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Sin City

Denver's done a fantastic job of making itself one of the most desirable places to live in the country--but that doesn't mean it's all bluebird skies, puppies playing in the park, and powder days. Scratch beneath the shiny, happy surface of the Mile High City, and you might be surprised what you find. 

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Lust. Greed. Wrath. Sloth. Gluttony. Pride. Envy. Think you won’t find the seven deadly sins in abundance here in sun-kissed Denver? Think again: It turns out that Front Range residents are unrepentantly indulging in what have traditionally been considered dire moral offenses, and they’re having a pretty damn good time—and often making some money—while doing it. ? But fear not: These folks are merely carrying on our venerable tradition of debauchery. Denver was founded and developed by a motley coterie of adventurers, vagabonds, charlatans, and whores who flocked to this once-lawless oasis, lured by the siren song of the boundless West and the infinite riches it claimed to offer. Our present-day sinners—and by no means do we mean to judge here—work, live, and play among us, residing not on the fringe, but firmly in the mainstream; hell, they might even be people you know. And while these folks may make buttoned-up Denver blush, we maintain that their daring, unconventional ways make life, in what can sometimes be a disconcertingly vanilla town, a whole lot more colorful and compelling. So open your eyes, open your mind, and take a peek. We hope you enjoy the ride.–Luc Hatlestad


LUST

Getting Into the Swing
By Luc Hatlestad

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To certain adventuresome locals, the Colorado “lifestyle” doesn’t just involve hiking, biking, and skiing.

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice are among Denver’s too-many-to-count “lifestyle” practitioners, better known as swingers, couples who are open to exploring sexual connections outside their own relationships. (Denver has become a surprising mecca for swingers, so much so that Bob and Carol started their own company, Sweets Entertainment, to stage local lifestyle gatherings.) These couples say they aren’t that different from their suburban neighbors—apart from a unique definition of marital bliss—and contend that the popular image of swinging is rife with misperceptions.

MYTH: It’s just pervy husbands talking their wives into something they’d rather not do.
REALITY: The mantra for the entire movement is, “It’s all about the women.” Many swinging couples get into the lifestyle because of the wives’ curiosity about other women, and their comfort level drives most swinger events. Bob, 54, says lifestyle women have “off-the-chart” confidence and that the most well-adjusted couples don’t let jealousy intrude. “If the woman doesn’t give the OK to meet someone, or if you object to what she’s going to wear to a party, you ain’t going,” he says.

MYTH: Swinger gatherings always morph into crazy orgies.
REALITY: Most lifestyle parties don’t even permit sex on the premises; their purpose is to let couples meet and greet—and go from there. “There needs to be a four-way connection between two couples, and it can be very difficult for all of them to mesh together,” says Carol, 45. “We don’t want to get into situations where one of us is ‘taking one for the team.’?”

MYTH: Couples get into the lifestyle to “fix” their relationships.
REALITY: “If that’s the case, you shouldn’t do it; you have to be in it because you find it exciting,” Carol says. “If you haven’t talked about boundaries, it’s not going to end well.” But once that enhanced communication is achieved, it seems to cement these couples’ intimacy. “Our closeness went from here to here because we talk about things we’ve never talked about with anyone,” says Ted, 37, who met his wife Alice through work. “We’ve found a lot of benefits from this that have helped us become better people and better spouses.”

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MYTH: Swingers tend to come from a lower socioeconomic bracket.
REALITY: Many swingers are successful professionals who look notably younger than their ages, largely because swinging puts such a premium on staying fit. “We have some PTA people, soccer moms, and ones who go to church every Sunday,” Bob says. “If you were to take all the types of people in the lifestyle and compare them to a cross section of America, you couldn’t tell them apart.”


Take It All Off

Sophie, Stripper, Diamond Cabaret
Interview by Shari Caudron

I graduated from Smith College and was a junior high English teacher and Hollywood scriptwriter before becoming a stripper at age 30. I always wanted to dance. Plus, I’m a show-off.

