Denver Six Shooter is a bar-going blog and community for the literate, urban lush. In this week's outing, Drew Bixby, author of Denver's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Mile High City, grabs his notepad and looks for pre-9 a.m. cocktails on the most convenient RTD lines. Dedication, that's what that is.
"That shit will chop your head right off!"
I feel like a failure by the time I walk the half mile from my house and into the warm lighting of Phil's Place. I'd wanted to listen as the lock turned and watch as the door opened exactly at 7:00 a.m., but I couldn't get my ass up. Rock - a scrawny Mexican guy with a sly grin and a fast tongue who's begged me on previous visits to write a book about his entry into the U.S. on his daddy's back - is vacuuming and hauling trash cans. Waiting for him on the bar is a pitcher of red Bud Light and a salted glass. Between swipes of the vacuum, and without powering the thing down, he pours himself half-glasses and drops 'em in single gulps. Something tells me he'll finish the pitcher before the last chair is pushed back underneath its table, though I'm not around to know for sure.
While his mother, Junie, stirs green chile and mashes pinto beans in the small back kitchen - six days a week, from 7:30 a.m. until it runs out, Junie's Kitchen serves up mean Mexican fare in takeout containers only - Phil's dad pours me a Bud Light draft because the Budweiser keg is kicked. As in almost every bar open at this hour, the televisions broadcast the morning news. I only pay attention when I hear Phil's dad screaming. "Oooohhhh!" he bellows. "Daaaannnggg!" The footage on the screen is of a showboat surfer taking a huge wave and almost flipping into the propeller blades of the helicopter filming him. "That shit will chop your head right off!" dad concludes before sauntering back to the kitchen.
The sun has finally gotten its ass up by the time I walk out and toward the bus stop at Larimer and Downing. I squint and fish in my bag for sunglasses. The Budweiser truck has arrived and the driver's loading barrels onto his dolly. Damn, I think. Ten more minutes and I could've had that Bud.
Fucking hate Bud Light.
DEPART: 7:25 a.m., ride the 44 to Broadway & Curtis, walk.
ARRIVE: 7:39 a.m.
Carioca Café (Bar Bar)
2060 Champa Street
Eye Opener - 10oz draw (Budweiser) and ¾ shot (Conquistador tequila), $2.50
"You don't get to pick your pour, son."
By the time I round the corner from Broadway to Champa and slowly approach Carioca Café (Bar Bar), the same exact Budweiser truck is already parked out front. Had I known, I would have caught a ride with this guy instead of on the 44, but oh well.
Compared to Phil's, where I was the only patron, Bar Bar is packed. Three crust punks my age or a bit older prattle on loudly by the Venus compact-disc jukebox before heading to the back room for reasons I won't be detailing here; a Latino guy who may or may not be waiting to catch one of the Autobuses Americanos across the street sits alone at a booth and compulsively checks his watch; another guy at the bar reads a folded-over copy of the Denver Daily News. I belly up and ask the aging bartender for an Eye Opener with Bud and tequila. He catches me leaning over to scope the tub's tequila selection and scolds, "You don't get to pick your pour, son. You get the house tequila. Conquistador. It'll kick your butt."
It doesn't, as he predicts, kick my butt, but it's definitely gross. More like a missed kick to the neck, if such a half-assed assault were to exist. Most well tequila, the shit responsible for many a ruined night and epic hangover, isn't even tequila - not produced in the right region of Mexico, not 100 percent agave - but at $2.50 for the beer and shot, I can't afford to be a snob.
The bartender goes back to spooning cold rice soup from a plastic tub into his mouth and I head to the bathroom for a piss. I don't realize my fly is down until I'm halfway to El Chapultepec.
DEPART: 7:59 a.m., walk to El Chapultepec
ARRIVE: 8:08 a.m.
1962 Market Street
Not open, though a 10oz Coors draw ($1.50) would have been delicious
"They give me free tacos, but don't tell the owner that."
