Interesting Times

How I got to Denver

It was December in 1972 in Urbana, Illinois. A group of us, the exact number escapes me, but at least a half dozen, were living in a small bungalow type house on Main Street.  We were all in various stages of trying to get a degree from the University of Illinois getting by with low wage food service jobs, food stamps and shop lifting by a couple of my housemates but for necessities only. You couldn’t buy toilet paper or soap with food stamps. I was always way to Catholic to take to the five-finger discount. I did not though think it wrong that many of my friends did and in fact I got my first puppy from a women I ran into at a local convenience store who I spotted stuffing cans of tuna into her backpack. We struck up a conversation outside the store and she produced a small puppy from the backpack that was crying I assume because of cans of tuna hitting his head. I named him Mangus and he lived to the ripe old age of 22. The last ten years of his life as a companion for my mother on the family farm in Northern Illinois. I digress!

The house scene was oddly communal and by that I mean that most of the men were gay and the women not. The gay stuff was pretty subliminal then, one might say closeted. We were all very involved with the campus left politics of the day and certain that revolution was inevitable. I do though recall being flabbergasted that George McGovern had been so badly trounced by Richard Nixon in the recent presidential election. I had become a protégé of sorts of Michael Harrington, author of Poverty in America, part of the impetus for Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty a few years prior. He was a visiting professor at the U. of I. in 1969 I believe. I had become so enamored with Harrington’s socialist politics that I was a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialist party at the time.

We were as I think back now probably real hippies. House chores, cooking, shopping etc. were all done communally. Our lives revolved very much around our favorite music of the time and lots of dope.  College course work and our crappy part time jobs were forms of interference in the main business of our lives at the time, great tunes played loud and a good buzz.

We were frequently playing the most recent Rolling Stones album of the time called Exiles on Main Street, which we thought very fitting since we lived on Main Street. The most frequent tunes heard in the house though were by the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, The Band, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Jefferson Airplane and on those nights when the hallucinogens were on board Pink Floyd would be in the rotation.

So one night in early December we were sitting around the kitchen table, about four of our core group of 8-10, drinking tequila shots and plotting how to get out of town and onto something else. Several of us had toyed for years with a move to a commune in Tennessee but there was some romantic draw to Colorado.

So the next morning four of us took off for Denver in my brother’s blue, slant-six, Dodge Dart. This was a nearly invisible car, good for traveling hippies who did not what to attract any attention from the police. It had served us well on a couple trips down to Florida.

For some reason we stayed in Idaho Springs and used this as our base of operations while looking for a place to rent in Denver. We were savvy enough to know that jobs were much more likely in a big city. We wound up renting half of a duplex in the 600 block of Elati just west of the “new” Denver General Hospital.  That hospital would truly shape and define certainly my professional life in the years to come.

We were also very blown away with the mountains. It’s hard to imagine for some I expect just what an awesome draw the mountains are when you have grown up on the tall grass prairies of Indiana and Illinois. Our first few years in Colorado involved nearly weekly camping excursions all over the State. We really enjoyed getting out of town. It took us a while though to realize just how long it took to cook brown rice at 9,000 feet over an open campfire. A couple of our group actually bought a ramshackle cabin in an the old mining town called Nevadaville above Central City, long before the area became a gambling mecca. That cabin was the scene of many wonderful gatherings including several Thanksgivings where most of the meal was cooked on a wood-burning stove.

After signing a six-month lease on the Elati Street duplex in Denver we returned to Champaign-Urbana and had a big party and the following morning left again for Denver. Four of us, two dogs and most everything we owned fit in and on top of the Dodge Dart for the drive out. In the next couple years we were joined off and on by several other friends some of whom also still live here. We didn’t stay on Elati Street long but an ever-changing group of us lived in 5 or 6 other places in central Denver throughout the 1970’s. I eventually bought a house up in Five Points with a couple other gay men in 1980 and since then my living situation has been pretty stable with only 5 moves in the past 30 years.

The big personal shift on moving to Denver for me was my integration into gay community and the development of strong queer friendship networks. My leftwing politics streamlined nicely into the gay liberation movement of the time. I was like a kid in a candy store, politically, emotionally, intellectually, socially and sexually.

In addition to becoming a full time Queer I got drawn into nursing and that has also been one of the great joys and I think significant accomplishments of my life. My first job in Denver was at Craig Rehabilitation hospital in Englewood. I was doing kitchen work there at the time, my only real marketable skill and helping feed patients. That job only lasted a few months when one day, Sue, the only woman with the group at that time came home one evening and said that the big hospital over there was hiring. In August of 1973 I was hired as a hospital attendant at Denver General on their inpatient psychiatric unit. I worked with four or five other male attendants all of whom were doing their service as conscientious objectors and some real radical female nurses who strongly shaped my views on nursing and health care as an inalienable right. I dodged the draft bullet with a high lottery number, 312 I think.

Over all I have few regrets around my move in 1972 to Denver and the last 40 years have been quite good all things considered. I do wonder sometimes if I we shouldn’t have kept driving and settled in San Francisco. I do think it was at the time actually the romantic draw of the mountains that kept us here. And beside the Grateful Dead had all moved out of San Francisco by that time and the scene on the Haight had become weird. I also got to finally see the Grateful Dead live for the first time in December of 1973 at the old Denver Coliseum and that previous summer had also come with a great outdoor show by The Allman Brothers. I was in heaven.

 

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