Some of the girls feel shame about stripping. I don’t, although it did take me seven years to tell my parents. I didn’t want them to worry; my mom’s an Episcopal deacon.

I’m definitely not the typical stripper. Not only because of my education, but also because I’m drawn to guys where I feel some kind of connection—conversational, emotional, intellectual. It’s not just about the money. I wasn’t brought up to milk guys for their money.

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Sure, the money’s good—a minimum of $200 an hour, and often much more. But you have to pay the club to work there and share tips with the DJ, the house mom, the door guy, the valet. You might make $1,200 a night but only walk out with $800. Ambitious dancers can make $2,000 a week. I work two or three nights a week, which is enough to support me.

A good dancer is someone you feel good around, someone who offers something more or different than you can get from your wife or girlfriend or right hand. Some dancers never take off their clothes completely, but it’s about your individual comfort level. I personally like taking off mine. I may let guys touch me, but I won’t put my hand down their pants.

On an average night, I drink two martinis and two other drinks. When you’re drinking, things become real. It’s an awesome boozy intimacy where guys say things they normally wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean the connection isn’t real. It’s a myth that strippers are thinking about laundry as they’re dancing. When I dance, I’m there. I’m fucking there.

Every night before work I try to do a meditation, a silent prayer that helps foster compassion in myself and others. Whenever I do that, I always have a good night. I make more money, have more fun, go home feeling good about myself.

I’m not married, but I’ve often asked myself, “Would I want my husband to go to strip clubs?” I would rather have my husband pay money to indulge his desires—and let’s face it, men do desire other women—someplace where there are bouncers and limits on the relationship.

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I’m not sure how long I’ll be dancing, but a good night dancing is really awesome. Who wouldn’t want to spend the night canoodling with a cute guy who thinks you’re the most beautiful person in the world? But it might get taxing physically at some point.

What I’d like to tell people: Don’t ever dangle a dollar in front of a girl and say, “Work for it, baby.” That’s fucking insulting.


The Dominator

Mistress Saskia, 43, Dominatrix
Interview by Luc Hatlestad

I was pretty kinky in high school. I liked boys, girls, and cross-dressing boys, so I experimented a lot. I later became a queer activist and did a lot of low-paying social work.

I apprenticed at a dungeon, but they didn’t like my look because I wasn’t skinny enough. AOL was getting big, so I put up an ad and started getting 100 e-mails a week from people who said they wanted to be my slave.

I started seeing clients in my apartment. I was the first solo, professional dominatrix to have a website in Denver. I currently have three apprentices. I only hire intelligent people, and I tend to get a lot of people with social work backgrounds who are curious about power and gender.

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The biggest misconception is that sex is happening, or that the women are man-haters or druggies. We don’t have sex here; our clients don’t even see our genitals.

It’s like rock climbing: People don’t necessarily want to do it every day, but they like the occasional adrenaline rush. It’s very lighthearted and fun. We call it “play” for a reason.

We bar anyone under 19 unless they have a military ID. Younger people usually don’t have the right level of maturity and aren’t going to be as discreet or safe.

The clientele tends to be primarily white males. The stereotype is that they’re all fat and old, but it’s not really true.

We don’t do things that will attack people’s core values; there’s a difference between telling someone they’re a dirty little slut and telling them they’re a bad husband and father.

I try to create boundaries with my staff so they’re not my submissives, but it’s clear here that I’m in charge. But that may be because I have the biggest boobs.

In mainstream culture, there’s just so much dancing around. In leather culture you cut through the bullshit: This is what I’m into, and if the other person says no, it’s no big deal. But if you’re married to someone who’s not into what you’re into, you’ll spend the rest of your life wanting it, not getting it, and maybe feeling ashamed of it or resenting it. To have a partner say, “That’s nice,” but not fulfill it, is just crushing.

