina concedes. "Oh, well, I guess I'll just take the back way." -- Herrera
1:22 a.m.: Lazy C Motor Lodge,
8787 East Colfax
Busta Rhymes is rapping on the TV about "Pass the Courvoisier." The trio of crackheads inside their room at the Lazy C are more interested in passing the glass pipe. That and scoring more crack before they run out. To that end, the oldest of the three, who looks to be in his mid-'30s and goes only by "C," is working the phone: "Yo, it's C. Can I hook up with you in a few? Okay. But don't keep me waiting this time, okay, please? Please? Okay. See you." C leaves without saying goodbye to his two friends: a young woman named Sharonda, who is sitting on the bed, endlessly braiding and then unbraiding her hair between hits, chattering about how she's gonna stop smoking this crack shit tomorrow or maybe the tomorrow after that, and then Sean, who's sitting behind the burn-scarred table, gaunt and silent, with zombie eyes and Buckwheat hair. Sean's from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sharonda's a Denver girl. Every few minutes, Sean gets up and goes to the bathroom, closes the door, then comes out a few seconds later, shaking water from his hands. "Nervous motherfucker, what you doing in there?" Sharonda asks him. Sean never says a damn thing. C comes back, pissed off and ranting about how that bitch just left him hanging one goddamn time too many. He gets on the phone with another dealer, pleading for immediate attention, reminding the party on the line of all the white-boy business he's been steering their way. "Don't worry," Sharonda says to a visiting white boy in the room. "We good people." -- Holthouse
2:04 a.m.: Tom's Diner,
601 East Colfax
The cabbie across the way is reading Scientific American, whose cover says "The Future Looks Flexible." Only it doesn't. Not from here, anyway. Just a straight line out until dawn, traveling east into the sunrise four hours away. Maybe it's different for him because this is his lunch break, his noon. This is a guy who sees the sun the way the rest of us see the moon. This night -- his day -- may seem full of bends and curves as he looks at it.
"Actually, we're giving away free breakfasts this morning," says Sarah -- night-shift waitress, bouncer, c-trip manager at Tom's -- as she refills my coffee cup. "It's our first annual cabbie-appreciation night. We're just trying to thank them for coming in, carrying away our drunks. I've never seen us this busy on a Tuesday night, I can tell you that much."
Most of those in the crowd are cabbies. They've been coming and going in pairs or alone, newspapers rolled up in their back pockets, criss-cross pattern of seat cushions tattooed across the shoulders of their wrinkled satin jackets, for hours. Before they get served their free breakfasts, they have to show their hack's license, and most of them -- when they ask about the deal -- do it quietly, like they're a little embarrassed. Like asking for something free feels a little too much like begging.
Another cab pulls up to the curb out front. The driver gets out, stretches, slumps through the door. Sarah smiles. "Go ahead and sit anywhere," she says.
The cabbie across the way glances up but doesn't seem to recognize the new guy. He crushes the cover of the magazine in his big hands and goes back to the future.
At Tom's, all the food is COD after 10 p.m. -- you order, you pay, then you get served. There's a keypad lock on the bathroom door and a hole in the window beside my head covered with a peeling strip of packing tape. All of these are signs of the kind of neighborhood that Tom's is in, the sort of crowd it expects to draw after dark. Not the cabbies so much, but the others.
The door opens with a sucking sound -- a little of the quiet escaping, a little of the night sneaking in. Sarah is standing by the register with her arms crossed. "Out," she says. "You were 86'd."
There's a brief argument, muttered, from the fat man with the blue overcoat and the limp standing in the doorway.
"There isn't anyone else to talk to," Sarah replies. "I'm the night manager. Now go."
The fat man goes, mouthing curses through the windows, carrying something in a knotted plastic bag that looks disturbingly like a kitten, though it's hard to tell for sure.
Sarah walks by, shrugs, tops off my coffee again, asks, "What're you gonna do?" and drifts away.
Two hours ago, I'd watched the clock roll over from 11:59 to midnight in the front section of the Denver Diner on Colfax at Speer -- heart of the city, an island of light. Midnight is still an honest hour, a time when being out requires no excuse, so there were couples, foursomes, night-owl businessmen with loose ties haunting the counter, pretty boys and beautiful girls floating down the aisles on clouds of coffee steam, and me, tucked in with some good company -- George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. The big blonde came in a little after one in the morning -- came in, found a table, sat with her low-rise jeans not rising high enough to hide the brilliant red elastic of her thong, and showed everyone her tits.
I still don't know why she did it. Or why she did it again a few minutes later. There were camera phones at the table, a titanium wink of flashes going off, a smattering of applause the first time, nothing the second.
I'm trying to explain the scene to Sarah and another insomniac book geek who'd noticed the Orwell in my hands and just started talking. I'm trying to get across the point that it wasn't so much the flesh that shocked me, but the absolute lack of attention the big blonde's breasts garnered in a busy diner, at 1 a.m., on an otherwise dreary Wednesday.
"Hardly anyone noticed," I tell them. "Or even looked up, until her friends started clapping." The second time, she could've set herself on fire and danced the hully-gully. No one would have blinked.
