Thursday, February 10, 2022

Boulder Flashback 2000: "A big world hidden in small worlds"


      Off to Boulder today on family business. I've been going there for almost half a century, and every now and then someone asks why I don't live there. It's sooooo beautiful.
      "Just lucky I guess," is one explanation. This is another. Reading it now, for the first time after 20 years, I'm surprised that I've turned into a pants-wetting liberal, because this sounds like a proto- crusty libertarian venting his disdain. Or even—horrors!—a conservative-in-the-making. Dodged that bullet.

     BOULDER, COL.—When the wind is calm, the mountains act as a bowl, trapping the smoky effluvia drifting up from the city in a stagnant brown haze.
     This haze dampens the finely tuned self-regard of people here by implying they live in a polluted place. So they are moved to action: They ban fires in fireplaces, communicating that fires are verboten that day by printing a red dot on the front page of the newspapers. If the coast is clear, the dot is blue.
     It is no empty threat. If a cop notices smoke coming out of your chimney on a red dot day, he'll give you a ticket.
     The ban is gospel. My mother, normally as cynical as myself, if not more so, eagerly chirped, "It's a blue dot day!" when I arrived and demanded the traditional Prodigal Son greeting of Manhattans, Scrabble and a fire in the fireplace.
     As an outsider, it is clear to me that the fireplace business is a sham, both overly intrusive and ineffectual. If they really want to cut down on the haze, they would somehow restrict those giant sport-utility vehicles even more popular here than in Lincoln Park, because mountains exist here in reality rather than in daydream.
     But to do that might inconvenience people, might keep them from blasting from Starbucks to soccer to Whole Foods.
     It's all part of what I've come to refer to as "The People's Republic of Boulder," a net of well-intended social programming that sounds progressive until you actually think about it.
     For instance: My mother showed off her new cellular phone, the service for which is provided free by the city. They do this because she teaches in the public schools. If you fail to make the connection, here's a hint: Columbine. Rather than entertain the notion that such tragedies are unique events that cannot be forestalled, it's easier, if not cheaper, to give away free cell phone service, so teachers are ready to call in SWAT teams next time.
     The town is peppered with progressive, Swedenlike socialist bells and whistles: crosswalks with flashing yellow strobe lights built into the street, to catch the attention of speeding SUV owners. Big signs that flash: "YOU ARE SPEEDING!" to shame drivers into slowing. Camera/radar devices at intersections check your speed, take a picture of your car and mail a ticket without diverting any of Boulder's finest from their chimney-checking duties.
     Every time I visit, my parents—oblivious to the Singaporelike police state in which they live—make the pitch that I should abandon my life in dynamic, frantic, forward-straining Chicago to join the cultlike sonambulism of life in Boulder.
     The notion always leaves me speechless. Why anybody would want to live in a town where the officials are sniffing at your chimney? Where all the women aspire to look like Spanish widows from a W. Eugene Smith photo essay—plain, coarse-spun clothes, severe hair pulled straight back and covered? I swear, there's more makeup in Sugar Rautbord's purse than in the whole town.
     There's no way to tell my parents this, of course. The smaller the place, the more certain its residents are that they live in the only spot on Earth.
     My visit reminded me of the time I went to the top of the Sears Tower with a trio of Yanomamo Indians from South America. They were the real thing—they checked their spears at the entrance to the observation deck. They stood for a long time, gazing out at the enormous vista of streets and buildings, running to the horizon.
     What, I asked one, through an interpreter, will he say about this to their fellow tribesman, back in the rain forest?
     He said: "I am going back to tell my people that though we call ourselves 'the fierce people,' and we think we are The People, there is a greater world out there than we realize."
     Isn't that how it always is?
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 10 2000


  1. When did you first go to Boulder, Mr. S?
    Lived there in '71. I've never been back.

  2. Replies
    1. Two years...from 1971 to 1973...made all the difference in the world. Same city, but two totally different zeitgeists...the hippies were superseded by the yuppies. It happened very quickly. Boulder has grown much larger and more sprawling and has become far more affluent. It's now fifty years since I lived there. Hard to believe it. The time has gone by so fast.

      Boulder became a hippie mecca in the late about the same time as San Francisco. A lot of ex-Californians migrated there, to escape all the social disintegration. Many other folks, from all over the rest of the country, also gravitated to Colorado, and especially to Boulder.