When people say I want you to treat me like a woman, 10 years ago I’d say, “Oh, you want me to take away 40 percent of your salary, give you less credibility when you speak, and make you afraid to go out after 10 p.m. because you might get raped?!” Now I leave out the feminist rant if I want to earn money.

Two hundred bucks an hour is a lot. We want people to leave here feeling like they got their money’s worth so we can keep doing it, because it’s a blast.

The dominatrix scene has never been a huge business in Denver. We get four or five clients a week, so it pays about as much as social work did.

Some of the experiences we get to have are just amazing. When we’re 70 years old living in the nursing home, we’ll be able to say, “Wow, I did not lead a boring life. I was out there doing some amazing stuff—really, really exploring.”


PRIDE

Pursuit of Plastic
By Julie Dugdale

Colorado isn’t known for its Barbie doll look-alike culture, but we still congregate around the fountain of youth every so often. The Denver plastic surgeons we spoke to say their clientele—less Hollywood, more soccer mom—is a function of Colorado’s fit, active population and the desire women have to feel comfortable in their own skin. (Although more men are exploring the trend, the doctors say women still comprise more than 90 percent of their clients.) Here, two local patients with extensive plastic surgery records explain their relentless cosmetic tinkering.

Tamara Age 43
Total Work

Total tab to date: $27,000-plus

Victoria Age 57
Total Work

Total tab to date: $10,000–$20,000

What motivates you?

TAMARA: I’m in sales and I have my own business. I have a psychology degree. It’s a fact of life that people respond better to perceived beauty. I told my husband, “This is an investment in my career.”

VICTORIA: It’s really important for me to maintain my youthful outlook and appearance, perhaps because I come from an obese family and I’ve seen what it’s done to them. I still shop in juniors, and I’m dating younger men. I was married for 21 great years. I’m starting over, but I’m not doing this to make myself “marketable.” I’ve always had a life like this; I got breast implants in 1985.

Have you ever wondered if you’re going overboard?

TAMARA: I’m not looking for the “Heidi Montag,” but I’ve had three children, and your body doesn’t stay preserved. I’m not striving for perfection—just fine-tuning. Do I feel good about it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Even though I had complications, I love the results.

VICTORIA: No. I just take care of myself. I deserve to live a good life. I augmented to a DD, and I like the size of my breasts.

Is plastic surgery addictive?

TAMARA:There is such a thing as too much. You start seeing how a change will affect your overall disposition, your outlook on life. It can be a slippery slope. When you’re told you’re attractive, you look a little closer in the mirror and ask: “What do they see?” There’s always room for self-improvement. I don’t think I’ll ever throw in the towel.

VICTORIA: I think Joan Rivers looks fabulous. And she’s what—in her 70s? And she’s happy. It all depends on how one thinks about oneself.

So it’s a pride thing?

TAMARA: People respond to social norms, and the social norm in Denver is attractive. It’s peer pressure. I live in a modest neighborhood—our kids attend public school—and many friends in my neighborhood have had plastic surgery. My friends in the Midwest are not doing this.

VICTORIA: I don’t care what other people say. I just care about my own opinion. There is some pride attached to it when someone says, “Wow, I would never have put you in your 50s.” I think other women envy the fact that I look this good.


GREED

Greedy Loves
By Al Lewis

Why Denverites’ longtime quest for dollar signs is completely human—and quintessentially American.

In the litany of greedy American cities, Denver would seem to fall way behind New York, L.A., Vegas, D.C.—even Miami or Houston. But, to be sure, we’ve had our share of swindlers. We’ve suffered oil-well scams, savings and loan debacles, and characters like Meyer Blinder, who rationalized his penny-stock frauds in the 1980s by insisting that he didn’t do anything that Merrill Lynch didn’t do. (The feds disagreed, and Blinder served time for racketeering, money laundering, and securities fraud.) More recently, former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio was jailed for insider trading after stuffing his pockets as Qwest collapsed while his shareholders blindly—greedily?—held on to their stock, even as analysts warned them to sell.

