The Denver Diaries: Chapter 1 – August through September 2013
It was early 2013, and I had moved to a rural town in Michigan to live with a friend of mine, Gail Potocki, an immensely talented contemporary symbolist painter. I lived with Gail at her farmhouse for only two months, during which I saw her create two masterpieces for her current painting series, an elegant modern reinterpretation of the absurdist archetypal figures in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Ultimately, it was decided that I would have to move back to Maine, the state from which I came and where I was born and raised, due to the fact that I had been having severe migraines which impacted my ability to work there at Gail’s farmhouse, which needed to be rigorously maintained and renovated.
Just as my train trip there had been long, my ride back was even longer, and I was exhausted by the time I’d arrived back in my tiny hometown of Wilton, Maine, though it had long ceased to feel remotely anything like a home. Perhaps I longed to see new places and to meet new people, to embark on an adventure and to immerse myself in other cultures. I had grown weary of small rural towns and the lack of diversity. I felt as much like an anachronism as anyone could, what with my general distrust of technology being used for convenience, my feeling of displacement within my own generation, and the desire to break away from the conservative, consumerist societal structure which I had been raised in.
While in Maine, I returned to my former part-time job working at the local library in the neighboring town of Jay, where I had become comfortable and made lifelong friends with my coworkers and the patrons. It was only through the generosity of my boss and friend, Tammy, that I was able to get my job back. My goal was simple. I’d save up money over the next three months and look for full-time work, but if I could not find suitable work, then I would take my savings and move out of Maine for good. This is how I’ve always been: it would take me a long time to deliberate upon a decision of magnitude, but once my mind was made up, I took swift action. This “swift action” was often perceived by those around me as impulsive, though in actuality this is because I’ve never been good at retaining the courage of my convictions once I’ve shared them with others. Prone to anxiety and always hypercritical of myself, confiding my plans in life to others has always resulted in my concern that if those plans fall through then I will look all the more ridiculous as a failure (why this should bother me, when I am either oblivious or insouciant to what others perceive of me in any matter except this, I cannot say).
Moving to Michigan was essentially a contingency plan to begin with. Moving back to Maine was yet another contingency plan. I knew that for economic, political, social, and health reasons, I would never be content to the confines of the small community I was raised, so staying there any longer was not an option. I needed a more expansive environment, and I needed to push myself, so taking the advice of my doctor to move to a warmer, dryer climate, I decided to move to Arizona where I would spend the Winter in the desert before joining an ecological commune north of Phoenix. The vast expanse of the red-sanded desert had a certain poetic appeal to me… and it was cheaper and more realistic than trying to move to India or North Africa. I had debated with myself whether or not I would take a train directly to Arizona or whether I would first go to Colorado, stopping in Denver, and then backpacking my way from Denver southwest over the Rocky Mountains and from there to Arizona.
I arrived in Denver on August 22, 2013. Upon seeing the city, I was immediately struck by its diversity, ethnic, cultural, economic, political, and aesthetic, as well as by its beauty. I had a few of friends in different parts of Colorado, and they had always spoken of just what a beautiful state it is, and I found their descriptions to be, by no fault of their own, grossly understated. It’s difficult to describe, especially to one who has lived either in a rural area surrounded by nature or in an urban area surrounded by skyscrapers and industrial buildings. Denver is a peculiarity in that it has components of both. It is a city surrounded by nature. I fell in love with it instantly and more so with each day I would spend here, until finally I realized that I could not leave so soon. That said, there were other factors which had an effect on my decision, and I shall get to those later.
My first night in Denver, I was well aware that I’d need to find a place to sleep for the night, as I was quite tired from a fifty-plus hour trip by train. With the intention of living in the rough out in the desert, the prospect of sleeping on the streets wasn’t something I was at all opposed to, but I was too tired to find somewhere safe to seek temporary shelter and sleep. Fortunately, thanks to Tammy’s suggestion, I was able to find a hostel where travelers could stay for a reasonable price of twenty dollars a night. I would stay there my first three nights while I explored the city. Having never stayed in a hostel or even a motel, I had little idea of what to expect. The accommodations were rundown and crowded ̶ five bunk beds per room and as many as ten men sharing a room ̶ though at the price I paid, I had no complaints and was grateful for a place to take a shower and catch up on much needed rest. The other men in the room were quite nice, although of these, I only got to know one of them staying there. I made the mistake of taking the bottom bunk in the corner, which I came to realize was a mistake when a Chinese man whose name I never learnt jumped from the floor onto the top bunk causing the box-spring mattress to partially collapse on my head. He leaned over the side of the bunk looking at me up-side down, the two of us both stunned, and he rather embarrassed, when he said, “So sorry. That must ouch. You okay?”
