Breakaway

Denverites are no strangers to the “epic” vacation and adventure. A lot of Denver residents moved here for a smaller version of that—available in the proximity to the mountains, national parks, and other adventure attractions in the West. 

Scott DeMoss, an IT manager for TeleTech, an outsource customer care firm headquartered in Englewood, lives in the Highlands and is an avid biker, runner, fisher and hiker. He recently found his epic trip in Africa. Through the organization Tour d’Afrique, which hosts bicycle tours around the world, he spent five months riding across the entire continent. From Jan. 15 to May 14 of this year, he rode from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa, passing through ready-to-erupt Egypt and the newly formed country of South Sudan along the way. 

He sat down with the VOICE to share a bit about his bittersweet experience on the road.

 

When you were going through Sudan, what was it like? Did you hear any discourse because of the upcoming election?

I think there was a more palpable energy in Cairo. We left there and then [a few] days later, that total upheaval took place, so we got out of there just in time. For a while they thought we might have to leave Egypt altogether, but we had a security detail; not that we were ever [in trouble]. 

 

So what did you see in Egypt?

There were just a lot of people milling about in the streets. I wouldn’t call it an organized rally or anything like that. We were in the Vodacom shop, which is [a] mobile phone thing, trying to get sorted out on a phone, and they’d ask where are you from, and once they found out you were from America, ‘oh Obama this, Obama that.’

 

Really? In positive ways?

Yeah, for the most part. And [they’d say] ‘Hey, we want to be like America. We’re gonna get rid of this guy [then-Egyptian-President Hosni Mubarak], this has been going on too long.’ And you got the sense that [there was] very open speech about [the issue]. And these were mostly the 20-30-somethings, younger people. 

 

So you didn’t really see much of anything happening in Sudan? There was no indication that there was going to be an election? 

When we arrived, the vote had already taken place, and they said it would take anywhere from two to four weeks to tally the votes, so we were [there during] the holding period. 

I think that country, of all of them, surprised me because people were so welcoming. From the people in the city to the people on the ferry to—ya know, I’m out in the middle of nowhere, probably 100 miles from the closest real town and there’s this cluster of grass and clay-mud huts over there. And I’m just sitting under the shade tree getting some water and this guy in a robe comes up and is like, ‘You! Tea.’… I thought he was inviting me to tea. He was. So he leads me back into the village and all these kids come out and we’re sitting in this hut and it was very shady and cool—so it was nice. It was probably about 120 degrees that day. He makes me tea and speaks a little bit of broken English and he brings other important people from the village over to meet me. 

 

Ha! Did you feel like a king? 

Well, it’s kinda weird because you are in your biking clothes and they are in these long white robes with headwear and the kids keep coming to poke their head into the hut, and everyone wants their picture taken with you. Yeah, you feel like a bit of a celebrity I guess. 

Then he asked me if I wanted some water. And I said no, and he said, ‘No, you must drink this water,’ so I said ok, yeah, this is probably going to come back and get me. It definitely tasted a little off, and I did get sick a few days later, but I don’t even know that it was directly attributed to that water. Probably was. But I would say within 10 days of that little encounter, half the camp was sick anyway. 

 

Oh, that’s rough—especially while riding.

Yeah, that did a lot of people in. That was the first point for a lot of people where they would end up getting on the truck. There’s a special award you can earn if you manage to ride what they call EFI—every F-ing inch—so that means you ride the whole way, every day. You don’t use the trucks ever. 

 

Did you use the truck?

 [The EFI] was my big goal going into that. I wanted to do that. And usually it’s only 15-20 percent of the people who can manage that. 

We left the roads of the Sudan and had three or four days off road. That was pretty cool. Little dirt paths going through the villages and stuff, and I crashed twice on the first day. Really dinged my ribs up pretty good. … Then it started getting really hot and that was when we saw temperatures approaching like 135 degrees and you’re just riding through the middle of these vast tracks of emptiness.

So when we finally got back on the pavement, I started to feel pretty crappy. That was the day we crossed into Ethiopia and the whole first half of that morning— it was about 35 miles—I thought I was going to vomit the entire way. It should have been a nice easy stage and I’m suffering horrendously. 

I got to lunch and my buddy Paul, he’s feeling the exact same way, and he said to ask them for this pill [because] it kinda helped him. So I take this pill, it kind of squelches the nausea, and I carry on, get to the border but by the time I got into camp I was steadily [going] downhill. The next two days, I think, were probably two of the more miserable days I’ve ever had in my life. Just waking up, can’t eat, don’t sleep at all, getting up to use the bathroom four or five times in the night.

