A Sigh In Denver

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We were in Civic Center Park for a few hours shooting the sunset behind bland Denver buildings. Some Mad-Eye Moody looking dude in Birkenstocks marched up to us to tell us True Grit was playing in the park, “the good one”, he said (whatever, I liked the Coen Bros. one more). He did the same to everybody that passed by. Maybe he was more together in the 1970s, but this guy definitely drugged himself out of the rat race. I guess that’s one way out.

We shot a view from a ground angle, up over an urban garden and bench that would occasionally seat lovers, or a runner with untied shoes, or a family. The tops of their heads were in the shot, but luckily Mad-Eye was around to scare them all away. He stared at this guy’s girlfriend so hard I started to get offended—started talking to them, first about True Grit, then about I-stopped-caring. Whatever it was, it was enough to get them to stop looking into each others eyes and focus their attention on getting the hell away from this guy. The same happened with the family, and the lace-tiers. And would have been us—if we weren’t NY (and one Cali) assholes.

A group of three, fresh out of an exercise session in workout gear, asked about the camera and photography in general. Mom cornered Mark and Ronald while Jim and I talked to daughter and her boyfriend. They talked a different Denver than I was seeing: a beautiful place to live with so much to do and see. Mom talked loud, I could hear her bragging about her homeless son in Barcelona.

“Oh yeah, he’s homeless! He can’t find a hostel! Hah!” She was smiling, happy he was having an experience. Something told me this woman had some money. Something told me “homeless son” was exactly 1 phone call away from safety.

“He’s studying abroad in Barcelona, but he’s living on the streets for a few nights.” Poor fella, getting an education in another country while pretending to be impoverished. Smart money is on you thinking you’re gaining enlightenment for doing this while mom cheers you on from her Mile High ivory tower.

This is the Denver I saw. The buildings are bland and the place seems like a hub for unaware self-aware people. 16th street is home to every kind of person: some depressed-clown-like dude wearing different color Crocs, people playing instruments poorly, and the homeless playing public pianos very well. Things are inverted here: the buildings look old, crops are brand new. The actions are forward-thinking, the thoughts are stale. The talented are homeless, the talent-abled pretend to be before calling it quits at 5 to hit a smoke shop.

Mad-Eye talked to some more passerbys before marching around the park, unwashed curly hair wafting a distinctly Denver-Progressive scent. Mom, daughter, and boyfriend took off after a long conversation drifting between her son’s study-abroad poverty tour and her own photography.

“Oh, you guys are going to Boulder tomorrow? Denver’s nice but…ooh, Boulder. You’ll LOVE it there!”

Mile High City can be a nice place, I’m sure—I just don’t know what the focus is here. There’s a two block long amusement park that costs $40.00 to get in. There are tons of bars and restaurants, lots of dispensaries, but it somehow seemed lacking for such a “progressive” place. The city of plants doesn’t even find itself on the top 25 list of American Green cities. Lots of makeup, lacking in substance. Is this it?

To Denver’s benefit, I did think it cool that the city played movies for whoever wanted to watch ’em. I liked the community gardens that are tended to by residents of the city. I liked seeing (through squinted eyes) the Rocky Mountains in the distance—and the weather was really nice. And you guys are doing pretty great with the legalization thing (you’d think you’d see people smoking everywhere—not true). But Compared to the lost juggernaut of Detroit and beautiful Chicago, Denver is behind in either case. The characters in Detroit and Chicago were weird and strange, but in a genuine way. They weren’t fakin’ a thing, they were unapologetically out there. Denver had an overall blandness to it—even with its’ 60 sculptures and whatever, something not found in Detroit or Chicago. I’m not sure what the city needs, but it seems like they’re trying to install artificial soul. Denver’s 88.4% white people are made up of people keeping the city moving forward and people like Mad-Eye who swear they’re a part of that progress. It’s sad clowns, artists, ethically-corrupt-proud-moms, and pot-minded businesspeople mingling together. For many residents and tourists, it’s an escapist’s fantasy come true.

Mom was right. Boulder’s better.

A Walk With Polo

Chicago is a beautiful city. Coming from Detroit’s malaise, Chicago seemed more like NYC to me than it probably otherwise would; streets are alive during the day with suits and slacks, t’s and tourists—and not one Parrothead in sight.

We took the drone up over Millennium Park once before being told we couldn’t do it again and headed to Buckingham Fountain to get a time lapse.

“Ay man. These yours? These Parliaments?”

Some dude came out of nowhere and started rooting through bags looking for a cigarette.

“Yeah, they’re Parliaments.” Mark said. He seemed like he was on drugs.

“Sweet! Hey man, I’ll trade you a hit of my joint for a Parliament.” He opened his palm to show an almost-entirely-smoked joint.

He was wearing a wrinkled black polo, black cotton shorts, and scuffed sneakers. He was short, thin, and had a slightly scratchy voice. His short faux-hawk made him look younger, but I’d still pin him somewhere in late 20s, early 30s.

