When I moved back to Denver in May 2014, I decided I wanted to tell a story about Colfax Avenue, the gritty four-lane street that runs through the heart of the city, all the way from the plains on the east side to the foothills on the west side. In all the years I’ve spent in Denver, I’ve never lived more than six blocks from Colfax/15th Avenue, and I’ve crossed it on my way to and from every job I’ve had in town. I’ve always had an affection for the street, its reputation, and all the hard-luck folks and unfancy businesses that line its sidewalks, like it was just barely getting by, some sort of living symbol of the tough times we’ve all had at least once in our lives. Just a few weeks ago, a restaurant owner who relocated here from New York told me he thought Colfax was “the most authentic part of the city.”
I wanted to tell the stories I had about all the things I saw on this street, in the 12 blocks between my apartment and the capitol building, and what I thought it showed about people and how we relate to each other. I started to write them out, and then over a couple months, I shot some photos to go with the stories, and put them all on my Instagram account over a two-week span ending last Monday. I’m publishing the whole series here today.
#1 Wolfe’s Barbeque
Louis could come off a little surly, but if you brought your girlfriend in, he was all old guy charm. His place was tiny, maybe 10 tables that would seat 25 people, but it never got that busy in there that I saw. He couldn’t have handled the business anyway, since he was the waiter, cook, and cashier, and didn’t seem to be in a hell of a big hurry. He told me that barbecue tofu sandwich kept him in business all those years, because no one else had one, and vegetarians would bring their friends in. I had a lot of good nights in there, sitting at those old tables, just me and a friend and maybe one other table in the whole restaurant, AM radio jazz or blues in the background, a calm, warm place with nothing but windows separating it from the cacaphony of Colfax and all the characters walking by outside.
When I found out he was closing, I sent a text to a friend who still worked at the newspaper, just letting him know that he should head up there and get one more lunch from Louis before it was all over. Then the Denver Post ran a huge story on the front page of one section of the paper, with a big photo of Louis sweeping up the floor. I went back three different times the week he was closing, but I could never get in to say goodbye because the line was so long. Nothing’s moved in since, except the guys who holed up under the awning to sleep every night. A couple weeks ago, they put a gate up in front of the alcove, and now the place is really home to no one.
#2 Anything Helps
Huge flakes dropped from the grey sky all Sunday afternoon, and I saw the white-bearded guy huddled on the steps on the cathedral, the one with the iron fence that looks like someone sharpened all the tips so they’d impale you if you tried to climb over it into the courtyard. I tried to take a quick clandestine photo of him, and it didn’t come out that well. I crossed the street and walked right in front of him. He didn’t look up or ask for money or say anything. I held out two one-dollar bills and he said Thank You. Some people say you shouldn’t give money to panhandlers because they’re just going to use it on booze or drugs, but I can’t usually help myself. I figure once I give them the money, it’s up to them to do the honorable thing with it, whatever they think that is.
The next morning, walking down the sidewalk to a meeting, I glanced inside the cheap breakfast place, dimly lit inside, empty except for the waitress standing next to a table and taking an order from the only customer, the white-bearded guy who had been sitting on the cathedral steps all day yesterday.
#3 Almost Gentrified
I worry sometimes that Colfax is going to lose some of its grit—never when I’m buying fresh produce at the brand-new Natural Grocers, mind you, but I just can’t conceive of a Denver where Colfax is a street with a bunch of nice, new buildings and businesses on it. I was thinking this one day, as I passed the sign for the $2.99 2 Eggs Hashbrowns Toast and two blocks later walked past the front window at the brand-new Sassafras, where you can get brunch for about $12 a person. A server wiped down tables and I thought, That Place Looks Really Nice Inside, as I kept striding and almost ran into a guy pushing a shopping cart with all his belongings in it down the alley right next to the restaurant.
#4 Transaction Failed
It’s kind of too bad, because the food there is actually pretty OK, just inexpensive, and because of its location, it sometimes gets some pretty scrappy clientele. Mike used to work near there and would go over a lot, and he told me one time he saw this hard-living-looking lady came in with a guy and they went into the restroom together and locked the door. They couldn’t have been in there more than 30 seconds, he said, before they came out and started to hustle back out of the restaurant. Except the guy goes, Oh Shit, I Forgot, and they sat down at the next booth as he dug around in his pockets and handed her a little baggie of something. I guess they both forgot.
#5 The Messenger
I think I was getting pretty bored by the start of year #3 of my newspaper job, sitting in the cubicle all day, because I changed my bike commute to ride down Colfax for the last two blocks, down the big hill the capitol sits on. I knew the far right lane had these huge ripples in the asphalt, from water or buses or something, so I had to be careful, but I also loved to just bomb down that hill before I hit the brakes hard and turned right into the parking garage under the building. Pretty much every day, the 15 bus was sitting at the stop, blocking most of the right lane, with about three feet of space between its left side and the next lane of traffic. And every day that happened, I cranked my pedals as hard as I could and squeezed between the bus and the dotted line, one or two hard pedal strokes to get around the bus and fly across the open intersection at Broadway. Then I’d park my bike, heart still pounding when I got up to our floor and sat in the silence under those fluorescent lights. One time I got on the elevator with the publisher, just me and him, and he struck up a conversation, asking me about being a bike messenger, and I explained that I worked on the floor below him. I didn’t tell him that I spent a lot of days at my desk fantasizing about being a bike messenger, riding around the city, instead of what I was doing.