 

Did you have bathrooms?

No, no, that means you hike into the brush with a shovel. No shower either. They are rationing water so you can’t bathe yourself. …[But] No truck riding for me. I am an official member of the “EFI Club”. There were only 12 of 62 who did it, so I am particularly proud of that achievement. 

 

What would you compare the bonding experience to? I use examples like this trip or, more dramatically, like a traumatic experience, bringing people together. 

Trauma’s a little strong, but I would say the first few weeks of that trip, you were continually hit, sometimes gently sometimes harshly, with doses of reality. … You just realize the tour goes on—you’re either with it or against it but it’s dragging you on. I think we bonded over that, if there was a particularly taxing day on the bike, or there were some bad things—like there was a hold up in Northern Kenya where there were some guns and shots fired. I wasn’t personally involved but some of the people were. 

 

What happened? 

We were in this area, didn’t seem particularly dangerous but it’s really been stricken by drought, so food’s not growing; people are desperate for employment and just water. There were two guys on the side of the road, and one girl [as part of the group] rode by and they kind of just acknowledged her. He’s got a rifle in his lap, actually an AK-47 assault rifle. They made a motion for her to stop; she decided that wouldn’t be prudent. They yelled and the guy fired some shots over her head. The other guy threw a rock at her and it hit her in the ribs and right as the thing hits her in the ribs, the guns going off so she doesn’t know if she’s been shot. …

I don’t think they were actually trying to hit her. I think they were trying to stun her into stopping so they could rob her.

 

Was she by herself? 

She was. There was a group of people behind. They heard all that; they stopped and waited a half hour and didn’t see anyone down the road. One of the riders needed to stop to pee, she goes into the woods and two minutes later the guy whacks her in the side of the head with the gun. … So they had six of them on their knees, putting on a show, shooting over their heads, taking money out of their wallets. They drained the water out of the camelback hydration packs and the bottles. Left the packs behind and left their IDs behind. 

 

You had talked about wanting and needing a change in your life, and that this was part of that.

Yeah, I mean look, we only get this one crack at life, and I’m only 36 so I’m not a sage or anything like that. But I think … you have a certain idea of what it means to be successful ... and I thought I’ll work hard and earn lots of money and get promoted. And the truth of it was I wasn’t really ambitious about being promoted. … But it’s like a lot of corporate America—you don’t screw up so you get rewarded. 

… And that was all well and good, but it kind of felt like my days lacked a meaningful challenge. … And I certainly wasn’t getting that in my life. I largely felt like that at work, whatever I did largely didn’t matter. 

I needed to know more about myself. … I was restless, a little unsettled internally. I thought [during this trip] you’re going to get to find out in a non-lethal environment, but definitely a very tough environment, what you’re made of. I think at the end of the day, that was the big take away.

The Way Home

When Jackie Gonzalez looks in the mirror, she sees a different person than she saw just a year ago. When Gonzalez, who is 16, entered the Bansbach Academy at the Denver Children’s Home, she was a runaway, admittedly nasty and raving. Today, she has grown into a confident and hopeful woman. 

“My foster grand-mom says I’m a different person from what I used to be,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is just one of many children who find respite and support at the Denver Children’s Home, a residential facility with a therapy program and school. Most of the students at DCH have been referred there by governmental systems. Unstable home lives, domestic abuse, running away and disruptive behavior are  norms for these children, and the home caters to their problems in a way public schools aren’t trained to handle.

“Quite frankly, teachers are not trained to deal with kids with mental health issues,” said director of education Deb Huerta, who worked in the local public school system. “There’s a whole different gamut of interventions that need to happen with these kids and public school cannot cater to that…population.”

Most of the students that receive treatment at DCH have experienced some sort of mental trauma, said development director Shannon Lowe, which is why DCH is the best place for them. The teachers and staff provide what Lowe called “trauma-informed care” for the students, which means they are aware of the effects of trauma on a child’s development and mentality. 

 “So really what we focus on is helping kids identify what does it feel like to be inside your body and your brain, and how do we get you the tools and knowledge to be able to cope with what’s happening,” said Lowe. 

They do so through a variety of programs. Since DCH offers varied services, from less-intense outpatient therapy sessions to full on boarding home and schooling, they can receive treatment based on the level of their needs. The students “graduate” from levels as they improve. 

