Federal Boulevard stretches almost thirty miles down the spine of the metro area, from Bowles Boulevard in Littleton, where the Southglenn Luncheon Optimist Club keeps the last mile litter-free, to north of 120th in Westminster, where the Belger family handles clean-up duties as the road loses its U.S. Highway 287 designation and turns into Federal Parkway and then disappears altogether into Zuni Street.
Between these quiet suburban ends, though, lie a half-dozen different towns, three counties, a few farms and a riot of pawnshops and payday loans, RV rentals and auto dealerships, fireworks stands and hair salons, liquor stores and churches. Lots of liquor stores and lots of churches, including Saint Catherine of Siena, the Miracle Center Church, the First Denver Friends Church and the Pearl, formerly known as the West Side Christian Church, which today has this sign out front: "If Barbie is so popular, why do we have to buy her friends?" The churches commemorate many of the different immigrant groups that have settled along this strip -- first the Scottish and German, then the Italians, then the Mexicans, then the Asians, then more Mexicans. Today there are only two Italian restaurants along the entire stretch, while strip mall after strip mall is filled with taquerías or pho joints. Or both.
At one point, there was a movement to dub this street Mother Cabrini Boulevard, a nod to northwest Denver's Italian influence. In the beginning, though, when this avenue looked down on young, raucous Denver, Federal was known as Highland Boulevard and was flanked by the stately Victorians of the town of Highland. When Denver adopted a grid system in 1897, it became Boulevard F, then finally Federal Boulevard in 1912. Today the story of Denver unfolds along its rolling length, from the upscale new developments up north, with names like Ranch Reserve, to the Richard T. Castro Denver Human Services Center at the center, to older apartment complexes with optimistic names like Nob Hill near modest ranch houses in the older suburbs, to the renewal Federal is experiencing to the south. There are institutions of higher learning -- the stately sandstone campus of Teikyo University, formerly Loretto Heights College; the statelier campus of Regis University; the thoroughly modern DeVry Institute -- and you can get even higher at Heads of State. And from the high point of 84th Avenue, the Front Range spreads to the west and far south, providing a backdrop for downtown -- with the brown cloud hovering on the horizon and the smell of roasting chiles slipping inside your car every few blocks.
Other metro strips are more colorful, more camera-friendly. But Federal Boulevard cements Denver's past -- and points to its future.
"Have a good day, my friend."
Across Federal and down the bluffs, the sky is just beginning to lighten over downtown. But at this 7-Eleven, Thursday has already begun. For the last hour, regulars have been stopping in for their morning coffee, their morning papers, their morning doughnuts and morning taquitos. And cigarettes -- always cigarettes.
Adeel Tariq has been here all night. He'll stay until at least 6 a.m., when his father, Tariq Tariq, who bought this 7-Eleven franchise seven months ago, comes in.
Tariq was a district manager with 7-Eleven for five years and had run the store at Colfax and Ogden -- where he saw everything it's possible to see -- for three, when he decided to buy a franchise. "Federal, oh, my God," people said when they heard he'd chosen this store at the corner of 26th Avenue. But the location has been good -- Tariq and his wife, Jean Anjum, won 7-Eleven's "top grill" award for Denver in July -- and they're thinking of buying another franchise once they've passed the two-year mark and are eligible.
In the meantime, Adeel works the night shift, accepting the delivery of fresh baked goods and bananas that come from the 7-Eleven warehouse every night at 11:45 p.m., handling the drunks who stumble in at 2 a.m. and try to shoplift eyedrops and fight over the cost of cigarettes, then greeting the new day and welcoming back his repeat customers. More coffee, doughnuts, Skol -- one can only, "that means I don't have a habit" -- and nachos. Peanuts, coffee, Winston soft pack and a Lotto ticket. So far, Adeel's brother, who's in school and works weekends at the 7-Eleven, is the big winner: A ticket he bought here paid $77. Adeel makes fresh coffee at 5:25, squirts some Glade air freshener by the counter. "They all want fresh coffee and fresh bakery," he says. "And the Mexicans like the Red Bull."
The Tariq family is Pakistani -- a new addition to the ethnic melting pot that is Federal. But so far, they've had no trouble fitting in.
More coffee, more cigarettes. A copy of the Rocky Mountain News with the front-page headline "Vision for the City's Heart." The story is about the Civic Center, but here on Federal, we can feel the city's heart beating. "Have a good day, my friend." -- Patricia Calhoun
Littleton Golf and Tennis Center
5800 South Federal, Littleton
Federal Boulevard may be the metro area's most culturally diverse corridor, but the landmark at its southernmost point -- the Littleton Golf and Tennis Center -- is exceedingly homogeneous, at least at this time of the morning. With very few exceptions, the golfers on the course, the putting green and the driving range, at the pro shop and grill, and in the parking lot near an oversized bubble structure that protects the indoor tennis courts are well-dressed, well-toned white women over the age of fifty -- and most of them are way over that age. The sign at the first tee box informing duffers that "ABSOLUTELY NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES MAY BE BROUGHT ONTO PREMISES UNLESS PURCHASED IN RESTAURANT" appears wholly unnecessary. These ladies aren't here to drain a couple of six-packs and then re-enact favorite scenes from Caddyshack. They're more interested in getting the sort of exercise that'll help them outlive their husbands, who seem to be in awfully short supply.
