Monday, June 1, 2009

Things To Do in Denver When You're (Not) Dead

When work came to me and explained I needed to fly out to Denver earlier this week, I figured it would be a simple, uneventful trip full of work and not much else. And to a large degree, I was right.

But even in an uneventful week, eventful things can happen.

At first I was simply going to write a few entries about some of the things that happened during my week in the Rockies, but then I realized that taken all together these small, seemingly insignificant events shaped the way I now look at Denver. And until I return, it's the only thing I have...

The Flight West. Or, Mind Tucking Your Stomach In So It Doesn't Spill Into My Seat?
It's hard to say nice things about United Airlines with all the cool amenities I’ve heard about other airlines offering. It's also difficult to say nice things when you find out the only thing they’re offering you to eat/drink for a 3+ hour flight is a Coke. Sure, I could have shelled out $6 for a cardboard box full of cardboard-like food products, but I mistakenly believed a bag of peanuts or pretzels I remember getting on flights’ past would have satisfied me.

And they would have, had they been offered. But apparently the 1.5 oz. bag of pretzels airlines used to give passengers was a cash black hole and so they were done away with. No, holding our stomachs hostage for $6 was United's strategy. Feeling very Mel Gibsony (pre-drunken rant, pre-adulterous) I refused to pay the ransom. Instead, I nursed my Coke and convinced myself the nutrients inside it held would be more than enough to sustain me.

If only that were the worst part of my trip.

While my coworker somehow stumbled into a first class seat for this first leg of our journey, I sat in the rear with the rest of the common folk. Normally this wouldn't bother me, but normally I wouldn't have to sit next to the stand-in for the blob from the movie The Blob (the stellar Kevin Dillon remake of course).

I should have known there were going to be issues when she chose to keep the separating armrest between us up – and refused to put it down. This of course allowed her gelatinous mass to ooze into my space, and take up residence. So although I had the aisle seat, the left side of my body felt jammed into a plastic mold of a middle aged woman mass.

This constant pressure (now I know how submarine hulls feel) forced me to contort my body into a position that not only fit the tiny space her bulbous shape allotted me, but also kept my appendages from dangling into the aisle, lest the drink cart the flight attendants were apparently racing sliced any off. If you ever watched the early 80s show That's Incredible, and remember the guy that stuffed himself into that clear, 2 x2 box, just know that I envied his spacious quarters.

Of course, once I lost circulation in my left arm and leg, the problems multiplied. I thought her Little Boy level of attack on my body was the endgame, but I was oh so wrong. Kathy Bates' possible stand-in (if Kathy Bates let herself go, quit acting and chose to eat a Volkswagen bus) had other ideas, and unwrapped Fat Man once we were comfortably into our flight, and uncomfortably in our seats.

Sure, I enjoy hoagies. And I like to think I'm a tolerant enough person to allow others to enjoy a hoagie. But on a crowded flight, full of people and recycled dead air blowing in my face, I draw the line at consuming odorous regional delicacies, out of consideration to the people who with a simple twist of the torso could come very close to getting to know me intimately.

Not this person. She seemed to revel in the unique, pungent odor that mushroomed up and out of the unwrapped wax paper. I particularly enjoyed the sounds she made slurping the onions up that dared try to escape her Death Star trash compactor jaw. Like a horrific accident late at night, I fought with myself to both simultaneously look and turn away, knowing I didn’t want to see anything disturbing, but would gaze anyway.

Luckily, the flight was only a little over three hours, so my curved spine should straighten out within a few years.

Denver – Not a Town, Not Yet a City.
We set down just east of the Rockies without another incident around 8:00. As you may or may not know, the Denver airport is not only run by the Illuminati, but also is also about 15 miles outside of Denver proper. Starting to slow down a bit due to the crippling hunger I was experiencing, I nevertheless soldiered on, past the crappy chain restaurant offerings. My co-worker, who I think took pleasure in my misery, went on and on about the hot nuts he received in first class. And I was too tired to even make the infinitely small leap to make fun of him.