Gonzalez started at the Bansbach Academy in 2009 as a student, but when she ran away from her foster home last year and was arrested, she was put into the residential program.

“I got arrested and got taken to this other place called the Family Crisis Center, and I asked for them to bring me to residential here. … I felt like I had already worked through a lot of things, and a lot of those kids [at the FCC] needed more attention.” 

Now, about a year later, she lives with the foster parents she ran away from.

For Gonzalez, who is entering her junior year and plans to attend CSU for forensic science, the experience is priceless. “I never sat down and said, ‘well I need to change.’ It just started happening,” said Gonzalez. “[The teachers and staff] have always said I was a good student here, since the beginning, and they see my potential, and I said what are you talking about? … But now I do see it. … I feel like people trust me a lot, and I trust them.” 

DCH, which started as an orphanage in the 1880s, transitioned to its current function in the 1960s. The children, ages 10-18, are sent to the home from various county human service agencies and mental health centers, which have acknowledged the students need some type of support and help outside the realm of what a public school can offer. 

In the end, the whole goal is to get the student back into their regular, normal life.

 

Denver Children’s Home 10th Annual Gala
Thursday, Sept. 22 
At the historic Mile High Station Event Center, 
2027 W. Colfax Ave. Denver
Dinner, Wine, Hors d’oeuvres, Entertainment

Tickets: $150 per person, or $75 for first-time attendees, gets you sit-down dinner and unlimited drinks.

www.denverchildrenshome.org, 720-881-3346

The Lunchbox Express

by Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

It’s a new spin on the ever-so-popular food trucks—a food truck with a higher purpose. Allen Levy and his wife, Hannah, have launched a summer lunch program to bring food to children of families that struggle to find a meal everyday.

The Lunch Box Express is a short, decorated bus which will visit the parking lots of four schools in the Englewood neighborhood in a pilot program that brings food to children who need it most. “Our goal is to feed hungry kids. … We’re trying to reach out to them to find out how many will respond,” Hannah said.

During the school year, Allen said, about 1,500 students in the Englewood School District receive free meals Monday through Friday. In the summer months, that resource is gone. “At these schools, 50-70 percent of the kids receive subsidized lunches. Then you think about it—they don’t get anything in the summer. It’s pathetic,” Allen said. Allen, a retired architect who has worked with nonprofits for years to help feed the hungry in Colorado, and Hannah, a retired corporate executive, created the Lunch Box Express to fill that gap.

Englewood was chosen because it’s a summer lunch desert. There are no school district summer programs to offer lunch to participating students, said Hannah. And even if there were, not all students would want to participate, or could because of time and cost. The schools on the Lunch Box Express route are those where more than half of the student population receives federally subsidized meals.

The Levy’s target is to serve 200 students a day, though they expect more may come as the summer goes on. They will be at the four schools Monday through Friday between 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. for about 45 minutes at each location (locations can be found by calling the Hunger Free Colorado Hotline). The program runs from May 31 to August 15.

No students will be turned away, nor will they have to present proof of need. Even if a friend or cousin is visiting from another neighborhood, they can get a lunch.

Hannah said the entire project has cost them a lot less than they expected, and they hope their program can be a pilot for similar programs in other areas. The only challenge has been finding enough volunteers. They need at least two or three volunteers to help them per shift (one hour a day) because of the paper work and the need to make sure the students eat the food in sight of the bus to avoid students not eating the meals themselves.

“If it wasn’t for government regulations, two people could do this,” Allen said.

The Levy’s have had help from the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Share the Strength and Food Bank of the Rockies, but for the most part it’s been a labor of love for two dedicated people, who found a gap in the hunger prevention effort and worked to fill it themselves by filling a school bus full of lunch boxes. •

Elephant Talk

By Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

At the request of a friend, two years ago Randy Harris visited a church food pantry in Denver’s Villa Park neighborhood, just west of Federal and south of Colfax. A few loaves of bread and canned goods sat on the shelves. A girl came to the church with her father. She was irritable and grumpy; the reason, her father explained, was she hadn’t eaten in three days. They took their bread and cans of vegetables and went home.

Harris was horrified not only that she hadn’t eaten in three days, but also by the quality of the food they left with. When Harris asked the church why there was a lack of fresh food, he learned that they didn’t have the money to buy much more and donations from food drives are focused on canned and boxed non-perishables.

