In January of 2004, I came to the US for three college semesters in Westminster and Ft. Collins, CO. In February of 2019, I returned roughly 14 years later. To frame a timeline, Robert Kraft was busted having a masseuse play tug with his shaft, R. Kelly was made to face the music for real this time, and New Zealand had its infamous mosque shooting, all inside three weeks following my arrival. Below is a chronicle of 11 weeks spent in cultural osmosis.
As I set my passport atop the counter separating us, I was greeted by the owner of a twang so southern I half expected dip to seep through the tiles underneath causing me to lose my footing. “What brings you to these here United States?” inquired the uniform-clad, mustachioed officer. “These here United States…?” Befuddled, I gathered my wits uncertain if I’d gotten on the wrong plane to another America, down the street, or over yonder. Jokes, man, jokes! It is precisely this kind of humor that’s liable to have you detained, or worse, sent back whence you came from, with a suplex on the way out for good measure. But given that I’d been Stateside a few times, that scenario only happened internally. But coming to Trump’s America, I had to invoke a MAGA thinking hat of my own.
Contrary to her exploits abroad, such practices aren’t commonplace at America’s pearly gates. That said, I haven’t been in Denver nor the US in some time. I left when Katrina hit. Measured in terms of cataclysmic events long deemed improbable, which the readership of this hallowed publication can appreciate, while away: the Bills returned to the playoffs, Di Caprio won an Oscar and El Donaldo rose to the pinnacle of elected office. Fifteen years between leaving from—then landing at—DIA was a surreal time warp. Long overdue and put off for mistakenly thinking a warrant would bar me entry, all I needed to know that it was non-extraditable before I packed my bags but first making a pit stop in Chicaahgo.
We rolled three deep into Chicago, (myself, my better half and her mother) where a former Bear still adorns highway billboard signs. This time it’s Brian Urlacher, in sideline regalia, and for a hair regenerative product, no less. For perspective, I haven’t seen Elway ONCE in 11 weeks in Denver for one of his lots, much less endorsing a dentist for his equine mug. You’d think Urlacher was running for governor seeing his face plastered immediately outside a major airport and I shudder to think how many more signs there had to have been given we didn’t head in the direction of the city for our hotel. As it was almost March, with no Chicago team in the playoffs, I gather they either rep Da Bears year-round or perpetually live in the past. Fuck Chicago’s quarterbacks and $11 Marlboro packs!
Arriving in Denver the next day at noon was a lesson on not only aviation management but how time is valued here. You couldn’t find early flights that’ll save you a day and are not structured around work hours or the searing temperatures where I’m used to. But with 18 hours of sparse sleep, the jet lag coming in meant that at 7:00 PM great lakes time I slept like a log as I sawed my ilk, woke at 5:00 AM, ate breakfast at Denny’s next door at 6:00 AM and headed to O’Hare at noon where more Urlachers appeared on the way. All this plus more time zone voodoo meant that we reached Denver at noon without skipping a beat. Quite the entrance. The only icing on this cake would’ve been the mayor of Denver handing out eighths of weed at the airport out by the Uber gate.
Alas, that wasn’t to be, as I was left to lug a barrel of unrefined crude and two burlap sacks full of sand to the pick-up zone by myself, figuring out how to get to our Airbnb while still within Wi-Fi coverage, if the nearest T-Mobile opened on a Sunday, and whether a weed dispensary of good repute was also close. After getting situated, I found all those stores on one street, within a block of the dispensary. To much relief, it turned out my hedonistic predilections were as catered to as the next man’s here, and let me tell you, this type of feeling makes all the bombings forgivable, almost. Now this dispensary only carried a limited variety of one sativa. A true buzz kill. Speaking of which, you have to get buzzed in through another door, made expressly aware that photography is prohibited. Straightforward and easy to honor as it harkened to the unspoken rules of bordello etiquette except the wares here are displayed in smaller glass panes. Like Kay’s. Or a gun shop.
If you were wondering why all that trouble of hauling voluminous baggage along, it wasn’t to fortify against a land-based Katrina; i.e. the Katrino, quite the opposite. I was hoping to bribe someone for a citizenship with oil. This is, after all, Capitalist Central, and what better way to grease the wheels of trade other than with the waft of black, odorous slick signaling my intent? I figured if spring break rolled around and no judge or lawyer was receptive to inducement I’d use the sand to fashion a crude exfoliate for my back and pectorals and leave for Miami.
The US is a fascinating place; a land of wondrous conveniences and stark contradictions. The Blue Book. Occupational Outlook. Free refills. Gas pumps with card slots. Decentralized recruitment for rank & file. Major sports leagues. The Interstate. Rollercoasters. Guns. And apps for everything. But on the other hand there’s also credit/debit card slots on everything. Huge servings. Sam’s Club Doomsday portions. Drive-thru banking and subscription pick-up. Motorized shopping carts. Self-serve kiosks at McDonald’s and airports. And… Open carry (scenes of ammo-dispensing machines at a mall on my next trip). All this left me to rue not seeing firsthand if lap dances had green initiatives vis-a-vis tipping, like crypto, debit or Apple Pay.
