Cassady’s Denver

Beat reading. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Beat reading. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Long before he was Jack Kerouac’s muse for “On The Road,” the Merry Pranksters’ bus driver, and “Cowboy Neal” to the Grateful Dead, Beat literature icon Neal Cassady grew up dirt poor on the streets of pre-World War II Denver. He was the son of a wino who couldn’t hold down his own barber shop business, and a long-suffering mother who threw Neal Sr. out of their home.

Cassady wrote about that life in The First Third, a memoir he began shortly after meeting Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsburg in New York in 1946. He imagined the book would be part of a trilogy, and although that grand dream never worked out, The First Third still offers a sense of his desperately poor childhood, his teenage hustler years, and the transient life that came to enthrall Kerouac.

Denver has of course changed dramatically in the decades since the Cassady family first blew into town from Salt Lake City, where Neal was born. And most of the locales he writes about have been lost to bulldozers and gentrification. But some buildings are still standing, and using his narrative and drawing on a lot of other people’s research, I’m piecing together some visions of Cassady.

Cassady lived in the tiny home at right. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Cassady lived in the tiny home at right. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Neal Sr. moved his family into the sad, squat little brick building at 2558 Champa Street, at right, in 1930. Plywood and movie posters cover what was once the window of the tiny building wedged between a much larger, abandoned brick home on one side and a rehabbed storefront business on the other (not visible here).

It was the second time in two years the Cassadys lived in the same shop where the father tried to hold down his barber business, and it would be the last time Neal Jr. lived with both his mother and father. Cassady writes:

In this sad little shop so filled with contention, Neal and Maude shared the last year of their pitiful marriage. … Although food was short, at least there was always dessert, for in the middle of the next block was the Puritan Pie Company, and on many a Sunday the shop shades were drawn as Neal cut an employee’s hair in exchange for a pie or two.

One wonders what will come of their former home. That block of Champa is emblematic of the Five Points and Curtis Park neighborhood in general: The streets once played host to a thriving, vibrant African American community, fell into shabbiness and crime, and are now in the throws of gentrification. Across from where the Cassadys lived there is now a modern townhouse complex with expensive SUVs parked outside. A recent Curtis Park Neighborhood Assessment says:

Numerous vacant or underutilized lots are present in Curtis Park. These sites provide opportunities for redevelopment and could provide housing, neighborhood serving retail, employment opportunities and overall economic development. They include vacant land owned by the Denver Housing Authority along Park Avenue and Arapahoe Street as well as numerous surface parking lots and many smaller scattered lots throughout the neighborhood. In addition there are a number of underutilized historic structures, such as the Temple Emanuel Synagogue, the Epworth Church and the Puritan Pie Company Building. (Emphasis mine.)

Puritan Pie Co. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Puritan Pie Co. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

The pie manufacturing building is still there, a block north. It figures again later in “The First Third,” for somewhat more shady reasons. One of Cassady’s older brothers and a new wife opened a bootlegging operation “enveloped in heavy sweet odor from the Puritan Pie Co. that so effectively killed the incriminating whiskey smell.”

Alcoholism would take full control of Neal’s father’s life not long after the family moved to Champa Street, and in early 1932 Maude took their smallest children to a new place at 22nd and Stout, and “Little Neal went with his wino father into the lowest slums of Denver.”

Cassady recalls that the flop where he lived with his father was called The Metropolitan. It stood on the corner of Market and 16th Streets, “a neighborhood fallen into cheapness” in those days but that now glistens with modern bank buildings.

Cassady remembers The Metropolitan this way:

…a five-story building in peril of collapse. It housed about a hundred of Denver’s non-transient bums and still does, although long ago condemned. On each of the upper floors there were some thirty-odd cubicles whose walls, failing by several feet to reach it, made the ceiling seem incongruously high. These sleeping cells mostly rented for ten or fifteen cents a night, except for certain superior ones that cost two-bits, and we had one of these, but we only paid a weekly rate of one dollar, because of the top floor location and because we shared the room with a third person.

That third person was nicknamed Shorty, because he was legless. Cassady says he never saw him use the communal washrooms, “Encrusted in dirt, he stank of body smell and was very ugly.” And more than once young Neal would accidentally burst into their room to find Shortly playing with himself. Even so, Neal’s father must have felt protective of their roommate because when Shorty went missing from time to time, “it was up to me to help search the alleys and doorways until we found him. Dad carried him home.”

Here’s the passage in “On The Road” when Kerouac talks about the same period, referring to Cassady as Dean Moriarty:

“Dean was the son of a wino, one of the most tottering bums of Larimer Street, and Dean had in fact been brought up generally on Larimer Street and thereabouts. He used to plead in court at the age of six to have his father set free. He used to beg in front of Larimer alleys and sneak the money back to his father, who waited among the broken bottles with a buddy.”

Daniels & Fisher tower. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Daniels & Fisher tower. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Despite the chaotic and abusive living conditions at the flop, young Neal still went to school in the mornings. A still-standing Denver landmark on 16th Street, at right, would awaken him everyday.