 Harris, a former corporate and government research consultant, started looking at Colorado’s current food pantry services. What he found, he says, is an unorganized business model, with scattered pantries full of well-intentioned people, but not much food. In his mind, why not pool the services?

“There’s plenty of food. We’re trying to parse it out to way too many places,” Harris said.

 

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Food For Thought


Cooks at Centennial Elementary prepare dough for oatmeal honey rolls they serve at lunch.

By Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

Leo Lesh’s food service enterprise includes 156 locations and serves about 38,700 lunches per day. He’s not open on the weekends, charges just $1.40 per meal (if customers pay full price, though many do not) and he gets just $2.72 per meal beyond that charge to cover all his food, labor and operations costs.

Most would say it’s an impossible feat. A dying business, one that won’t make it, but this is no ordinary food service business. And Lesh, executive director of Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, has not only managed to keep DPS’s school lunch program chugging along, he’s slowly improving the nutritional side of a traditionally unhealthy meal.

And just in time too. While Lesh has been looking for ways to reduce sodium in cheese and fat in milk, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been developing guidelines that will require him to do just that.

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Mulling Over the Mall

By Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

Another group of casually dressed business people runs by you, trying to catch the bus, talking about the latest speaker and wearing lanyard tags naming the convention they are attending at the Hyatt.

You look down at your jeans and sweater, and wonder if you’re supposed to be wearing a suit to be on the 16th Street Mall, because that’s all you can see. But no, it’s just that Denver’s downtown is different. With fewer people living in Denver than working and visiting, the downtown area’s one dominating street, the 16th Street Mall, sees more traffic from the more than 100,000 office workers and 2.1 million annual visitors than it sees from Denver residents.

Not only that, but walk a block off of 16th Street and the story is much different.

Downtown Denver is dominated by a 15-block strip of stores, restaurants and vendors that attract most of the area’s pedestrian traffic. The Mall Ride is beeping, bags are rustling, conversations float from cafes and the street furniture as people take a rest from shopping or walking. But the adjoining streets are quiet. There are shops and restaurants—plenty of shops, some which have been there for years. But the bustle is missing. Cars whizz by in four lanes of one-way traffic. The white-walking-man lights go on, but only a few people saunter across the street—most on their way to a hotel, a bus stop or the Mall.

Those side streets could be the future of Denver’s downtown development, but having oriented the city around one street, what will it take to build a more balanced city-center—one with shopping, entertainment, residences and pedestrian areas throughout?

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Banking on Prosperity

Debra and Clarence sit on the stoop of the home they are temporarily living inBy Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo


When Debra and Clarence Rhames laid their blankets down on the back patio of the King M. Trimble building in Curtis Park, little did they know the help they sought was just on the other side of the wall they were leaning against.

In late summer, the couple arrived in Denver on a Greyhound bus from Florida. With little money, but high hopes for Clarence landing work at a labor pool, they decided to stay on the streets when they first arrived in the Mile High city. They did not expect to still be without home and job at Christmas.

“I’ve never been through being homeless before until now, and I’m telling you now it’s not a good feeling. … I’m not a patient man,” said Clarence, who despite spending hours at the nearby labor pool has barely found a day’s worth of work. Fortunately, the couple chose the right place to “camp out” when they stopped at 30th and Champa Streets.

The King M. Trimble building, where they laid down their blankets that September night, houses the Economic Prosperity Center, a relatively new resource for Denver residents seeking financial and career help. EPC brings together five organizations, the Mile High United Way,  the Office of Economic Development (OED), the Denver Housing Authority, the Denver Asset Building Coalition and the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute to offer free financial education classes, career boosting lessons, skills assessment, tax services, college preparation courses, small business coaching and computer classes.

“We want to be a central hub, like a resource center for people,” said Danelle Herman, the marketing coordinator for EPC. “So it’s like a one-stop-shop.”

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iPhone Therefore I Am

By Kristin Pazulski and Patrick Naylis

Photography by Michael David Murphy

PHOTO BY MICHAEL DAVID MURPHY FROM THE SERIES “HANDSFREE”
For Janet Roberts, having a cell phone is vital to both her business and staying connected to her family and friends, especially since she doesn’t have a consistent home. For six months, Roberts has been on the streets, vending the Denver VOICE and trying to launch her custom T-shirt business. Most of those months, she has also owned a cell phone that she shares with fiancé Mitch Hegg.

