Wednesday, February 29, 2012

a Denver/homeless guy story.

The summer after I graduated from college, I had big plans. I was going to move to Denver and begin my very first museum internship. I was thrilled: for the first time in my life, I was going to live in a metropolitan area. The biggest city I’d lived in until that point was Morris, Minnesota: boasting a population of just over 5,000. It was big enough for a McDonald’s, but not much else. I grew up in a town of less than one thousand people, so Morris itself was something different for me. They had a 24-hour grocery store, for crying out loud.

I graduated with degrees in English and Art History, so obviously, my job prospects were slim. So I set out to do what so many Art History majors have done before me: gain experience through an unpaid internship. I thought it sounded great. I could hang out in the museum and learn what happened behind the scenes, AND I got to live in the mountains! My aunt and uncle who lived there were kind enough to put me up for the summer, so I didn’t have to worry about trying to find an apartment. Sure, the whole not getting paid thing was kind of a drag, but finding a part-time job would be easy as pie, right?

Wrong. I graduated in May 2009, and the economy was in the dumps. When I arrived in Denver, I expected to have a job within a week; two weeks tops. I was applying at restaurants, stores, you name it: nothing. I was astonished. I had never had to REALLY search for a job before: I had only worked in smaller towns where it wasn’t nearly as difficult to land a part-time job. In Denver, I was finding it next to impossible.

For the first time in years, I was unemployed. I had worked summers in high school and all throughout college, and here I was: a college graduate who was jobless in Denver. I was used to living on a tight budget: that was probably one of the most useful things I learned in college. However, I was NOT used to living on a budget with that involved no income. That was something new.

My internship was twenty hours a week in downtown Denver. 
My museum circa summer 2009. Pretty sweet, huh?
My aunt and uncle lived outside of Denver, so I took the bus into the city every day. This was my first experience with public transportation, and let me tell you, it was an eye-opener. The bus I rode was actually kind of fun. There were all sorts of regulars: there was the girl who dressed like she came straight out of 1992, and there was the guy who looked exactly like Buster Bluth. 
There was also the guy who sat down next to me and offered me Russian interpretation services.

Since my internship was only twenty hours a week, I had to find something else to fill my time… preferably, something free. I couldn’t get a library card without a.) becoming a permanent resident of Denver, or b.) paying a rather large fee, so that was out of the question. I did my fair share of exploring downtown, but there’s only so much you can do there for free. I eventually began borrowing books from my aunt and uncle and settling in the park outside the capital building. 
The view from the tippy-top of the museum.
The park in question can be seen on the left.
This was the perfect activity. It was peaceful, and summertime in the mountains is a wonderful time of year. I had it made… that is, until the homeless people noticed me.

One afternoon, I was sitting quietly on a park bench, reading a collection of short stories. Suddenly, I heard someone approach from behind me. Unnerving, yes, but I figured it would be fine. It was daylight, after all. “Hey,” slurred a voice from behind me. “Whatcha reading?” I ignored the voice, hoping it would just go away. Of course, that never works. A middle-aged, dirty man emerged from behind the bench and sat down next to me. The smell of body odor and cheap alcohol was overwhelming. Once again, I tried to ignore my new friend, hoping he’d pick up on the hint. Surprise surprise, he didn’t.

When Homeless Drunk Guy realized he couldn’t get my attention from the side, he tried a new strategy. He came and squatted down directly in front of me. “HEY,” he said, louder this time. As I was all alone in the park with this guy, I decided it was in my best interest not to make him angry. So this time, I looked up from my book. “Hey,” he said again. I was beginning to think that “hey” was the only thing he was going to say to me. I was wrong. “I like your blue eyes. You know… you look like a couple of my ex-wives,” he said. How lucky for me.

“So… you like to read, eh?” Homeless Drunk Guy was not giving up. He reclaimed his place on the bench. “Do you like to read the Bible? What do you know about the Bible?” As uncomfortable as this encounter was making me, I have to admit that I was curious to see where it was going. “I know enough about it,” I said, keeping my eyes in my book. “Oh?” he responded, seeming surprised. “Do you remember the part where… uh… the guy did that one thing, and there was fire? Or something. Anyway, do you think I’ll go to heaven?” Clearly, this conversation was taking a turn for the weird. It was time for me to end it.

I stood up and gave him some excuse about being late for a meeting. Lucky for me, homeless drunk guys are easy to fool. “But,” he spluttered, “I don’t know your name! Pleeeeeeease tell me your name.” I told him that my name was Shirley, which he seemed happy with. “Shirley, how old are you?” I was 22 years old at the time, but I smiled sweetly and told him that I was 16, hoping that this would deter him from continuing to hit on me. Once again, I was wrong. “Shirley, would you ever marry a guy like me?” Homeless Drunk Guy implored. I turned and walked away. “Shirley, wait!” he called. “Marry me!” Thankfully, he was drunk, so he couldn’t come after me very quickly. I power-walked my way out of the park and immediately called my dad: just in case Homeless Drunk Guy did catch up with me, I wanted somebody to know what to tell the police.

Dad, of course, was less than pleased to hear this story. He asked me if I would please stop hanging out in that downtown park, and I hastily agreed. Thankfully, it wasn’t too much later that I got a part-time job, so my free time all but evaporated. Honestly, I was fine with it.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my last uncomfortable encounter that summer in downtown Denver. The museum offices were located several blocks away from the museum itself, so you had to walk through that same park to get from Point A to Point B. Walking that way, I heard all sorts of propositions, most of them beginning with “hey baby.” Not that I’m any great beauty, but the homeless population of Denver seemed to think that I was Venus herself. Maybe they could tell that I was an out-of-towner.

My poor parents heard these stories all the time. Being nearly 700 miles away, there wasn’t much they could do about it. I rode with my aunt and uncle back to South Dakota for a quick visit in early July, and my parents were relieved to see that I was (more or less) in one piece. Mom did have something to send back with me, though: a fake engagement ring. 
I'm not sure WHY my mom had a fake engagement
ring, but it was rather helpful.
She asked me to wear it when I was walking downtown; anything to deter the romantic advances of the park folk. We even came up with a fake fiancé: he would be a body builder with anger issues who was extremely jealous. I like to think that his name was Jean-Claude.

You probably assumed that I made it out of Denver alive. Indeed I did, but certainly wiser because of it. After Denver came New Orleans, which was full of unexpected adventures of its own. That Christmas, my parents put Mace in my stocking. My next move was to Minneapolis, which was considerably less interesting (story-wise) than my other two internship cities. And now, here I am in Sioux Falls. I have yet to see how that turns out. I do still have my fake engagement ring, though. You never know when you’re going to need one of those.

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