Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Coffee Under the Bridge...

I was sitting at work last week, paging eagerly through Westword's much coveted, annual "Best of Denver" issue. I was performing the "hip-check", sort of a low tech variation on Googling one's own name; looking to see how many DJ's I recognized, how many places I've been to, and how many local inside jokes would produce a knowing chuckle (congratulations, "Bitter Biker")

As you can imagine, one of the first things I check every year is which joint will receive the honor of being named "Best Coffeehouse". For 2006, the love went to the respectable choice of St. Mark's. The entry, like anything to do with St. Mark's, (or it's sister-business, the adjacent bar "The Thin Man") always stirs mixed emotions in me. It occurred to me then, that anyone who reads this blog, who has spent any time exploring Denver's cafes, must be a little perplexed by my omission of this institution, this fine specimen of coffee-culture.

When I was a kid in Denver, the emerging hipster class had two choices as far as hangouts were concerned; Paris on the Platte or Muddy's. As a VERY rough guideline, Paris was for students, club goers and neo-beatniks; Muddy's was for Burn-outs, Hippies and Dungeons and Dragons fanatics. If there wasn't nearly so much going on in the city back then, we didn't care. There was a sense of ownership among the places that were "ours"... you never had to worry about a pissing match between two frat boys at a warehouse party, and Rock Island didn't throw bikini-foam-parties to prove that Denver was great as LA/South Beach/New York/Your-Coastal-City-Here.

I didn't (and don't) completely disparage the cultural / economic shift that occurred. Along with a bunch of bars and clubs I would never set foot in, it brought with it a slew of new independent coffeehouses; Cafe Euphrates on 17th avenue, Black Pearl, Gasoline Alley, and of course, the Original St. Marks at 15th St. and Market.

St. Marks was one of the last bastions of cool in downtown Denver. That said, it wasn't about to be defined by the joints that preceded it. A ping pong table provided a sense of humor that was the anathema to the Muddy's kids who never did anything more athletic than thumb through their "Sandman" comics. You waited at the counter for your food and drink, like in Seattle, as opposed to having it brought by a waitress. And Eric, the owner, had a strict "no performance" policy that was unusual at the time. The formula was a success, evolving it's own indigenous clientele; smokers in the back, pre-club goers, first daters, bohos who prefered to read a book without hearing some neo-Arlo Guthrie wailing in the background, and the occasional yuppie who was adventurous enough to walk the extra block past The Market in Larimer Square.

This rag-tag group coalesced into a "scene". Relationships began here. Friendships. Alliances. When Eric opened his second location, and when that became his ONLY location, we followed. When he opened the Thin Man, and turned that block into a mini nightlife destination, a few of us friends who had met there felt responsible. We occupied that place in a way that went beyond just having our butts planted in the barstools. This was ours.

A few years ago, I had a falling out with one of those friends in particular - having to do with nothing so much as needing to grow up - and needing to stand up for the things in my life that are most important. There was no argument with Eric, who I've never known well, but has always seemed like a straight up guy. Not with any of the workers, some of whom I had gotten to know, some not. Just another patron, like me. But with cafes and bars, the clientele is as important as the staff. And as he, admittedly, invested more time (smoking on the patio) and money (on coffee and beer) - in the divorce, I begrudgingly let him keep St. Mark's.

But when they got the Westword nod, I knew I had to go back for my few devoted readers who may not have had a chance to visit this gem. Smoke still floats to the front counter from the back, past newspaper clippings decrying the inevitable smoking ban. The hot, punky BWA (Barista With Attitude, the only kind St. Mark's has ever employed) made me a spot on cappuccino and called me "hon". They still offer the same delicious peanut butter / chocolate chip cookies, the size and consistency of fossilized dinosaur droppings. The acupuncture student (possibly a professional, now) still sits at his exact same table, though the "subvert the dominant paradigm" bumper sticker appears to have fallen off his laptop. And the back room still looks like it's holding auditions for an East High School stage production of "Ghost World".

You know, I thought I'd still feel my old friend's presence haunt this place, even though he wasn't there. I was wrong... things change. Even the "no performances" rule has given way to the Ubisububi Room, an intimate setting for shows in the basement ("this is David Lynch month" reads a chalk board at the top of the steps).

I was going to call this entry "Good Coffee, Bad Blood"; I think what I went with is better.

They say you can't go back. I concur. But that doesn't mean I can't stop in for cuppa and peanut butter chocolate chip cookie every now and again.


totalvo said...

I remember that clown,,, he was at the bar the night his baby was born..

MrDanger said...

now thats a god damn good fucking post !

locomocos said...

i like st. mark's -
and i like the thin man better.

but both places have changed within the last 5 years. i don't know what happened.
i used to be a regular at both establishments (more so the latter) but the crowd changed. maybe i just changed - probably both. i don't go there much anymore.
plus st. mark's makes you pay for internet.