“I can’t do my job without a phone. It’s a necessity, I have to call my clients,” said Roberts, standing outside the VOICE distribution office.

But in October, Roberts hit a snag. As many people have experienced, she and her fiancé lost their phone to a toilet. In the same period of time there was a delay with her unemployment, so they couldn’t afford to get a new one. After a few weeks, in mid-November, Roberts started receiving her unemployment. She said the first purchase on her list is a cell phone. Then she and Hegg will start hunting for an apartment. In that order.

And she’s not the only one.

“I cannot believe how many homeless people have a cell phone,” Roberts said. “That does surprise me. I mean they are living on the street and they have a phone.”

Hegg, sitting next to her in the Denver VOICE office, agreed. “When you are on the streets, a cell phone and a bus pass are the two most important things to have,” he said.

What is it about cell phones, and even more recently smartphones, that they have gone from being a convenience to what some consider a necessity—so necessary that even without a home people will be sure to own one? Present day culture has expanded our needs to include not just a telephone to communicate, but cell phones and smartphones to stay in constant touch. Additionally, people are now using them as a replacement for computers and simple technologies such as flashlights and alarm clocks.

Joanne Cantor has been stuck on the issue for a few years. As a mother, she bought a cell phone after September 11, 2001, when she was stuck in an airport unable to reach her family.

Cantor, professor emerita of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the recently published “Conquer CyberOverload,” has been studying our use of mobile technology since 2007, when she started investigating ‘cyber-overload’ because of her own dependence on the technology.

She said there are various reasons why owning a cell phone has become a necessity to the consumer, most prominently, status and peace of mind.

“Knowing that you have a cell phone is … good for peace of mind, and that’s valuable in itself,” she said in a phone interview last month. “And if you are in business everyone expects you to have a cell phone, so even if you were the type of person to say you don’t need it, you have to have it because you seem like you’re out of touch if you don’t have one.”

The last thing anyone in business wants is to appear out of touch. It becomes necessary to have the latest technological gadget so your customers and colleagues see you are on top of trends. 

“Most people expect that you can be reachable at the time when you aren’t at work,” Cantor said. “I think these things [technologies] start by being useful, and when enough people adopt them [they] become a necessity because of the expectation.”

Paul Bauer disagrees. Bauer, chair of the department of information technology at Denver University’s Daniels College of Business, said he doesn’t think smartphones have reached the level of necessity.

“There are people who have deliberately put it under a bucket and walked away for a week. Necessity is probably too strong,” he said, although he added, “Maybe in a business environment it’s not.”

But some business people, like Jack Schuler, art director at The Integer Group advertising agency, do not bother with the smartphone, despite being in a media-heavy industry.

“I personally don’t have one,” he said. “I’m in an office where everybody has one. I would use a lot of capabilities if I [had] one, [but] I like to get away from my work. … I don’t see myself having to get one.”

While not everyone sees smartphones or cell phones as “necessary,” most people have one. More than 86 percent of Americans have a cell phone, according to FCC and Census Bureau figures, and according to a 2009 survey by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), between June and December 2009 the number of active smartphones and PDAs increased by nearly 10 million.

And now smartphones seem to be overtaking cell phones. Since 2007, smartphones sales to dealers have grown by about 10 million units per year, while cell phone sales began decreasing in 2009, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

Which is more necessary?

But are these products, deemed as “necessary,” hurting some things that really are necessary to us? The average user might not consider it daily, but these ubiquitous technologies can impact our pocket book and our emotional lives.

A study released in 2009 by Parks Associates, a research firm based in Texas, reported that in three years, nearly 100 million more consumers in America will be paying for mobile broadband services than there were in 2008.

The CTIA said a monthly voice and data plan costs consumers an average of $47.47 right now, where land lines cost an average of $25.62 per month in 2007, the FCC says.

While some consumers are cutting out landlines and putting their money toward a mobile device, monthly costs, compounded by the cost of other recent technological “necessities” such as cable, television recording and the Internet, have been increasing.

Jules Kaplan, a senior instructor of economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that people supplement higher expenses by saving less and dipping into their assets, such as refinancing their homes. He also confirmed that the median household income hasn’t changed in the past few decades.

“To the extent that people see these items (iPhones, iPads, etc.) as a necessity, then in the absence of higher incomes, purchases of other items will decrease,” he wrote in an email, adding that people will look for cheaper food and clothing to supplement the additional costs.