      But by 1971, the bloom was definitely off the rose. Boulder was going down the same sorry road as the Haight. Crime, drugs, predators of all kinds, preying on the flower children. Both hippies and straights were far more edgy, and no longer tolerant of one another. The local conservatives had formed an outfit known as CURB...Citizens United to Restore Boulder. Their weapon of choice was not the gun, but the baseball bat.

      Up in the mountains, in the communes that were known as "ranches" (some were at the dizzying elevation of 9,000 feet), the male members wore loaded six-guns in holsters. There were drug gangs in Boulder, dealing in heroin and speed, and a lot of street people, who went shoeless and whose feet were blackened. Quite a few murders were committed in '71. The victims were usually put into sleeping bags, dumped in the mountains ,and left for the animals to ravage. Tough place, tough times.

      Colorado's natural beauty blew me away. I felt privileged to be living there. But I was completely unaware of Boulder's rapid decline before I arrived there, at 24. My girlfriend and I found living space in a very comfortable communal house, on Marine Street. It even had a fireplace. We could see the Flatirons from our front porch.

      I was able to handle the noise and the sloppiness and the filthy kitchen, but it was probably better in the rooming houses, where everybody did their own thing and shared a kitchen. By that point, even some former fraternity houses...the big ones...had begun renting out rooms. That was the way it was in the Boulder of '71.

      My housemates were a diverse lot, all from different states, and the atmosphere became quite congenial, despite our having been strangers to one another. But that didn't last long. It all began unraveling when a young lady from Oklahoma started making her rent and drug money her favors. Soon she was bringing her customers home, for partying and sex. Most of them were the dregs of the streets, shaggy and menacing drug dealers and gang members, who wore big Bowie knives. My girlfriend and I, along with the rest of my housemates, were not happy. The situation deteriorated very fast.

      I told the wench she had a either stop or to move. She threatened to have me killed, and that made me furious enough to seriously consider the idea of driving her into the mountains and pushing her off a cliff. My girlfriend backed out of the plot. Instead, she decided to pack up the car and take our dog and head back to Illinois. So I left, too. We slogged through a total whiteout that even forced the truckers to pull over. Worst road trip of my life.

      Would I have actually done it? Possibly. I was more crazy and impulsive at 24 than I am at 74. But staying in that house (and in Boulder) wasn't worth "killing for peace." And quiet. My girlfriend's decision may have saved that harpy's life. And mine.

  3. Beautiful. Glad you pulled this out of the archives. It was a fun read.

  4. What I find fascinating about that litany of horrors in Boulder of 20 years ago is that, with the singular exception of the red-dot/blue-dot business, every single one can now be found here as well, so common that they're now just a part of everyday life.

    We have two pedestrian strobe crossings within a mile of our house, multiple speed feedback signs, right-turn and red-light cameras abound at busier intersections; and of course speed cameras are all about Chicago. Add to that the Odd/Even Day restrictions on outdoor watering or street parking, and it all eventually blurs together into a general cloud of petty annoyances that we learn to live with, after first getting past our initial outrage, of course.

    That red-dot/blue-dot program is unusual, though, and seems like at least an attempt to address a problem, however bad or useless it may have turned out to be. In our rural community, we enjoy a good fire in the fireplace and the outdoor aroma it produces. (Speaking of which, birch goes up like a bomb. I recommend oak.) It's not as obnoxious as outdoor leaf burning can be to some, and we jokingly refer to it as making the neighborhood smell tasteful. We'll arrive home and discover a neighbor doing it as well. "[sniff] [sniff] Hey, someone's being tasteful this evening!"

  5. I noticed that too, Andy. These days our EGD host's beloved Chicago "is peppered with progressive, Swedenlike socialist bells and whistles," making it more "Singaporelike" than Hinky Dink Kenna could ever have imagined.

    Personally, I don't find attempts to make streets safer for pedestrians all that oppressive, either as a pedestrian or a driver. Trying to get people to slow down a bit and/or pay more attention to what they're doing may be futile, but is a worthy goal, IMHO.

    I'll just throw out a couple more unpopular opinions, while I'm at it. I love the smell, look and crackle of a nice wood fire, but from environmental and health perspectives, I don't believe the smoke created is beyond criticism.

    But, heck, I think the topper is the suggestion that a place might be unlivable because the women there don't wear enough makeup. That's quite the take! ; )


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