Across Federal is Bowles Grove Park, whose main path meanders past bucolic patches of greenery and ponds so stagnant and algae-coated that even the ducks congregated nearby show little interest in wading. There are no bikers, no joggers, no strollers, and definitely no homeless people. Just one lonely guy checking his PDA as he hurries south, stepping from the spot where one end of Federal quietly comes to life. -- Michael Roberts
Highlands Masonic Temple
Three cathedral chairs are enthroned against the east wall of the great room in the Highlands Masonic Temple. East, because it is the direction from which the sun rises, and the sun governs the day, and thus the seat of rule, says Worshipful Brother John Lawton. He points to the center chair. This is where the presiding officer from any of the several chivalric orders of Freemasonry that use the temple -- the Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star, the High Priest for the Royal Arch, the Imminent Commander for the Knights Templar, the Thrice Illustrious Grand Master for the Cryptic Council -- always sits.
Lawton has a pretty heady title himself: Captain General of Denver's Knights Templar commandry, a position attained only after many years devoted to the study of Masonic symbolism and ceremony. It's his duty to give a 35-minute lecture on this subject to any hopeful seeking initiation as a Freemason apprentice. The ritual also involves the applicant taking "an obligation" at an altar at the center of the room, swearing on the Holy Bible, a square and a compass -- "the furniture of the lodge," Lawton calls them, because they represent the moral correctitude to which the fellowship aspires. To become a Mason, you must be of good report and believe in the existence of a living God, for "no atheist can be made a Mason or else no oath or obligation can be considered binding by him," he recites.
His lingo may be anachronistic, but Lawton's attire is very contemporary: tennis shoes, shorts and a white T-shirt with holes about the shoulders. He's also in charge of maintenance at the historic, 14,000-square-foot building, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1927. Prior to that, the Masonic orders of north Denver resided at what is now the Delmonico Hall just down the street. To celebrate the new temple, which resembles a neo-Grecian mausoleum, a procession of 150 Knights Templar marched up Federal, followed by the El Jebel Shrine band and thousands of paraders.
Inside the building, an impressive marble staircase leads to a three-foot-high bust of George Washington. The Father of our Country was a Mason, along with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. "Masons built this country," Lawton points out. Some historians trace the origins of the Masons much further back, to the construction of King Solomon's temple; others see a link to the Egyptian pyramids. The main purpose of the brotherhood, though, is not to build buildings, but strong men. Washington himself was painted wearing a Masonic apron, a vestment meant to denote moral purity.
"It reminds us that we put away the base things," Lawton explains, motioning to his crotch, "and focus more on the intellectual and spiritual endeavors." Lately, though, it's been difficult to convince young people to smooth their rough-hewn edges by following Masonic traditions. Back in the '80s, the temple's great room would be filled with members. Any more, a meeting attracts only twenty or so brothers -- maybe fifty, if a Grand Master is visiting.
"Our country has lost its sense of community," Lawton says, and sighs. It doesn't help that older members haven't made a strong push to recruit new ones. "The old guys are all secretive about stuff, you know," he explains. "They wouldn't tell you a thing about Masonry."
Lawton thinks it's time for the Masons to spill their secrets and show all those conspiracy theorists that no plots are being contrived within these walls. His specific lodge has started doing just that by setting up its own MySpace page, where favorite movies include National Treasure and The Man Who Would Be King.
"To me, the bottom line with Masonry is to make the world a better place," he says. "And to kill terrorists."
Just joking. "I mean, that's not a goal of mine or ours," Lawton adds, his face growing serious, "but apparently that's a goal of theirs, to kill us." -- Jared Jacang Maher
175 South Federal
There she stands, emanating majesty from her tidy brick pedestal: Lady Liberty. Lovingly fashioned from 250 pounds of galvanized sheet metal by the late Bob Ramsour, she's served as a beacon for commuters on Federal since the early '80s, and Bob's daughter Sherry Ramsour-Held, who today runs the family business with her brother, Bo, would love nothing more than for her to keep doing so forever. But the ravages of time continue to take their toll, and the relentless march of progress threatens to extinguish her glow once and for all.
An overflowing scrapbook kept in Sherry's office reveals how closely the statue's history is bound with that of its creator and the enterprise that dominated his career. Bob Ramsour was born in 1928 in the very place where he would work for more than half a century; before the building became a business, it was the Ramsour family home. His brother, Bert, established Federal Heating here in 1939, but Bob bought him out in the mid-'40s, soon after returning from a military stint. The price was certainly reasonable. "He paid $1,500 for the building, the business and a truck," Sherry says. The purchase also helped him find a lifelong companion: Bob fell in love with Barbara, who would become his wife, after hiring her as a bookkeeper for the shop.
In his early years at Federal Heating, Bob delivered propane to neighborhood customers and converted antiquated coal furnaces to natural-gas usage. But he found his niche offering sales, installation, parts and service for heating and cooling systems, and these remain Federal Heating's specialties. Such chores require metal-craft skills, of course, and Bob developed his so well that he spent much of his free time in his garage building increasingly elaborate sheet-metal sculptures that he'd display in front of the store. He assembled a robot, a knight in shining armor and a series of tin men, including a funnel-capped skier that looked especially good during snowfalls. Just in time for the country's bicentennial, he also completed a red, white and blue Uncle Sam.
But Sherry considers the Statue of Liberty to be Bob's greatest work. He thoroughly researched the original in New York Harbor to make sure the proportions and dimensions were accurate, and spent the better part of two years putting his own version together. The completed statue was fully functional; its crown and torch even lit up.
The results of Bob's labor were impressive enough to land the statue on the September 1983 cover of SNIPS, "a journal of constructive help to the sheet metal, air conditioning, warm air heating and roofing contractors." But it also lured vandals, who made off with the statue's head a year or so after Lady Liberty made her debut. When Bob arrived at work and saw that his masterpiece had been decapitated, he was furious. Fortunately, the noggin proved too heavy to haul very far, and a police officer found it in an alley a few blocks away.