After settling in my nondescript hotel room (seriously, I’m a man of simple pleasures. Call me a dweeb but I get a little excited checking out the channel lineup in a new place, be it a hotel or even a friend’s house in another area code. This hotel gave me nothing – not even HBO. And we’re talking downtown Denver here, not some one-story-serial-killer-hideout-on-the-side-of-the-highway motel), we wandered out into the night in search of some food. My co-worker, iPhone in hand (which I will from now on refer to as “the magic box”) directed us to a small, hole-in-the-wall joint called “Illegal Pete’s.” Since it was game one of the Lakers/Nuggets series, the inside and outside of bars and restaurants were abuzz.

Worn, wooden table tops with basic chairs, Illegal Pete’s knew its audience well. They wanted cheap beer and good burritos. My spicy chicken burrito may have been as large as my head – exactly what I needed after not eating for something like 47 hours (I still can’t get the time difference worked out). I barely tasted it as I wolfed it down; the flimsy, plastic utensils others might struggle with did nothing to slow me. The pint of New Castle only made me want to make this my new hang, regardless of its 2500 mile distance from my address. Though the Nuggets lost and the locals whined a bit, it did nothing to sour me on my new favorite bar.

The next few meals had no shot to live up to my virginal meal. An adequate sandwich from a Corner Bakery knockoff, a genuine but nothing special middle eastern meal the next night both satisfied my hunger but did little else.

All that changed at lunch the next day.

Biker Jim’s is more than a hot dog stand on the corner; it’s an experience. In addition to his little vending grill he has out there everyday, he has a ghetto station of fixins' for your dog (think Roy Rogers but cleaner) and a number of coolers filled with sodas and chips. For $4.75, you get a hotdog (which he grills for you while you wait) and the chance to rifle through these coolers to get your choice of a side and drink. There’s nothing exotic about the coke products and Frito-Lay variety; the exoticism comes with your hot dog choice. The selection includes:

  • Alaskan reindeer
  • Elk jalapeno cheddar
  • Southwest buffalo
  • Wild boar
  • German veal
  • Louisiana red hot
  • All beef kosher

Being this was my first time, visiting Biker Jim, but not wanting him to think I’m a gourmet hot dog noob, I simply listened to the education dropped on the guy in front of me. Thinking I had the necessary knowledge, I ordered the Elk jalapeno cheddar dog.

It was here I fell down the Biker Jim wormhole.

Don’t get me wrong; Biker Jim is a decent, pleasant guy. I think you have to be hawking exotic meat hot dogs on a corner in downtown Denver. But I also think you have to be a slight bit crazy. Here’s what transpired next:

Biker Jim: Would you like caramelized onions with that? I keep a bucket of them on the grill here at all times.
Me: Uh, sure. (Who doesn’t like caramelized onions/doesn’t want to upset a seemingly stable for the moment hot dog vendor guy who advertises that he used to be a Repo Man?)
Biker Jim: How about some cream cheese?
Me: Uh, no (hoping that doesn’t send him into some weird “Nam/Repo flashback
Biker Jim: Heh. I know it sounds crazy, but you’d be surprised how many people enjoy it. Plus, you know what my wife always says…
Me: (nodding, hopefully conveying that although, up until 6 seconds ago I didn’t know this guy had a wife, I surely would know what she always says)
Biker Jim: Jalapeno and cream cheese go together like a homeless woman and train tracks.
(Really, is there any way to respond to a statement like that? I have no idea if that’s good or bad. For cream cheese or homeless women)

How did the hot dog taste? Like a normal hotdog with jalapenos on it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay just for the hot dog though.

All kidding aside (ok most of it), Biker Jim is the epitome of what Denver felt like to me. An unexpected, pleasant surprise of personality, friendliness and spice. Its wide streets, minimal traffic (at least downtown) and “sketchy” neighborhood all had a feel quite different to what I was used to back east. Not better or worse, just different, as though everyone tried harder to learn how to improve things. That those improvements caused other problems (as they seemingly always do) is what shaped Denver in my mind. Biker Jim’s autobiography fit this perfectly.

