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Post DNC -- Denver is Denver Again

New America Media, Commentary, Russell Morse Posted: Sep 01, 2008

ST. PAUL -- There is a lot to be learned by staying behind after a political convention has left town. On Friday night, after the Democrats, protesters and police disappeared in a cloud of pyrotechnic smoke, I watched Denver become Denver again.

16th St. downtown was reclaimed by its regular inhabitants: packs of young men on corners and benches, selling and smoking weed, a skinny, wrinkled old woman wheeling an oxygen tank and lighting a cigarette, teenage girls in miniskirts showing off bruised legs, pushing strollers, a man with a kitten on his shoulder playing the recorder for spare change, round faced men from the suburbs -- stuffed into polo shirts, trying to appease their streaky-haired wives with dinner downtown and a carriage ride.

The nice restaurants with wine lists and Italian names that were packed all week long sat nearly empty on a Friday night, the bored waitresses sharing cigarettes and light gossip. Chilis still had a reasonable crowd, most of them inside at the bar, where the televisions had changed back to ESPN after days of CNN.

The Jamaican vendors with the folding tables had scrapped their Obama souvenirs for marijuana pipes, cell phone cases and incense. A sad and slow energy settled back over Denver.

The night before, I sat in Mile High Stadium, one of 84,000, and watched as Barack Obama brought entire families to tears of joy. Most of the people in the crowd were from the area, but there are no hints of that exuberant optimism left in Denver.

A few blocks north of the downtown strip, a place called the Melbourne Hotel sits in the shadow of the Greyhound station. It costs $16 dollars a night to get a bed in a dormitory there and inside it looks like I imagine it did 80 years ago: low ceiling fans swirl cigarette smoke around in a long hallway with brown walls and dim light.

I share a bunk bed with a man named Rob who has been living in the Melbourne for over a year and gets a discount by helping out. He says he likes it there because its close to downtown, close to jobs. I ask him what kind of jobs there are, he takes a sip of lemonade from a mason jar and says, in this economy, its not great, but its better than being in the middle of nowhere.

Robs friend is an ex-military man, shining his boots at the edge of his bed. He doesnt talk much, but Rob says hes back from Iraq and floating around, looking for work. The Melbourne is full of men like this. Old, bearded, young, gap toothed, sad, tired men, wandering around the west, looking for work. Meeting Rob and his military friend, I feel like Ive wandered into a Steinbeck novel, swapping stories with depression-era characters.

A crowd of people boarding a bus for Mexico blocks the sidewalk in front of the Melbourne. Men in white cowboy hats and short women with braided hair line the wall, waiting to go home. I make my way to the Greyhound station and purchase a ticket for St Paul, Minnesota. Its a 21-hour ride and if I want to be there in time to see the Republicans, I have to get going.

The first leg of the trip is unremarkable. Nothing much happens when you cross from Colorado into Kansas: youre clearly not in the mountains any more, just streaking trough miles of desolate, rolling green. Every few miles, a rusted windmill pokes the horizon, but there is nothing else out there.

The sun goes down and we make a stop in Fort Riley, Kansas. I meet a man named Daryl with no teeth who tells me he is on his way to Toledo or Detroit; hes not sure which yet. It depends where he can find some work, hopefully as a hotel clerk or maybe doing security. Whatever I can find to pay the rent, he tells me. And get me cigarettes and coffee. He quit driving a truck last year and registered with the IRS as a professional gambler. When I meet him, hes coming back from Las Vegas, where he lost everything he had on slots and video poker.

I change buses in Kansas City, Missouri at 1 in the morning and manage to sleep for the next 10 hours or so, waking up as we pull into St Paul. I get to a television to hear how the Republicans are settling into town and instead, I see footage of poor black people in New Orleans being loaded onto buses. I hadnt seen a newspaper in days or heard anything about Hurricane Gustav, so its a surprise to me.

John McCain comes on to announce that this is no time for a party. And yet, the downtown St Paul restaurants with wine lists and Italian names are full. The president wont be here Monday, as scheduled, because his priority, suddenly, is the people of the gulf coast. McCain himself skipped town to help out in Mississippi.

Im reminded that if you dont ride Greyhound or stay in a cheap hotel, if you dont loiter downtown somewhere for a few hours or talk to people at truck stops, poverty is invisible in America until an act of God blows it across the television screen. That is, unless you live in one of these communities in Denver, Toledo or New Orleans.

Its uncertain right now how this week will unfold. By Friday night, though, every one will be gone and St. Paul will become St. Paul again.

Russell Morse is a New York based writer for New America Media.

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