Despite the occasional dent or ding, the statue has stayed mostly intact since then -- unlike the building itself. Several years ago, pranksters rigged the gas pedal of a stolen sedan and pointed it directly at Federal Heating; the vehicle zoomed across the boulevard and crashed through the front window. Alerted at home that there was a car in her office, Sherry rushed to the scene, and soon noticed the sticker affixed to the wreck's bumper: "Shit Happens."
But if the car missed the statue, the elements have not, and the Lady now requires the sort of good going-over that Bob used to provide. He ran Federal Heating's day-to-day operations through the '90s, and even after Alzheimer's began to rob him of his memories, "he'd go out and shag parts we needed," Sherry says. Bob died in 2004, ten months after Barbara passed away.
Bo and Sherry have tried to stave off any further deterioration of the statue by repainting it; they chose bronze because the green Bob had covered it with "always looked terrible," Sherry says. But they've been unable to find anyone to do more extensive repairs, including replacing missing coils of hair. "Tin work is an art, and people who can do furnaces can't do that anymore," she explains. "We've tried to hire people, but they don't want to mess with it."
So how Ms. Liberty looks today will be the way she'll stay unless she has to be moved -- and that's a very real possibility. There's been talk of widening Federal in front of the building, Sherry says, and while she generally supports the idea, one plan she's seen would eat up practically all of the property between the curb line and the street, leaving no room for the statue.
If that prospect comes to pass, the statue could always be moved to the current Ramsour homestead, where all of Bob's robots and tin men are stored. But Sherry doesn't think the block would look quite right without Lady Liberty -- or Federal Heating, for that matter. "I'll be here until the day I die," Sherry says. "And I hope she will be, too." -- Michael Roberts
Psychic Readings by Fatima
1624 South Federal
A brightly colored wooden sign juts out almost to the street, enticing passersby to stop in for "Psychic Readings." But some of you already knew that. Cue creepy, metaphysical music. At the left and right corners of the sign, above a crudely spray-painted tag -- pretty much the definition of bad karma -- are the words "Adivinadora" and "Espirituista," and as I pull into the parking lot of the small, stucco building, I prepare myself for a preternatural powwow in Spanish. How do I even broach the subject, I wonder, passing two ceramic geese protecting the staircase, each clad in festive, country-fair regalia.
¿Cuanto cuesta una consultación? ¿Lee manos aquí?
I picture an ancient Mexican woman on the other side of the door, blind and reeking of incense. She takes my hand and leads me into a small, dark room, where she sits inside a giant seashell and begins to rock violently, channeling the ghosts of dead Indians. She starts howling in agony, gnashing her teeth uncontrollably; as the walls shake as though they'll crumble, the woman tells me awful tales of bloody battles past, battles high in the Sierras, where men suffered unjustly -- and how these querulous souls now haunt me like rain clouds, as they shall for as long as I walk the earth. Like Ryu at the end of Street Fighter, except Mexican.
Then Fatima opens the door and immediately confirms my non-psychic abilities. Because she's definitely not Mexican.
"Do you accept walk-ins?" I ask nervously, despite the fact that the board outside the door announces "Walk-ins Welcome."
"Come in, come in," she says in a vaguely Eastern European accent, though it could just be the lisp. "My fee is $40."
The living room smells of old carpet and hamburgers, which, as we pass the kitchen, I see is because a man is sitting at a table eating hamburgers. Fatima is clad in a blue sleeveless T-shirt whose designer lacked the good sense to end it at the waist and so it became a dress. It is unbuttoned to slightly above Fatima's supersensory navel, and I struggle to avoid staring at the abundance of floppy, old-woman cleavage cascading down the hallway. She glides like a slug.
We slip into a small room with a table and three giant crosses on the wall. The shelves are lined with more religious paraphernalia; strewn about on the table are numerous Ziploc bags full of crystals. Fatima asks if I would like to have my palm read or sit for a tarot-card reading. I ask what she recommends, and she opts to read the cards, unearthing a stale deck and explaining that palm-reading is more personal, but tarot sees all. Like when Oprah has a panel as opposed to one specific guest.
She splits the cards into three piles, takes my hand and has me touch each pile, making a wish out loud while touching the first two, then keeping the third wish to myself. I wish for success, then the well-being of my family, realize I probably should have done it the other way around and that I'm really a selfish prick, and keep the third wish silent. Fatima begins methodically laying the cards out in various patterns, unearthing mysterious figures like "The Fool," "The King," "The Chariot," etc.
"You're having problems at work," she tells me. This strikes me as odd, because the only job-related problem I can think of is that my work is making me hold the hand of a creepy woman on Federal, and I don't know where or how soon I can wash my hands.
"There is someone you work with who has dark hair and dark eyes who is extremely jealous of you," Fatima informs me.
"He is chunky in build."
I scan cubicles in my mind, but can't think of any beefy rivals. We move on.
"There is a woman in your life?"
"Yu recently had one but it ended badly?"
Uh, sure, why not?
"You will find your soulmate by the end of the year," Fatima declares with certainty.
"It will be at a party or a gathering," she says, sounding impossibly vague.
A gathering, eh? Like a Klan-rally gathering, Fatima, or a crowd-of-people-surrounding-my-mangled-carcass-after-I've-volleyed-through-the-windshield-on-the-highway gathering? Meet me halfway here.
"It will be at a party," she says. "You will know it is her because she will be in a similar profession as you and you will talk about your interests."
Yes! I love talking about interests!
"You want to ask me a question," Fatima says. "Go ahead, ask it."
Unaware of what question I want to ask her, I instead ask a dozen questions, and learn that Fatima just recently moved to Denver from Los Angeles. She still operates another psychic shop out there, commuting regularly, and I think to myself that this Fatima earns pretty good money in the old psychic racket. She tells me that the money isn't bad, and that she gets six or seven walk-ins a day, plus her regular appointments. Fatima gets plenty of repeat business. Must be the cleavage.