On the way here, I stop off outside the post office to refill my coffee mug from the Thermos I've packed for the trip. I pass garbage guys dragging green Dumpsters from alleys to idling trucks, women in business formalwear who avert their eyes as they pass, plenty of working chumps in a hurry wearing ear buds and looks of professional dissatisfaction. When I arrive, the door is locked but the beer lights inside are on. I check the time on my phone and wonder what the fuck.
"They don't open 'til 9," a woman standing entirely too close to me says over my right shoulder. She's wearing a black zip-up coat over a pink hooded sweatshirt over a grey hooded sweatshirt, hood up. "They give me free tacos, but don't tell the owner that. Can you give me some change for breakfast? I'm just trying to get some change for breakfast."
I dig in my pockets and wonder why she needs change for breakfast if the 'Pec gives her free tacos. As I walk away, she asks, "You comin' back at 9? You should come back at 9. Maybe they'll give you free tacos." I tell her I'll think about it.
"Okay. I'll see you then."
DEPART: 8:09 a.m., walk to 17th & Market, ride the 0 to 4th & Broadway
On the ride over, somewhere between Market Street Station and the 404, a guy wearing a jean jacket with green sleeves and oversized wraparound sunglasses boards the 0 and yells at the driver, "I don't have no fare! You're always unfair!" He laughs, sits, shoves an unlit cigar butt in his mouth, and scans a copy of the Wall Street Journal.
This guy will not even come close to being the weirdest I encounter while riding RTD.
"This is someone else's job."
I'm not even angry when I roll up to Club 404 and find my second consecutive door locked. I can hear the sounds of sweeping and the shaking out of trash bags, which tells me it won't be long. But I have to pee so badly that I consider dropping trow and doing so in the potted tree just outside the entrance. Fuck it, right? The Colonel said he'd pay for expenses, and I'm certainly not hitting any ceilings with these $2 beers. What's a little public urination ticket? Right? Eh?
I knock twice and nothing happens, so I scurry across the street and down a block to the 7-Eleven, where I buy smokes and borrow the key to the bathroom and feel much, much better about everything.
The 404's door is unlocked by the time I return, but no one's around. Roy eventually emerges from the kitchen, yet when I ask him what's cheap, he seems confused. "Uh," he stammers while glancing around at various specials advertised on chalkboards and paper fliers, "how about a Natural Light for $1.50?" Yes, please.
I ask about food and Roy tells me not for another hour or so. "Grease is still heating up," he mutters.
"That your job?" I ask him, meaning the kitchen.
"Yeah," he responds. "This," by which he means pouring drinks, "is someone else's job."
As I'm enjoying my Natty and watching (what else?) the morning news, Roy lays place mats and napkins and silverware on all the tables. Two Coors guys show up and carry full kegs like they're pillows to the taproom. When I leave 10 minutes later, a Budweiser truck has replaced the Coors truck out front, and the same goddamn guy is loading a dolly.
It's alarming, my urge to buy this dude a beer. Or at least ask where he's heading next so I can avoid the fucking bus.
"You wanted me to leave it somewhere else?"
"I do everything a neighborhood bar does," owner Bob Lyons tells me over my first mug of Bud, which he pays for. This includes cashing, for 50 cents and the purchase of a drink, the checks of the day laborers who come in after their shifts; taking phone calls from potential employers and collecting the mail of patrons without addresses of their own; and letting the beat cops come in the back door and use his can. As we're talking, Benny - who's been on this beat for longer than Bob can remember - does exactly this. On his way out, Bob yells, "Oh, sure, just leave your piss in my toilet without coming over to say hello!"
Benny retorts: "You wanted me to leave it somewhere else?"
In business for more than 25 years, Bob admits that his mentor and hero has always been Jerry Feld, who continues to operate the 404 despite the role dialysis now plays in his life. When other proprietors were watering down their liquor bottles to save a few bucks, Jerry advised him to never stoop to that level. When credit card vendors circled like vultures, whispering sweet nothings to every bar owner on Broadway, Jerry told Bob to think twice. (He did, deciding to purchase an ATM for $2,000 and keep 100 percent of the fees.)