The whole room burst into laughter at this point. The rest of my stay there those first three nights was uneventful.
On my fourth night I took the bus to Aurora to visit a friend and stayed there to see a movie and spend the night. Unfortunately, I lost my prize camera as I transferred from one bus to another at the bus station, which dampened my mood considerably since the camera was in its pouch that happened to contain not only my camera, but also my camera’s memory cards with thousands of photos taken over two years, rechargeable batteries, and the camera accessories. When I returned to Denver, I immediately began making calls to the bus line to see if I could locate my camera in a lost and found. I would spend the next week checking pawn shops, shady street vendors selling stolen items, and calling the bus line trying to reclaim my camera. Eventually, over a week later, I would be rewarded for my persistence and reminded that there were still indeed honest and caring people out there when I found a post on Craigslist in the lost and found category that someone had found my camera at the bus station. Two days later, on September 5, I was able to retrieve my camera and thank the kind woman who had returned it to me. You frequently hear stories about such things happening, but it is rare to see that kind of honesty and altruism still alive in people, so I was deeply touched.
My fifth night in Denver was, to say the least, memorable. I had spent the day retracing my steps from the day before, taking the bus out to Aurora and back again looking for my camera, and then I went to the Denver Public Library to access the free Wi-Fi. Realizing that between food, staying at the hostel, bus fare, food costs, and seeing a movie at the theatre with my friend in Aurora, that my expenses were accumulating faster than I’d expected, I decided I would try my luck at a shelter. To my dismay, by the time I found the shelter, the line was long and it had begun to rain. By the time they opened the doors and started letting the indigents in, I had become frustrated and decided that I would just sleep on the streets wherever I could find someplace dry. This was risky, as I well knew, merely because of the amount of gear I had on me (my new camping backpack, a good majority of my best clothes, my hiking boots, laptop, and a wallet full of cash). Fortunately, there were no attempts by anyone to steal my belongings, however, I did meet a variety of colorful characters from three prostitutes, one of whom propositioned me, to a meth addict who squatted down ten feet from me, fully exposed herself and urinated in plain view, to a college student who was doped up on coke and tried to give me life advice.
“I mean not to be rude,” he began. “But like, how did you get here?” he asked. “I mean, like here on the streets, ya know? I know I’m messed up right now. I am totally fucked up, man. But I got a head on my shoulders and I see you, man. I see you. You just can’t let life get to you; you can’t let it get you down. I’m probably ranting. Sorry. But you know,” he continued. I interjected at this point to tell him I had fortuitously not returned to the hostel before they closed their doors for the night and didn’t have the patience to stay at the shelter, but he seemed either unable to process this information due to the effects of the cocaine, or he just was in the mood to give nonsensical philosophical lecturing. Either way, he went on, saying, “Did ya see the last Batman movie, man? Remember what Michael Caine said?”
At this, I was avoiding eye contact and pretending not to listen. Passersby had begun to take notice of him, and of me, and I was feeling the tinges of embarrassment. Not embarrassment for me, though I was basically homeless, but rather embarrassment for this wannabe philosopher, this formally educated college student too drugged out of his mind to express much coherently or intelligently. Yet he persisted in his cocaine-induced folly.
“’Why do we fall, man? Why do we fall? We fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves back the fuck up!’” he enthusiastically exclaimed, paraphrasing Batman Begins with a confident grin on his face. “You may think I’m out of my head, but deep down you know I’m right. You wanna come back to my place? I’ve got an ounce of coke in my pocket.”
My ribs were hurting with the suppressed laughter at this point. After politely declining his request, he walked off, and I finally caught some sleep despite the sounds of the ongoing traffic.
The following morning I went straight to the hostel and paid for the next full week in advance. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been endlessly amused by the previous night’s bizarre happenings, or that I hadn’t even been somewhat exhilarated sleeping on the sidewalk on one of the busiest streets in Denver, but I rather liked the idea of actually sleeping peacefully. As it turned out, peaceful sleep was harder to come by than I anticipated, regardless of where I was.
To be continued…