Anyone who has spent even five minutes in Denver, Colorado, knows East Colfax is simultaneously the most colorful and shadiest thoroughfares in the city. From the students and hipsters who live on the hill to the suburban moms on the far east end of the street — and the countless drug addicts, alcoholics, skaters, rappers, mentally challenged, businessmen, artists and homeless people along the way — the street slices through the city with determined focus to spotlight everything that’s right and everything that’s wrong with Denver.
Legend has it that Playboy Magazine once called the street, “The Longest, wickedest street in America.” Whether the legend is true or not (no supporting evidence has ever been found), Colfax never fails to live up to its reputation.
Perhaps the people who see this diverse spectrum most intimately are the RTD drivers who drive the #15 bus — the storied route that takes riders down its massive stretch from Denver’s Union Station to Tower Road in neighboring Aurora. On one of my recent rides, I prodded the driver a bit to see how she handles it — and while it would take volumes to detail each interaction in each 8-hour shift, she offers a glimpse of some of her most unusually usual interactions … all before 9:00 a.m.
“I wake up at three-o’clock and literally lay in bed for a full 20 minutes talking myself out of calling in sick,” says Ray Valdez, RTD driver who is often assigned the raucous route. “It’s my most challenging route …”
“When I get to the garage, I’m given my route map, a roll of transfers and a sympathetic look from the other drivers,” she continues.
Once Valdez checks her bus, ensuring that everything works — especially the ADA mechanisms (RTD takes the Americans with Disabilities Act very seriously) — she musters all her mojo and begins the route. “From 5:00 a.m. until about 7:00 a.m., I’ve convinced myself that it’s going to be a normal day because most riders are people going to work or school,” says Valdez. “I live with that fantasy until about 7:00 a.m. when the insanity starts.”
“Today, like every day, it starts with people who are clearly still awake from last night’s drug binge or who reek of yesterday’s vodka and get on the bus to give me every excuse imaginable about why they don’t have the correct fare,” she continues, “little do they know, I really don’t even care about their excuse — I’ve heard them all — I don’t believe any of them. I just tell them to have a seat. We’re not supposed to argue with people about the fare. Some drivers won’t allow someone to ride but that’s not really how we’re supposed to handle it.”
“Midway through my second trip, a tired looking transsexual who hasn’t really figured out how to be feminine gets on the bus, she doesn’t have the fare so I tell her to just have a seat,” Valdez begins. “About two blocks later she comes up to me and demands a transfer!
“You didn’t even pay the fare, I can’t give you a transfer,” Valdez tells her.
With all the attitude that a bad weave and several seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race affords, the transsexual shoots back, “Oh yes you can, miss, I know this and I want one!”
“She jabbered non-stop for about 10 blocks,” continues Valdez, “I still didn’t give her a transfer.”
“When I drop her off near Downing, a woman with a trash bag full of everything she must own gets on the bus,” Valdez continues about the colorful riders she encounters. “I don’t know if she got kicked out of her place or what — but she doesn’t smell pleasant and I’m worried about bed bugs, we actually have machines that detect and spray for bed bugs in the garage, so it’s really a ‘thing’ believe it or not.”
As she begins to merge back in to traffic, the woman remains next to the driver’s seat, trying to find her fare money. “I told her to just have a seat, but she insisted on paying, so she stood there, next to me, with her bag, for at least 6 blocks as she parceled out her payment in pennies.”
About the time the #15 gets back to Broadway, a woman in a wheelchair and her companion board. “The ADA requires that we allow companions to ride for free … the guy was clearly her boyfriend, but we can’t argue with it, so they get on, I strap her in, and he has a seat across from her,” Valdez continues.
“The next stop we pick up a very cute girl — probably a student — and she sits next to the companion, who is clearly excited about this and can’t stop talking to her.” It isn’t even 8:00 a.m. by this time on Valdez’s route. “I have daughters so I keep an eye on the situation in the mirror, but I’m not the only person who notices what’s happening.”
“Suddenly a voice booms, it’s the woman in the wheelchair, ‘Let me just remove these glasses so I can actually see who’s ass I’m ‘bout to whoop!’ I’m shocked,” says Valdez, “The woman wasn’t able to walk or even navigate her wheelchair on the bus but here she is, verbally threatening another rider on the bus!!”
“As I watch this exchange in the mirror I notice the drunk man, sleeping in the back seat. It’s not uncommon for homeless people to ride the whole route for a place to sleep … I don’’t bother asking him to leave the bus, a sleeping wino who isn’t bothering anyone is the least of my concerns, to be honest.”
The #15 makes its way back to Union Station to begin the return trip. Traffic at this time of day is crazy and Colfax is the worst. Not simply because people refuse to merge or allow the bus to merge, but because drivers consistently rush to get in front of the bus only to slam on their brakes and make a right hand turn.
“There’s a giant yield light on the back of each bus,” explains Valdez. “It’s the law that you allow the bus to merge, but no one does — and they’re so stupid because a giant bus is going to do more damage than your damn Prius — and RTD has a cap on liability, so you’re really taking your life and property in your impatient hands at that point.”
Inconsiderate drivers aren’t the only hazard on the road. Colfax is one of Denver’s first streets and it wasn’t designed for the giant arctic buses that RTD sends down the road. “The street, itself, is brutal,” laments Valdez. “The cars parked on the right hand side stick so far out that I have to straddle two lanes just to keep from side swiping them, so of course this just pisses drivers in the left lane off even more and can make me up to 40 minutes late on my route!”
But it isn’t just the parked cars that slow the route. “Unlike other routes, people just kick it at the bus stops on Colfax — I DON’T KNOW WHY THEY DO THIS! So I have to stop at every single stop because a couple drug addicts or drunks decide to just chill on the bench.”
By the time Valdez makes it to Tower Road on her second trip, she’s dealt with more issues than most of us have in a week. It’s not quite over. “I usually have enough time to go to the bathroom. There’s a 7 Eleven in the middle of nowhere at the end of the route, that’s it, just a lonely 7 Eleven … and the manager there refuses to allow us to take our backpacks in, like we’re high school kids! I’m driving a fucking bus! I have a uniform on! I’m there to pee, not to steal a Good-N-Plenty!” she roars.
As Valdez returns to the bus to start trip number three, she notices the sleeping wino in the back. “I tell him he has to disembark but he pleads with me to ride one more trip — at this point, who the hell even cares, so I tell him ‘whatever’.”
Midway through the route, the mad transsexual returns, again she doesn’t have the fare, although as she makes an effort to at least give the appearance she’s looking for money, several crack pipes fall out of her bag. “She isn’t even embarrassed or concerned, she just casually puts them back in her bag … I tell her, once again, just have a seat, and no, she’s still not getting a transfer.”
Although it’s barely 9:00 a.m., and Ray has dealt with drug addicts, homeless people, mentally challenged people, students, drunks, business people, soccer moms, horrible traffic, and an insanely strict convenience store owner — her day is just beginning.
How does she cope? “I chew gum.” When asked to explain how that helps her cope, she says simply, “When people irritate me or piss me off and I want to say what’s really on my mind, I just start chewing.”