This is nothing new. Denver’s love affair with greed began with the “Pikes Peak or Bust” gold rush in the late 1850s, when soldiers who’d joined Colonel John Chivington in the Sand Creek Massacre paraded slain Native Americans’ body parts through downtown streets, while whites took their land. Yes, since our earliest days, we have come here and stayed here because we’re independent, ambitious, entrepreneurial, we don’t want the government eating our lunches (and, in Chivington’s case, maybe we can be a bit cruel). And when we succeed, we want trophies to prove it: Mountainside condos, ski resorts, casinos, and oversized houses that block neighbors’ views and run up foreclosure rates.

Consider Shawn Merriman. He also sought trophies—and ran a $20 million Ponzi scheme to get them. His pursuit of classic cars, motorcycles, motor homes, and Rembrandts got him sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison. He’s but one pustule in a rash of alleged Ponzis perpetrated here; notables such as AM radio’s Mike Rosen and gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo are among the locals who have lost millions to such schemes.

Perhaps they were greedy, but perhaps greed is simply human. Though it’s traditionally been deemed a deadly sin, greed is more of an emotion that lies opposite fear, an overcompensation for a perceived shortcoming, monetary or otherwise. So while Denver and greed have always had a complicated history, one with no end in sight, maybe that arrangement is an understandable, sometimes unjustifiable, byproduct of our uniquely Western—and uniquely American—sense of pioneering ambition.


WRATH

What the F*#% You Lookin’ at?
Why anger gets a bad rap
By Maximillian Potter

Back when the year was new, my wife gave me a desk calendar of Buddhist teachings. Each day brings an Insight From The Dalai Lama, like: “Inner peace, which is the principal characteristic of happiness, and anger cannot coexist without undermining one another.” We aren’t Buddhists, though I do think His Holiness is a remarkable guy. Rather, it was my better half’s hope that my pondering this calendar would help me, as she puts it, “let things go.” My wife, mom, dad, brother, doting Aunt Patricia, friends, and the boss man—pretty much everybody—have long encouraged me to “relax” and to not be “so angry.”

I’ve been tempted to respond with any number of things that politely would sound like: Put a sock in it. A thick hiking sock would be best, but any dress sock will do. Ball it up and please, pretty please, jam it deep into your piehole. Not because someone cares enough about me to care—I truly appreciate their concern. But it’s the tone, that hybrid of first-grade teacher and Dr. Phil that presumes that there’s something inherently wrong with being angry. That really pisses me off.

It seems to me we have become such a kumbaya, bury-our-heads-in-the-sand world of passive milquetoasts that we’ve forgotten that anger is a healthy emotion, the core ingredient of the revolutionary (read: American) spirit that often affects necessary change.

I embrace anger. I view it as an obligation, a by-product of conscience and civic responsibility. Anger is the backbone of our country. Think of the Founding Fathers or Martin Luther King Jr. History tells us these men were kind, strategic, nonviolent, hopeful—and most definitely angry. Even nearer to my heart are muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell or Lincoln Steffens. Hell, just about anyone who has said enough is enough has done so because they were angry.

I’m not talking about bringing a gun to a town hall meeting, or kicking the poodle because the pizza deliveryman is late. That’s rage, and that is something else entirely. I’m talking about anger—expressed nonviolently—over hypocrisy, incompetence, indifference, laziness, rationalization, theft, fraud, violence, or death. I’m talking about a justified reaction to an unjust person, place, or thing. Think “Mission Accomplished,” “Heck of a Job, Brownie,” AIG, Madoff, BP, the Catholic cover-up. I’m talking about honestly acknowledging anger and its causes, and then harnessing that emotion—compassionately—into constructive efforts for change. I know anger isn’t good for my health, and I know about its links to cancer, ulcers, high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction (I’m fine, by the way), and on and on. I’m well aware that I have many reasons to be happy. I listen, and I am grateful for your concern.