I ask how she first learned she was psychic, and she tells me about how when she was eleven, she walked by a little girl and had an overpowering sensation that something bad was going to happen to the child. An hour later, the girl was in a car accident.
"Did you see it happening, or did you just have a feeling?" I ask.
"Both," she says, adding that her grandmother was a psychic as well, and that the trait skips a generation. "This is what God chose for me, so I do it. It's both a blessing and a curse."
After about fifteen minutes, we conclude that my life is pretty much on course and that besides watching my back for my madman, butterball adversary, I should keep doing what I'm doing.
Fatima leads me back out through the narrow hallway, past the kitchen where the unexplained man is still seated eating hamburgers, through the living room and to the front door.
"You should come back again next week," she tells me.
"I should," I say.
"So you'll come back?"
But Fatima is psychic. She knows she'll never see me again. -- Adam Cayton-Holland
Gracey runs her French-tip acrylic nails through a client's hair, smoothing gel from root to tip, a distance of only two inches. Myra's Hairstyling has been open for just a half-hour, but already the two-room salon is humming with the voltage of blow dryers and multiple curling irons plugged in at once. At this time on Saturday, most of the snuff-colored chairs in the foyer, which is actually a closed-in patio, will be occupied by customers waiting for Myra or Gracey to weave and pin updos for quinceañeras, dances and other formal events.
Right now, Myra is sweeping around her brand-new styling chair -- the first material evidence of an effort to remodel -- and her bobbing head is reflected over and over in the mirrors that flank each wall. As Myra cleans, Gracey, a more subdued version of her bustling and voluminous sister, sections off clumps of her client's hair with metal clips. Despite the whirring fan aimed straight at her station, Gracey's bangs are immovable, an advertisement for the wonders of Aqua Net. The salon's sole stylists bookend nine other siblings: Myra is the eldest and Gracey the youngest.
Myra's is on the verge of celebrating its 27th anniversary in the neighborhood and its fifteenth at the current location, an old house with one room for cutting and styling, the other for sit-down hair dryers and a growing collection of National Enquirers. There are apartments both above and below the salon.
Myra went to beauty school at Manual High School more than thirty years ago, at a time when students could take regular courses -- math, English, science -- in the morning, and in the afternoon, learn to cut hair in the basement. By 1972, she had her high school diploma and was a licensed beautician. After a stint at JC Penney, she started her own business by renting a chair in a salon on 32nd Avenue.
Myra's two daughters are licensed beauticians, but they chose to pursue careers in IT and education, and the smiling faces of all three of her children line the mirrors -- this one a Glamour Shot from 1996, that one a more recent wedding photo. On another wall, Gracey shows off pictures of the three custom choppers that her husband has constructed, as well as a 4 x 6 glossy of her daughter at her quinceañera in July. Chocolate-colored tendrils frame her youthful face, and a glittering tiara halos a thick mound of curls.
Did she come to Myra's to get her hair done? "Of course. This is a family place," Myra says, still gripping the broom even though she stopped sweeping fifteen minutes earlier. "Everyone comes here." -- Sara Behunek
3820 South Federal, Englewood
For ten, fifteen minutes at a time, Penny is the only one who speaks. She stands on an elevated platform behind a tall podium and methodically calls out letter-number combinations printed on randomly chosen lottery balls. "B6. That's 6 under B," she announces in a pack-a-day, grandmotherly tone.
Helpers sporting name badges and blue waist-aprons lap Bingo City (maximum capacity: 450 people) carrying plastic tubs of pull tabs, Bullet Bingo cards and raffle tickets, calling, "Last chance to get progressive cards. Who needs 'em?" More than a hundred people -- most of them female and accompanied by an assortment of canes, walkers and wheelchairs -- sit in metal chairs with teal pads behind rows and rows of identical tables. They listen to Penny in reverent silence, their eyes darting from television monitors and blinking number boards to the paper bingo cards splayed in front of them. As they sip self-serve coffee, they use anywhere from one to eight rainbow-colored Dabbin'-Fever and Bingo-Brite brand ink dabbers to mark their cards. They don't speak. Not on their cell phones, not to each other. Smokers' coughs occasionally echo off the walls.
When players win, they don't yell "Bingo" like a casino gambler would yell "Jackpot!" They don't jump up and down or scream or rub fuchsia-colored dabber ink all over their faces and arms. They don't even smile. They simply mutter the magic word, hold their winning card in the air, and wait for helper Norm or Paul to come verify their card number against one of Penny's computers.
After three color-coordinated games of Regular, Round-Robin and Blackout Bingo, the room clears for intermission. Some players head to the snack bar for nachos and burgers and burritos and soda, but most beeline for one of three exits. Out back, more than twenty people are smoking. Penny, who is wearing green flip-flops and a floral-print dress, drags on a Winston. She's talking with three other women about the Bingo King lottery-ball machine and how it's not doing a very good job of mixing up the balls. She admits that she doesn't understand how to play Bullet Bingo cards. She lights her second cigarette with her first. Out front, more smokers spread out in the parking lot of red Buick Rivieras and purple Corollas and black Lexus SUVs and mutter about the weather.
As intermission ends, players place their final orders at the snack bar. A small line forms in front of a vending machine that sells sixteen kinds of cigarettes for $5 a pop and more than thirty kinds of ink dabbers for about a dollar each. Penny announces that the Yellow round of Regular Bingo will commence in thirty seconds, and straggling smokers and snackers shuffle, hobble and barely make it back to their seats in time. The now-obsolete non-smoking section (maximum capacity: eighty people), set apart by two glass-windowed walls, fills up for no apparent reason. The progressive game (running payout: $3,419.10) goes by without a winner in under 53 numbers. Raffle numbers are called, and the prizes -- a massaging chair pad, a set of candles and a large Halloween-themed pillow -- are distributed to unimpressed winners. One woman looks at her neighbor and whispers, "Who would want that pillow?"
