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Barbara Foster

Bohemian Boulder

Mention Boulder, Colorado, and what springs to mind? To Outside magazine, whose editors recently voted Boulder the "number one sports town in America," it's topnotch outdoor recreation. Indeed, hikers and bikers can explore two-hundred miles of public trails, while the walker can amble along a sixteen-mile tree-shaded footpath running through the center of town. Not being particularly sports-minded, on my summer 2003 trip I sought out more cerebral occupations.

Specifically, I wanted to discover if Boulder retained the Bohemian flavor I remembered from a visit ten years ago, or if it had become "Starbuckized" -- orderly and standard with no room for variety. A decade ago, individuality predominated. Boulder was always a stop on the route for colorful characters with bizarre dress codes that provoked bemused stares rather than police harassment.

Had the death of Allen Ginsberg, international king of Bohemians, diminished the local alternative scene? Since the mid-1970's, his summer presence had spurred creative activity at Boulder's Naropa Institute (now University) by attracting students from all over America and Europe.

Happily, in still-compact Boulder, I could walk everywhere. And eat in delicious restaurants with bargain-priced lunch buffets, lounge in outdoor cafes, or drink in wine bars offering European and American vintages. These were definite amenities, but were they signs of gentrification? Had the unpretentious hangouts that made up for in spirit what they lacked in style disappeared?

To unearth the genus and species known as Bohemians, I trekked along the Pearl Street Mall to investigate a likely local habitat: the independent bookstore. Bustling with customers, the Boulder Bookstore sponsors a regular reading series. Local authors, along with stars reviewed in the New York Times, are featured. On my second night in town, I attended a reading by an author offering tips on how to handle the singles' scene. Not the most likely topic to bring out the sandal-wearers, but I had to start somewhere.

The speaker gave an amusing presentation, which provoked questions from the audience -- a mix of age groups dressed in shorts and T-shirts. While he sold his books, I approach a young woman whose spiky hairdo, tattooed arms and long, pointed red fingernails were promising. Respectfully, I introduced myself to Karen, whose friendliness emboldened me to inquire if there was a funky cafe or bar nearby.

Abashed, she peers at me suspiciously. "I'm a business major at CU (University of Colorado)," she blurted out. "Do I look like I'd waste my time in crummy places where they smoke dope?" Unceremoniously, she turned her back on me, went up front to buy a book, then left the room. Oh well, I figured, just as you can't judge a book by its cover, you can't tell Bohemians by their outward trappings. I had seven more nights left to unearth the genuine article.

In Boulder, all roads lead to the Pearl Street Mall, which extends about a mile. Bustling day and night, locals intermingle with tourists, and meet and greet each other. I explored this mini-village, chain stores mostly absent. Small merchants purvey unusual items, many of ethnic origin. Now and then, bizarrely dressed characters stroll by.

I contemplate approaching these eye-catching individuals to inquire if Boulder harbors others of their kind. Instead, forsaking my New York aggressiveness, I slide into the leisurely Boulder rhythm to watch musicians and spoken word performers entertain lunchtime shoppers. Spontaneous acts in the busker tradition, from fire eaters to puppeteers to contortionists enliven my late evenings on the mall.

One afternoon, hiking along the mall, I make a discovery: the Penny Lane coffeehouse at 1795 Pearl Street. Mixed into the crowd outside are several bearded, long-haired men, and women in peasant style dresses -- indications that I may have stumbled on a Bohemian refuge. Nearby, two bookstores imbue this end of the mall with an intellectual cachet: Borders, with a cafe of its own, and, a few doors away from Penny Lane, another small one that specializes in Beat generation authors.

At Penny Lane's sidewalk cafe, patrons sprawl on chairs, read, chat, or table hop. Dogs and cats wander around, adding their barks and mews to the steady buzz of conversation. I immediately ask for the person responsible for this oasis of indolence. Penny Lane's proprietor, Isidore Million, comes forward to shake my hand, with a boxer's grip. Of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, Isidore keeps a benevolent eye on the proceedings.

A retired geologist, these days Isidore interacts mostly with Bohemian human specimens. Being a septuagenarian hasn't diminished his vivacity, evident in belly laughs that erupt unexpectedly. A cross between Father Time and a Munchkin, after world wide travels he appreciates the relaxed pace at which things move in Boulder.

Isidore's laissez-faire management style does not prohibit him from ejecting a troublemaker if necessary. He tells me stories about patrons who mistook his tolerance for negligence. They learned the hard way not to cross certain boundaries. Isidore proudly guides me through Penny Lane proper, one large room furnished with a variety of unmatched chairs.

Most of the furniture purchased from the Salvation Army is comfortable enough -- despite lumps here and there -- to doze on. Floor lamps scattered around provide light for readers. Customers order drinks (no food or alcoholic beverages) at a counter. Revolving exhibitions of local artists create an informal gallery atmosphere.

Penny Lane's helter-skelter quality humanizes the large space. A smiling Isidore welcomes regulars by name with a hearty handshake. At Penny Lane the patrons' preoccupations are time-honored. For example, a Monday night reading series, in place for fifteen years, gives neophyte writers exposure to local audiences.

Scheduled to start at eight p.m., poets, many pierced and/or tattooed in the current mode, trickle in all evening. Amateurs of all ages take the stage to share their latest compositions. Male and female alike, limited to two works per person, are heartily applauded by friends in the audience. Some Mondays, established touring poets, like Andy Clausen, are featured before the open reading.