We soon learned his name was Polo. Polo was a career porn star who wouldn’t seem familiar to many “unless you give some credit card information to Vivid Entertainment.”

Polo, while waiting for Mark to give him a cigarette, told us about his past 2 days. Nothing much out of the ordinary: a chick he was with was held at knife-point while idling at a red light and this obviously made Polo angry—so he made her blow him until he got to an ATM. He reminisced about picking up two girls at a bar, bringing them back to his aunt’s house (whose bedroom “conveniently” had a bed—isn’t that the whole point of the room’s name, Polo?), and paid her $140.00 so he could bang ’em in her room. He threw in a little ditty about getting kicked off a bus for having a $50.00 bill or something, I kind of stopped paying attention; dude could ramble.

He also ate dinner on the top floor of Trump Tower every night of the week. Pretty swank, Polo!

In an effort to prove his sexual prowess, Polo told us “trade secrets”.

“Yo, you want a girl to orgasm every time? Try this move out…it’s called “The Walk”. Polo demonstrated by motioning his index and middle fingers like, you guessed it, a walkin’ pair of legs. He was explicit with his instructions, too, “DON’T force it. Never force it! They don’t like that.”

“Hey, you want your dick to grow? Try this. When you’re jerking off, wrap some sewing string around the head of your dick—it’s a muscle, bro! You gotta work it like you do every other muscle. So then just jerk off and tug on the string a little bit. Bro, I grew 6 inches in 7 months.”

Polo, with all his worldly advice and expertise (I’m wrapped tight as I type this), was kind of hostile, angry. He was mad—not as us, just at the whole world. Maybe getting paid to fuck wasn’t all Polo thought it would be. Maybe he was just a broke Chicagoan playing out a fantasy to whoever was willing to tolerate it. Maybe Polo really was a complaining porn star with the world on a string—or at least his dick.

Ronald, Mark, and Polo left to waste time with whatever was left of the joint, Jimmy and I waited with the equipment.

About 20 feet in front of us, we could see Polo aiming his water bottle at a pigeon.

“Precision.” He said before missing his mark, giving chase to the bird with his arms outstretched. This lasted about 15 seconds before a group of Segway tourist-riders reached the fountain.

“HEY GUYS! LOOK! SEG-GAYS!” He said while running after birds and tossed water bottles. Dude was definitely on drugs.

***

The next day, we caught up with Polo one more time before leaving Chicago, meeting him in front of Buckingham Fountain to buy from a friend of his. Polo was wearing the same exact outfit as yesterday; it was like he was living in some kind of drug-infused, lubricated Groundhog’s Day loop.

Dude ended up coming through for us and made the drive to Denver more relaxed. Somewhere in California right now, the good people over at Vivid Entertainment are singing Polo’s praises:

What thrusts!

I’d give anything to go for a walk with Polo!

This is gold, Polo! GOLD!

After we left him, I like to believe Polo walked into Trump Tower and high-fived security. He took the elevator to the top floor and enjoyed the complexities of a rich Cabernet between bites of filet Mignon. Afterwards, he had sex with the wait staff, all of them—and didn’t have to pay anybody to use their bedroom.

I’m like Fox Mulder. I want to believe.

Detroit Still Exists

Detroit’s been through some shit, anybody can tell you that—but it usually ends in some kind of political dog-and-pony show. We really only had the chance to blow through it, shooting whatever we could with whatever time we could find.When Derek, a local Detroiter, first tried to get us to run a red light, “Run it! Run it!” we laughed, thinking he was kidding around. When we were following him to the Heidelberg Project and he ran almost every red light, we realized Detroit was lax on some laws in Greektown, and Corktown, and Downtown…

It’s plain to see, cops have bigger problems in surrounding areas than they do Downtown. Whatever police the city has to work with are probably scattered around the eastside area. The police we did see hovered around Greektown, the most alive and populated area in the city. They mostly stood there talking to bouncers or standing around while people yelled about personal problems at them.

After cruising poker tables, we walked out of the Greektown Casino to some chick getting choked out on the pavement surrounded by a hushed crowd. A cop car was parked on the street but nobody was inside, nobody was around. And the same can be said for a lot of places outside of Downtown: things are decaying, things never sell, and people leave; just fragments of a city left behind in the dust. In some instances, Detroiters turn them into art—like the Heidelberg Project. 2 blocks have been turned into some pretty powerful messages by one guy and a few area sculptors. In others, younger Detroiters have taken to burning houses down, mostly on Mischief Night.

During the day, most of Downtown is fine to walk around, the statistics are in your favor here, but why would you? The place is a ghost town—the Detroit Police Gaming Division has a for sale sign in front of it. There are diners, convenient stores, and motels dotting East Lafayette, but it’s pretty empty and dreary. Tall apartment buildings are half torn down in the distance, one of the first glimpses of the city from I-75. There’s a malaise in the city, a general apathy towards itself. Other than the GM Building, most buildings just sigh empty in the skyline.

