Friday, June 13, 2008

Street Vignettes


Photo courtesy of Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau

vi·gnette (vin-ˈyet)
a: a short descriptive literary sketch
: a brief inciden
t or scene (as in a play or movie)

Two homeless guys check me out while I wait at the curb. How do I know they’re homeless? – experience. The one wearing a baseball cap and jean jacket asks if I have a buck for the bus. I have been asked so many times for bus money that I play with the idea of offering to escort the asker to the bus station to buy a ticket, just to see what happens. The bus station is only two blocks away. Instead, I say, no, I don’t have anything. They move on. Guilt sets in – not because I didn’t give the panhandlers any money, but because I lied about not having any. Why didn’t I just say “no” without any phony rationale? Then I realize that they knew I was lying but it didn’t matter because they cared only about whether they ended up with any money. Further realization – they lied to me. There was no bus trip in their immediate future. So my guilt disappears.

An unusual looking man appears to be "in charge" of a group of young people. I assume they are from a Youth Center or Alternative School – they look nonconformist in that youthful conformist way. The man is telling one of the boys, “Go up to Sixteenth, then down all the way to Market.” The kid stares at him, mystified. He is a very white boy wearing his cap at a gangster angle but he looks too pudgy to be dangerous. I can see that the words don’t penetrate the teen’s brain. He looks worried. The other kids look amused. The man repeats, “Go up to Sixteenth, then down all the way to Market.” The boy says something like, “What does that mean?” The man shrugs, rolls his eyes and says, “Walk over to Sixteenth; this is Twentieth (he points at the street sign); four blocks up that way (he points north); then turn right and walk all the way to Market.” It makes sense to me but then I’ve walked these streets hundreds of times. But really, you can’t get from Twentieth to Sixteenth?

My barber, Lalo, has been in business for decades in the same building as one of the city’s largest law firms. He's a solid Colorado man: ex-Marine; family from what we call the Arkansas Valley; one of his daughters works in a Santa Fe museum; used to share in Bronco tickets. Lately he has to be hooked up to an oxygen tank but he comes in every day, keeps his appointments with his loyal customers, and talks about slowing down and how hard it is to say no to one of his regulars. The shoe shine guy, Joe, is older than Lalo or I, but he’s still sharp and in the know. He likes to talk about music, politics, and Denver sports teams, and I listen closely because his opinions are righteous, as they used to say. All three of us have commiserated about the Rockies and the Nuggets. Lalo can tell you about the major leaguers, federal judges, and politicians who have had their ears lowered in his shop. A few years ago he showed me old photos of the colonias that once dotted Southeastern Colorado, homes to the Mexicans who worked the farms around Rocky Ford, Lamar, and La Junta. Lines of shacks and rickety houses; dark, sun-toasted people sometimes looking very tired, sometimes dressed up for a trip to town. We hashed over the idea of donating the photos to the Colorado History Museum. Lalo often brings up the internment camp that existed between Grenada and Lamar: Camp Amache. Between 1942 - 1945, 7,597 Japanese-Americans were forced to move there, and many stayed after the War, working in the fields or wherever they could find a job. They were men and women Lalo knew and worked alongside as a young man. At my last clipping, Lalo admitted he didn’t like JFK when the doomed president was first elected, but he assured me that eventually he altered his opinion. “I changed,” he says with some pride. We had been talking about Barack Obama and it took me a minute to make the connection.

One of the Soup Nazi franchises recently opened on the 16th Street Mall. You remember, from Seinfeld? It's actually called The Original Soupman. Looks like it's doing an okay business. It reminded me of the Shoe Shine Rude Guy (Nazi is too mean of a word) who sets up shop at a corner along the same mall. The weathered black man has insulted my shoes more than once. I've heard him shout, "Nice suit, ugly shoes." Or, to women, "Great legs but they need clean shoes." You get the idea. He does more than okay business-wise; at least he always has a queue of amused customers waiting.

During two of my lunchtime walks I've become part of a crowd watching someone's intimate drama play out on a building. One was on the famous Brown Palace Hotel; the other on the roof of a building lining the mall. No one in the crowds hollered "Jump!" No one was hysterical. I'd have to say that the overwhelming emotion was sadness. What could drive a person to the literal edge? Anybody seeing such a thing has to think - how far away am I from this? And one hopes that the answer is - far, far away. I left after a few minutes. I worried that I might see something I could not forget. I never saw anything in the news about anybody jumping so I assume the responders did their job and talked the men down so they could begin their mandatory 72 hours of psychiatric testing.