The spiraling costs have a lot to do with the relatively quick turnaround of a concept from a lab to a finished product that hits the streets.

“If someone wants to throw enough resources behind it, there is a potential where in a year you could go from a lab to actual use,” said Tim Brown, director of University of Colorado at Boulder’s Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program in the College of Engineering.

If a large corporation like Intel or Microsoft feels a concept has potential as a product, they will expedite it to the consumer. Having more choices as a consumer also means additional expenses.

“Technology gives us something new, and we try it, and pretty soon someone makes it more convenient and once you realize you like doing it, you want it more conveniently,” Cantor said. “So we’re constantly being motivated to get the next thing. … Once we get there, it’s hard to go back.”

Interestingly, it seems that consumers are creating this need for themselves. While commercials and advertising for cell- and smartphones cater to the sense of necessity, David Slayden, an associate professor of communications at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that he doesn’t see the need being created by advertisers.

“I think it’s a rare case when advertising creates a need,” he said. “People look at and do what interests them … you don’t give a speech, you start a conversation, then you curate that conversation.”

Whether advertisers foster a perceived need or actively create that need appears to be a which-came-first-the-egg-or-the-chicken conundrum. Schuler sees it as a bit of both.

“Companies are developing products long before any advertising happens or even [is] thought about,” he said. “After the product’s been out for a while... they seem to play with the customer a bit.”

Does connecting equate to communicating?

Another discussion in the technology industry focuses on the quality of communication, again a necessity to the social human being, and whether it is suffering due to increased use of media to communicate.

Smartphones seem to have the capability to enrich the social experience by enabling us to take our sense of place with us through texting, email, or Facebook updates. 

“We’re finding out more about the people we care about,” said CU Boulder’s Brown. “We’re finding out [about] them sooner and we’re able to react to them more quickly.”

We’re connecting more, but is the connection as deep? Cantor doesn’t think so.

“In Facebook vs. Facetime [a presentation Cantor gives to students and business people], I talk about how each of our new devices takes away from face to face, and face to face is a really rich communication because of facial expressions, [tone of voice, gestures, eye contact, etc.], and all of that together tells us a lot more [than just words],” said Cantor. “The further we go the more we take away from the richness… and we seem to be happy with just the words.

“So we are connecting more and communicating less in a lot of these ways,” she concluded.

However, as Brown said, “the focus on technology is really on the ability to be more social and act more.  If you really think about the technology, that’s where they become successful.” 

Even though the quality of communicating may have decreased, as Cantor suggests, Brown also claims that technology can only ameliorate our relationships with each other and our world. It represents a progression in communication.

For Roberts and Hegg, their list of priorities changed once the unemployment check came in. Initially planning on getting a cell phone first, the couple, who is planning to get married in December, went on a pre-honeymoon to a local resort.

“We have been working seven days a week, we needed the break,” said Roberts.

But next on the list – the cell phone. Another check rolls in Friday, or Hegg might get paid for a construction job. Either way they plan on visiting Cricket Wireless within the week for a new phone. Although in this case, it seemed face-to-face won out over the “necessary” communication technology. •

People's Polo: This game comes down from the King's court to a street near you

Adam Smith of Denver (left) and Nick Applegate of Boulder (right) reache toward the ball during a game at the Boulder Foothills Community Park.By Kristin Pazulski

Photography By Adrian DiUbaldo


Brandon Carter had just reawakened his long defunct love with the bicycle when he learned about bike polo. “I saw it on xrocksthespot, a blog about cool shit to do in Denver. I saw videos of bike polo, and I was with that,” he said.

Before setting foot, or more accurately wheel, on a hardcourt, he was addicted. He went home and made a mallet in his backyard with an old ski pole and plastic piping (the typical mallet materials for bike polo). Riding his Goodwill-purchased bicycle, he made it to his first pick-up game with the then recently formed Denver bike polo club, the Mallet Mafia (now going through a name change to "Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo").

“I sucked when I went,” Carter said. “I was all afraid ‘cause I don’t ride a fixed gear bike and everyone else was pretty much on a fixed gear bike and I was afraid they were going to judge me, which they did. And then I sucked at polo for a really long time. I still suck at polo, but I really sucked then. I couldn’t hit the ball.”

Despite his self-proclaimed lack of talent for polo, Carter was obsessed, as are most of the bike polo players, many of whom play two to four times a week.

“I’m definitely addicted to bike polo. There’s no doubt in my mind about it,” Carter said. 

