"It's gotten a little more upscale," says Smith, perhaps a little nostalgically. "People who think they want to rough it, but really want gadgets to make things more comfortable."
Or safe. Sales spike during times of national unease. In the months before Y2K, there was a run on MRE meals and water cans. After September 11, people loaded up on chemical suits. "And they were buying gas masks by the case during the first Iraq war," Sonia says. "Personally, I'd rather not live. I mean, what kind of life would it be if everyone else was dead? Besides, you wouldn't last after your last filter."
Stick around here long enough, and you get to know tantalizing details about the people you see so often -- quick glimpses of their personalities with just enough gap between the lines to fuel the imagination. One sixtyish man has been coming in for twenty years, as often as every other day. Each time, he's been dressed to the nines as a cowboy -- boots, broad hat, handlebar mustache. But one day last week he showed up in full camo. "Now, what's that about?" Corbin wonders. But accepting a customer's secrets is part of the unspoken arrangement when you trade in military gear. The whole idea of camo, after all, is hiding.
"A few days ago, this young guy comes in in the morning," Corbin remembers. "He had long black hair and a black eye. He bought a shrapnel vest, a Kevlar helmet and a gas mask." Early on, you learn not to ask too many questions -- and hope you don't read about your customers later. -- Eric Dexheimer
4:20 p.m.: The Brown Palace
The Brown turns its back on Broadway. Entrance on 17th Street, entrance on Tremont, but the Broadway side is a block-long wall of honey-cinnamon sandstone, shunning the bustle and grubby commerce of downtown rush hours for 112 years and counting.
Why rush? The Brown is its own world, indifferent to the jostlings of the street. And the cocktail hour brings out its private rituals like no other time of the day -- "Moon River" on the piano and martinis in the atrium, deepening shadows and stock quotes on the big screen in the Ship Tavern, padrónes firing up pricey stogies in the cigar bar.
Sit back, sip your whiskey (brought to you by a man in a uniform worthy of a British batman), and ponder the splendid insularity of the place. All that filigreed wrought iron in the majestic eight-story atrium, all that Mexican onyx, all that light jazz and those cornball show tunes wafting from the piano man -- "As Time Goes By," a Wizard of Oz medley, the much-requested Phantom of the Opera. There's nothing like it anywhere else in town. Even the water in that Dewar's-and-a-splash comes from the hotel's own artesian well rather than the municipal supply tapped by the common folk.
An opulent refuge was what founder Henry C. Brown had in mind, and never mind the absurdity of naming a palace after a man with such a pedestrian name. Until well into the '70s, the Brown was just about the only posh place in town to stash visiting presidents and royalty, movie stars and starlets, cardinals and Beatles. The hotel no longer has a monopoly on luxury, of course, but it does try to maintain certain standards.
It's a tricky business, maintaining decorum and keeping to rituals in an age of confusion and relaxed dress codes. Tea is still served in the atrium every afternoon, but the young ladies no longer wear white gloves with their navel rings. PROPER ATTIRE REQUIRED, says the sign outside the Ship Tavern, but that apparently encompasses conventioneers brandishing name tags, matrons in sweat pants -- and frat boys in rugby shirts, toting cans of Skoal.
Something of Hank Brown's palatial dreams lives on in the cigar bar, Churchill's -- named after Winston, not Boulder's favorite nutty professor. In its aromatic, clubby, leather-and-marble confines, thick-waisted sybarites shell out serious green for premium smokes, up to $60 for a pre-embargo Cuban; these boys really do have money to burn. And one graying regular, so regular that the help jokes about engraving his name on his chair, doesn't care for his selection.
He calls over the barmaid and waves the smoldering weed at her. "This," he says, "isn't working for me."
He orders an Arturo Fuente. She takes the discarded robusto off his hands and returns. Fresh from the humidor, the Fuente is offered on a silver tray, with clipper and matches. He fires up the torpedo, puffs happily, nods. Problem solved.