By Gretchen Crowe
If you visit the corner of 18th and California in the early weekday mornings, you might see a well-worn Broncos coat shielding a kind, thoughtful vendor, Ken Barber. A Denver native born April 30, 1961, Ken grew up in a happy family with two sisters and one brother. Ken was the oldest. His father worked manufacturing carpet cleaning machines, and his mother waitressed a bit, but was primarily a stay-at-home mom. His family moved around Denver and back to Toledo, Ohio, for a short time, but Ken was an average kid, going to Lowell Elementary, Flood Middle School, and then onto Arapahoe High School, where he graduated in 1980.
He played football during his sophomore year, but opted out of all but pick-up games, since he wasn’t played on the field that much. Like most young men, he had a passion for cars and he proudly talked of his first car, a 1965 Mustang 3-speed Coupe that he bought working as a dishwasher in a Mexican food restaurant, La Bolla, along with help from his dad. But Ken’s real passion is bowling. He was on several leagues. “I had a pretty good childhood—it was really easy for me then. I got in trouble a lot, but nothing bad, just like any normal kid.”
In 1982, Ken began working at King Soopers as a grocery clerk, and although he had a few jobs over the years, he remained in retail, aside from a short stint in manufacturing. Between King Soopers and Home Depot, Ken worked hard for fifteen years. He struggled with alcohol during that time, getting three DUI’s. It was a long road, but he talked with candor about his struggles and successes in his ongoing road to recovery. He still visits that road regularly, especially since Ken became homeless for the first time in July 2010.
In 1998, Ken bought his first home, a condo in Highlands Ranch, and it became a family project to help update it. Ken’s parents offered immeasurable help. Ken never married nor had children. “I just, well, I was too shy to talk to women. Still am. I guess I just didn’t want to get rejected. I have never been on a date.” Subsequently, his parents and his sister played much larger roles in Ken’s life, creating that needed safety net. He lived there for five years.
Around 2000, Ken’s safety net began to unravel when his father passed away on Halloween. Ken maintained working, but in 2002, he lost both his mother and his sister in three months. “Everything started going downhill and I got really depressed. It was the darkest time in my life. My bills fell behind and I lost the townhome in 2003.”
But in these dark times, Ken not only can tell the story of foreclosure and isolation, he can tell the story of reinvention. He has continued that struggle to earn a living, and walked into our doors having lost his job at 7/11. “[The Denver VOICE] gives me a little self esteem. It helps me make money, and the people I have met really support what I do. And that makes me feel so good.” Ken would also like to say thank you to vendor Richard Wolfe. Richard moved to Seattle, opening up his corner for Ken to become the steward of 18th and California. •