 

The first time I saw a typical polo game, I was at Will Rogers State Park outside of Los Angeles. Returning from a hike, there in front of us was a lush green field. There was little cheering, and most of the spectators were accidental, having also returned from a hike or picnicking when the game started.

I was enamored by the grace of the horses and amazed by the accuracy of the players’ shots. The mallet poles looked thin and long, dangerously fragile. Not many goals were made, but the game was fascinating to watch all the same. Graceful, peaceful, and impressive.

Hardcourt bike polo is a whole different kind of impressive.

On a hot, sunny, Wednesday summer evening in Capitol Hill, I stood in the shade of a tree in the Morey Middle School yard, eating a mini cupcake and watching a bike polo match.

There was grace, agility and some accuracy, but this was a much different kind of polo. Lush grass was replaced by asphalt. Mallets flew at a ball among crunching gears, whirring petals and wheel guards protecting vulnerable spokes from mallet blows.

Players circle in the Foothills Community ParkNot having played, I couldn’t tell if the players were good or if their shots were accurate. I just saw that the ball sometimes made it between the two orange cones.

Hardcourt bike polo is exactly what it sounds like—players riding bicycles on a hard surface (usually a hockey rink or converted tennis court), handling the ball with a mallet, trying to score. The game is rugged, not in an outdoorsy way, but in a hipster bike culture way. And like Carter, it’s easy to assume that bike polo is for a fixed gear, messenger bike subculture. But in the past 10 years, bike polo has grown into its own subculture, with teams popping up in almost every major city in the U.S. and internationally.

The first world tournament was held in Philadelphia last year, and tournaments are held regularly throughout the year. Colorado players travel around the country to attend club-sponsored tournaments monthly. They pay travel costs themselves and crash at fellow polo players’ homes to save money.

“At this point [bike polo] is very DIY,” said Nick Applegate, who started playing in upstate New York and started a Boulder team this year. “The whole culture is very like, you got to figure out what works for you. There is a huge array of different kinds of bikes that people ride, from road bikes to mountain bikes and fixed gear bikes and everything in between; it’s a really interesting culture to surround yourself in.”

Players are impossible to pigeonhole demographically. The players in Colorado range from 18 years old to their mid-30s, though there are a few older players in other clubs. In Arizona and New York, there are players in their 60s. The male to female ratio is disproportionate, but women are always welcome, and are often encouraged to join.

“You could argue that it’s part of the urban bike culture, but if you want to narrow that down to anything more than that, like fixie culture, I don’t think Brandon [Carter] and I view ourselves as fixie kind of guys,” said Ben Turner, who started playing with Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo last May. “I think what it is, is people that have a passion for bikes.”

But like any do-it-yourself (DIY) activity rising in popularity, the sport and its local clubs are confronting an identity crisis.

For the most part, hardcourt bike polo is played similarly everywhere. Teams of three play against each other, usually in 10- or 12-minute games, or until five points is reached by one side. The players are usually chosen by blindly holding up six mallets, each mallet representing a player, and throwing three to the left and three to the right.

The main rules are simple, and there are really only three.

1—If you put your foot down, you need to tap out then come back into play.

2—Score with the end of the mallet.

3—Don’t be a dick.

But each club has tweaks to the rules that differ from other clubs, so a league has formed among the die-hard polo players to create a governing body over the bike polo clubs in North America; part of the league’s plan is to determine a set of standardized rules for tournaments. Some players see the standardization as a threat to the culture of the sport and a step toward commercializing it.

“It’s a tough group to set up because they are anarchists, sort of, and don’t want rules and regulations,” said George Wall, who started a bike polo club in Colorado Springs.

“There’s a lot of anxiety in the polo culture because people don’t want to let go of that DIY, that organic evolution of the sport,” said Applegate. “I think it’s a mixed blessing. I’m in support of it becoming mainstream; I’m not super excited about it being ridiculously commercialized.”

Carter supports standardizing rules for tournaments. He said it will provide broader access to the sport, and he doesn’t see the DIY aspect of it leaving anytime soon.

“[Creating a set of rules] is necessary, because when you go to another place to play polo and the rules are totally different ... then it kind of rocks your brain a little bit,” Carter said, adding later, “I think it will still be DIY. I mean, maybe you’ll be able to go to Wal-Mart and buy a bike polo bike in a year, but you still need to do stuff to make your bike feel good for you.”