"People don't look up for much these days," the book geek says. "Most of them, I think, just look straight ahead."
Leaving the Denver Diner, heading east on Colfax to Tom's, I'd seen two men in an alley beside the Rocky Mountain News building beating each other -- a rumble on Gene Amole Way. I was rushing, running the light in a knot of traffic, and saw them only briefly, carved out against the shadows by the sickly glare of an overhead light. They could have been dancing, I suppose. They could have been struggling into or out of some idle, side-alley embrace, except for the blood. When we see men fight in the movies, the reality we miss is how much they bleed and how quickly. I'd forgotten that until I saw these two waltzing on the blacktop and the spume of blood coming from one man's nose -- a mental snapshot, crisp, but caught only in passing when I should have been looking straight ahead.
The thing about people-watching, about cataloguing street life, is that you never get the whole picture, no matter how hard you look. You see half a table, the cover of a magazine or a book, a flash of tit, a glimpse of blood, nothing more. There's no connection, no anchor. Just a collection of moments, of little nonsense things. The future, and the present, look flexible when you're right in the middle of them -- just like the magazine says.
And a lot of life depends on which way you're looking when it happens. -- Jason Sheehan
5 a.m.: The Waffle House,
14107 East Colfax
At 5 a.m., the Waffle House is the end of the world. It has a dirty, purgatory vibe and a hospital smell like old age and powerful antiseptics. The bus shelter that crouches at the edge of the parking lot is the last on the line, and many of the RTD's buses sleep across the street in a bus corral. They begin coming up out of the dark around 5:15, stacking up at the short light opposite the El y Ella Beauty Shop, waiting to make the turn onto Colfax, headed west, toward whatever.
The Waffle House is where vampires come for breakfast. Steve, for example, who works for ZLB Plasma Services, on Colfax at Peoria. "Not blood," he says. "We don't do that. Plasma. Man your size, you could get twenty, maybe twenty-five dollars. More your first time, too."
Steve is up early today, but he isn't working. He has to take his father to the veterans' hospital for cataract surgery. "Gonna take all day," he says, shrugs, knocks the ash off his cigarette. "Nothing to do but sit and wait."
Steve's friendly for a bloodsucker. He starts talking about Alaska, land of the midnight sun. He was born there in the same year it became a state: 1959. Dangerous place for a vampire, I think, only half listening.
By 5:30 in the morning, the all-nighters have run out of conversation, have nothing left with which to bluff the clock. In this hour, where talk is currency, two men across from me are reduced to comparing the heights of different members of their families. In the corner, a woman is singing quietly to her silverware. She has a livid, crescent-moon scar on her forehead, nasty and old, that shines silver under the awful glare of the globe lights. A couple seats away from her, there's an older black man wrapped in a heavy black coat that doesn't look too far from new. He's sober, polite, peaceful. And from the service side of the counter -- from the waist up -- he must look like a perfectly normal man. But from behind, from where I'm sitting, I can see the rest of him. The ragged VOA thrift cammies, the postcard of Magic Mountain -- at Disneyland, not Colfax's Heritage Square -- poking out of his pocket, the green bath towels wrapped around his feet, secured with strips of masking tape.
Steve is talking about all the places he's lived. The buses keep coming, two to a green light, sometimes three. It's one of the waitresses' last nights. She's going to work at Sapp Brothers off I-70, but she's not leaving before she badmouths everyone she's had to work with here. Catharsis, they call that.
The man with the bath-towel shoes gets up to go. He moves with surprising delicacy, pays his bill with a crumpled dollar and change he counts three times before handing it over, then hoists a black garbage bag over his shoulder. It's stuffed with God-knows-what, except for everything he owns. He walks out the door like a lonely, broken Santa Claus.
The two men discussing their six-foot aunts and midget cousins run their family trees all the way to the roots, then go. They're replaced by a trucker -- a big fella, loud and boomy. He sits with Steve and me, hears I work for Westword and leans close.
"That paper is wild," he says, pronouncing it wahld. "But tell me, how much of it's bullshit?"
And I, rising to defend the honor of my publication, say no more than 80 percent on a good week. "We do better than the New York Times, anyhow."
"No, I mean the ads. All them ladies in the back? How much of that's real?"
He's serious as a heart attack. He has the look of a man who's been badly burned in some Filipino mail-order bride scam, and so is being very careful this time. Shopping around.
"That stuff?" I say. "That is all true. Hundred percent." And manage to say it straight-faced, too.
"Hoo-wee!" he bellows, laughing. "I like that! That's wahld."
And I laugh, too. So does Steve. The trucker is the kinda guy you can't help but laugh along with. We talk a while, the three of us, about blood, Alaska and the finer points of the escort business, and by 6 a.m., life starts to seep back in around the edges of the night. On the horizon, the sky is blue-black, the color of a smashed thumbnail. Sunrise is coming, and that signals the end of my time here at the end of the world.
I get up, pay my bill, leave a 150 percent tip -- payment for the memories. And by 6:45, I'm on the road, putting Colfax behind me and driving into the sun, into the start of a new day. -- Sheehan