Final Salute

The Tattered Cover LoDo takes most of its rushes during the lunch hour, the early evening and the weekends, owing to its perch on the edge of Denver's financial and entertainment districts. Weekday evenings are usually sedate, peopled with bibliophiles and loft-dwellers looking for an escape. But that slow routine was disrupted on Tuesday, January 15, by the death of a homeless man fondly known by store employees (including me) as "Sarge."

Just before 9 p.m. on Tuesday, January 15, staffers Keith Wood and Monica Aherns were walking their usual rounds, checking for customers on the third floor in preparation for the store's closing, when they saw Sarge. He appeared to be dozing in a chair in the fiction section, a place he retreated to when there was no one to play chess on the main floor.

Although employees gave Sarge plenty of latitude, he knew to make himself scarce at closing time. So when Wood and Aherns couldn't wake him, they paged manager Erica Thode. She sent guard Silvan Vialpando, who quickly established that Sarge had died. The paramedics who arrived later said he'd probably been dead for several hours.

Not much is known about his history, but a handful of basic facts can be established about Sarge, or Lester Durant, as he was born: He was African-American, 55 years old, and is survived by a son named Zarius, who lives in New York, and an ex-wife, who lives in Los Angeles. Two of his closest friends were fellow street denizens Randy Erickson and a man known only as Lonnie. And he probably served in the military, the source of his nickname and his penchant for military salutes. "We've heard 42 different versions about that, but Lonnie swears he was in the military," said John Dezzutti, a longtime TC employee who frequently chatted with Sarge.

What's undisputed was his LoDo routine. Sarge began his days at the Starbucks on 16th and Blake streets -- he was the first customer when the placee opened -- before staking out a patch on the bridge above the 20th Street exit off of I-25, where he discreetly solicited alms with a placard. A blue shopping cart contained his worldly possessions, protected from the elements by a garbage bag; a dark-knit cap and clean-as-can-be-expected winter wear insulated him from the cold. In clement weather, Sarge often made his way to the outdoor chess tables on the 16th Street Mall.

It was at these tables that Sarge's son, his ex-wife, a few TC employees and some friends from downtown held a memorial service on January 22. But Sarge spent a majority of his time at the bookstore, jawing with George, the gruff regular in the cowboy hat, or the bespectacled Randy, who was always pontificating about the stock market, or Peter, the coffee bar manager who was the first to send off a tribute via the store's e-mail system.

"Sarge was here the day the store opened its doors in 1994," recalls Joan Walker, a veteran employee. "Once he found out I was the buyer for the games section, he gave me a whole list of chess books he thought we could use." Most of the books were out of print, but she brought in the ones that were available, Walker says. "He would joke with me -- 'You know I can't read' -- and I'd tell him, 'C'mon,' and then he would just laugh and walk away. He liked being accepted and the fact that nobody gave him a hassle."

Which is probably why Sarge parked his blue grocery cart outside the walls of the Tattered Cover nearly every day for seven and a half years. He sometimes arrived red-eyed from nipping at the bottle, or tousled from an alley fight, or frantic, in search of a game piece misplaced by a careless opponent. But he always arrived.

"He has been a daily presence here," says retail manager Neil Strandberg, "as much of a presence as any employee or customer, whether he was dozing in a chair or playing chess with any and all comers. As empty as the store seems to be now, many have taken comfort in the fact that he passed away in his favorite place, surrounded by peopled that cared about him."