While teaching at Naropa University, Allen Ginsberg read himself and regularly brought his students to share their new creations. Isidore fondly remembers Ginsberg's generosity, his habit of mixing with the crowd, then clapping robustly after his students performed. One memorable night Ginsberg, accompanying himself on the harmonium, recited poems by William Blake.

Isidore appreciated Ginsberg's masterful performance. The next day, he purchased several of Ginsberg's books at the Beat bookstore. Ginsberg dropped into Penny Lane often, for he appreciated its lack of "attitude." Its easygoing ambience is a throwback to popular coffeehouses in the fifties: Vesuvio's in San Francisco, the Borgia in New York.

Since Isidore puts in a full day, he leaves before the reading shifts into high gear. Of all the poets in the lineup, the tenth reader, Ted Mulraney, radiates an offbeat "star quality." His self-confidence, combined with a resonant voice, silences the perpetual undercurrent of conversation. While he reads, nobody leaves or table hops.

Ted wears rainbow-colored, mismatched clothes, a turban of rags on his head. Obviously sartorial refinements are a low priority. Ted's poems, in poignant, simple language, about life on the road, and the adventure and trials of daily survival in an indifferent universe, are the evening's high point.

Afterward, curious to know more about Ted, I approach him. As he retrieves his worldly possessions stuffed into a backpack tucked under a table, he speaks in rapid fire sentences as though a timeclock is ticking. His pack will later become a pillow out on the mall, as he curls up nightly in a shop doorway or another empty spot.

A crew of young itinerants bunk with Ted. True to Boulder's laid back style, the police overlook these latter day hippies from all over America. Not entirely idle, occasionally the hippies panhandle or play music. Discomfort is a mere bagatelle to Ted: he's on a mission to be as "Beat" as his idol Jack Kerouac, whose ghost hovers above Penny Lane.

Poets read and depart, but the poetry coordinator Tom Peters has never missed a night in the last fifteen years. Tall and dark-haired with a muscular build, he resembles Kerouac. When I ask Tom what motivates him to show up week after week, he pauses thoughtfully, then answers: "It's my damn love affair with language, the thrill of finding an extraordinary new voice like Ted's in the lineup." As animated as the fledgling poets whom he encourages, Tom is an encyclopedia of Beat literary lore.

Tom acts as Master of Ceremonies, sets up the microphone, and generally troubleshoots. His meticulous attention to detail insures that each reader will be heard under optimum conditions. His Monday night series attracts a diverse audience: from students at CU to construction workers to shy seniors sharing their lifetime of experience. Every year Tom devotes one Monday night to honor Kerouac. Appropriately, Tom works in the Beat bookstore.

Poetry only accounts for one night of Penny Lane's activities. Every other evening also hums, either with "open stage" individual music performances, popular bands or comic acts. Since Bob Dylan once played at Penny Lane, this is a consecrated space to hopeful minstrels with big dreams. Would-be Dylans and Patti Smiths perform their hearts out. Passionately strumming guitars, they sing their own compositions, either lamenting or celebrating the world around them.

During my nights at Penny Lane, the scene outdoors rivals the onstage performances. Since the tables on the patio usually are all taken, customers spill onto the sidewalk. The rambunctious crowd seems to be high on conversation. If alcohol or drugs contribute to the merriment, neither are out in the open. Under the star-studded Boulder sky, a few couples kiss, singles flirt or mix from group to group. Addresses of parties are passed from hand to hand. Motorcycles, their leather-clad riders checking out the action, buzz up to the curb. A quick look, and then they mostly move on to more mainstream locations.

Away from the party-minded actively making social connections, in a corner of the patio, a bearded, professorial looking fellow holds court. A quorum of intent young people hang on his words. Moving closer, I overhear him criticize American involvement in the Iraq war. The next night, he discusses global warming, the next gay marriage. Occasionally, someone interrupts the speaker or goes off on a tangent, which provokes a few turbulent interchanges that flare up then die down. This veritable alternate university, with participants coming and going, continues after Penny Lane closes for the night.

Traffic at Penny Lane flows as freely as the ideas discussed. The ethic is inclusive, not exclusive. There is no "list" to siphon off undesirables, or any dress code enforced. After a few days, I settle into my favorite armchair like a regular. I happily share my adopted living room with others appreciative of camaraderie and conversation.

In a world where commerce is king, Penny Lane proves that a business establishment can be compatible with human values. A hangout in the hallowed Bohemian tradition Allen Ginsberg epitomized, Penny Lane is both authentic and mellow. It passes the litmus test that made the classic coffee- houses centers of artistic creativity. Isidore's offbeat enterprise carries on an old tradition, but with a twenty-first century Boulder twist.

©2004 by Barbara Foster

Barbara Foster is an Associate Professor at CUNY. She is a world traveler and co-author of the biography The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel (Overlook Press, 1998, paperback 2002). Her lectures on David-Neel, the French explorer of Tibet, at universities, museums, and organizations are ongoing on an international basis. Barbara has published a wide variety of articles on Women's Studies, as well as poetry in every English-speaking country. She is co-author of a biography of the American original, Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868). She has lectured on Menken in several venues, and intends to perform the Menken slide show widely. She is tripartite author of Three in Love:Menages at Trois from Ancient to Modern Times. Barbara is currently working on a cultural history of Bohemia, its rise, fall and rise.

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