Al is charmingly but deliberately vague when explaining exactly what he did for the twenty years before he began running a Thornton bar/motel with his ex-wife in 1991. California and a country club are mentioned in passing. A career of "sales, working with various people, electronics" is alluded to. But Al is very definite about when he started to follow his current dream: At the start of 1993, "a real estate lady" began showing Al some Denver bars. Zenobia's appealed to him, and he closed the deal within the month, putting down $25,000 in cash and signing a note for the remaining $50,000. "I don't know what it was," Al recalls. "It couldn't have been the food, which was Greek cooked badly by Iranians. And the live music! We're talking groups with the guys with rings through their lips, and things of that nature! The crowd was maybe 21 to 25. Kids! They can drink five bucks' worth of beer and break up an 85-dollar chair."
Al did not intend to cater to that element. He was angling for the over-thirty crowd. So he set about transforming his place into an Italian-type lounge--hold the Italian food. "See, it was too close to Greek," he explains, "so I decided, I'll make it into a Mexican cantina and call it Barbarosa's."
He ousted the lip-ring music and installed Elvis impersonator Danny Rome, who came with his own karaoke system. Then he yanked out the pay phone, because, Al says, "it was attracting six, seven guys at a time just hanging around the phone, and hey, I know these guys are doing business out of my bar and things of that nature."
Next, he changed the jukebox selection to "oldies, Mexican and Italian standards," and the place began attracting postal workers--the kind of patrons Al enjoyed shooting the breeze with over a cup of coffee. "A lot of afternoons I doubt if I sold fifty bucks' worth of booze," he remembers. "It just wasn't that important to me. During the day, when I was around, it was a nice place."
Nights, apparently, were different. "I'd never seen so many fights from the stage in my life," says Danny Rome. "It was a rock-and-roll crowd, and they all thought I was lip-synching. It was tough; there was some kind of problem."
This wasn't the first time Rome had worked through a problem with Al, either. With his band, Rome had played a several-months-long engagement at Thornton's Hacienda Plaza Inn, which is still owned by Al's ex-wife. "Something went wrong there. We had a real good thing going, too, so I wish I knew what it was. Anyway," Rome says earnestly, "Al has always had good intentions and helped out."
"Actually, I miss Al," says another local musician who spent time on Barbarosa's stage. He asks to remain anonymous because, he says, "I love Al, but he's scary. If he knew I were talking to you I'd be in trouble. But I do love him. He wanted to run a class joint, but he served the beer in plastic cups. He had this thing about serving people a cheap steak, salad and a potato. He was particularly fixated on the potato. You can't go wrong, he'd say, if you serve people steak and a potato."
Before long, Al had both those staples available for purchase at Barbarosa's. As far as he was concerned, this was the start of something big. He liked his clients; he liked the neighborhood. At first, he even liked the Unsinkables. "They came around and explained they were doing a neighborhood citizen-patrol-type thing," Al says, "and I says, great, I want you guys to stop in here for a coffee or a cappuccino any time."
But that was before then-Unsinkables president Jorge Merida paid his first call. "He came in here full of innuendo," Al recalls. "He tells me he runs this neighborhood, and he doesn't want to see certain of my customers in here ever again. The next I hear, he's going around saying I'm running a haven for crime figures, if you can believe."
Merida denies saying anything of the kind. When asked about his opposition to Al's enterprise, he responds, "You know, you sound really, really naive, like you don't know a thing about crime."
Merida characterizes Barbarosa's as an "irresponsible business. What Al brought to this neighborhood was fights, drunks, garbage and dirt," he says. "We didn't like it at all, and we told him to stop." Such pronouncements have been the business of the Unsinkables since the neighborhood group was born six years ago. "We decided we live here and we don't want it destroyed," Merida explains. Stopping the deterioration, he says, involves a lot more than walking the streets to keep them safe. "You talk to landlords, you find out why apartment owners let traffic go in and out at odd hours, you ask people to clean up their garbage," he adds. "You do all that and you plant flowers in the summer. We're not into strong-arming anyone."