Tag Archives: Denver

What People Do

“That’s what people do.” So replied the North Dakota farmer when asked why she had sheltered and fed dozens of people whose cars were stranded in a prairie blizzard. That’s what people do. My grandparents in North Dakota would have said the same thing, and in the same tone, as if the reporter were slightly addled to ask in the first place. For them, helping when needed, righting wrongs, and providing comfort were not extraordinary actions but everyday acts, a part of living in a family, a community, and a world.

It’s easy to associate neighborly assistance with small towns or rural areas where families have built connections over generations and people know each other well. The small town where I live is quick to offer help to those in need, from fundraisers to food drives to watching each other’s children after school, even when people are new to town.

But it’s rarer to picture that kind of person-to-person aid in a large city where people often don’t know their neighbors and the hard pace of living can easily leave someone behind.

Last week I was teaching digital storytelling in Denver at the historic Milheim House on Race off Colfax Avenue where the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop has made their new home. Colfax is a major east/west street that runs past the state capitol and legislative buildings just south of downtown. But other businesses on Colfax aren’t so auspicious. Depending on the block, the street gets a little rough around the edges. Liquor stores, fast-food restaurants, and tattoo parlors line parts of Colfax and street people who lack a home or a job or both are a familiar sight along the way.

I never drive to Denver; I take the bus. I don’t like city traffic and I’d rather read than watch out for other people’s cars so I ride RTD to get to Denver and around the city once I’m there.

Last Thursday morning, I caught the eastbound Colfax bus near the capitol just past the last stop for the 16th Street Mall shuttle. I didn’t have to wait long for the bus, but it was a little crowded with morning commuters so I had to sit a few rows back from the front. Because I’m not very familiar with this route yet, I sat on the aisle side so that I could watch the order of the street signs as we made our way east. I was a little nervous about overshooting my cross-street and paid extra attention to the road as we headed out.

At Humboldt, our bus stopped at a red light and I saw a man with a long white stick standing at the sidewalk to our right. He was tapping the edge of the curb with his stick to see where to step off. Because he was taking a long time to start across the street, I worried that he wouldn’t be able to cross all four lanes of Colfax before the light changed again. As I watched him tap and move closer to the street, I hoped he would realize that the light would soon change and he would wait onto the sidewalk until the next chance to cross safely again.

But he didn’t. Finding the edge of the curb with his stick, he stepped off into the street in front of our waiting bus and started slowly across the avenue. I watched him as he made his way, checking carefully for what came ahead with his stick in front of him. Halfway into the street, he must have realized that the light changed as the cars heading west drove toward him. He stopped for a few seconds and then turned 45 degrees straight east into the oncoming traffic. I gasped and waited for a car to hit him as he circled the middle of the street. Thankfully, our bus driver must have seen the man crossing and didn’t move the bus, which kept the cars behind us from moving too.

Somehow, no one hit him. The oncoming cars stopped in time; I didn’t even hear any honking. With traffic at a standstill in the middle of Colfax, the other passengers now glanced out the windows on the left side of the bus and murmured their concern. Finally, the man headed back toward the sidewalk where he’d started and disappeared from view. I think someone on the street ran out to help him back to the sidewalk because when the crossing man appeared next at the door of our bus, he had another man by his side. One of them asked our bus driver where to catch a different bus. I couldn’t hear which bus they requested, but I did hear our driver say that bus would stop a block behind us. The second man volunteered to take the sight-impaired man there. We all breathed a sigh of relief as our bus headed down Colfax once more without tragedy so early in the morning.

The next evening, heading back to my hotel on the westbound Colfax bus, I saw the man again. He was waiting at the stop this time, and asked for the bus to Franklin, which was east, not west, of where he stood. The bus driver told him that he’d have to cross Colfax to catch that bus. I gasped again and said to the young man sitting next to me, “I saw that guy almost get killed in the middle of Colfax yesterday.”

“That’s tough,” he said. As I hoped that we weren’t going to repeat the previous day’s near-tragedy, a man getting off the bus volunteered to help the guy cross the busy street. Good. He was safe again for now.

I don’t like to drive in Denver but I can’t imagine navigating a busy avenue like Colfax on foot with less than perfect vision. I worry about the man still but knowing that even in the big city, he can depend on the kindness of strangers to help him through his day makes me feel better. We all have to depend on others at some time in our lives.  Wherever we live, it’s good to remember that helping others is what people do.

