I was in Denver last week, visiting family and attending the naming ceremony of my new niece, Alia.
I grew up right in the middle of Denver, in Capitol Hill, and for the past 30 years, since I was nine (9!) years old, I have taken pretty much every opportunity to wander down what remains in many ways my favorite strip of America.
Simple-minded people think of East Colfax as a long row of sleaze — something that I would expect the Catholic Church might resent, since its Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is there, separated by a parking lot and Pennsylvania Street from a McDonald's; Chinese restaurants, convenience stores, empty buildings and Duman's Custom Tailoring all are across the street.
The capitol building is on Colfax, too, and I imagine the Colorado State government, or at least parts of it, might also feel bad about being stamped as sleazy. Besides, not nearly as many drunks are sleeping on the capitol's lawn as there were a couple of decades ago.
The 40-block stretch of Colfax from Broadway to Colorado Boulevard is an agglomeration of people just being themselves. If they look like drifters, they're really drifters, probably having recently gotten off the bus at the Greyhound station a block north of there (the mosaic in the station, of two different-colored hands, made out of the sort of male and female icons you see on bathroom doors, grasping each other, was done by my cousin, artist Doug Kornfeld).
There are day laborers waiting for work at the agencies on Colfax that hire them, and skate punks (skate punks never went out of style in Denver; I don't know why). I often overhear conversations recounting brushes with the law or the collapse of a romance, or both ("I told him that I wasn't going to get thrown in jail for his sorry ass...")
There are patrons of the only lesbian coffee house I know of, and customers at shops selling vintage comic books and posters and music (vinyl, cassettes, CDs). Each of those stores smells comfortably of shredded cardboard and dust.
Other shops sell used furniture. The headquarters of the local Guardian Angels chapter is on East Colfax, next to an Office Depot. There are martial arts centers and community organizations, chain restaurants and indies — including a former IHOP, with the signature roof, that's now the independent Mama's Café. I used to go to that IHOP after the midnight viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at The Ogden theater, which is now a venue for live performances.
And there's some sleaze, too. Kitty's, a 24-hour adult book, video etc. emporium, is bookended by two bars apparently owned by a Cervantes fan. They're named Sancho's Broken Arrow (A Thinking Place) and Dulcinea’s 100th Monkey.
There are many check cashing places, and tattoo parlors — the classiest looking one has polished hardwood floors and plush leather couches and also does piercings.
There are a couple of important liquor stores nearby, a gay bar, an Irish pub, and The Satire Lounge, where I recently had green chile — a New Mexican delicacy — so good it made me want to cry.
My high school, East, is on Colfax, and fast food restaurants nearby cater to the students there. Recently the theater across the street from East that for years was Bonfils and then was Lowenstein is now The Tattered Cover, a gigantic bookstore that was forced to relocate from increasingly tony, increasingly boring Cherry Creek North. It lost its lease.
Efforts are underway pretty much all the time to add some tone to East Colfax, as if its own natural rhythm were unworthy. A recently built condominium and retail complex sits mostly fallow just east of Greek Town (something of a misnomer; a few Greek restaurants, a Greek bakery and something called the "Greek Social Club" are there, but so are Chinese and Ethiopian restaurants, and a Caribbean bakery and "marketplace").
East Colfax mostly ignores those efforts, and glides along in its own way, a natural, slowly evolving stretch of humanity (or not in some cases — at least two barber shops on the avenue still say they do great flat tops). Every neighborhood I've visited in New York seems predictably scripted by comparison.