I Drink, Therefore I Am

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If you go through the cool damp all the way to the back of the cellar, past piles of old bottles and heaps of dust, you get to the narrow room that was the site of the secret drinking. Nothing is left but a wall of mismatched, mislaid brick. Still, if you look...

"But I don't," Lonnie says. "I don't know what kinda people used to be down here, but I hear noises. I had a dream about it twice. You're gonna think I'm crazy, but you know how that white fog comes up out of the ground in London? Well it was coming up out of this basement, and I was hanging by my neck from this pipe right here. I was all in white."

And the noises he hears?
"I don't know how to describe it," he says, walking quickly up the stairs and shutting the door. "I don't know what kind of people they must have been. I just don't know."

7605 West 44th Avenue,
Wheat Ridge

You have entered the future--the future as it looked back in 1967. This future is sleek red vinyl and shiny black formica, with burnt-orange glass globes hanging over the booths. On the white brick wall outside, black letters spell out the words FINEFOODS and COCKTAILS, and a neon martini glass cements the allure of the neighborhood lounge. Everyone you know who lives around here has felt its pull, even if you know of no one who's been tempted by the Chinese menu. The bar is ellipse-shaped, allowing the bartender to move suavely between patrons. The eight people sitting here on their black vinyl stools are at ease, yet they seem to be moving fast, into the rebirth of the swingin' lounge, into an atmosphere so space-age it could almost be California, into a future so bright...

No, says the waitress. Into the landfill. In a matter of months, Vern's and the liquor store of the same name that adjoins it will be trashed to make room for a Walgreens. Both businesses will reappear in a new strip mall a couple hundred yards away but far from the two main arteries that have always given Vern's its fast-moving, future-facing patrons.

"I always thought of them as an above-the-average crowd," recalls Vern Vohaska, who sold the bar last year but continues to run the liquor store and, as the owner of all the land on this corner, brokered the deal with Walgreens. "They were junior execs, on their way home from work."

In a case of careful positioning, Vern had worked at, consulted for, co-owned and managed more than a dozen bars and restaurants before he decided on the career-making bar he would name after himself. He picked out this building in 1967, when it was called Mario's. "There was a liquor license, but the Greek guy that owned it, whose name wasn't Mario, was trying to do the Eye-talian pizza thing," Vern remembers. "It wasn't doing too well."

Vern thought that was because the location was just a hint too far west of the north Denver Italian community--not exactly Frank Sinatra land. Luckily, though, it also sat just east of the farming communities that had yet to incorporate as Wheat Ridge. In short, it was perfect. He built the round bar himself, bought some new fixtures, opened for business and watched Wheat Ridge grow up around him.

"The planning board still comes in here after their meetings," says Tom Little, Vern's new owner. "Recently, they asked me what we were going to do about the neon martini glass."

Not because they thought it was an eyesore, but because they felt it had become a symbol of Wheat Ridge. Little already suspected as much--longtime patrons were bugging him to save bricks from the bar when it's demolished. He talked the matter of the sign over with Vern, who at first didn't believe it. Then they agreed to find a way to mount it near the strip mall.

You'll still see it as you drive west.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff