Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why I love city neighborhoods

Diedrich's is a neighborhood coffee shop on the corner of Downing and 9th in downtown Denver. It's exactly what a local java haunt should be: nestled among old, subdivided houses, it wraps around the corner of the block, surrounded by wrought iron tables and chairs at which Merrell-clad Denverites and their de rigeur dogs slurp large espressos and pant, respectively. The locals have turned out full force this crisp Sunday morning and the place is buzzing (pun intended).

I am a stranger in this mess of neighbors and, new to this part of Denver, I am all eyes and ears. I am not disappointed.

Although at first it appeared that I was checked out rather enthusiastically by a table of young guys as I approached, Paul's MacBook and paperback tucked under my arm, I quickly realize that this must be a gay part of town. Glancing around, I count about five women total in the place, two of whom are old, roll-out-of-bed ratty and very obviously regulars.

After ordering my mocha with soy, I plop down at small table in the center of the place, facing a wall of windows--the perfect people-watching post. Men in suits (Jehovahs' Witnesses, perhaps?), joggers and plenty of young, trendy lads walk by. The early Spring has the city outside in droves, enjoying what may be only a temporary respite from a particularly snowy winter.

On the small table adjacent to mine sits an abandoned Denver Post in disarray. I flip through the Sunday magazine, learning about the fascinating love swaps of the rich and bored, before turning to my borrowed book, Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There, a side-splitting account of a middle-aged man's travels around Europe. I'm not sure if I should read this in public, certain that I will laugh, perhaps snort, out loud, but decide to throw caution to the wind. It's a good choice. I have read this book three or four times already and will probably read it half a dozen more times in my lifetime. The newspaper sits, lonely, off to my right.

All of a sudden, the pierced older man from behind me approaches the paper and begins rifling through the sections. Turns out he is searching with remarkable focus for dog food coupons. He doesn't smile, ask or even nod. Although I didn't buy the paper, I feel a sense of ownership (it's at MY table!) and am slightly miffed that my presence is neither acknowleged nor my consent sought. How does he know that I didn't buy that paper? My silence must mean that it's alright. Slight annoyance fades to mild amusement as he finds multiple coupons, tears them out and returns to his seat.

A few minutes later, another older man pops up at my side, eyeing the paper. He scoops it up--all except the Sunday magazine, I note--and swoops it away, without so much as a questioning glance. I make a mental note: be in physical contact at all times with a newspaper if you don't want people to treat it as community property. I wonder what would have happened if I had protested. Every scenario I imagine always ends up the same: they somehow find out that I work for a ministry and accuse me of hatred and intolerance for not openly sharing my paper, that somehow claiming something as my own makes me a bigoted gay-hater. I realize that I am always the tiniest bit uncomfortable when surrounded by large groups of homosexuals, afraid that somehow I will be found out and persecuted for choosing heterosexuality and Jesus. It's a strange realization. As a dancer, I've had many gay friends, but they've usually been the minority. Here, the tables are turned. I'm not sure I like this newly discovered aspect of my character; at the same time I know that I'm being ridiculous and melodramatic.

Newspaper-swiping aside, I am charmed by this little place, with its bright jazz music, toasty-pastry smells, and the whirr and shoosh of the coffee drinks being made behind the counter. I could live around here, I think. I would walk here every weekend, Saturday mornings perhaps, and get to know the old man behind the counter in the pageboy cap (currently not behind the counter but outside socializing and furiously dragging on a cigarette). He called me dearie when he handed over my coffee; he would know my name for sure if I lived nearby. I imagine a new scenario: entering to a chorus of hellos (well, friendly nods, at least) from the locals, chatting and laughing with new friends and having civilized, rational conversations about the Bible and what it says about homosexuality. It's a nice thought, anyway.

So here I sit, banging away on this borrowed computer, surrounded by gay men who rifle unapolagetically through the newspaper that could be mine without so much as a nod or a smile. My mocha is rich and hot, the sun is shining and Bill Bryson's book is as funny as the first time I read it. I heart the city.