Down and Out in Denver

Denver, CO – One of my favorite state crossings is from Nebraska into Colorado. The landscape changes almost instantly from endless acres of corn-covered farmland to a craggy-soiled moonscape dotted with tufts of sage and desert brush. Barbed-wire fences meander into the horizon, disappearing into a wide open sky.

I love Denver, t00. As far as cities go it is clean, easy to navigate and the people are notably polite and helpful. I was called ‘hon’ more times here than in Hon Town, Baltimore and the bums say ‘thank you’ whether you give them change or not. No one in Denver ever seems in too much of a hurry, not even waitresses. On the highways, drivers tend to keep to the right unless passing, which keeps traffic moving.

Another nice flourish are all of the medical marijuana dispensaries. Many advertise in the local weekly deals on ounces, eighths, hash oil and Cheba Chews. All of this in addition to being minutes away from the Rocky Mountain foothills makes it hard to not regard the Mile High City as some kind of paradise.  For me, the worst part of visiting Colorado is leaving Colorado.

We arrived in Denver late afternoon Wednesday, following a seven hour cruise from Lincoln, Nebraska. Unsure what exit to take let alone where in the city to go I got off at Colfax Avenue only because I remembered the street from previous visits. We needed to find a place to hunker down. I feared that for the cheap rooms we’d have to hit the ‘burbs or the ghetto but using my Droid I zeroed in on the 11th Avenue Hotel and Hostel, located downtown near the state capitol building in an area known as the Golden Triangle, one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods.

The hotel, built in the early 20th Century, had a grand wooden staircase with plastic-covered carpeting. For an extra charge we got a room with a bathroom and a $6 deposit netted us a bath towel each. There wasn’t an ice machine or any other amenities, including soap or shampoo. A few derelicts lurked about waiting to use the lobby payphone.

For $56 and proximity to downtown, it didn’t bother me that the wi-fi didn’t work or that a screaming woman was subdued by police in the hallway, cuffed and carted away on a stretcher. It’s part of the urban experience. And I later learned the hotel caters to recovering drug addicts, alcoholics, the homeless and others on the bottom rungs of the institutional ladder.

Its billing as a hostel attracts young travelers with means. These two very disparate clienteles made for a strange integration of characters who kept largely to their own worlds.

The hotel was as clean as an old hotel can be. My biggest concern was that one of the resident alcoholics would discover the $450 worth of liquor of beer I had stashed in Purple Thunder for the purpose of selling outside Dick’s Sporting Goods Park during the Phish shows that upcoming weekend. After the successful launch of The Shakedown Tavern a few weeks earlier in Chicago I decided a sojourn to the Denver shows was in order. If anything, I’d get a free vacation out of it, meet some cool people, party a little, take in some sights and see some old friends.

I have two friends in Denver, both of whom I called after checking into the motel. Mark didn’t answer, but De’Nay did. We took the free shuttle to the top of the 16th Avenue Mall – the nation’s largest outdoor pedestrian mall – and met her outside of a bar on Blake Street. Her hair was longer than I remembered. Beyond that she appeared more or less the same.

De’Nay and I met more than ten years ago in Telluride, CO. We ran with a crew of transients that lived residentially in the forested hills surrounding town, which itself had an altitude of nearly 8,500 feet. I was friends with her ex, Jonathan and another kid named Drew, and spent much of my time tooling around Colorado with them. Some time later after leaving Telluride I ran into De’Nay in Arcata, California. Actually she found me. I was sitting in the plaza when I heard her call my name.

She’d befriended some middle-aged  guy who owned a considerable amount of land there in Humboldt County. On this land were many small cabins he rented to people who lived off the grid. De’Nay and I hitchhiked back there from Arcata. Dave seemed displeased that De’Nay had returned with me in tow. That night De’Nay, myself and several others ate around a campfire. Well into the night we swapped stories, sipped wine, played guitar and smoked joints filled with locally-grown weed.

Dave, who owned the land, didn’t like dogs, but was fond enough of De’Nay that he allowed her dog Bela on the property. That night De’Nay and I returned to her cabin. As I got comfortable in the top bunk, Bela got loose and ran off into the deep dark forest.

“BELA! BELA!” she cried drunkenly into the ink black night. “BELA! GET OVER HERE NOW!”

Dave soon arrived to address the commotion. De’Nay explained what happened and Dave’s response was to ask if she didn’t have friends or family who could care for the animal. She rejected this idea outright and Dave returned to his cabin. Inside, De’Nay began pacing, worried that Bela might encounter a bear or mountain lion. She tried lighting with her shaking hands a kerosene lamp, but knocked it over. Kerosene spilled down the counter top and on to the floor. One of the mantles ignited the fuel and I watched as the flame traveled along the countertop. A fiery drop ignited the puddle on the floor.

