Shift Drinks: The Squire's Cam Omlid Doesn't Sag at Mr. A's

Jake Browne
Mr. A's is "Denver's Friendliest Lounge."
I wake up to a text from 12:33 a.m. that says, “After hours dub step show? Hahaha,” because Cam Omlid didn’t want to sleep last night. Or any night, for that matter. In first grade, he'd be up until 4 a.m. reading The Source, by James Michener, before moving on to Stephen King, whose work I can’t recommend as a sleep aid for elementary school kids. Then in high school, he started smoking pot to help him quiet his mind. Now, he never wants to leave his bar.

“I love gardening, but if I could wake up every day at 3 p.m., I would,” says Omlid. It belies the agrarian roots of his dad’s side of the family, hardscrabble folks who farmed the austere plains of North Dakota and, I imagine, woke up quite early. He continues the tradition in the various raised garden beds enshrined with arches of PVC tubing that surround his Clayton home, where we’re drinking Miller High Life bottles and smoking Parliaments. We’re walking to Mr. A’s at 3200 East 40th Avenue because it reminds him of bars back home.

His parents, William and Suzann, both social workers, raised Omlid in Pueblo, a city that was starting to look very different in the late ’90s. Big-box stores and restaurants that promised they were your family moved into town, and people flocked to the new, shiny things. “Watching that change happen, where people worked at businesses where they knew the owners and had some autonomy, then working for those huge, faceless corporations? It crushes you, in a way,” says Omlid. So he did what any disillusioned but smart kid does in a small town: drugs.

“I had friends who went to Fountain Valley School, the school that Bob Weir attended,” Omlid explains. “A lot of my friends got introduced to that Grateful Dead kind of world and that style of music, and it bled through to me. People were giving me tapes of DMB" — he pauses to explain that it stands for Dave Matthews Band, as if we weren’t the same age, the last generation of high-schoolers immersed in the monoculture of media. He took this love of music and mind alteration with him to the University of Colorado Boulder, and eventually on the road with his then-longtime girlfriend, following bands and trying to avoid legal trouble.
click to enlarge Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," but make it a dive bar. - JAKE BROWNE
Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," but make it a dive bar.
Jake Browne

Five years into a bachelor's in philosophy, he found himself behind the bar at the then-fledgling burrito darling Illegal Pete’s. “It was a different era,” Omlid notes. “If people sucked, we’d throw away their burrito and tell them to go to the back of the line and try again.” He was making $600 to $700 a night on his bartending shifts until he ate some ecstasy during a 2010 Pride double shift to help perk him up. “I didn’t have my hand in the beans, moaning to myself, but I understood why they had to [fire me].” He finished his shift, knocked back some beers with the eponymous Pete, and left to figure out his life. His lease was up in six days, and he was only picking up shifts at the Squire on East Colfax Avenue.

“The Squire was such a slow place back then — except for Tuesday night comedy — that yeah, you didn’t have the greatest bartenders there,” Omlid admits. “You had a bunch of people who knew you could drink on the job and make $40 and be okay with it.” He quickly became a fixture at the dive known for its thick smells and loose cigarettes, where he stands out in a vintage sports coat or tank top and jorts, depending on the season. “I never believed in wearing anyone else's uniform,” says Omlid, while admitting he’s cribbed a little from Denver comedian Ben Kronberg.

While his thrift-store-chic style, replete with his signature bear ring necklace, feels unchanged since I’ve known him, the Squire isn’t the same bar you remember if it’s been a decade since you last stumbled in. Renovations made it feel less dated, and it’s dimly lit in a way that feels intimate rather than dangerous. Regulars have come and gone, and Omlid doesn’t work Saturdays — too much volume for too little return, he says — so we’re headed to Mr. A’s.

Kitty-corner from the Zumba and self-defense studio Urban Survival Fitness, the facade of Mr. A’s proclaims it "Denver’s Friendliest Lounge” in a way that makes "Denver’s friendliest" appear ironic. I assure you, it is not. We’re the only two at the bar, but there are eight guys in the back playing an emphatic game of dominoes. The force with which tiles are played reminds me of the sound a cue ball makes when it hits a concrete floor. Someone is talking shit about the Memphis Grizzlies, and he sounds like he’s losing money.
click to enlarge Posters are taped to the wall at Mr. A's. - JAKE BROWNE
Posters are taped to the wall at Mr. A's.
Jake Browne

We’re separated from the bar by a wall of COVID plexiglass with signs that implore us not to dance without masks on, have drinks on the dance floor, or, like Bill Cosby’s infamous Pound Cake speech, sag our pants. The dance floor behind us is modest, with room for ten couples or two hula-hoopers. Posters with images of Black Wall Street and influential Black men and women surrounding each of the Obamas are Scotch-taped to the wall next to us. I’m fully aware of what an asshole I look like taking pictures.

“Mr. A’s is the only bar that makes me feel like growing up in Pueblo,” says Omlid. “In Pueblo, there were old Mexican bars. Here, it’s an old Black bar. I love it.” His dad takes him to bars like this. They often traverse the two-lane highways of the Midwest, popping into whichever bar has more trucks outside, “because that means it’s happy hour at that bar." They order a Bud Light for themselves and a sixer for the road. Tonight he starts with a Budweiser in one of those sinfully ugly aluminum cans designed to look like a bottle, along with a shot of Jameson.

This bar is an escape for Omlid, a place to “get away from people I know,” he says, because everyone knows him. Later, he’ll take me to the Lion’s Lair, the Squire, Pete’s Kitchen and Bar Bar. At each, he gets stopped unexpectedly more times than an ice cream truck on 4/20. Behind the bar, he finds escapism and performance all in one. “I’m here to keep everybody happy and laughing. [Someone says,] ‘Oh, I heard something bad happened to you this week,’ and they want to hold my hands and talk about it,” he laments. “No.”
click to enlarge Cam Omlid (left) making new friends at Pete's Kitchen. - JAKE BROWNE
Cam Omlid (left) making new friends at Pete's Kitchen.
Jake Browne

None of this comes naturally to the self-described introvert, who is quick with a wry smile but guarded with strangers. “I feel like I’ve always sought out jobs that forced me to be more social because I love being social, but left to my own devices, I don’t know if I would be,” Omlid admits.

When off the clock, he’s more social than he gives himself credit for. Sitting at the counter at Pete’s, we must look haggard, because the guy next to us yells, “Get some of these fries, bro.” We talk with him for half an hour about parenting and service-industry horror stories, and he confuses Omlid and me for a couple when I bring up Mr. A’s. “Mr. A’s? My grandpa’s bar?” he asks. “I’m Joe King the second. Mr. A’s is Joe King. That’s my grandpa, man.”

For all the grousing we’ve done tonight about the changing landscape of Denver, it feels like a small town in that moment.