Boulder: from those who don't belong
Twenty miles north-west of Denver's Colfax Avenue--supposedly once labelled the "longest, wickedest street in America"--Boulder's own defining artery runs roughly parallel, through the heart of the old city, doing its level best to capture the town's charm and quirky, off-kilter demeanour.

And where Colfax is long and wicked, Pearl Street is good-natured and short--under two and half miles from its inauspicious start at Canyon Boulevard to where it becomes Pearl Parkway just east of 30th Street. But oh, what a journey those few feet represent!

Besides the restaurants, the sushi bars and the late-night student hang outs, on the mall one may find stores dedicated to Zuni fetishes and handmade bath and beauty products, to mystery novels and the best of Nepal and Tibet. Boulder's oldest bank is here, as is the resident Church of Scientology. When the last remnants of humanity made it to the Boulder Free Zone in Stephen King's post-apocalyptic novel The Stand, it was on Pearl that the protagonists made their home.

It's nine o'clock--early evening, on a warm July night, and I am talking about the city with a friend. Scorn still lingers on his face from where I bent to sign some moonbat petition or another--but it's liberating, to put these choices on the ballot, and I don't regret it. "They're all a buncha damn hippies," he says, and of course I can't help but agree.

Nicholai is, like me, a college student here. A Ukrainian Jew, he does not speak Ukrainian and his Jewish heritage is limited to approving comments directed at yarmulkes that border on catcalls. Behind a cast-iron fence, we sit like animals in a zoo, trying to behave for the passers-by. It is hard, though we sip appropriately Boulderian drinks--organic cola beverage with a hint of pollen, perhaps, or fair trade coffee flown here in first-class seats on Concordes, or milk squeezed from high-society cows.

We are out of place, and we know it. His family votes Republican, and I am a self-described political moderate, which places me just enough to the left of Rush Limbaugh to avoid being spat on; the saliva comes from impassioned tirades, instead. In a town where many people buy ski passes long before the first snowfall, purchasing options like climactic futures traders, Nick and I have never skied and show no interest. In a sea of boisterous, garrulous people, we are quiet and reserved. In short we are the walking dead in a living town, and we are out of place. Nick expounds in typical fashion, looking up from his beverage to deliver a verdict on the people that surround us.

"They don't understand, is what it is." His abrupt castigation is probably meant to ensnare me as well, a generalisation I find somewhat unwanted. Nobody, he believes, comprehends--or comprehends enough, at least. Not the sign-wavers and career anti-establishment types, not the kids, sipping at their beers and soaking in the illegal chic. "Look at this crap."

'This crap' in particular, at the moment, is Pearl Street, to my left, passing by in a never-ending current. We had been part of it, a few minutes before, and would rejoin it soon enough, but for the moment we had enough distance to look at it from afar--Nick rather more loudly than I am comfortable with. "It's not quite that. They're just... different."

Contained on Pearl Street, I will suggest to another friend, a visitor from small-town Ohio, is the essence of that difference. Across its red-brick surface swirls a melange of people; the old and the young, street performers and students, the well-to-do and the destitute. It is a modern place; postmodern, maybe, the essence of reality always masked by something more exciting.

One must assume that Pearl Street has looked like this for most of its twenty-five-odd year history, novel and mesmerising--in form and effect it is something like a Middle-Eastern bazaar without camels. Because the people--the soul of the city--are so different, so fluid, one longs for a point of continuity. In fairness, it has remained so through my stay here.

In some ways, Boulder is a place in search of a time, and but for the iPods this night in Boulder could be as easily twenty years earlier--or twenty later; another era entirely. The music from the guitarists is ageless, the food hawked from pushcarts at home in this century or the last. Around these anchors, transients--one of the few constants at the mall--weave, unstuck as well.

Pearl Street, I tell Nick in a fit of poetic imagery, is a little highway of eclecticness. Here a kayak hangs, just down the street from a rocking pig, across from something to do with the Himalayas--and between them live the merchants and musicians, the businessmen and students, all caught up in a sea of colours and smells and sounds that would do an impressionist proud. Nick shrugs, noncommittal.

It is hard to imagine not being a part of this, and though Pearl Street forms my first memory of Boulder, as a young freshman four years ago, I have never really fit in--here or in the city at large. Nick understands, and though he manifests it in vulgarity--a unicyclist with a large crowd gathered around warrants another "look at this crap," a half-hour later--he is as confused and lost as I.