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On Impact

The impact came from behind, bright lights and a crack like lightning striking the earth as our small station wagon was shoved along the dark residential street. “Oh Bob,” I heard my mother cry. Someone fly over my shoulder. And then the car stopped as we jolted forward and back and forward again. “Where’s Karlene?” I scrambled up on my knees to look over the seat behind me. She was there, the youngest, covered in pebbles of glass. “I have ice in my eyes! I have ice in my eyes!” she sobbed.

My sister Kari and I haven’t talked in a long time about The Accident that happened in 1972 when we were in grade school but it’s always been a backdrop to our lives. It came up recently when we were discussing car seats and how they’ve improved since we were children and even more so from my parents’ time, when car seats didn’t even exist. My father has the scar on his forehead to prove what happens when a child’s head hits the windshield of a car—and he was lucky.

“I remember Karlene flying over the seat from where she’d been sitting in the back of the station wagon with no seat belt, of course.”

“No, that was me,”  Kari said. “I somersaulted over the seat and was knocked unconscious.”

The minute she said it, I knew she was right. It couldn’t have been Karlene because we looked for her in the back. We found her sitting in a pile of safety glass rubble and were scared that she had glass splinters in her eyes. I thought I remembered Kari sitting next to me in the backseat, along with my cousin, but it had been my brother in the middle instead. Kari was in the back with Karlene; she had just laid down to sleep when a car smashed into the back of us as we turned left onto a dimly lit residential street. That car had been speeding; my dad couldn’t see it as he’d stopped at a stop sign and the other driver hadn’t seen us making the turn.

We were in Denver all those years ago to pick up my cousin who had flown from North Dakota to Denver for band camp. We were taking her to her friend’s family’s house in a residential area of the city when we were hit. Good thing we’d been going slowly. Good thing we were on a street and not a highway.

Our car came to a rutty stop in the grass of someone’s front yard and the people ran out to help. They hurried us inside, holding towels to the gashes in my mother’s and sister’s heads. I felt bad about the blood seeping into their carpet as we waited for the ambulance that quickly arrived. Because I wasn’t hurt, I became the designated seventh-grade spokesperson for our family, giving the EMTs our names, ages, and addresses and explaining why we were in Denver.

At the hospital, Karlene’s eyes were flushed, my mother’s and sister’s heads were stitched, and everyone else was checked and bandaged as needed. We were all alive and, other than gashes and bruises that would heal, we weren’t seriously hurt. In my childish attempt at optimism, I told my dad that at least Kari and I wouldn’t have to compete in the music contest the next day. “I’d rather have you do that than this,” he said.

My mother’s cousins picked us up at the hospital and took us to their house and, the next day, home. This time I had to sit in the back of their station wagon; I cringed at every car that that drove up behind us , waiting for the impact I was sure would come.

Forty years later, I’m still waiting for it. Every time I see a car rush to a stop sign or approach too quickly from behind, I flinch. I’m sure they’re going to hit me. It can happen. It did.

Not all our injuries were addressed at the hospital that night. My mother developed back trouble that lead to difficult surgeries over the years.  And lately, my sister Kari is revisiting The Accident as the source of many of her health problems. We’re both relieved that children must ride in car seats until they’re eight years old and that cars have better seat belts and better protection all around. Thank you, Ralph Nader.

Many of my college writing students over the years chose accidents to write about. I call these paper topics “the thin line” because they represent a moment when one realizes the thin line between life and death. I don’t remember thinking at the moment of the crash that we might all die; it happened so quickly, I don’t think I had time to make conscious that fear. But for anyone looking back, we all know what could have been. That’s the secondary trauma, the one we live with the rest of our lives. The one that changes us in ways we’ll never really know.

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Distressed Female at 36th and Pontiac

I try to navigate my way through life with a minimum of stress and bother, but sometimes, things don’t quite work out. Or they do, just not the way I expected.

I take the BV and BX buses to Denver pretty regularly and, as long as I make sure to check that the bus is going to Denver, not Boulder first, I’m okay. (I’ve learned that lesson the hard way—twice—but that’s another story).

I’ve even take the Denver city buses a few times without any problems. I don’t like to drive to Denver because of the traffic and I don’t mind taking the bus. When the system works, it works, and I’m pretty confident about getting where I need to go.