If it were up to me, I would feature Biker Jim prominently in any Denver Colorado tourism ads, as not only is he a great symbol for what the downtown section of the city has to offer, his knowledge and disposition both can enhance a foreigner’s experience.

The same cannot be said for my shuttle driver the next morning taking me to the airport.

Live or Die, It Was a Good Run.

Tired and ready to leave Denver after a long three days, Thursday night my co-worker and asked the hotel whether they had a shuttle to the airport. Though it didn’t, the clerk told us she’d be more than happy to set up a reservation with a third party service. We happily agreed, as it meant we didn’t have to do anything.

In hindsight, maybe we should have taken a little bit of responsibility and booked something on our own.

The night before, when the clerk secured our reservation, she told us the service asked all the guests to allow 3 hours between getting the service and our flight time. It sounded a bit conservative, but we didn’t question it. Since our flight was at 10:15, we scheduled a pickup for 7:15. We were told to be in the hotel lobby between 7:05 and 7:20. Armed with this knowledge, I planned my morning routine to have me leaving the room right at 7:00. With walking time to the elevator, and time spent in the elevator that would put me in the lobby around 7:00:18. Plenty of time.

Which is why I was surprised to see my co-worker calling me while I was in the elevator on the way down to the lobby. Apparently the shuttle driver was already there, demanding they leave immediately. Of course, by the time I got down to the lobby and out, it was a moot point, but still. My co-worked began explaining to me the stilted, Quick-Change-Taxi-Driver conversation he just had with the driver. Through broken English and hand gestures, the driver possibly explained he was on a tight schedule and needed to get going.

After a bit of miscommunication about whether or not we paid (we hadn’t – the driver was adamant we had; it felt like an Abbott/Costello routine without the humor or timing) we hit the open road. And that’s where the fun began. For the next 30 minutes we darted through downtown Denver, zipping through hotel lobbies, sometimes stopping, sometimes not to pick up other people who needed to go to the airport. I wish I could have deciphered the Rosetta stone logic our driver used to decide whether to stop or drive through the hotel’s lobby part, but it remains a mystery. I thought I had it figured it out until, going through yet another hotel’s drive without so much as a thought to slow down, someone came out and flagged the driver down. Of course, we were also roughly 50 yards away by the time the driver noticed. Utilizing an abandoned lot, he spun the van around, slammed it in park and got our, presumably to help the guy with his luggage. Except 30 seconds later, he stepped back into the van and sped off, sans passenger.

Eventually, after all this cat-and-mouse-with-no-cat driving, we picked up some additional passengers. Demanding they pay immediately, yet no so immediately that he couldn’t first resume the drive toward (hopefully) the airport, the inside of the van became a very poorly thought out version of Henry Ford’s assembly line, with people passing cash, receipts, credit cards and pens back and forth – all while the driver was careening through early morning Denver traffic.

By the time we snaked out into the Denver suburbs to pick up one last person, it no longer concerned me that the van I was in could wind up being my coffin. I made peace with my maker, realized I had no control over the situation and simply accepted my fate. This Zen approach took a hit when the driver briefly jumped on the wrong entrance ramp, and corrected this misstep with a nifty reverse through oncoming traffic, but for the most part, I enjoyed the lunacy.

Remarkably, we all made it to the airport in one piece and made our flights and the return trip to Philly was uneventful (although I briefly thought of punching the woman next to me for repeatedly laughing at the in-flight movie, “Bride Wars.” But I tempered my anger with the memories of the shuttle trip that morning, and realized I was returning to see my family and get back on familiar ground. That’s a feeling we sometimes take for granted or miss, and no amount of cackling at Kate Hudson’s blue hair mishap was going to mess that.

1 comment:

gdr said...

So when do we all get to meet Mrs. Biker Jim?