But to me, the question shouldn’t be why am I so angry; it’s why aren’t you? I think Buddha might be on my side. According to September 28 in my Dalai Lama calendar: “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.” If I’m reading this right, His Holiness is acknowledging that compassionate action begins with anger.

If I had my way, the desk calendar about anger would feature the actor Michael Douglas. Not the Michael Douglas from Falling Down, the broken rage-aholic who, among other things, fires a bazooka into a construction site during a vengeful rampage. I’m talking about the Michael Douglas from Wall Street, the fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko, who, in the iconic movie’s recently released sequel, has just been freed from jail. “Greed is good,” Gekko said, sounding like a precursor to the likes of AIG and Madoff. “Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” I first saw this film in high school, when my head was being filled with so many inconvenient ideas about social justice. And go figure, the film made me angry at the unethical “businessmen” on the Street, sowing the seeds of my desire to go into journalism. But if you change a few words, what Gekko said rings true to me. On my calendar, Gekko’s quote could be recast for any day if it read this way: Anger is good. Anger is right, anger works. Anger clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the revolutionary spirit.… Wait. Before you say anything, I’ll take off one of my socks and lend it to you.


SLOTH

Just Don’t Do It
The joys of an unambitious life.
By Katherine Doan

Archie Ofenstein is 33. He works as a raft guide on the Arkansas River. Until two years ago, he camped out in a tent or a trailer all summer, but now he rents a room in the home of an old friend. He spends the off-season in a remote Texas town near the Mexico border, where, for $50 a month, he rents a room in an old building that has no running water or electricity, giving him plenty of time to hone his unique—or maybe not so unique—brand of slacker wisdom.

I try to not work as much as possible. I’d rather be on my bike or hanging out, playing guitar or ukulele, playing Frisbee golf, or playing with my dog.

My parents, my brothers are all like, “We will help you get a mortgage.” But I don’t want that—I don’t want to be that tied down.

People might have a fancy car, a fancy house, but then they’re a slave to it.

I think it’s more important to live today, to maybe have a little bit of money saved up for emergencies, but my consciousness needs to be here now for me to feel fulfilled. I’d rather live in the present than think about the future.

There was only one girl I ever really loved. We were together for seven years. We made each other who we are today. Then she said, “I don’t want you to go to Colorado this year.” But I did, so we split up. She wanted a lot of attention, to have a family. I just couldn’t give it to her.

A lot of people think I should just buckle down, start swinging a hammer. But working eight hours a day, five days a week….

I don’t see any reason to save up a bunch of money. I don’t have any plan to ever retire.


ENVY

The Silent Treatment
The unavoidable pressure to be Colorado-fit
By Natasha Gardner

Maybe I should run another marathon,” I say, casually. We’re nearing the turnaround point of our hike and my husband, Chris, has gone silent. He’s heard this speech before, and he’s not taking my thinly veiled bait. “I just want to be more fit,” I say. “I just want to see if I can run a marathon again.” No response. “I’m not doing this to lose weight,” I insist. Silence.

I keep babbling until I start to sound vapid and superficial, even to myself. Plus, I’m lying: Training for another marathon would be about losing weight. Every time we hit a trail or go for a jog, we always encounter these trim, super-fit women, those Rocky Mountain hotties with cut arms, firm glutes, and flat stomachs. And I envy them.

I like my body. Heck, I even take pride in being above all this self-doubt. Still, sometimes I obsess about having thighs like the ultrarunners who pass me during my jogs through City Park. I plot to cut back carbs or add miles, or I get angry with myself for letting this self-doubt and envy subtly creep in. When I lived in New York, I never felt compelled to shrink my body to the stick-thin model-type that seemed to be everywhere. There, the pressure to be thin was so pervasive that it was easy to rebel against.

Here, the strain is a slow, inescapable burn. Colorado women one-up each other all the time. What’s your time in a half-marathon? How many miles did you run last night? What are you training for? How many fourteeners have you climbed this year? These seemingly innocuous conversations hide an ugly truth: We’re still talking about body image, comparing our thighs and waistlines without ever mentioning weight. And the avoidance of this underlying truth can be even more damaging.