In the nighttime of Metropolitan squalor, we slept side by side, my dad and I, in a bed without sheets. There happened to be no clock, so I relied on the one on the Daniels and Fisher mammoth tower to wake me for school, which it did. Or at least I think this is what woke me, because as it boomed 7 a.m. down to me I always opened my eyes and from under the unwashed blanket stuck an alert head into our room’s nippy air. There my father snored and, usually being still to drunk to stir, was oblivious to everything.

There follows a mesmerizing passage where he describes, almost sidewalk-crack-by-sidewalk-crack, the zig-zag route he would take across the north side of downtown to Ebert Grammar School. “Past some of Larimer’s bars and pawnshops … Arapahoe Street whorehouses I later patroned …18th Street with its noisy sheet metal shops and motorcycle showrooms … A springing leap up the 18th Street side of the  of the broad stairway that circumvented the Post Office, to walk through the warmth of its block-long lobby.” The “mighty colonnaded structure” is still there.

The Elbert School. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

The Elbert School. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

Besides an education, Ebert offered something to eat. “The school cafeteria in the basement was not used by the student body since most of the children went to their nearby homes for lunch,” he writes. “The city had appropriated a small fund to supply the needy children, whose parents applied for it (Father put off doing this for weeks); a noonday snack of milk and graham crackers.

Two of his brothers eventually reclaim Neal from The Metropolitan — beating the daylights out of their father in the process — and he describes moving back in with his mother, who was by then across Champa from the previous address and in a somewhat larger but still shabby apartment.

The actual location of the building, which Cassady recalls being named The Snowden, “so named for the very old rake of a landlord who never came near the place,” is in dispute among fans and historians. Still, while the new digs might well have been a step up from the flop, the neighborhood sounds like a human minefield:

In Autumn 1932, however, when I came fresh from The Metropolitan’s torpid bums, it was a rather infamous place, mostly noted as a bootlegging stronghold, although also notorious, over the eastside anyway, for its characters, who were typical yet unusual enough in their own right: ex-convicts, perverts, a jazz musician or two, several prostitutes (usually unpimped), addicts (mainly alcoholic), numerous wild young men.”

The Rossonian. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

The Rossonian. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

“A jazz musician or two” is an understatement. Here’s what the scene might have felt like at The Rossonian, a neighborhood landmark, brought to life by Jaime Siebrase in Westword:

If Gladys Palmer isn’t singing, maybe local pianist Charlotte Cowans, with her perfectly arched brows and teardrop diamond earrings, is performing, seated at a piano in the center of the room, taking tips from Art Tatum about the difference between playing and playing well. Future mayor Wellington Webb might be here, too, underage and snuck in by the owners, who know his family and often let young Wellington inside for the music — but never the real drinks. “I wasn’t served anything other than a 7-Up with a lime or Coke with a stirrer instead of a straw, to make it look like I was drinking,” Webb says before listing off the names of the musicians he saw here: Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Leroy Smith and James Brown, for starters.

The Casino Cabaret. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

The Casino Cabaret. Photo: Hart Van Denburg

In addition to the Rossonian, where some say Cassady first introduced Kerouac to the Denver jazz scene, there were a number of other famous venues. Most of them are long gone. The Casino Cabaret building still stands, a shadow of its former glory.

In the 1930’s, Benny Hooper opened the Casino Dance Hall (now the Casino Cabaret) next door to the Ex-serviceman’s Club. The Casino evolved into a two-story hall with balcony seating for 1,000, a 40-foot-long bar, and a huge hardwood dance floor. At the time, it was the largest and most luxurious of all the Five Points jazz clubs. During the good years, the Casino swung to the music of Brook Benton, James Brown, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, George Morrison, Muddy Waters, and other musical legends.

In the beat down neighborhood he clearly misses the adventures he has with his father, wino or not. Here’s Cassady describing the end of the 1933 school year, when his father takes custody of him for the summer:

The big day had arrived. School was out, and Father showed up as per agreement, so, begrudgingly over the brothers’ protests, I was given up to the happier life — supposedly for only the summer, but autumn and much of winter was to pass before I rejoined mother at the Snowden. Pop and I immediately bummed off for the West Coast with no special plan in mind; we’d just go until something unforeseen stopped us, like work, women, wine or, as it turned out, jail, then on again to the next stop.

“There were a lot of people who would take advantage of a young child left to his own devices, in basically what was Denver’s skid row at the time,” Cassady documentary director Heather Dalton told Ryan Warner on Colorado Matters. “Neal basically raised himself, but there was always a quest for knowledge, a quest for betterment. He spent a lot of time at the Denver Public Library. He wanted to advance himself, and even at a young age, I think he recognized that the written word was going to be his savior.”

Under the wing of lawyer and teacher Justin Briarly, Cassady attends East High School for a bit, works capping tires, hitchhikes all over the country, steals cars, and cools his heels for a spell at the Colorado State Reformatory in Canon City. In 1945 he returns to Denver, ready to start the life for which he later becomes more notorious. More on that later. Here’s a small sampling of where to track down “Cowboy Neal.”

(I wrote a shorter version of this post as a sidebar to our Colorado Public Radio interview with Cassady documentary director Heather Dalton.)