#6 The Things You Hear
If Colfax is the main artery of authenticity through Denver, the 15 bus line is a significant part of its blood. I don’t ride the bus, but I’ve caught hundreds of half-conversations walking by all the stops on Colfax. One sunny cold December morning, I walked past one of the bus stops where someone had tagged FUCK THE POLICE on the gas station awning in one-foot-high letters right above where all the people were standing waiting for the 15. A guy in a hooded black fur coat leaned against the sign, and I wondered what the odds were that the fur was real, and what the guy’s story was if it was real. I had to sidestep a few people to get by, and my music was loud, but as I walked past the man, I heard an elderly woman saying to him authoritatively, that there’s only one god, and I just kept walking and a few steps later broke into a smile and thought that I just love this damn street, especially the spots where a guy dressed like an aspiring pimp can have an existential conversation with a senior citizen at 11 a.m.
#7 | Acting Civilized
A lot of people say they don’t like Colfax, probably for a number of reasons. I think they just don’t like being confronted with poverty, because pretty much every few blocks on Colfax, at least near Capitol Hill, you see someone who’s down on their luck. And I think most people would just rather see nothing but healthy, wealthy people around them. I always say that it’s not dangerous, it’s just scrappy. I say that because in all the miles I’ve walked on that street, I’ve never had anyone bother me, unless you consider someone asking you for change bothering you. People sometimes try to sell you drugs, but their sales pitch is pretty short, and usually 10 times less pressure to buy than at your typical used car lot or conversation with someone who wants to save your soul. I think it’s like this guy told me once a long time ago, how most of the bad shit happens after midnight, so if you’re not out and about after midnight, you don’t have as much of a chance of bad shit happening to you. And now I’m old enough that midnight equals about 10 p.m.
The only time I’ve ever felt even mildly threatened was when these two drunk yuppie dipshits almost hit me in the head with a Frisbee right in front of the Fillmore at about 7 p.m. on a Saturday. I knocked the Frisbee to the ground, and as we walked past them, I wanted to scold them like I was their dad, tell them to grow up or get off Colfax, because the people here may be desperate, but they’re usually respectful.
#8 | Cougar
The guy was almost always sitting in his wheelchair at the bus stop on the northeast corner of Broadway and Colfax, like he was a sandwich board a shop owner put out on the sidewalk every morning before I rode by on my way to work. I always wondered what happened to his legs, and what he was doing there all day, and even where he went to the bathroom. John from work said the guy’s name was Cougar or something like that, and he had one of the Twin Towers tattooed on each of his forearms after 9/11, and that sometimes people would use him for drug transactions, like someone would leave the stuff on him and then someone else would come along and take the stuff and give him the money. I wondered if any of that was true. After I quit working in that building, I never saw him again, and now I just wonder what happened to him, whether he got help, or if he just died somewhere in the city one night.
#9 | Anarchy With An Escort
I used to believe in the idea behind Critical Mass, but Denver’s version of it was pretty confusing. A bunch of people would gather at Civic Center Park on the last Friday of the month until it was time to go, and then everyone would start riding circles around the fountain on the north side of the park next to Colfax, and the energy would start building, and then we’d all take off and ride around the city. The problem was, the police always escorted the bike ride, which wrecked the whole idea, because no one felt they could run a red light in front of a police officer, so the ride would split up, leaving half of the people stuck behind a red light. It made it two, or sometimes three or more, essentially non-Critical Masses. People would run red lights and the motorcycle cops would ticket them, and I would always wonder how Chicago’s Critical Mass got to be so big and awesome and effective and why ours had a police escort.
One December, it was so cold the cops didn’t even show up, and hardly any riders did either. About 12 of us did the ride anyway, staying together and taking up a couple lanes. Some lady pulled up next to us on 17th Avenue, rolled down her passenger-side window, and called us assholes, and I thought, Boy, she would never say that if she wasn’t in a car and we weren’t on bicycles. The kid next to me spit on her window, and I think that’s when I decided I wasn’t going to do Critical Mass anymore.
The Denver Cruiser Ride grew into a thousand-plus-bike-bar hop on Wednesday nights, ten times the population of any Critical Mass ride I’d been on. Gradually, I became less of a bike activist and more of a guy who just wanted to ride his bike in the city and not get hit by a car. I quit running red lights on my bike, figuring I was doing at least a little bit to help people hate cyclists less. One Sunday night at 16th and a Pearl, a police cruiser pulled up next to me, and the officer on the passenger side thanked me for stopping at the red light. I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, Absolutely.
