Through a Glass, Darkly

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At Soapy's, Noel and Dorsett discussed the historic immigrant saloon and how it served as the center of the community for groups -- the Irish, the Italians, the Germans -- often snubbed elsewhere. Immigrants would get their mail there, find jobs there, find spouses there. "The whole family would go to the immigrant bar," Noel says. "I was looking for a Ph.D. topic, and I said, 'What about the saloons of Denver?' We had a drink and we thought about it, we had another drink and we thought about it, and it kept growing. I became more and more enamored of the idea."

That idea kept him busy not only for the five years it took Noel to write his thesis -- and visit every licensed and unlicensed liquor establishment in Denver at the time, 600 of them ranging from then-secret gay bars to the first fern bars to Mexican bars to after-hours clubs -- but up to the present day. "You'll never get a job," predicted one of Noel's professors. He did, though: at UCD, his alma mater. And while Noel also pursues drier historic subjects, he continues to study this state's saloons; although he's written many more, his first book, The City and the Saloon: Denver, 1858-1916, has never gone out of print.

So why is Denver such a great drinking town? "I have given this matter considerable thought," Noel says. "I think it has to do with climate: You're always a little too cool or a little too hot. It's altitude/attitude adjustment."

Noel's roster of favorite bars is long but becoming shorter by the day, since his major requirement is that "they be in historic buildings, and those are an endangered species." That list stretches from the Peck House in Empire, which opened in 1862; to the Buckhorn Exchange, which got liquor license #1 after Prohibition ended; to the Church, a relative newcomer to the liquor business, but where very early on Sundays "you actually see kids lined up to get into church," says Noel.

"It's important to keep constantly researching," he notes. Dryly.

Tom Noel and Frank Rich have never met. But they will. It's inevitable that some night, in some bar in this great drinking town, these two devoted scholars will find themselves side by side on bar stools.

For now, though, Rich has to get back to work, to finish that book that was due yesterday, to prepare the next issue of Modern Drunkard, to get ready for 2005's convention, set for next May. In Denver, the Drunkest Big City in America.

You've been warned.

Moby Drunk
A story of ale, and a whale of a project.
By David Holthouse

It's Sunday night, which means Lee Sanders is drunk and reading Moby-Dick. He is reading aloud and with gusto, if not perfect enunciation. "Therefore, I am all anxiety to convince ye, ye landsmen, of the injustice done to us hunters of whales!"

Sanders looks up from the huge tome open before him to stare flinty-eyed into the lens of a video camera. Then he takes a gargantuan slug of tequila from a tin cup, lights a cigarette, shudders through a coughing fit, wipes his mouth with the sleeve of a ratty brown blazer and reads on.

"For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!"

The 24-year-old Sanders has been going at it for three hours. He's downed a half-rack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a pint of Jose Cuervo, and he's about ready to crack the seal on a bottle of Black Velvet. He is drinking and reading like a man possessed -- and indeed, he and a group of friends have undertaken a quest that rivals Ahab's unrelenting hunt for the great white whale in sheer dementia. They are determined -- no, by God, they are duty-bound -- to produce and market the first-ever unabridged audio book of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, first published in 1851.

Herculean drinking aside, this is no small feat. Every January in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Melville fans perform the "Moby-Dick Marathon," in which about 150 readers speed-read the novel, which is full of polysyllabic, arcane words, in rotating shifts. It takes them almost thirty hours, and they're sober. Sanders is the sole reader in "The Moby-Dick Sessions." He reads every Sunday night for four or five hours, and he drinks heavily throughout.

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