Denver at 150

November 2008

Birth of the Cool
By Eli Gottlieb

Certain cities are first met in books, and the encounter, when a happy one, can produce a visual picture in the mind so distinct it eclipses the first moment of glimpsing the city with naked eyes. I first met Denver, fatally and irrevocably, at the tender age of 15, in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and the love affair was on. The million-mile-an-hour music of the writing, the remoteness of the settings, and the bop spontaneity and lawlessness of the characters all combined to draw me in. But to a teenager, the book was also a bible of behavioral cool, and my belief was that if I aped the speech patterns and dress of the protagonists with enough fervor I'd somehow find a way out of my own (self-pitying, age-specific) unhappiness.

Meanwhile, the hipness of the novel slowly wound itself around the axis of Denver, which was one of the main venues where the action took place, and in the process the city began to acquire visual mass in my mind. I saw its streets; I saw the looks of its people. I eventually came to imagine it as a giant Xanadu of a sort, lying on a pedestal high above the Plains. Set apart from the gritty reality of Manhattan, where both my parents and I had been born, Denver was an exotic birdcage of a place yanked halfway to the heavens and filled with the plumage of angel-eyed hipsters, young girls in tight T-shirts or angora sweaters, big cars driven dexterously by half-drunk madmen, jazz like a kind of cosmic radiation available for the asking, and blizzards of spontaneous chat, whisper, and song.

I wanted to go there, but I was afraid. Denver gave me performance anxiety. I took New York's incredible towers and human concentrations for granted. But Denver was another story entirely. The city apparently had a lock on everything suave, which was precisely what I craved most. My friends wore plaid shirts; they were interested in math problems and politics; they played Chopin on the cello, for God's sake. How could any of them possibly compete with a guy like Neal Cassady, whose bona fides included reform school, 10,000 women, a thinly fictionalized portrayal of himself as Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and, most of all, a childhood passed in Denver, USA?

Over the years, and before actually clapping eyes on it, the image of Denver as a magical metropolis remained alive in my head. Finally, in 1997, well after the disappearance of my teenage angst, I arrived here on a book tour. What I couldn't tell anybody, as I did the rounds of radio interviews and press events, was that I was secretly surprised to see how normal and predictable Denver turned out to be. Yes, I was somewhat taken aback by the Stetsons and cowboy boots, which to my Easterner's eyes seemed so cornpone and affectedly retro they made me laugh. Yes, I noticed the slightly solar aspect that everyone had, as if they were all a bit stoned on sunlight and long views, and, for that, unsettlingly cheery. And I noticed, too, that Boulder, which I visited at the time, struck me as having such excessively groomed streets and inhabitants that it seemed more a kind of mammoth swim club than a city. What I couldn't tell anybody, as I made my authorial rounds, was that I was secretly heartbroken to find that there was no magical soap bubble of hip floating over the street corners of Denver; no civic monopoly on cool. It was a town like any other, where people raised their kids, were late to work, and roared their lungs out yearly for the home team.

What I was missing, of course, was the enchantment of childhood itself. I was experiencing a cognate version of that which happens to people who visit their grade schools as adults and find the booming halls and gigantic spaces of memory shrunk to a modest brick building with construction-paper cutouts on the walls. Denver for me will always be bound up with that one magical book that lied to the reader the way all good novels do. There never was a city quite like the one Kerouac described; it was only, alas, to be found within his pages.

In recent times, I've made a home for myself in Boulder; I've put down roots and am raising a family. The luxe amenities of a city I found slightly absurd 10 years ago now seem merely part of my daily expectations. I've never been happier, in certain ways, and yet the truth of the old maxim remains: You can't go home again. You can find bits and pieces of it in the remembered glow of books and films from childhood, and in the cherishing of memories and what they do to you. But part of the larger irony seems to be that if you can't go home again it doesn't keep you from trying, your whole life long, to do just that.