The hot dog stand outside the post office has a sign that says Coors Field. The stand is five blocks from the baseball stadium. Go figure. The stand also has a sign that says Everything You Order Can Be Taken Inside. I can't decipher that sign. I’ve never had a hot dog from this stand although I’ve heard that they are grilled and very good. I wouldn’t know where to go to eat the dog. I could just walk back to my office, eating. But I won’t.

Sometimes I do lonche at the 20th Street Cafe. At the 20th, they know me because I’ve been coming for years, originally for the beef teriyaki and rice, lately for the fried fish. I’ve seen several waitresses come and go. Now they have a friendly, veteran team; if I wrote about them I might be accused of indulging stereotypes and clichés. They always make me feel welcome and sometimes even missed. Recently I learned that the diner was opened in 1946 by a man who resettled in Denver's Japanese Town after being released from an internment camp.

Another day I might troop all the way to Chelo's where I can get some of the best tamales in the city, no lie. You can buy a dozen or two if you want, as well as empanadas stuffed with fruit and cream cheese. The young man who must be part of the family that owns the place once told me how they had hassles with the Health Department because of the creamy empanadas, so they quit making them for a while. They’re back – try the blueberry.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped for lo mein at this small place inside one of Denver’s skyscrapers - another building where I have spent many, many lunch hours. I had my lunch and was about to walk out through my usual exit when I noticed a new business – another restaurant. I changed directions and walked by the new place to get an idea about whether I might try it out in the future. I exited through a door that was new to me. I walked into the bright, searing sunshine and complete disorientation. I didn’t know where I was. I turned around looking for something recognizable, an urban landmark that would ring a bell in my memory. The street was different in a crazy way, it even sounded different. I didn’t know which way to walk to get back to my office. I started to feel nauseous, slightly dizzy. I saw a parade of horses and cowboys and the image added to my confusion, but I realized that the parade must be on Seventeenth Street where all the parades march. But it wasn't right, as though the street was in the wrong place. I knew I had to do something - I walked. I came to an intersection, but I couldn’t see any street sign. I crossed the street, anxiously, and it all fell into place. I realized where I was and where I needed to go. I breathed deeply. My taste of senility was over. Later I told my wife about the experience and she said it happens all the time to people. Maybe.

Nothing is perfect but a June day in Colorado at 78 degrees is close. The softest breeze floats in the air; blazing white snow caps grace serene mountains that mark the Western horizon; a few clouds dot the powder blue sky. You can still get all of this in the heart of the city.

In August, 50,000 delegates (super and regular), protesters, and media types will join me for lunch in downtown Denver when they take a break from the Democratic National Convention. I hope this doesn't mean that I will have to stand in line to get into the 20th.

Manuel Ramos - all rights reserved

Latinos in Lotusland: Book Event

Celebrating the release of Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008), edited by Daniel Olivas, come join the editor with four of the thirty-four contributors to the anthology: Sandra Ramos O'Briant, Lisa Alvarez, Victorio Barragan and Conrad Romo as they read from their stories. Refreshments will be served.

When: Friday, June 13, 2008

Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Where: Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91101

Contact: 626-449-5320



Mario Acevedo said...

Yes, Chelos tamales are the best in the city. Unfortunately, I think many of the DNC delegates will not get past the Hard Rock Cafe, Chilis, or The Cheesecake Factory.

Manuel Ramos said...

Or fortunately, depending on how one looks at the idea of throngs of pols passing up the chains and converging on one's favorite eating and watering holes. Remember, these are the people who might figure out a way to lose the election to Bush's party. All of Chelo's menu is very good. And there are more people eating there lately. We might have to revive the Steve and Edie Gourmet Taco Club and put Chelo's on the itinerary (before your time, Mario.)

Anonymous said...

If we do revive the Steve and Edie Gourmet Taco Club--it was in my time--maybe we should change the name to better reflect our purpose in gathering. Last time it became too much a chisme club, non-literary.

Maybe something more focused, like the Lalo Delgado Memorial Tour, or something to that effect. We might get more literary types, like Mario et al.

Sustenance Scout said...

Love your stories, Manuel! I was walking around downtown with you as I read, enjoying the warm sun and the cool breeze. What a joy it is to live in Colorado. As for the DNC, I'm steering clear of that madness!

Wish I could've been at the TCover for your signing; LIL is on my list of summer reads. Congratulations! K.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you - very nice of you to say that. I think you will enjoy LIL. Daniel Olivas picked some excellent pieces. If you come up with a way to avoid the DNC altogether (other than leaving town), let me know.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)