April 14, 2023 | FEATURES | By Decca Harper
His name is Toy, and he has never seen a body of water.
We met in the Denver Union Station on a bench by the door to the platform.
That morning, on Colorado College campus, Denver was only a place on a map – I had been an optimist.
‘Twas December, and I was going home. Farewell to the cold air and blazing winds of Colorado, for I am homebound, off to the mountains of Virginia (perhaps mere hills in Colorado), 1,500 miles away.
As my Block 4 was still in session on the Zoom forum, I needed to get home between the end of the first week and the start of the second. Spoiler alert – I didn’t.
But how was I to know? Naively, I frolicked about campus, singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and humming other romantic tunes.
Not wanting to miss my train, I arrived in Denver a few hours early. After peeking into the various shops (ah, how very charming!) and making a jovial phone call or two, I heard the news: my train had been delayed by more than 12 hours.
Defeated, I resigned myself to the bench.
I clutched my suitcase and watched people come in and out of the station. Toy, with his scraggly beard, lopsided beanie, and oversized leather jacket, weaved his way out of this bustling lot and waddled toward my bench. He sat down and didn’t speak at first.
“Where are you going?” he eventually said, not looking at me.
From what I’d observed, people in the station weren’t talking to each other much. At first, I wasn’t sure.
“Are you talking to me?” I said.
“Oh, okay, sorry.”
“Where are you going?” he said.
“Are you talking to me?”
“I’m going to Virginia,” I said. “What about you? Are you going anywhere?”
“I could go anywhere I wanted to. Anywhere. Any one of these trains, I could be on it. I could get a ticket. I have my own money now. I have my own money…”
“Did you not before?”
He stared off into space, not replying. Maintaining a conversation was difficult because he tended to go silent or repeat, “Are you hungry? I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”
“I could go anywhere…”
“Where do you want to go?” I said.
“San Diego. Imagine the ocean! I’ve never seen a body of water. Have you?”
“You have?!” he said. “What was it like?”
“It was… vast,” I said, not anticipating such receptive emotion in his voice.
“Yes, vast…” he said, trailing off. “I have my own money now. I can take you anywhere in this station. I can get you anything to eat. Are you hungry?”
“Oh, no, thank you.”
“Are you sure?”
Out came his wallet, followed by his credit cards to show me.
“What’s your name?” I reply.
“You’re not gonna believe me,” he said quietly, inching closer. “T-O-Y! It’s Toy!”
During the next 40 minutes or so, Toy told me a bit about his life, though he mostly just asked if I was hungry. He was born in Denver and had lived there his whole life. He wanted to see the water. He was also a drug dealer.
“You ever do any drugs, man?” he said.
“Oh, no, no.”
“Yeah, me neither. Never any hard drugs. I only smoke weed. You ever smoke weed, man?”
“No, I don’t personally.”
“Oh, yeah! I never do any hard drugs, man. Never,” he said. “But I am, you know, kind of a drug dealer.”
During our conversation, I noticed the guards throwing a shirtless man out of the building. He shouted something at them. I couldn’t make it out. Toy would also occasionally call out at the passersby, even sticking his leg out in a futile attempt to stop people.
He soon fell silent and put his head directly against my face.
“You really believe everything I’m saying? Aren’t you gonna challenge me?”
“Well, you’ve said it to me, and I see no reason to doubt you,” I said, in the calmest tone imaginable, trying to avoid any conflict.
“Ha, I like you, man. You know what I would do if I were you? I’d braid your hair.”
“You’d braid it?” I said.
“I didn’t say that! Just ‘cause of the wind, I was just saying… I wouldn’t braid it.”
“Yeah, of course.”
After another long silence, he just stared at me and gradually reached for my hat.
“That’s my hat,” he said. “I left it somewhere.”
I watched at him for a few moments to see if he would really take it. “Did you?”
“Nah, I’m just messing with you, man. Want some vodka?” he said, offering me a bottle.
So that’s what he’s hiding under that jacket…
“No, thank you, I’m good.”
“Alright, alright,” he said. “I have my own money, now… we could be making money all day. What are you doing here? Are you just gonna wait here?”
He continually pressed me about making money. He kept asking me to follow him. I started to put the pieces together and realized he was inviting me to join his profession. I politely declined, and he eventually grew angry and stumbled off shouting.
“You’re just gonna sit here all day? After I offered you vodka?!”
Then, a man at the other end of the bench slowly looked up and turned to me.
“Um, excuse me, man. I’m like, um, I’m like homeless and stuff, and I was wondering if you had a dollar or something so I could get something to eat?”
I rummaged through my wallet and handed him my cash. “That’s all I got, man.”
“Thanks,” he said.
He returned soon with a slice of what looked like red velvet cake. I reckon I’d have picked the same thing…
It wasn’t the Denver experience I was expecting. The only things that mattered to me when I left were: One – how do I avoid flying? and two – where is the train station in Denver?
If I had done even five minutes of research, I wouldn’t have had any surprises waiting for me.
The Denver Union Station is not what it pretends to be. The station’s website describes it as “a preserved monument to the city’s past” and “a visionary beacon for Denver’s future” – “an awe-inspiring landmark.” The website’s sleek design and promises of luxury resemble the glamorous interior of the Grand Hall.
However, two patterns become clear even when just perusing news articles about the station – it’s full of illegal drug activity and has increasingly become a place where people experiencing homelessness come to seek shelter.
There’s something haunting about looking at these sterile promises of comfort and seeing the reality of life in the Union Station. Even more haunting because the promises are half-true.
I – kind of – accidentally snuck into the upscale Crawford Hotel above the station’s Great Hall when I walked into an elevator. I wanted to see if I could go somewhere else in the station. I tried to go to floor three, but the elevator wasn’t working.
People kept coming in and pressing the button to the bar in the basement. From one man’s vodka to another’s. I went between the bar and the ground floor for a while. Eventually, a man and woman got on and pressed the button for the second floor, scanning a hotel room key. Ah, so it was a private elevator!
“You don’t have a key?” they said.
They pressed the button for me, and like that, I had infiltrated floor three. I sat on a chair in the hallway, crossed my legs, and stayed in the exact same position for around nine hours. I pulled my long hair into a tight bun and pretended to look like some tech startup entrepreneur coding in my free time so that no one would bother me.
No one bothered me.
So, this was the luxury the website spoke of. I overheard someone talking about a “cheap” $600 coat. And to think this is the same place a man had asked me to spare only one.
Around midnight, I left the hotel and came back to the Great Hall. A woman I didn’t know grabbed my arm and said, “I love you too!”
“Hi,” I said, waving. I need this train to come soon, I thought.
I watched drunken droves spilling like wine down the stairs (perhaps from the Crawford Hotel).You could walk down but not up. This seemed like an extravagant enough occasion, having put clear effort into their appearances. They laughed at jokes that weren’t funny and spoke incoherently.
They stood in the middle of the station screaming things at each other. The ruckus reminded me of the man the guards had thrown out earlier. They bumbled about the station as if it were their personal playground, seemingly oblivious to the people sleeping in the corners. Their life seemed fancy enough; perhaps they would agree with the website’s promises.
For some, coming to the station was a night out; for others, it was the only warm place to spend the night. Still, they all drank from the same bottles, be it vodka or fine wine.
At one in the morning, my train arrived. I stepped out into the cold night, onto that eastbound train, and I was 1,500 miles gone.