Thursday, September 30, 2010

Au Revoir, My Denver

As my second sojourn in Denver comes to an end, I begin to feel homesick already. I'll miss the sun setting over the Rockies at the cocktail hour. I'll miss my neighborhood. I'll miss downtown with its eclectic and harmonious mix of the old and the new. I'll miss driving high into the mountains, top down in a fast and flashy red Firebird, and I'll miss hiking up into the clear, thin air and indescribable vistas of the Rockies. I'll miss all this, but it's the people I'll miss most of all. My heart has connected with this town.

On my first visit, I met Melanie Miller at the lounge at the Burnsley Hotel. My husband and I had come to hear Teresa Carroll sing, accompanied by Doug Roche on the piano. Teresa is a jazz vocalist whose delivery and interpretation of a song weave a spell that touches the emotional core of her audience. Doug's piano accompaniment takes the magic to the another level. Melanie, a charmingly gregarious and knowledgeable regular on the jazz scene in Denver, recognized us as fellow jazz-lovers and chatted us up. She even bought us a copy of Doug's CD so we could hear his solo work, and his music has provided the soundtrack for many mountain drives.

Melanie shared with me her vision for a benefit concert that would showcase some of the outstanding jazz musicians in Denver and raise money to help the homeless and the hungry in the city. I caught her vision and agreed to help her make it a reality. We started making the rounds of the clubs to hear the remarkable talent this town has to offer. I met Billy Wallace, an 80+ year old jazz pianist who looks nowhere near his age but whose music is imbued with the wisdom and easy grace of a man who has played it all and seen it all and whose peaceful demeanor comes from navigating a life that was, perhaps, not always so peaceful.

I met Ron Bland, an extraordinary bass player who balances a family, teaching at three colleges, and a mind-boggling schedule of gigs, and who still found time to meet me for coffee to talk about the music scene in Denver. I met Don Grove, a remarkable drummer whose solos galvanize a room and get the adrenaline pumping, Colin Gieg, a bassist whose rendition of Satin Doll is a must-hear, and Charlie Zanichelli, a smooth saxophonist who moves from style to style with elegant ease. I'll miss these guys -- the music and the conversation. And I'll miss Melanie, a classy broad with a heart for Denver, who will be, I sense, a lifelong friend and partner in crime.

In my wanderings about town I've met people who are passionate about making a difference. Looking for a place to eat lunch one day, I spotted an intriguing looking cafe on Broadway in Englewood and pulled in. The menu at Cafe 180 is flatbread pizza made with whole-grain flour that's hand-ground daily, homemade soups, and fresh, fresh salads. When I offered my debit card to pay for my order, I was surprised to learn that it's a "pay what you can" set-up: you pay what you can afford, or a little extra, or nothing at all. The cafe is a non-profit staffed entirely by volunteers. Cathy Matthews, the founder and Executive Director, explained to me that this is the second restaurant of its type in the Denver area and that it's becoming a model for similar restaurants in other cities. About 30-40% of the people who eat lunch there pay nothing for their meals, volunteering an hour of their time instead. It all averages out, and after being open for two months, Cafe 180 is operating in the black.

There's Michael, a Clinical Case Manager for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, who provides one-on-one help for the down and out in Denver, juggling a monumental case load and diminishing funding. With winter approaching like a freight train, the Coalition has a backlog of 2,000 on a waiting list, and Michael approaches each long day with the calm perseverance of a professional and the heartfelt frustration of a compassionate man who can't meet every need, pursuing his passion for family counseling in his "free time."

There's Louie, the mail carrier who deals daily with the rudeness of an entitled generation of young people who vandalize mailboxes and intentionally block her parked USPS vehicle. Louie is a single mother who is raising her 17-year-old son to be obedient, responsible, and respectful of his elders because, as she says, "You have to start somewhere to make a difference."

Then there are the new friends who have welcomed me into their homes for a meal, a glass of wine, an afternoon in the garden, an introduction to their friends, a stimulating conversation. Dennis, my husband's offbeat and always entertaining friend, and Joy, opera buff and my role-model for being a grandmother in the 21st century, have given me a sense of belonging.

Au revoir, my Denver. I'll miss you and, God willing, I'll be back for more.

Deb recommends:
Cafe 180
Broadway and Floyd
Tues. - Sat., 11-2

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It's been a long time since I've lived in a city neighborhood where everything you need is within walking distance and the folks on the street greet you with a smile of recognition. Twenty years of living on a country road in Alabama have lulled me into the contented quietude of lush green landscapes and dark night skies where the nearest neighbor is half a mile away and every errand involves getting in the car. But dormant within has been the girl who grew up on the streets of New York City, walking the pavement with long-legged strides that never counted the miles while making the rounds of bodegas, dry cleaners and cafes where all the faces were familiar.