Bob pours me my second Bud, taking just $2 from my small stack of singles and refusing my tip. He delivers two juicy Clementine oranges with it, and I happily accept.
Sweet, sweet sustenance.
DEPART: 10:07 a.m., ride the 0 to Broadway & Evans
I'm smoking a cigarette and waiting for the 0 at the corner of Broadway and Bayaud when a twitchy white guy with pockmarked cheeks and darting eyes approaches with his hands in the pockets of his leather coat. "I feel like the poster child for alcoholism," he says. Which is confusing, because I feel like the poster child for alcoholism right now. What's this guy got on me?
Apparently, he's been on a bender since shaking his parole number four days ago. "Congrats," I say disinterestedly.
TMI, dude, I think. "Wow," I respond while boarding the 0, which pulled up somewhere around the six years at CSP.
Minutes later I hear this same guy a few rows behind me tell his seatmate, "I'll give ya 5 milligrams for $2. I got a whole pocketful."
"So they don't bite their fingers off."
I was pretty meticulous in my planning of this trip - selecting bars I knew (or thought) would be open, scouting bus routes and stops and times, packing coffee and various pieces of technology for documentation purposes. Still, I figured something (like El Chapultepec) might go wrong, so I put a wild card, the Stadium Inn, in my bag of tricks. Turns out I didn't need it.
By sheer luck, I'm gazing out the window, through the glaze that is now my vision, as the 0 cruises through Asbury Ave and toward Evans, when I notice that the front door of Bushwacker's Saloon is propped open and the beer signs lit up. Reflexes I don't expect to have at this point in the trip kick in and I tug the stop cord in time to get off and backtrack a quick block.
I'm greeted by the barking of a black-and-white border collie/lab mix named Macy. She's perched on the small corner stage from which blues bands play almost five nights a week, her ears at attention, ready to rip my nut sack from between my loins if necessary. Macy turns out to be a total sweetheart, especially after I squat down and give her a good rub beneath the ears. I head straight for the men's room and stare, somewhat incredulously, at an advertisement for Swedish Fish-tinis, "a refreshing drink that tastes a lot like Swedish Fish." I ask the young bartendress whether Bushwacker's serves this preposterous concoction and she laughs. "Uh, no. Though we used to have some of them candies around here once."
I order the house beer, which tastes a lot like Amber Bock but only costs $2. In lieu of nonstop news, the television here shows the Food Network or something like it, some program about how Tootsie Rolls are made. This inspires the haggardly old gentleman with the salt-and-pepper beard seated to my immediate right to tell a terribly inappropriate joke.
"So," he starts, already laughing, "why do black people wear white gloves when they eat Tootsie Rolls?"
"Lucky you. You got another coming."
The options for draft beer at Len & Bill's, my final stop, are Natural Light or Natural Light. Though it's a tick past 11 a.m., when morning happy hour ends, the bartender (Len? Bill? Definitely one of 'em) is feeling charitable. "Ya just made happy hour," he lies. "Lucky you. You got another coming." In some circles, I recognize, 20 ounces of Natty Light for $1.75 might seem more punishment than prize, but I'm tickled. I'm also drunk. Drunk enough, in fact, to inexplicably tear a $5 into two pieces while attempting to pay.
Len or Bill or Whoever mops the disintegrated floors almost the entire time I'm there. The lunch hour local news shows footage of an RTD bus rear-ending a car because the brakes went out, and I decide to walk the extra four blocks to the Evans Station and take the train home. An epically sad-looking woman across the bar from me pours her face into her hands at different angles and pulls from a bottle of Miller Lite. The jukebox - which was playing Patsy Cline when I arrived but which had been dormant for the past ten minutes - suddenly clicks back on with no human intervention and plays some really terrible Killers b-side.
With my freebie half empty, my stomach grumbling, and my eyes focusing on nothing in particular, I holler a "Thanks!" in the general direction of the still-moving mop and head north, feeling like (what else?) the poster child for alcoholism.
Feeling, some 4 1/2 hours later, like a total fucking winner.
DEPART: 11:28, walk to Evans Station, ride the 101 D line to 30th & Downing Station, walk home.