Our state’s infatuation with fitness can be beautiful and healthy, but it can also be grotesque. Too often, I see women with breastplates that stick out so much I can count their ribs. I see clavicles that resemble violin bows. True, fewer Colorado women than the national average are likely to have a potentially life-threatening eating disorder, but we still struggle, fight, or obsess about what we eat, how much we’ve exercised, or how many inches we’ve gained or lost. We’re embracing a no-win battle.

I never thought I was one of these obsessives, but that doesn’t mean I’m above it. Chris and I keep trudging on the path, in silence. I’m not going to run another marathon, let alone become an ultramarathoning, Ironman-triathloning, rock-climbing fanatic. And if I did, I certainly wouldn’t do it to look Colorado-thin. But we both know we’ll have this one-sided exchange again—and again.


Drugstore Cowboy

David, Student, University of Denver
As told to Daliah Singer

During high school I went to rehab three different times, including a lockdown facility in Utah for 10 months. But I usually was using soon after I got released. By the time I was ready for college, I’d switched from cocaine to meth because I’d decided coke was my problem. Even with all that, I was a model student at a therapeutic college prep school, and I decided to go to DU after I graduated.

I started classes and everything was great, but then I ran out of the meth I’d brought to school, so I went home on a weekend to buy a bunch more. People think it’s a white trash drug, but I’ve never met anybody [who does it] who lives in a trailer. When I was dealing later on, I sold to soccer moms, real estate agents, and doctors.

During my freshman year, I finally came clean to my parents, so we got a medical stop-out from the university. I told the doctors at DU that I was coming down off meth, but they weren’t much help. So I turned into a stoner. Weed was everywhere at DU, and I also did mushrooms and I drank a lot, like a normal college student.

By then my parents told me to either stop doing drugs or get out of their house, so I said, “Fuck you,” and left. For a while I lived on the streets in San Jose, California. Then I bounced in and out of rehab clinics in Utah. But I’d always relapse, and eventually I started dealing meth.

One night I got a call for drugs. I went to a house, and three guys with automatic weapons came out, put the guns to my head and took everything from my car. Then one guy put me in the passenger seat, got into the driver’s seat, aimed the gun at my head, and drove away.

He started shooting the gun outside my window. Then he put it to my leg and it jammed, which sounds like bullshit, but it’s not. We drove up into the hills of Utah, and I thought, “This is where I’m gonna die.” Then he sexually assaulted me. He broke my nose and my jaw before he just walked away.

I went to rehab again, but I only stayed for six days. I stayed high for another six months. The last month I got high I just would cry with a pipe in my mouth. The loneliness and the utter fucking disgust that I felt was so beyond what I could explain.

I decided to go to [rehab in] Houston. I weigh 140 pounds now, and I’m 5 feet 10 inches. When I got sober this very last time, I weighed 92 pounds. I was there for 60 days, and it was amazing. When it came time to plan my aftercare, I decided to return to Denver. I got a sponsor and took his suggestions like my life depended on it, because it did.

After a year of Cocaine Anonymous, I went back to DU. Staying sober in Denver is very different than staying sober elsewhere. There are 50 or 60 meetings a week; everybody knows everybody. I could call anybody I’ve ever met in a meeting at three in the morning and they would be there for me.

Fun things happen in Denver. Sober things. I started going to all sorts of clubs and festivals and just fun shit I could do sober. I never realized I could live such a cool life and remember it the next day. Denver opened up that life for me.

Sobriety for me today is so cool. My sobriety date was August 15, 2007, and today I’m sponsoring four people, doing well in school, and I own a computer services business. My life is so full now. I have no desire to get high. My parents are my best friends who support me as long as I’m helping my life. I pray in the morning and at night, and when it’s a bad day I pray 300 times in between. That’s what keeps me sober.

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