If I want to find places where Denver asserts its identity, I should start with things that make Denver a leader. But I'm not sure where that is because the city doesn't sit on the cutting edge of anything—not art, not music, not architecture, not politics. We possess few corporate headquarters, we're not a technology hub, and by the time fashion trends work their way here from the coasts, the same clothes are found languishing on the clearance racks in New York and Los Angeles. Because there's no strategic way to do this, because there's no natural place to start, I decide instead to follow my own eclectic sense of curiosity.
So, a few days after hanging out at Biker Jim's, I end up sitting next to a man named Jerry Baack at the Café Sanora coffee shop on the corner of Colfax Avenue and Marion Street. Baack is 55 years old, has longish gray hair, and is missing one, perhaps two, top teeth. Despite this, he's actually fairly attractive, in that charismatic, I-don't-give-a-damn-what-you-think-of-me way that neighborhood characters tend to exude. Having lived just off of Colfax for 35 years, Baack certainly qualifies as such.
Inside the shop, we sit on stools behind a long counter that fronts a plate-glass window facing Colfax. "This is the most colorful part of this street," Baack tells me. "Here, you can see them all. Pimps. Prostitutes. Hustlers. Artists. Musicians. Crackheads. Heroin dealers. Runners. Skateboarders. Gay bashers. Gay activists. They're all here. Up the street is an 81-year-old nun, a marathon runner from Holland. I can never get her to bring back hash for me. Across the street is where Mable the fur maker lived until she died two years ago. She always carried a gun in her pocket. Down the street is a Hungarian lady who escaped from the Nazis. Twice."
Baack goes on like this, extolling the live-and-let-live ethos that he loves about Denver, and most especially Colfax. As we talk, he introduces me to the people sitting nearby. They include Grant Bender, a clean-shaven, 27-year-old marketing consultant; Elizabeth Hauptman, a 39-year-old Colorado native who owns Hysteria, a sex toy boutique on Broadway; and a short, twenty-something skateboarder with unkempt hair and a dark beard who listens but declines to contribute. At 11:30 in the morning, he says, it's too early talk.
The four of them—the skateboarder, the sex entrepreneur, the marketing consultant, and Baack—are obviously friends who share an easy camaraderie, despite widely different ages, interests, and temperaments. "How did you all meet each other?" I ask. "Right here on Colfax," Baack says, as if he paved, named, and populated the street himself.
I'm impressed by the group's comfortable companionship, and listening to them I feel a familiar stab of envy. I'm self-employed doing wo rk I love, but I also work at home, which means daily community and happy-but-meaningless chatter about movies or gossip about friends can be tough to come by. Perhaps what I'm seeking is not only a way to define this city, but also a clearer sense of how I fit into it.