I leaped from the top bunk to smother the flames with the only blanket I had. The fire was quickly extinguished and that chilly September night I slept under my now charred blanket that reeked of kerosene. I left the next day and didn’t talk to De’Nay again until years later when we re-connected through Facebook.

De’Nay told me she stayed in California a while before returning home to Colorado and eventually moving to Denver, where she began doing heroin and was once severely beaten by Denver police officers who had spied her buying dope.

Clean now for two years, she is still poor and lives along a shitty stretch of Colfax Avenue where open-air drug deals are the norm. But De’Nay, an eternal optimist, looks on the bright side. “The nice thing about having crack dealers around is that there are no kids in the neighborhood,” she explained on our walk to Pete’s Monkey Bar, where we pounded back $1.50 PBRs. “No one wants to raise kids here. The neighborhood is full of people in their twenties and thirties who don’t have kids.”

We don't have cows this big in Wisconsin.

While my friend De’Nay has made great strides in her recovery my other Denver friend, Mark, has resumed his vein-spiking ways. I met Mark in college when we were both promising students. I dropped out to become editor of a newspaper. Mark dropped out due to a heart aneurysm discovered on a chest X-ray taken during a bout of pneumonia. After a slow, painful recovery from heart surgery, during which surgeons discovered and repaired a leaky valve, Mark was on the rebound.

But then he began doubting his wife. Suddenly she was buying new perfumes, getting Brazilian wax jobs, and traveling more often for work. When he confronted her after finding a stash of lingerie and a pair of crotchless panties she moved out. Without any further explanation she filed for divorce.

Seriously depressed, Mark one night called a crisis hotline, but hung up after becoming irritated with the person on the other end. Fearing that Mark might end his life, the crisis prevention worker dispatched police to his house but Mark was asleep by the time they arrived. After pounding on the door for some time, Mark stirred from his sleep, opened the door and was yanked from his house and thrown to the ground. Police cuffed him then drove him to a hospital for evaluation.

A week later he blacked out when the wine he drank didn’t mix well with his new meds. Once police had him in custody they told him he’d broadsided a bunch of cars, nearly mowed down a pedestrian, then drove his car through his garage door and proceeded to trash the house. Upon his release the sheriff served him with a restraining order his wife filed to keep him from entering their home, which they were trying to sell.

When his probation ended in 2010 he returned home to Denver to continue his descent. He sounded like hell when he answered my call, and more than a little surprised I was in Denver. I invited him to dinner but he said that he was in no condition to receive visitors. For starters, he admitted to being strung out and said he didn’t want me to see him like that. Additionally, he was living out of his car following an eviction. “I’d love to see ya,” he said. “Things just aren’t good right now. I’m dying, Nate. I’m really dying this time.”

“I understand,” I said before hanging up. “Good luck.”

The asshole that greets you at Pete's Monkey Bar in Denver

We walked down the 16th Avenue Mall up to Colfax Avenue, to Pete’s Monkey Bar, one of two hippie bars on the block. It was open mic night, which brought out a handful of really great musicians who tore it up all night. De’Nay and I strolled down memory lane rehashing our more memorable moments in Telluride. I asked about Jonathan and Drew, my two buddies I’d lost contact with after leaving. De’Nay said she’d seen them not long ago sitting outside the Art Museum looking for dope.

“They didn’t look good,” she said. “I think they’re still living in Telluride.”

This was disheartening news. The first time I met Jonathan he was shooting cocaine between his toes. And Drew was just a transient like the rest of us. When I returned the following summer Jonathan had cleaned up and Drew was still sleeping in his Karmann Ghia. All summer we traveled around Colorado in Jonathan’s Volkswagon Vanagon until I returned to Wisconsin for school. In those days, before Facebook and cell phones, it was easy to lose touch. I haven’t spoken to either since.

We met up with De’Nay again the following night at Pete’s Monkey Bar for the pre-Phish party, tossing back $1.50 PBRs and waiting for that night’s band to go live, a wait that wasn’t really worth it in the end.

We didn’t stay out late though it was our last night in Denver. My sidekick and I had spent much of the day hiking around Red Rocks state park. It was the first time in months I’d worn shoes. Consequently I developed some gnarly blisters on my feet and toes that pained me with each step.

There was an ambulance outside of the hotel. As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, we overheard some muffled screams and commotions from above. Moments later, two Denver police officers and a paramedic were escorting a woman down the stairs. Then for whatever reason the woman collapsed on the second floor and began to wail. I poked my head out of the room to watch the frustrated officers cuff the woman then lift her to her feet. This must’ve caused her great pain as she let out a great scream as they dragged her down the stairs. From our window we watched as they loaded her into the ambulance. By then she seemed sedated and calm. The officers chatted amongst themselves then laughed a little once the ambulance door closed. And before long it was all over.

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