“I thought it’d be bigger” Mark said of the skyline when we first drove in on the I-75, empty on a Friday night.

The buildings in Detroit really aren’t the city’s selling point. Riverwalk and Belle Isle, the city’s (though state funded) coastal path and park overlook the Detroit River and into Windsor, Canada. The park is beautiful, well kept, and the water looks clean—at least cleaner than NY and NJ rivers. The view into Windsor isn’t much to see, some buildings dot the city, but Windsor’s skyline is almost nonexistent.

The people in Detroit have a charm to their assholery. Our waiter at a Coney Island place (Detroit lingo for a chili-cheese-dog) waited patiently while our producer, Derek, ordered eggs, bacon, and hash browns—in a hotdog joint. The waiter waved his head “no” with a self-satisfying grin and left us for a good 10 minutes. Later in the night a suited-up couple crammed into an elevator in Greektown, one of the guys inside commenting, “Damn you smell better than a motha-fucka!” He kept at it until they got out on the Casino floor.

Greektown at night is filled with tourists, partiers, and people with money to blow in Greektown Casino. These are your typical Downtown nightlife rabble: polos and button downs, pre-whiskered jeans and slacks. They’re the people staying for a few days to check out a Tigers, Lions, or Red Wings game. In our instance, they were parrotheads in town for a Jimmy Buffett show. Pasty older white couples in denim shorts and grass skirts partying in a poverty-stricken, diverse neighborhood—symbolism rarely comes this easy. At night on the street, some of the more intoxicated locals will sing to you while you wait for the light to change. Others dance with you while they sing Earth, Wind, and Fire songs for money. These people are alright.

With a staggering 14% metro unemployment rate, the younger Detroiters are in perpetual joblessness and boredom. In some rescued-buildings-turned-studios in an abandoned warehouse district, the owners are kind enough to loan out the place for weekly—sometimes nightly parties. The PBR is cheap, a propane can ignites a torch at the press of a button, and the neighborhood kids drunkenly play soccer in the middle of the street without cops on their asses.

There was a separate party for a Makers Festival in nearby Dearborn—a festival for creators with varying ranges of usefulness (a motorized, drivable reclining leather chair? How long did you spend building that dude?) but when we got there most were hanging out with friends. We had an invite but this wasn’t really a party for outsiders. We left about an hour in and headed back to the Stay Inn.

It’s tough to go to Detroit and not be tempted to get some ruin porn out of it. Buildings sit idled, half without water, and let weather to run its course, inhabited or not. Detroit itself boasts an old, utterly failed, and abandoned train station in Cork Town as a tourist stop. While our photographer took his drone around and over the building, a wedding party snuck in some quick group shots before heading to the reception.

We wound up shooting some of it, specifically the Packard Plant, under the guise of its recent rescue from demolition and restoration plans. I didn’t get to see it in person—I was too busy with Jimmy getting kicked out of the Ford Plant for filming—but from the footage, this place is unusable. The guy who bought it plans to restore it and offer space to vehicle manufacturers and artists with 3 year’s free rent as bait, but this place is in bbaadd shape. It’s very literally falling apart before your eyes, the parts that haven’t been scrapped, and there are definitely people living in the ruin. The Packard Plant was the motor building that launched Detroit in the turn of the 20th century and the plan is to get this place to pump life into the city…again. Sections are completely collapsed, others pretty much so. The plant is massive and every building is in near identical condition. If this place is restored, it’s going to take a whole lot of time and money.

Detroit’s facing 20 billion in debt, rising poverty, dipping populations, and no industry. It’s been compared to a collapsed Roman Empire: lights shining on abandoned buildings give the allusion of the Coliseum. And it’s true, the resemblance of prestige-turned-dust is everywhere, but as the city falls deeper into decline, it begins to also resemble the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Urban farms popping up where buildings once stood may help some in need but I doubt it’s potential to revitalize the city. And as the gods concluded with Sisyphus: there’s nothing worse than futile and endless labor. But what can Detroit do? Michigan and the U.S. have neglected the city, Mitt Romney is quoted as saying “Let Detroit go bankrupt”, and people on internet forums brush the city away with “nuke it, they’re worthless” comments. The people that wind up in the city are shoving money into the casinos after wastin’ away again in Margaritaville while some Detroiters can’t afford water—too much cable news paranoia has kept them from exploring outside the Comerica Park area (though if I had a stuffed parrot glued to my hat, I wouldn’t either). Without the extreme amount of violence in sections of Detroit, it’d never make the news. The curtains been pulled, there’s nothing to see here. Maybe pleas to the U.N. will benefit in some way other than inane debates between talking heads far outside city limits. Maybe it’ll at least get half the city’s water back. Something. I like you, Detroit, but it really is like the shirt says, “Detroit vs. Everybody”.