I Drink, Therefore I Am

For years you have had the same fleeting thought as you drove by: Jeez, that place looks old. I'll bet it hasn't changed since 1944--or 1896, or the Seventies, or Prohibition. And as it turns out, looks are rarely deceiving. Because one day, when you finally stop and open the door, history pours out.

8801 Highway 76, Commerce City
Her boots let everyone inside know she's coming, heels clanging on the flagstone. The inner door swings open, letting in a nuclear blast of daylight, and her. Her jeans and tank top are skin-tight, worn, clean. Her hair is French-braided. About one-third of her teeth are missing. The look on her face is pure eagerness. Happy hour! Showtime! Four p.m.!

You follow her into the cool basement, where the bar part of the business runs the subterranean length of the building. (Upstairs, in addition to the gas station, is Brenda's Cafe, which closes at 2 p.m. Someone--Brenda?--has painstakingly decorated the walls with Mickey Mouses.) In the bar, two bikers are playing pool. A dozen more patrons are drinking aggressively. You look through the bartender's cotton-candy bleached hair and run smack into one of the meanest faces west of the Pecos. At this point, you could walk up and ask her for a Coke. You could. But will you? Nope.

The bikers think you're hunting for the ladies' room. The Budweiser bikini girls on the posters, whom you see through a tangle of plastic plant life, don't seem to think anything. You pretend you're in a museum, and in a way, that's true. This exhibit dates from 1976, and these people are historical re-enactors, playing the roles of the hippie redneck bikers you drank with during the nation's bicentennial year. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Crank. Not an unfriendly bunch.

On your way into a bar like this 22 years ago, you would have been nervous. Mid-afternoon happy hours, you suspected, were sort of a cul-de-sac on the road to Adult Life. On your way out, however, you would have been full of goodwill, beer and thoughts of a particular destination: someone's gold Impala with the vinyl roof.

Hey! The Impala is still here, flaking and fading in the parking lot.
"I bought this place because it is such a cool old building, and the whole thing is made of poured concrete," says the A-frame's new owner, Scott Schafer. The touches he brought with him stand out like you did in the bar below: a large, talkative green-and-yellow parrot behind the gas station's cash register. A rusted 1931 Chevy in the service bay. At Schafer's invitation, you take a self-guided tour up narrow stairs to the fourth floor of the building, a sort of showroom in which a burnt-orange vinyl sofa sits at a weird angle, flanked by display racks designed for a snack food that was surely discontinued in 1977.

They are building a fancy new gas station across the highway. When it's done, who on earth will pull off the road and come here?

5300 Washington Street,
Unincorporated Adams County

The blue adobe building rises like a mirage from the shoulder of a dirt road, leaving just enough room between the walls and traffic for you to park your car. The blue is distinctly un-American--turquoise, languorous, tropical. The door has glass brick cut-outs, a tiny diamond-shaped peep window, a vintage stainless steel handle. Pull it, and inside are...

Men. Short men in straw cowboy hats and diamond-snap shirts, speaking nothing but Spanish. In the doorway you are framed in a square of light. Caramba.

"Hey," says somebody's grandfather. "Let me love you."
Kaboom! The jukebox explodes with norteno. Voices rise a pitch. You edge into the bar--"Come on, I said, let me love you, call me Ruben..."--and ask for a Coke.

"You got ID?"
"For a Coke?"
You got ID, so now you got a Coke with no bubbles in it, syrupy sweet.

Oh. It's not all men. Two women in short lace dresses are drinking and laughing and smearing their plastic cups with orange lipstick.

Below, the floors are hardwood, sealed with decades of black dirt. The bar and the pool room are separated by arches of old mahogany. The bar stools, if thoroughly scrubbed, would be right at home at a Gunther Toody's.

The two women get up and walk toward the door, dragging you in their wake.
"Hey, where you going? I was gonna love you, you know? You know? You remember?"

Out in the parking lot, a hatchback crammed with five adolescent men idles, boxing you in. You get in your car and ease out. At the last moment, they move to let you pass. Little men, in menacing hairnets.