#10 | Sal Paradise
I know I love Denver at least in part because I read On the Road at a very impressionable age and Jack Kerouac seemed so excited about Denver in the first pages of the book. He doesn’t actually mention Colfax that much in his writing, but in this one sentence in Visions of Cody, I think he really nailed it, how it was and how it kind of still is: “A whole bunch of sad and curious people and half morose kicked around the weeds in the ordinary city debris of a field off East Colfax Avenue, Denver, October 1942, with semi-disgruntled expressions that said ‘There’s something here anyway.’”
#11 | The Governor
My bike ride to work used to take me down 12th Avenue from Cheesman Park, then north on Sherman, and I’d cut around the front of the capitol building just before turning onto Colfax for the last two blocks to the office. One morning, I was rounding the building and saw then-Governor Bill Ritter walking down the steps talking on his cell phone. For one second, I thought about slowing down so he’d hit the bottom step just as I passed, and then sticking out my hand for a high-five. But I didn’t. In all the rides to work that followed, I never saw him there again. Every time I’ve passed the capitol since, I have kicked myself for not high-fiving the governor, or at least trying.
#12 | The Hustle
Syd and I walked out of the restaurant and stood next to his Subaru, starting to part ways in that this-always-takes-five-minutes way you do when you’re with a good friend, and a group of guys walked past us. The last one stopped and stared at us until we stopped talking, and I said How’s it going. He said, “Would you guys have a quarter for my Subaru?” And I said, “What?” He said, “I need to put another quarter in the parking meter for my Subaru,” gesturing to Syd’s car. I said, “That’s his car,” and pointed at Syd. The guy started laughing, and then Syd and I both started laughing, and then we were all laughing, and Syd gave him a dollar.
#13 | Full Length
I signed up for the first-ever Colfax Marathon in 2006, for something to help me quit smoking, and to see if I could do it. That year, the race route went almost the complete length of Colfax, starting in far east Aurora and ending at Colorado Mills, covering 21 of the 26.2 miles along one street, straight from the plains almost into the foothills. Besides running the entire length of the most notorious street in the city, I imagine it was one of the most boring marathon courses ever designed, but at the time I didn’t care. The mom & pop motels and old diners and restaurants rolled by at a blazing 6 mph and I thought for sure my legs would fall off before I finished. They changed the course in later years, and now only about nine miles of it is on Colfax.
I never ran the marathon again, or another marathon, but a couple friends and I got up at 4 a.m. one Sunday and bicycled the whole thing, all the way from Aurora to Golden, through a million stoplights and over a million potholes, past the taco joints and Ethiopian restaurants and the interesting folks stalking Colfax at 5 a.m., from the quiet rural east side of the metro area into the jangling heart of the city and back out to the quiet suburbs in the foothills, just to do it. Now I feel like everybody who lives here ought to do something like that at least once.
#14 | Martinis and Mad Dog
On Colfax, the haves and the have-nots often get very close to each other, sometimes while they’re doing the same thing. If you sit on a sidewalk patio on a sunny day and order an $8 beer, by the time you’re done drinking it, someone who is going to spend, or has spent, their last dollar on a can of cheap malt liquor or a short bottle of whiskey will shuffle by. Young professionals get drunk just like the guys who sleep in nearby alleys, sometimes only separated by an iron fence on the sidewalk.
One Sunday afternoon, on my walk to the grocery store, I came up on a guy in a dirty parka walking the opposite way near the Wendy’s at Colfax and Emerson. He poured the last of a bottle down his throat and in the next step, tossed the bottle into a patch of dirt next to the restaurant. I walked past the dirt patch a few steps later and looked down to see an empty 750 ml bottle of Crown Royal. The only liquor store in the direction he’d come from was a block away, and I tried to imagine rational explanations for what I’d just seen. Either he’d drunk most of the bottle with two other friends before they parted ways, or he’d found the bottle mostly empty and I’d seen him taking the last sip, or, barring any rational explanation, I’d just seen the most Colfax thing ever.
This guy sleeps here every night, a few feet south and almost directly below my bedroom window. It’s a pretty good spot, as far as Colfax goes: a little back off the street, not so close to the sidewalk so people can mess with you, not too brightly-lit, but not completely dark either.
I spend as much time as I can sleeping in quiet, wild places in the mountains and the desert, and the rest of the year, I sleep pretty near this guy, albeit inside an apartment building. The sounds of Colfax come through the bedroom window all night: motorcycles and loud cars ripping down the street, people partying loudly on the patio at the bar across the street, sirens every couple hours when the fire trucks leave the station a couple blocks away, and the occasional belligerent person yelling at someone else. Sometimes when it snows, no one’s out driving or drinking or screaming or yelling, and it’s too quiet to sleep.
[Thanks to Jim Harris for editing all these photos]