When the final game ends more than two hours after the first began, players pack their dabbers back into their bags and head for the forty-foot-long pull-tab-and-pickle bar, throwing singles and fives at volunteers for one last chance at luck. They tear and peel Wild-Ball and Rakin'-in-the-Chips pull tabs with feigned interest before discarding them in the trash. A few gather in small groups and exhaustedly mutter things like, "Oh, that's baloney sausage, Susan." Some make plans to come back for the 7 p.m. game, others the 10:30 game. Still others simply trudge out to the parking lot, pack their ventilators and wheelchairs into their cars, and slowly pull out onto Federal. -- Drew Bixby
The greeter who directs people onto the lot looks nothing like Officer O'Dell, and the salesman in a white shirt waiting to shake my hand as soon as I emerge from my potential trade-in is no Audra. But the spirit of Shagman and his wacky companions looms large over Rocky's, a bright motley of pennants, balloons, Day-Glo stickers and late-model, fossil-fuel-burning chariots of all makes and persuasions. Well, almost all.
Federal is a car culture, a pilgrimage on four wheels, and Rocky's is its mecca. The business started a generation ago on the cusp of Mile High Stadium but moved four miles north in 1992; it's still family-owned, still churning out dopey commercials that make you wonder if there's a family-sized tank of nitrous oxide in one of the back rooms. You won't find any snobby "pre-owned vehicles" here, just a vast array of used cars, with no particular brand loyalty.
In a recent commercial, Shagman intimated that Rocky's was the most popular car dealer in the state. "Popular" being a term of art, that prompted a mind-bending apology in another thirty-second spot, which ended with Officer O'Dell escorting a sobbing Shagman to the slammer. Shagman has yet to claim that the place has a mile of cars, as in a classic Kurt Russell flick, but he does insist that the place is the highest-volume peddler of clean used cars in Colorado.
The weekend rush is still hours away, and my salesman, Mike, is low-key and surprisingly soothing. I tell him I'm looking for something sharp but economical, and he gives me that like-who-isn't smile. Music blares from speakers around the lot. While Mick tells us to get offa his cloud, we check out a nondescript Kia, a blah Intrigue, even a canary-yellow VW Bug. Can I fit my ego into a Suzuki Esteem? Am I noble enough for a Mitsubishi Galant? Do I yearn for a Ford Aspire?
Sadly, there's not a hybrid on the lot. I set my sights on a little more flash and financing, and Mike leads me to a 2003 silver Honda Accord with all the trimmings. The Accord has 79,000 miles plus change, and I'm beginning to wonder about the criteria behind the "Low Mileage" stickers that grace just about every windshield on the lot. Apparently, the odometer has to be in six figures to earn a different blurb -- "Still Runs," perhaps.
It takes a helpful fellow with a razor blade a couple of minutes to scrape off all the stickers and festoonings so we can take this baby out for a spin. The test drive goes well. No pressure, no hustle, just Mike murmuring a mesmerizing incantation of features and options. Sunroof, leather, six-CD changer. Side-curtain airbags. "Water management system," which has something to do with the way the rain sluices off the roof. The words "heated seats" come up about four times, as if nobody should contemplate winter driving on Federal without a rump roast.
"What can we do to earn your business today?" Mike asks.
I tell him I'm not ready to buy. We head back to the sales office, where a vast sea of picnic tables loaded with crayons and coloring books -- Shagtoons, featuring Shagman and helpful advice for kids -- await the harried families with leg-clinging tykes who are just starting to filter in. I get a free hat and one more invitation to think it over from a friendly sales manager. If the Accord doesn't cut it, he says, how about a Saab? Volvo? Nissan? You name it, we got it.
For a moment, I feel like haggling. Something in me wants to snarl, "Fifty bucks never killed anyone." But for all the folksiness and inventory at Rocky's, and the absence of the dread and brain damage you can suffer at the high-pressure dealerships, I don't think I've found my ride and price quite yet. I take Mike's card and promise to return.
I get in my old car, put on the gimme hat and check the mirror.
Shagman stares back. -- Alan Prendergast
Angel's Sports Bar
"Ready for the shot?" Johnny Blaze says to Chief. Chief nods his shaved, goateed head, and the shot glasses are raised and emptied, a mixture of Tuaca and Red Bull sliding down the two buddies' throats. Blaze shifts his attention to the female bartender in the tight shirt, chatting her up in Spanish, while Chief returns to the sketchbook lying on the bar in front of him, his colored pencils shaping crowns and racing flags and flaming skulls, his mind formulating new designs for his tattoo side business.
"Damn!" exclaims Chief, looking up at the television above the bar, where the Jets and Giants are engaged in a pre-season grapple. It's the only television turned on in the cavernous establishment. All the others -- the big-screens in the adjoining Mexican restaurant, the wall of TVs stacked like bricks in the corner, the projectors aimed at white screens on the walls -- are silent and blank, since there's no one else to watch them, no one sitting in the long rows of blue vinyl booths or leaning against the pool tables or shuffling around the dance floor.
Blaze gestures toward the huge glass windows lining the back of the bar, each framing an unparalleled vista of Invesco Field at Mile High, its undulating upper bowl like a gaping mouth ready to swallow the big blue sky. He was there about a year ago, Blaze says, for the first Broncos game of the season. Great seats, too. "Dude, the cheerleaders were right there, man!" he exclaims, his voiced raised over the sound of Vicente Fernandez crooning "Mujeres Divinas" on the jukebox.
