Longform

All bets are off: Westword writers head up the hill to Black Hawk and Central City

Page 3 of 9

11 a.m.

On the first Wednesday of every month, Tommy Donahue and a group of his friends climb aboard a bus bound for Black Hawk. The trip is a pleasant distraction for the 85-year-old retired cattleman, who spends the rest of his time being retired and doing the stuff that retired people do.

With striking blue eyes and a remarkably unweathered face, Tommy's advanced age isn't immediately apparent. Just the same, the silver locks tucked neatly beneath his ballcap make lobbying for a senior discount unnecessary. Then again, Tommy's accumulated enough points on his player's club card that his lunch at Calypso's Buffet in the Isle of Capri Casino is comped. Unlike the rest of the diners, who are seated together in clusters, Tommy is sitting by himself at a table for two. It turns out the other members of his group are up the hill at another casino. But Tommy's undergone a few surgical alterations to his ticker that make the notion of staying at the lower altitude of Black Hawk decidedly more appealing. Besides, he likes the food here — as well he should. The offerings at this buffet justify a trip to Black Hawk just to eat.

As Tommy gets up to help himself to some dessert, he notices another ballcap on the table next to him. "Is that a Yankees cap you've got there?" he asks.

Why, yes.

"Say," he continues, "would you be interested in an authentic picture of Babe Ruth and Gehrig on a ranch in Nebraska?"

Next thing you know, Tommy reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a green folder. Sure enough, inside the folder is a picture of the young Yankees posing with a few other guys, one of whom is holding a toddler: Tommy when he was two years old. Tommy's dad was apparently acquainted with the Babe through some ranch, and the print is from a negative that his dad gave him decades ago. He's asking $35 for it — down from $70, because folks are struggling these days and Tommy doesn't need the money, he insists.

"If I can tell you one story," he says, "I've got a hundred." And he proceeds to prove it by spinning yarn after yarn: about how he once caddied for the Babe, who would make him play the last hole; about how he ended up in Denver in the '50s, leaving Winnebago, Nebraska, for a lucrative job as a cattleman — a job he later quit when his boss tried to rush him while he was eating breakfast. Before he finished eating that breakfast, a guy from another outfit that happened to have an office in the same building had offered him another job, a better job, and Tommy went on to make a nice life for himself and his family in the Mile High City. Oh, and then there's the story about how when he retired and moved to Phoenix, he started his own tamale delivery company. And how one of his best sales reps was a gal one of his managers recruited from a street known for harboring ladies of the evening. And how Tommy and his family used to dine with the parents of a man who became a famously reclusive Denver billionaire. "He's a workaholic," he remembers the man's mother saying.

Tommy could go on for hours — and he probably would, if he didn't have to rush off to catch his bus. "Glad to know you," he says, extending his hand. "If you want to buy that picture of Babe and Gehrig, give me a call." — Dave Herrera


12:01 p.m.

It's high noon in Black Hawk, and Crook's Palace, the only non-casino restaurant in town and the oldest saloon in Colorado, according to a sign outside (although all claims in these gaming districts should be taken with a grain of salt, if not an entire saltshaker), has just two lunchtime diners: a couple of women, both hooked to oxygen tanks, talking loudly as they dip into cups of French onion soup. A few minutes later, two guys in fishing hats and cargo pants roll in and order Bud Lights.

The history of Crook's is considerably more colorful than its current incarnation. The heavy, dark-wood bar that anchors the place was originally part of a Missouri saloon, where Jesse James once bellied up to it. James Crook brought the bar in when he took over this spot in 1900, renaming the former Skylight Saloon after himself. He operated Crook's Palace for the next three decades, keeping it open through Prohibition by selling cigars and soda. After he died, in 1929, the joint went through a long cycle of struggles and ownership changes, passing through the hands of dozens of proprietors, few of whom managed to keep their bars and/or cafes open more than five years.

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