A man takes advantage of our silence to ask if either of us have a hundred dollars. I shake my head, and he says he'll settle for fifty, or even ten. I tell him we don't carry cash, which is true, and he politely nods his understanding, bidding us a good evening as we walk on.

Further on, nearing the end of the mall proper, a young man asks if we will sign a petition calling for the impeachment of the president. I've already signed my petition for the day, and Nick and I hardly slow as we keep walking. Thinking back, I don't know who he was; what he thought he would accomplish, what peculiar dream made him seek the dethroning of the executive branch of government from late-evening strollers in an open-air mall. Nick doesn't comment, though I know he wants to.

It is after we duck around oddly-costumed women promoting some show I've never heard of that he finally speaks. "Who was that? This is all crazy," he says, and once more it's hard to argue.

"It works, though."

"Maybe," he reluctantly admits, a sceptic. "You ever get the impression we're not supposed to be here?"

I laugh. I spent five years living in Japan and know a foreign country when I see one. "All the time. It's kind of funny, I mean... they talk about Boulder as a very open place"--here he interrupts me to curse, and I chuckle again. "You really have to fit into a certain mindset. It's weird, but it's almost self-consciously weird, you know?"

"It's a bubble. They live in a bubble. Man, you should've heard some of the things they used to talk about at DS." Nick refers to the company we spent a summer working for, downtown. "And they're all such hypocrites. I mean, look at this crap! You're putting your environmentalist bumper sticker on a car? What's that about? That doesn't even make sense.

"They don't even know what they're talking about, half the time," he continues, on a roll. "They just want to be left alone. It's like they're in this bubble, and there are these facts..." he pantomimes this, facts hitting a force field-like bubble, bouncing away. "They don't want to be bothered by those. Oh my god, what is that?"

He points to a man wearing a shirt proudly emblazoned with the Palestinian flag, and some slogan about freedom. Nick and I both doubt his connexions to the area--he is white enough to give Boris Karloff a run for his money--but I am more pragmatic. "Kolya, if you're going to start a fight, I've, uh... I've got places to be."

Nick shrugs and gives up. And the hell of it is, I can understand what he's saying. Belonging doesn't come naturally in Boulder, and it doesn't come to everyone. It may not be so shallow; it may not be so limited, but there is a class one must belong to, and we aren't it. Walking slowly back to where he's parked his car, threading our way between gaiety and the off-beat, we're mostly silent. I leave him to drive home and begin the walk back to my apartment.

Two months later, a Tuesday afternoon in September finds me back on the mall. Now, I'm actively distant, trying to see the people in the crowd as a scholar, as a writer, as an observer of human nature. My eyes fall on a man who looks absolutely lost. In his jeans and ten-gallon hat, which casts a beak-like shadow on his weathered face, he would be more suited to a John Wayne movie. He, too, seems to recognise his difference and, agitated, he moves off, another drop in the current.

There's a bearded man on a motorcycle, waiting for the light, and his gaze meets mine while he watches the crowd of people, a crowd that begins long before the crosswalk is actually theirs, and ends long after. They don't care, but what can you do? We exchange a nod, a smile. His license plate is from another state, and I wonder what brings him here.

Much of Boulder is in flux, of course. With forty thousand students and an economy driven by the ever-chaotic technology industry, Boulder--like most of Colorado--is composed largely of the new. In four years, a new cycle of students will begin, and the jobs will meander. All of us émigrés have to deal with this in their own way, and perhaps Nick and I have chosen distance.

In front of the courthouse, street vendors sell crepes and hats and sunglasses; artists sketch chalk portrayals of the scenes in front of them, as doomed as they are beautiful. Tomorrow the people and the chalk will both be changed or gone altogether--only the canvas remains static, only the brick and the street and the storefront upon which Boulder is painted, day by day.

Sometimes I get caught up in this flow, and it's only afterwards that it feels alien, that I wonder what I've done. At times, the giddy hedonism of the college life seems strangely apropos; at times, the eager rage directed at faceless foes in government and law and society seems well-placed--suitable and justified and righteous and worthwhile.

And at times, I'd like to be a part of it for more than just a moment, to identify with the Boulder culture and pulse with the Boulder heartbeat. But I don't think I will, and I've come to realise that this is acceptable. I'm not as critical as Nick, and though I feel his pain I have to look at the city fondly--for all its weirdness, its prized insularity, its eccentricities.

They're all a buncha damn hippies, and I love it.
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