Both Blaze and Chief have the day off from their surgical-tech jobs at Saint Joseph Hospital. They may play some poker later, but they probably won't return to Angel's tonight, when the numerous screens will be blazing with the Broncos facing the Cardinals in their final pre-season game. "The bar is not cheap," says Blaze, before taking a swig from his gargantuan mug of beer. Chief concurs. "I guess I'm not a sports guy," he adds.
In the back room, Angel's co-owner Elvira Gutierrez hopes they'll reconsider. Times have been tough since she and her sister tore out the brown carpets and installed the neon Budweiser signs seven months ago, exorcising all remnants of the establishment's former life as a private club. But aside from the occasional wedding reception or quinceañera party, most of the plastic-lined tables in Angel's, which is a Mexican restaurant as well as a sports bar, have remained free of enchiladas and chiles rellenos and fajita plates, and even the Friday Old-School House Parties with DJ Big Moe have failed to draw a crowd.
And then there was that problem this summer, when Gutierrez and her sister, Maria, traced a funny smell around the back of the bar and down into a basement apartment, where they found a squatter doing meth. "He was one of those guys -- long hair, skinny, with a Metallica shirt," she says. He took off on a bicycle, leaving in his wake a basement that's still cordoned off with plastic tarps, orange tape and severe warning signs from the Denver Department of Environmental Health, plus a bar that had to close its doors for a month while the authorities determined there was no trace of contamination.
"Can you believe that happened here, across the street from Invesco Field?" asks Gutierrez. "We had to throw away all the food and everything. Staying home for a month, it was something else."
Angel's reopened two weeks ago, and she figures it's just in time, what with the Broncos kicking off their season on September 10. She fondly remembers the only game that Angel's was open for last season, the AFC Championship match against the Steelers. The contest proved to be heartbreaking for Broncos fans, but not for Gutierrez. "Oh, my God!" she says, her palm raised in emphasis. "I've never seen so many people! We were going crazy when the Broncos lost. Everyone had sad faces. But it was beautiful."
She pauses, looking out the window at Invesco, imagining its tarmac moat packed bumper-to-bumper, her tables and bar stools filled with fans in dressed in blue and orange. "We'll see this year," she says. "Hopefully, we'll make it this year."
It's not clear whether she's talking about the team or her bar. -- Joel Warner
Rose's Hair & Nail
1079 South Federal
Early afternoon is the slow time at Rose's Hair & Nail. No customers are wandering the blue-and-white tiled floors, shopping for knock-off purses or looking at the array of antique vases filled with fake flowers. In fact, only one person is here: a Vietnamese beautician who watches over the front desk and the ancient salon chairs.
Right now I'm the only one sitting in one of those chairs, and she pulls her cuticle trimmers and nail clippers out of her purse and proceeds to run through the same manicure/pedicure routine that thousands of beauticians around the country use, expertly executing each step of the process with a slightly bored look on her face. But at 2 p.m., something happens. She gets up and switches on the small television at the back of the salon, then sits back down at her foot-bath station, occasionally glancing at the screen while she continues her work.
It's Jerry Springer time, and as Jerry introduces everybody on this day's show, Rose herself returns from a lunch run, dropping the food in order to bustle over and help with the manicure. She and the other beautician work in companionable silence. There's nothing like being pampered by two people at once, hand and foot, especially while you're watching an episode of Springer titled "Babysitters and Battling Broads."
"Jerry Spring crazy show," says Rose. "The people crazy. Two girls fight over ugly man."
If you ask, she might tell you about the episode when the ugly and obese man took his shirt off, and how his upper-arm fat drooped and jiggled while he made love to the camera. Rose watches Jerry Spring every afternoon, to kill time until the customers arrive. Most people come in after work, she says.
But for now, she has Jerry Spring to keep her company. "Why they have audience?" Rose wonders. "For laughing and yelling?"
Even with "Babysitters and Battling Broads" in the background, the beauticians get the job done, and once my nails are dry, I have to tear my eyes away from the screen and focus on payment. For a mere $30, Rose and company have done a fantastic job on my hands (French manicured) and feet (shiny and blood-red). And with the ultimate in trash TV thrown in, it's a real bargain. -- Amber Taufen
With just two ceiling fans for relief, the sweet, familiar scent of newsprint and books with yellowing pages hangs heavy in the heat. A few regulars navigate the maze of wooden magazine racks with ease, making small talk with the employees as they pass.
Kit sits at a desk behind the front counter. She looks like a librarian is supposed to look -- glasses, a makeup-free face and a loose jean jumper that stops just shy of her ankles -- and says that this store has just about any periodical that anyone could want. There's a wide variety of sudoku and crossword puzzles, as well as rows of magazines from as far away as England that cover crafts, quilting and home decor. There are Sunday papers from every major American city, even Maui, although most don't come in until Monday or Tuesday. The gun-related reads -- with titles like Small Arms Review and How to Make a Silencer for a .45 -- take up almost an entire wall. There are shelves for politics, art, music, cars and every sport imaginable, plus tip sheets. Lately, customers have been flocking to the section that contains dozens of magazines dedicated to fantasy football. And of course, people come in looking for smut, Kit says, motioning to the hand-lettered "XXX" sign peeking out over a corner.
Kit, who's worked at Newsland for seventeen years, moved with the newsstand from its former home at 92nd Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard to this nondescript strip mall six years ago. Newsland now occupies the former home of Clay Drug, which Kit remembers well. "The changes I've seen," she says, then tells how when she was a kid living at 73rd and Lowell, she'd walk over to this spot on Federal. Everyone knew Clay Drug back then. "Clay was the standard," she says. "Old Man Clay" himself slept in the back of the drugstore in a room with an intercom, so that customers could wake him to get prescriptions filled any time of the day or night.