But yesterday, the bus stop I needed was closed and the sign was a little vague about where the route would detour.  Being a literary type, I never like vague signage. It almost always spells trouble.

I was coming from the national Oral History Association conference way out on the east side of Denver off Quebec. I’d taken the 38 bus to the conference the day before, a 50-minute ride on a busy bus with a kind and implacable driver named Irma. Young moms with strollers, older gentlemen with health problems, and kids coming home from school got on and off every few blocks. Two moms got on with three children between them and I offered the pregnant one the space next to me. “No, I won’t fit, “ she said, but the other mom put the smallest girl up on the seat and I held onto her arm so she wouldn’t slide off if the bus stopped quickly. They got off before me and we wished each other a good day.

When I reached my own stop on 38th and Pontiac, I asked Irma where I should catch the bus going the other direction and she pointed across the street. No problem, I thought.

But when I got to that stop the next day, the sign said I needed to go to 36th for a temporary stop. It didn’t say 36th and what but I figured I’d find it if I walked south. As I pulled my little suitcase behind me, an older man who appeared not to have anywhere in particular to go noticed I seemed to be going somewhere and told me to take a right at the end of the block to get the bus. “Thanks,” I said. “Appreciate it.”

When I got to 36th, the temporary bus sign was on my left, so I walked over there instead. It was an official red RTD sign but it didn’t say the route number, which made me a little nervous. After a couple minutes, my helpful friend came by again. “Sorry, I told you the wrong direction.”

“No problem. I’m just waiting.” He nodded his head and loped off.

With no buses in sight on a quiet street, this stop seemed a little dubious. I called RTD to make sure I was in the right place for the detour.

The dispatcher helpfully confirmed that the bus should come up 36th right past me and, in fact, as we were speaking, I saw the bus approaching. But it stopped two blocks down and then turned the corner. It didn’t stay on 36th but went north instead, toward the old bus stop. What was going on? I told the dispatcher and she was disturbed as well. She said she would call the next bus driver and tell them to be sure to pick me up. She apologized that I would have to wait 20 minutes and promised to file a report about the incident.

After I hung up, I thought I’d walk east to see where the bus had stopped and there I found another temporary bus stop sign. I hadn’t been able to see it before because a tree limb hung over the sidewalk, blocking the view. I decided to wait at that stop instead since I’d seen the bus actually stop there.

With another fifteen minutes to wait—and dubious about that prediction—I called John to let me him know I was stuck waiting for a bus. I didn’t need to be anywhere until later that evening, so I wasn’t worried about time, but I was standing alone in a pretty deserted residential area, not a dangerous neighborhood by any means, but I’d feel better if someone knew where I was.

About ten minutes later, as I was telling John about the conference, I saw the 38 approaching again and I waved my arms at it, telling John I needed to go. But before I had quite hung up, I saw the bus turn on Pontiac. “Gotta go!” I ran toward the bus, hoping it would see me and slow down. No luck. This bus hadn’t even stopped at the first temporary stop like the previous one had. Now what?

As I stopped running and put down my suitcase, a young man pulled up at the house next to me. Shaking his head as he got out of the car, he commiserated. “I know how you feel, man. The buses in this neighborhood SUCK.”

Then a police car came down the street so I waved to him and he stopped. I explained the situation and where I was trying to go. He thought a moment and then told me to put my suitcase in the trunk in that polite but deadpan officer voice they all use.

I’m not always trusting of police officers, particularly when I’m at political rallies, but I’m a white, well-dressed woman and I wasn’t breaking any laws, so I did it, figuring he’d take me where I needed to go.

As I got into the car, he was calling his dispatcher, I suppose to say he was going off route. “I’m assisting a female in distress,“ he told them. Distressed female? Me? I looked at him as he gave the dispatcher his ID. Was I distressed?

I replayed the story I’d hurriedly told him when I’d flagged over his car: “The buses are supposed to come up 36th but the second one just turned on Pontiac. I’ve been waiting for 50 minutes and they’re not stopping. I called the dispatcher after the first one didn’t stop and she said she’d tell the next one to stop but it didn’t. I’m not sure what to do now. Do you have any suggestions?”