In Denver, where my husband now lives and works and where I visit for a month at a time, I've laid claim to a neighborhood: my walkable section of Capitol Hill, from 6th to 13th, from Broadway to Cheesman Park. My first visit to Denver was in the heat of July, and while many Coloradans stayed indoors and complained about the unusually high temperatures, I leashed up my little Shih Tzu, armed myself with sunscreen and a bottle of water, and took to the streets. The sun, a mile closer than in Alabama, felt good as I walked, and freed from the suffocating humidity of the deep South, I soaked it up like a tonic.

The neighborhood charmed me. I loved the small, stylish apartment buildings with names like "Bermuda," "Gaucho," and "Doris." I loved the big, grand corner houses with wrought iron gates and curved turrets. I loved the carefully-tended gardens with profusions of hollyhocks and purple sage, coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. Returning in September, I found the gardens evolving towards fall with golden marigold, mums and late-blooming roses.

And then there's Poet's Row, a one-block stretch of Sherman Street that has captured my fancy. A showcase of Art Deco and Art Moderne styles built mostly in the 1930s, nine of the apartment buildings on this block are named for great American writers -- seven of them designed by the same architect, Charles Dunwoody Strong, a lover of literature and poetry. From the "Mark Twain" to the "Emily Dickinson," each three-story building is an eye-pleasing gem of fine proportions and elegant detail.

Walking east on 11th, the neighborhood changes to a family flavor. Along with the joggers and dog-walkers and bicyclists, I now pass parents carrying babies in papoose sacks and pushing toddlers in strollers. This is my favorite part. I like to see children growing up in friendly, diverse neighborhoods where they can learn tolerance, self-expression and good-citizenship -- the fundamentals of true community. As we neighborhood elders watch the little saplings grow and thrive they become, somehow, the responsibility and the hope of us all. Walking the track in Cheesman Park, I always swing through the playground where the sturdy little bodies and tousled heads remind me of my granddaughter Myra Laine, my family's first contribution to the generation that will take the reins halfway through this century.

As I walked to the park on a recent Saturday, a gentleman sitting in his lovely yard with a frosty pitcher of lemonade on a little table and an extra, empty chair beside it invited me to stop and have a cold drink. I map the neighborhood with feet on pavement, still an outsider, always ready for a conversation that will allow me to enter in, to connect, to hear a story. This gentleman, a neighborhood fixture, draws the neighborhood to him with an inviting tableau of refreshment and the aura of a benign spider in a friendly and welcoming web. I sat down to a cool glass of lemonade and a delightfully interesting conversation which I hope to continue.

From Tony's Market to Buffalo Exchange to Penn Street Perk to Cheesman Park, I've found everything I need in a nicely walkable neighborhood where cars yield to pedestrians and people greet one another with a smile. I like to think that, should I stay here for any length of time, I would be recognized as a neighborhood regular. "The fast-walking woman with the long legs and the little Shih Tzu keeping pace? Oh yeah, I've seen her around the neighborhood."

Photos of Poet's Row by Nik Layman
(Robert Browning, Mark Twain, detail of Louisa May Alcott)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rat in the House

Twelve-year-old Pearl, cat in residence, has earned her reputation as a critter-catcher. One night, as my husband and I sat on the deck enjoying a starry sky, Pearl slipped into the house with her mouth full of something dark and furry.

"Chipmunk," my husband guessed, just as Pearl released her toy in the house and resumed the game on her home turf. "She'll get it, "my husband assured me as I groaned about having a chipmunk running loose in the house.

By morning, Pearl was showing no interest in the pursuit, and there was no evidence that the deed had been done. I wondered whether this episode would end with a rodent running across my path or with a smell that would require a search and recovery mission. I didn't like either scenario.

That evening, as my husband worked at his desk in his study, he called out ominously, "It's not a chipmunk." Oh dear. We locked the cat in the study and hoped for the best. No luck. "Call an exterminator," my husband advised.

I called first thing in the morning and waited for his scheduled afternoon visit. About lunchtime, as I walked to the front door to let the dog out, a plump and panicked gray field rat scurried down the hall toward the door. I rushed to open the door and let it out, but by this time the dog was ready to pick up the chase, so off they went into the living room.

It was a blur of frantic skittering and galloping and sliding. I can only imagine my personal soundtrack in the midst of this. Squealing and shrieking come to mind. There may also have been some jumping up and down and arm-waving. I know my adrenaline was in full gear and it was, for heaven's sake, a rat in the house!