That half of the building is empty now, except for a few desks. Kit walks over to the window, and then by Clay's old room, to point out the bullet holes left by people trying to rob Clay Drug. If anything like that were to happen today, she says, you'd need to remember which side of the street you're on before calling 911. Westminster ends on this side of Federal. Across the street is Federal Heights. -- Jessica Centers
1320 South Federal
Drive along this stretch of Federal, and it's like you've joined a highly graphical representation of the American immigration debate. This is International Street. It's not Mexico, not Vietnam, not Korea or China or Costa Rica or any of those places in their entirety, but neither is it entirely the United States. It's a game, like a jigsaw puzzle, an American smash-map where things like borders and capitals and national languages have ceased to matter. Drive it, and you're in the middle of the engine of the new economy, the new nationalism, the new multiculturalism.
But step outside and you're in a whole different world.
Food is the poetry between people who don't have a language in common. And at Fiesta Plaza, the verses begin before I can even get out of the car. Mariachi music blares from nowhere in particular -- from the sky, as if that's the music that God likes. There are signs hung on scrap-metal frames: whole tilapia for 79 cents a pound, screaming in bright colors, in Spanish and English, in pictograms -- a smiling fish curled lovingly around its own price. Announcements echo from the thin, hot air, offering Mexican cilantro, Coca-Cola and limes for pennies. On the sidewalk, in the parking lot, men with skin like cheap wallets sell churros and elotes and white Styrofoam cups of something that smells so good I can almost get past how evil it looks.
Near the front door of Avanza Supermarket, there are avocados in a bin for 49 cents each, and beyond that so many piñatas that I can't count them all. A hundred? A thousand? The roof of my world is made of shredded crepe, its gold-foil stars sparkling like constellations with no names.
At the butcher's counter, even the meat is foreign. Bottles of pickled pigs' ears in brine. Trotters and chiles. Whole wheels of asadero and ropy twists of queso fresco are stacked higgledy-piggledy beside bowls of fajita meat, links of sausage I've never seen on any menu, mountains of tip steak sliced thin onto white paper, cow's stomach cut for menudo, chuletas de puerco trimmed more roundly than any Anglo butcher's diagram has ever shown them, and chicken feet -- mounds of chicken feet -- destined for Christ knows what.
Two aisles over, or three, the orderly cans of beans are watched over by a hundred dead Mexican saints: prayer candles in such lovely variety as to burn away innumerable sins. On another aisle, I am torn between buying the candy spaghetti flavored with hot watermelon and salsa or the package of chocolate-marshmallow cookies with the picture of a cartoon Jesus cavorting with a bear. At the front of the store, you can get car loans, cell phones, phone cards and wire service, and at another counter you can pay your utility bills. Were I an immigrant to this place -- to Denver, to Los Estados, legal or non -- I can't imagine what a comfort this would represent. Like me packing up and moving to Ghana, to Tibet or Tokyo and finding a place that sells doughnuts, coffee, Marlboros and Irish whiskey for American dollars.
I step back outside, no closer to home, and walk past the thrift store, headed for another land. But Hong Kong Market is closed. By the look of the place, it has been for a while. All it's selling now is broken shelving and dust.
From behind me, someone says, "They're closed."
"Yeah," I say. "I get that. Do you know how long?"
Across the street, someone else is selling Hatch green chiles and piñon at a rattletrap stand. A couple of blocks away, I walk into a Vietnamese video store and recognize absolutely nothing; it's like stepping through a mirror and finding myself in a parallel universe where Hollywood never existed -- until, on my way out, I see a battered copy of what looks like Turner and Hooch.
After failing to find anything but ghosts at Hong Kong, I head to New Saigon Market, at 1076 South Federal, where I can get my ginger bonbons and fish sauce and green tea with honey. Surrounded by families looking for jackfruit and stew meat and durian and Chiclets, I sort through cans and bottles of pickled vegetables like Vietnamese escabeche. Next door, there are French sandwiches on heavy bread at Ba Le Sandwich. Past that, duck's blood, shaved banana flowers and fishscale mint at Ha Noi Pho.
It's International Street, and if there's something that can't be found here, I haven't found it. -- Jason Sheehan
No one cruises Federal on Thursday night. The boulevard is dead, without a lowrider in sight. Instead, everyone is in the clubs -- at Oasis up the street, or Saturday Night Live if they're single or can get away from the wives. But Sundays...Sundays are always slammin'. That's when the strip is packed with beautiful cars lovingly restored and improved with hydraulics and custom paint and upholstery. Sundays are a rolling art exhibit, although "not as much as it used to be," says Bo Valdez-Berriel, shortly after picking me up at the corner of 38th Avenue and Federal in his gorgeous 1983 Buick Regal.
Why, I ask?
"Cops," he responds simply.
"Yeah, but they don't bug the car clubs as much," adds Rick Valles, our cruising partner. "If we're all together, they know we're just showing off our cars."
Valles and Valdez-Berriel started Reminiscing Car Club two years ago, and the pair go out every weekend to show off their rides. When a man on a motorcycle stops at a light, looks over and says, "Nice ride, man," Valdez-Berriel just smiles. With its opalescent white paint job, white upholstery and blue trim, the Buick is an eye-catcher, and he gets stopped all the time. The car is also a business card for his skills: He and Valles do all the work themselves.
We cruise down to Mississippi and then head back up to 84th Avenue, prime cruising territory. But nobody's around, not even in the Sonic parking lot up north or the gas stations that litter the strip. There's not even a cop. But the ride itself is glorious.
And as they drop me off at the gas station at 38th Avenue, finally, some action: Two red cars collide just past the intersection. It's a hit-and-run in progress, but we don't catch the license-plate numbers. "There you go," Valles says. "Something happened on Federal."
Still, not even a cop. -- Amy Haimerl
Saturday Night Live
Something seems different about this strip club.