We stayed in south Denver exclusively, playing it by ear; Aurora-ish at first, at this dingy, JFK-era spot by DTC and further south later. As we didn’t have a car at all times, we spent some mornings housebound until my brother-in-law dropped in after work. We rented a few times but used the RTD and Lyft mostly. Hell, at this sketchy AirBnB, I don’t think I bothered approaching another resident until by accident at the coin-operated laundry (I said dingy) where I discover that everyone knew about the AirBnB unit in the building; ours. I says to the guy we’re it, their new flavor of the month. We never met the host but read up on laws mandating owners be on-property in some capacity and now I learn from the neighbor how people work around regulations anyway. Hey, coming from the guy with the warrant, you’re right, I am casting stones; my money, my rules. I made sure the next AirBnB was lavish, with in-house washer and dryer AND cable. Then the same fucking thing happened when we got there! The dude lived upstate and owned several places, but at least with this one, he had someone welcome us plus the Better Business Bureau plaque to show for it.
We hopped to Boulder on St. Patricks, an old stomping ground. I was even begged to go to Ft. Collins, another old haunt, but with the distance and having to devote a day, it just never happened. Same with Estes. Driving west toward Estes Park on US 34 for the first time in 2005, I kept waiting for the route to resemble the opening from The Shining only to later learn it was shot in England. As for Colorado, my early preconceptions of it were mountainous towns a la the steep hills of San Francisco. You’d be an idiot to build a metropolitan worth of sprawl on such terrain instead of the flat plains nearby but I was that idiot with the misconceptions at one time. The drive along US 36 toward Boulder is still etched in memory, from the moment it juts off I-25. The road dips sharply a few miles outside Boulder, and that final bend is set against a dramatic backdrop, with the flatirons behind, hit right in the feels.
St. Patricks was on a Sunday, with families crowding in the pedestrian zone, downtown.. as were the police. My wife’s birthday was coming up, and I wasn’t sure if I was sweating bullets from the swarm of cops or because I still haven’t decided on the birthday gift. Frankly, I spent most of the trip watchful for badges and cruisers but also for every bathroom door signs to see how the raging gender debate would manifest. Nothing. I figured Colorado would be at the pioneering end of it. Hell, I wanted to see if I could spot a MAGA hat, either on a rack somewhere or ornately atop a local’s cranium. Nothing. Then the Michael Jackson HBO documentary blew up with fallout playing out online (let’s be real, that dude did it) but I kept hearing his music played everywhere. Yall’s internet conned me, man.
Yet for many Americans who don’t see the appeal in traveling to other countries, I suppose the same line of thinking applies going the other way. Why would anyone want to come here? And the million dollar question is whether a $5,000 nostalgia trip was worth undertaking, and during the winter months of all choices. I’m not into summers plus I’m standing by a solemn pact made years ago after drunkenly slipping on an icy patch in Westminster. “If you can’t ‘ppreciate me in my worst, you shan’t have my summer days best,” snapped the Colorado earth as I came to eight feet from where the fall occurred. I honestly couldn’t tell you what changed since that last time as I never loitered extensively inside Denver’s bustle. Looking at how younger AND older service staff has gotten was an eye opener. Budget airline staff decked in bowling shirts and Lyft drivers of all ages tells me corporate America is as vicious as ever. Has the yuppie been swallowed by by Gen-X or become the new boomer, whereby millennials are left to catch up or fall behind? Really, other than the traffic and more diverse cuisine options, this is probably the wrong question. “Hey, man, so how are the States this time?” Literally, no one during the trip.
It was a blast, I think, with a few regrets. I missed a Roots concert because I couldn’t decide on a whim if $100 without the drinks was worthwhile. I didn’t get to hit the nightlife until the end of the trip which ideally for me wouldn’t involve finding myself downtown the night the Spurs are in town to get eliminated. But an important highlight was the barbecue made in our honor by friends. It’s beautiful when ties are kept, picking up where we left off. You can bet I rolled up to their empty driveway in a Ford pick-up like like I owned the damn place. When in Rome. I even met a friend of a cousin whom I couldn’t remember during an encounter before he moved to Denver. But my true regret is not seeing more friends, enough times.
Spending that much time without embarking on a comprehensive experience might seem like a missed opportunity, sure, but this in no way negates the simple delights of just absorbing environs. I had a great time doing nothing.. and everything. And for what I saw, I wouldn’t anoint the American brand of urbanism as an uncontested ideal but there is a bit of history, or remnants of which, strewn in how living space is constructed anywhere. I’ve long found the urban design fascinating here. Call me low maintenance, or easily impressed, but one need only to throw a glance Dubai’s way for confirmation that you can’t buy character overnight. My favorite part is when you take your eyes off the ground, homes and company offices are either not walled off or have minimal obstruction to sight line and vanishing points. Downtown excepted, I can’t get enough of how expansive shit is; how far the eye can glance across lots, plazas, front yards and such before hitting a vertical obstacle. Might sound like a bizarre thing to call to mind but it’s not something I’m used to seeing but I can’t stress enough its pleasing impact; it doesn’t feel smothering. Downtown is vertical, everything else is expansive. God, I sound like I come from a hellhole.
I’ll tell you what else I’m not used to; the two fine clerks who extended their employee discounts—one for smokes, the other for three pairs of jeans cheaper than the price of one back home—just because. And the car rental staff who wouldn’t charge extra for a class higher than what was promised as available. I saw it as either a small middle finger toward corporate or a belief that there’s more buck to made another day. Shout out to the 7-Eleven on the corner of Wadsworth and Church Ranch still in business today. I made sure to stop by the old apartment right behind. On another day me and brother-in-law drove to Broomfield and I said we had to stop by the 7-Eleven. I think Panda Express is still on the other side of the plaza. It was late and dark and we were in a rush to get back but what I wouldn’t have done to have some chow mein then take a panda shit in the shrub behind the 7-Eleven as the police sirens wail in the distance. I shall bless another corner of the continent with that ritual one day.