Fear, Death and Holy Denver

Originally written 03.19.13

I arrived in Denver haunted by a tragedy. The death and its sad fallout were indirect to me personally but still close enough to leave a mark. I didn’t know him very well—but I knew him, and that was enough. There was more than that, though; there was the wife and two kids that he left behind and all of that incomprehensible sorrow. His death was tragic in many ways: He was young—or young like me—and he had been involved in an accident which carried some mystery about it. He had either fallen or jumped from a moving taxi cab, and even then he had survived the initial injuries; the bigger tragedy being that he was alive and assumed to be recovering when he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died a week after the accident.

The images that surfaced in the days after were heartbreaking, photos of him in the hospital bed hugging his children, alive. These were taken just hours before he unexpectedly took a turn for the worse. It was crushing. I had seen too much. I had too much knowledge. Oh, those children—I could hardly bear the grief that had befallen them. And me, detached as I was, still moved to tears. I had to look away.

On the airplane out I was faced with nothing but quiet contemplation, alone in my thoughts and immersed in fear and death. I was flying out to Denver for purely frivolous reasons, leaving my wife and two kids at home for a quick vacation; I felt undeserving and guilty. But beautiful Colorado … I landed smoothly in high winds and was magically transported from air to car and then a soft seat on a bicycle riding through the streets of downtown Denver. The bike-sharing program in the city was starting up again after winter and they had rounded up volunteers to deliver the bikes to the various ports around the city. So there I was, quickly fitted with a t-shirt and given a bike, riding along with a block-long crowd of folks and ringing our bells.

The weather was perfect. I had left cold and dreary Chicago in all of its relentless gloom for St. Patrick’s Day in fresh mountain air under the sharpest of blue skies. The sun gave off a warmth like spring and there I was in my new red shirt completely unburdened, with nothing but time and freedom. Later, after we parked the bikes, there were drinks in the camper van—a classic VW equipped with kitchen and sleeping quarters—and I wished we were taking off somewhere in it instead of sitting in the alley behind the garage. We ended up biking and bar-hopping that night—St. Patrick’s Day—and racing down the trail that lines the river (South Platte) through the city.

I was only in town for two nights and there were thoughts of going skiing before the hockey game Monday night but we decided against it and golfed instead. It was Bloody Marys and Old Styles as we carted around the mostly empty course hacking away. Later, we biked out to the arena for the Blackhawks-Avalanche game and had a hilarious time in the 4th row; I wore Jim’s feather knit hat and our phones lit up with the news that our mugs were all over the TV broadcast. The hat was a star in itself.

After the game (Hawks won 5-2) we sat at the jazz bar near the baseball stadium and listened to the band play bluesy jams. I was longing for some real jazz and so we eventually biked over to this place closer to home, where you walk down steps to an underground bar. As we sat down there was a break in the music but we could see the various musicians milling about; they looked like kids, not the grizzled old jazzheads I pictured. I was still wearing the hat and so people were quick to chat with me, especially the pretty, wild-haired dark-skinned girl sitting next to me. And then the music kicked in.

At first there was a singer, a drummer and a keyboard player but then as they went on there were various other players that stepped in and out, rotating and moving. A saxophone from the shadows blurting out, or a trumpet blasting; and then gone. The musicians themselves changed as they wound through the set, like a game of tag. A drummer would get up and another would sit down; a keyboard player relieved by another. And these horns would explode from out of nowhere, unassuming on the sidelines and waiting to burst. It was amazing, fantastic, moving. It mattered not at all their age or appearance; the sounds they made were like 60s poetry or 50s Beat jams or who knows where or when, but they were awesome. This was it. This was the beautiful, true jazz, Kerouac-ian moment I had always been looking for, Holy Denver in all its glory.

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There’s been so much death lately. Almost all of it famous and detached, but still…a lot of death. Ebert and Thatcher and whomever else. But the one close to home continues to haunt. There’s a page for him on Facebook and it updates daily, regularly, with notes, thoughts, pictures and all kinds of sadness. I don’t believe I’ve gone to sleep without thinking of it, or him, once since it happened. And again, I barely knew him. It’s just so terribly tragic but it’s more than that; it’s the hole left in its wake. The kids, his wife…I went through the Easter rituals—baskets of candy and all of that—and in the back of it all was the Easter they weren’t having in his house. The emptiness. The grief. The sorrow.

I really wish I could stop thinking about it.

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