Like at any other strip club, the guy at the door gives you all singles for change when you pay the $4 cover, as does the waitress when you buy a $4 bottle of Budweiser. On the four stages, there are plenty of girls with whom you can exchange one of those dollars for a moment's intimacy.
Still, something seems different.
Same clear plastic high heels. Same tattoos on the small of the strippers' backs. Same schoolgirl outfits, cheerleader uniforms, tiny business suits and bikinis. Same G-strings and the same cheap perfume. Same music, too.
But something's different, all right: All the breasts look real.
Reminiscent of an old-school Playboy, the breasts are big, they're small, and they're real. And the air-conditioner in the room is set just right to highlight Saturday Night Live's main attraction.
On one stage is Diva, the proud owner of a set of 38DDs. She's chewing gum, has a pierced tongue and long eyelashes, and is the mother of a six-month-old boy. She sports a tiny black dress -- too tiny. "Bad kitty," Diva says, spanking herself between her legs.
"Bad kitty," she repeats, as Snoop raps about being beautiful in the background. Diva goes down on my nearly empty Budweiser bottle, all the way to the label. She can shove a dollar behind a man's belt buckle and take it out with her mouth. Now she puts her finger in her mouth, and my money, too.
I think she really likes me.
An angry dancer comes over and tells Diva that she's pissed and it's time to go. A dude in sunglasses seems to be sleeping in the back of the bar. The bouncer has an ice cream cone in one hand and a tall blonde in the other.
The next round of dancers includes a thin Latina who's especially gifted at picking dollars off of faces with her breasts. She looks to be about a B cup, maybe a C, and she gets the attention of a couple of guys who step up and each shove a George Washington in her thong.
Across the stage from the Latina is a white girl in a white dress who lifts it up to her chest with an "oops" expression on her face. The dress goes up and down during a double batch of Tone Loc before it comes off for good.
I think she really likes me.
The only female in the audience not dressed like a stripper is a Vietnamese woman in tight jeans and a T-shirt. She's tipping the girls on stage. She used to work here but hasn't danced in three months. Something overcomes her on this particular night, though, and she goes back to put on a bikini and then steps on stage.
"I'm so nervous," she says as she starts her first dance. She then proceeds to do the splits, throw her legs over the crowd's heads, wrap her legs around a pole, pick dollars off of faces with her butt cheeks.
I think she really likes me.
The sign outside tells passersby that Cookie's still here. But new dancers are always welcome. -- Luke Turf
The Toad Tavern
5302 South Federal, Littleton
Plunked down in suburbia at the southernmost end of Federal, the Toad Tavern stands out like a Broncos fan at Arrowhead. And in the witching hour, the only signs of life in this neighborhood are coming from the Toad.
As I enter the bar, Bruce Hornsby loudly beckons anyone within earshot to "listen to my heart break every time she runs away." Sorry, Bruce, but your earnest plea is falling on deaf ears. I've got some serious heartbreak of my own to contend with tonight. I came down to the Triple T to check out the live music and score some free Anthony's pizza. But as it turns out, the complimentary pizza won't be doled out until Friday's happy hour (natch), and the band has just finished playing. As the musicians -- who all appear much too young to be up so late on a school night -- stack their instruments on the edge of an empty dance floor, a lonely merkin ball spins silently, sparsely illuminated by a strip of Christmas lights framing the entryway to be the bar's makeshift VIP area. Across the dance floor, three guys hover intently around a trivia console as though they're hashing out plans for an upcoming bank robbery.
At the back of the long, L-shaped bar, a big-screen TV is tuned to ESPN's Sports Center, which is rolling through a montage of the day's game highlights. A handful of folks are perched on bar stools, clutching their drinks and chatting. "Mandolin Rain" stops falling, giving way to the unmistakable rumbling bass line of Tool's "Stinkfist," which sounds as loud as a jet engine firing up.
"This one's for you, Tracy," remarks the sound man, glancing toward the bar.
A few minutes later, I make my way out to the Toad's posh new smoker-friendly patio, which sits on the sidewalk just in front of the bar. Although many bar owners are bemoaning the smoking ban, the Toad seems to be making the best of it. Fenced in by a cast-iron rail and outfitted with a pair of futons and several bar stools, the section is an invitation to fire up and shoot the shit.
"Justice is hitting on me," comments a slender blonde to her friend.
"I noticed," says the friend.
"I'm like, ŒI like boys,'" says the blonde, with a look of exasperation.
Just as the words leave her lips, a petite woman with dark, close-cropped hair flings open the bar door and comes stumbling onto the patio, inspiring the two ladies to make their way back inside.
"You got a smoke I can get from one of you guys?" asks Justice, who's clad in a baggy, checkered shirt, beige slacks and construction boots. "Just one?"
"I don't smoke," says the burly guy seated on a nearby stool.
"You're fuckin' full of shit," Justice slaps back, incredulous. "What the fuck you doin' out here, then, bro?"
"Claire drug me out here," he responds. "Hey, smell my breath. I don't smoke."
"I don't smell a motherfucker's breath," says Justice.
The guy gives up and heads back inside.
Unloading a banana clip of F-bombs, Justice is tore up from the floor up. As she leans against the rail and takes a pull from her beer, she sprays random invective about a box of onions someone left behind, free for the taking. "Fuck, yeah," she exclaims to a guy standing next to her. "Dude, we're having a big-ass fuckin', fuckin' cookout, dude! I'll tell you what."
A few minutes later, she confirms what's obvious to everyone. "Fuck," she mutters. "I'm fucked up, dude."
With that, she sets down her beer, thanks us for the smokes and heads for the door. On her way out, she turns and says, "I better get my ass gone, man, maintain my own self, you know?"
We know. -- Dave Herrera
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