The rat took refuge behind a heavy credenza, so I put the dog out in the yard and scrambled to find something to keep the rodent where it was. I plugged the spaces between credenza and wall on both sides with rolled up towels and called my husband to give him an update. "Rats can climb over towels, " he cautioned.

Okay, okay, what could I use to fill the narrow gaps between the credenza and the wall? I scanned the house looking for something rectangular and solid. Eureka. I build barricades with cereal boxes and books, and by the time I was done, that rat was not going anywhere. I figured the worst that could happen was he would eat some cereal while we waited for the exterminator.

For the next two hours I guarded the rat with a broom at the ready. I checked on him every few minutes, and he really wasn't bad-looking for a rat. Certainly he was nothing like the scabrous, vicious predators that are infamous in New York, my home town. He was clean and roly-poly and actually sort of cute.

When the exterminator came, he dismantled the cereal-box barricades and guided the rat into a bucket. "He's a nice healthy-looking rat," I said, "Just let him out somewhere -- but not in my yard."

"Yes, ma'am," the cheerful exterminator assured me, "I'll take him to a field and release him. He'll be fine."

I felt good about the outcome until I related the tale to my husband. He laughed and reminded me how his Dad used to catch chipmunks and mice in a Have-a-Heart trap. Our boys always wanted to know what Granddaddy was going to do with the critters he caught. "I'm going to teach them how to swim," he replied. This satisfied the boys' gentle compassion for little furry things. They never knew that Granddaddy also said, under his breath, "I've never found one yet that could swim."

So now I wonder if my rat is happily roaming the countryside, or if my exterminator has just had lots of practice dealing with soft-hearted housewives.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Gulf That Unites Us

Labor Day weekend on the Gulf Coast is traditionally the final family gathering of the summer for folks from Alabama, Georgia and beyond. We pack up our children and our coolers, our umbrellas, floats and kites, and we converge on the white sand beaches from Gulf Shores to Panama City.

A few months ago, we all wondered if BP had brought an end to life as we know it on the Gulf. Would we spend this Labor Day on fouled, empty beaches, scraping up oil and washing sea birds in tubs of soapy water? But God in His infinite wisdom and mercy had an army of oil-eating bacteria ready to take care of the worst of the clean-up and a disaster was averted, praise His Name.

So our family gathered for a long Labor Day holiday on the famous sugar-white sands of a pristine and perfect Panama City Beach. The occasional patch of black, on closer inspection, was sand that had been carried in by the tide, we fancied, from the black beaches of the Isle of Pines in Cuba. Under a cloudless sky, the water was shimmering green Roman glass. The sun was hot and the Gulf, which I like to think of as a huge mineral bath, worked its healing on our bones as we surrendered to its gently buoyant embrace.

We arrived early in the week -- twelve of us in all --and we had the beach to ourselves at first. As the weekend approached more families started arriving. The early-comers would stake out their spot and hoist their beach tents and umbrellas. Soon little family groups would join them as they pulled in, road-weary and ready to unwind. I watched as parents my age greeted their grown children and welcomed the newest babies to the gathering for the first time. I watched as little cousins hugged littler cousins and ran off to play together, and I watched as sisters and brothers sat close and caught up on each others' lives.

Remember the opening and closing scenes of the movie Love Actually? They're montages of reunions at airports -- fathers and sons, grandmothers and babies, sisters, lovers, best friends -- all captured in that moment when they behold each others' faces and embrace with the longing and fervor engendered by separation. The banked embers of the heart ignite as we enfold the ones we love in our arms and press our cheeks against theirs once again.

Our family was no exception to this orgy of delighted togetherness, and this year our tableau had a new centerpiece: nine-month-old Myra Laine, who took to the water like a tadpole, voraciously licking the salt water off her floatie and squealing with joy when the little waves splashed her face. Around the big dinner gatherings, we passed her from hand to hand and she greeted each face with an expectant smile, knowing she would be entertained in some new way. A beard here, a chunky necklace there, a tickle, a funny noise. It was surely sensory overload, but she was game.

Myra's parents, for whom this first vacation with a baby was really no vacation at all, stoically did the schlepping and the maintenance while the rest of us provided the babysitting and the diversions. "It does get easier," I assured my son when he seemed, at one point, overwhelmed at the amount of work it takes to have a nine-month-old at the beach. "Look at Dad and me," I pointed out as he surveyed the mountain of baby paraphernalia under his umbrella while Myra's mom fed her and got her settled for a nap. "At this stage in our lives, all we need is a towel, some sunscreen, and a bottle of water, and we're good to go."

"Thanks for rubbing it in, Mom," he snorted as I ran off, unencumbered, to play in the Gulf. I've paid my dues; his time will come.