Scooter Sackerson of Denver (left), Dallas Harvey of Colorado Springs (Middle) and Duncan “McCloud” Taylor charge the ballAs I watched the June pick-up game, Turner explained that Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo is also at a sort of crossroads. Taking a break between games, he pointed to the group of 14 players. He said most of these and the other 15-or-so players that attend pick-up games regularly have been playing since Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo started last year. With more than a dozen tournaments behind some of the players, Denver Hardcourt's skills have vastly improved, but he and others are wondering where they go from here.

One development that most Denver Hardcourt players agree would help the team is a home court.

Currently they hold games anywhere a central space large enough to play on can be found. The primary location has been a middle school playground yard at 13th Avenue and Emerson Street in Capitol Hill. But the location is less than ideal. Cracks and dips threaten riders and without wall boundaries, the players spend as much time chasing balls as they do playing polo.

“We very badly want a court. It’s hard to get a good idea of bike polo on this court because there are so many things wrong with it,” said Cherri Czajkowski, one of the girls who play with Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo. “[The Capitol Hill court] is awesome in that it’s a central meeting spot and we can kind of just hit around the ball. But it’s not ideal because you don’t have boards, you’re chasing around the ball, there are cracks in the pavement.”

Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo, including Brent Tongco who works in the Mayor’s office, has approached the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation about a place to play. The players are willing to repair and maintain a dilapidated tennis court or similar space in order to earn their right to play there.

Parks and Recreation’s Mark Tabor said he doesn’t have a formal proposal from the group yet, but added that court space may arise when the city looks into installing multi-use courts in currently unused tennis court areas.

But even with a lack of a regular pitch in Denver, interest in the sport is growing.

The Colorado Springs club, Polo High, began around the same time as Denver Hardcourt Bike Polo. About 10-15 players come out to the twice-weekly pickups in the summer, and more in the winter, when other activities like mountain biking aren’t battling for riders’ attention.

In April, Applegate started the Boulder club, which usually sees four to six people show up to its pick-up games.

“I’m definitely addicted to it,” said Applegate. “I think it’s a good outlet. There’s different ways of playing the game. It can be a lot of finesse. It can be a lot of release of tension. A lot of people really get angry and emotional on the court. But I think it’s like any other sport where you develop camaraderie and you really have to be intimate with your machine and know how to fix things as they break.”

Watching the club play in June, I witnessed both the intensity of the game and the passion the players have for their club and it’s future.

“We’ve been trying to figure this out for a while,” Carter said, referring to bike polo’s hold on its dedicated players. “There’s something about riding your bike in general that’s awesome. It just can’t be explained. I think a part of it is that you are literally in tune with the machine. You can feel it … and then combine that with a competitive sport. … Biking and polo together are pretty fucking amazing.” •

Living City Block

 

Llewellyn Wells stands next to solar panels on the roof of the Alliance Center downtown

By Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

Green. Sustainability. Collaboration. The first two are buzzwords we are familiar with in today’s new developments, but collaboration? That is something Living City Block is bringing to the table.

Living City Block (LCB) is taking the goal of sustainability a bit further, by attempting to convert existing buildings with various owners into a fully sustainable community.

LCB is focusing on creating this energy producing community on just one block in Denver (specifically the square block between 15th and 16th Streets and Wynkoop to Blake Streets in Lower Downtown). Its goal is to retrofit this block, so that by 2014 the buildings and businesses on the block will be creating their own energy with no waste, and two years later will be creating more energy than they use.

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Motel of Last Resorts

Homeless families make up nearly 50 percent of Denver's homeless population, but only 15 percent of shelter beds accommodate families. Is enough being done to keep families together? 

By Kristin Pazulski

Karla Hood and her 20-year-old son Karron have been living together in a small motel room off Colfax Avenue since February. 

Their home is in the Volunteers of America’s (VOA) Family Motel. During the day, the sun glitters off the 70s-style lettering of the sign that still stands from the motel’s former life as Aristocrat Motel. In their room, there are two beds, a closet, a bathroom, two nightstands and a chest of drawers. The room is strewn with belongings that once filled their two-bedroom apartment, but are now confined to the two-bed motel room.

Karla, 48, and Karron had to leave their home of 20 years in February when the landlord of their subsidized housing in East Denver refused to renew Karla’s lease. “It was such a last minute situation,” she said. “I had to leave behind about 75 percent of our stuff. I couldn’t afford the storage. I just let it go. I cried a lot and prayed a lot.”

 

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