I guess I was in distress, in police parlance anyway. I wasn’t hysterical, though, just angry and upset. Perhaps he wasn’t used to being flagged down by someone with a suitcase on that street. Clearly, I thought it was his job to help me somehow and he seemed willing to do it.

He explained that many more buses ran on Martin Luther King Boulevard so he would take me to the nearest stop and I could catch any one of a number of buses downtown there. Sounded fine and that’s what we did. I got my suitcase out of the trunk and thanked him for his help. He almost smiled. “No problem. Have a good day.”

The first bus to arrive was the 43. The driver said he wasn’t going downtown but he could take me to the light rail station at Downing and California. “I’ve never ridden the light rail,” I told him.

“There’s a first time for everything,” he smiled, his long gray ponytail stretching neatly down his back. As with Irma, I got the sense that bus drivers see a little bit of everything on their route and the best ones take the ride as it comes.

“Okay, just tell me which one to get on and where to get off.” I didn’t want to go the wrong direction and end up even further from my destination.

As we headed west, I called RTD back to inform them that a second bus hadn’t come up 36th. “Didn’t you just call a few minutes ago?” a new dispatcher asked. “I heard you talking to my co-worker.”

I affirmed I was the same missed rider but I was now on the 43 so she didn’t need to let anyone know to pick me up, not that it had helped the first time. “I’ll issue a report, “ she assured me.

The bus driver told me exactly what to do at the light rail station but I asked an elderly gentleman at the gate as well, just to be sure.

“Where are you from?”

“Boulder.”

“Oh.” I could see he was trying not to smile. Boulderites are probably pretty flaky in his book and here I was lost in Denver, though only a little bit so.

“This is the end of the line for this track so just get on and it’ll take you downtown in about ten minutes. Get off at the 16th St Mall and you’ll be fine.”

And that’s what I did. The line went through Five Points, a historically Black neighborhood in Denver, and I spotted the club where our friend’s band had played recently. I was glad to know the light rail went past it in case he played there again.

I got off at the familiar 16th Street pedestrian mall, which stretches from Colfax near the State Capital building past downtown to the Union train station. I decided not to hop the free shuttle because I was hungry, so I walked down toward Market Street, where I would eventually catch the bus back to Boulder.

An artisan fair that I’d seen last May was open on one of the plazas. Maybe the young Navajo jewelry maker I’d met in May would have a booth there again.

It was, after all, my lucky day. She was there and her mother too. They’re talented jewelry makers who are trying to build a business for craftspeople on their reservation to sell retail rather than wholesale. The young woman is hoping to open a shop one day, but for now, she comes to Denver for these shows and others and has a website as well. I love her blend of contemporary and traditional designs using turquoise and coral in new ways that take advantage of each stone’s beauty. I bought a pair of earrings from each of them and promised to email the young artist to find out where she’d be next.

After a crepe at the café near the bus stop, I figured I didn’t have time to make the next Boulder bus so I strolled back leisurely. But when I got a block away, I suddenly decided I might be able to make the bus. I cut across a parking lot and ran across the street just in front of traffic, down the station stairs, and out the door to find the BX waiting. With 30 seconds to spare, I got my seat and we were off.

When I told my daughter the story of my afternoon, she couldn’t believe I’d flagged down a cop. “It’s not his job to take you to the bus stop, “ she said.

“Yes it is,” I countered. “I was in distress!”

I guess that shows a generational difference in perspectives about the role of police officers. She thought he probably had something more important to do than help me with my little problem and maybe that’s true in the overall view, but he didn’t seem too troubled in going out of his way. From my generational view, I know that assistance is dependent on varying factors and mine had been favorable that day. And I hadn’t asked him to take me anywhere. Information about the nearest bus stop was all I’d expected.

Sometimes missed connections take us places we hadn’t expected to go. I wasn’t happy being skipped twice on a bus route and having to spend an hour of a beautiful October afternoon waiting around for something I wasn’t sure would come. But when you head off the beaten track, you’ve got to anticipate that something may happen. It’s part of the adventure, even within a city. I learned a little bit more about Denver and my accidental route led to a serendipitous reunion with a young artist I admire.

The best part of my detour was the friendly people I met along the way, people who were willing to help with my small problem in the midst of their busy lives. I can even say it renewed my faith in humanity, to use that worn phrase, something that doesn’t happen every day in these hard times. I don’t like to depend on the kindness of strangers, but I like knowing that if I need to, I can.

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