It was dark and the streetlights were non-existent. I’d already missed my turning two times, so I pulled into the fuel station to re-read my host’s message.
“There will be a car dealership”. Yes, I see that. “Then there will be a white church set back off the road”. Yes, I see that. “The next drive is the pastor’s house, and our drive is next”.
I turned onto the deserted street and crawled up the hill. Car dealership. Church. Pastor’s house. Ahah! The next drive! I turned up the steep incline, my bumper scraping on the tarmac as I proceeded with caution towards the fairy-lit home.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this Airbnb. The description made repeated comments that “Alcohol and drugs are forbidden”. I don’t drink and don’t do drugs; however, it seemed an odd statement to be plastered over the Airbnb listing. Had there been lots of problems with previous guests? Was this area notorious for drug usage? There was no point thinking about it anymore, I was here, and it was the only place I could afford in Denver!
I decided to leave my bags in the car. Easier to run away? I walked up the dark path and knocked on the door. Before I’d even finished knocking, it flung open. A bearded man with sparkling mahogany eyes stood beaming at me.
“Bea! You made it”. He shook my hand, never breaking eye contact, and ushered me into the home. As he enthusiastically talked me through everything I needed to know and more, I took in my surroundings. The place was messy. A large conference table strewn with papers and empty energy drink cans greeted us in the first room.
We moved through to the kitchen. Cupboard doors unhinged, piles of washing up in the sink, dishwasher out of action. Hastily written paper notes were sellotaped to the walls reminding residents to clean up after themselves. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my years in university lodging. Only those were nicer!
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Into the darkness
Once the shared space tour was over, we headed down the narrow stairs to the basement. Dark and very much resembling a warren, we turned left and right and left again down the tight corridors. Peaks through open doors hinted at unfinished construction work. A sofa sat in a dark alleyway, rubble and mess surrounding it. Oh my! What had I signed up for? Meanwhile, my host, Freddy, continued to enthusiastically tell me everything I needed to know, including giving me a demonstration of how to wash and dry my hands!
Eventually, we made it to my room. It was just like the pictures suggested it would be. A small concrete room with a ceiling window and a metal ladder should I need to escape the basement. Well, at least there would be a story to tell from this one! It just didn’t turn out to be the story I thought it would be.
I messaged my husband to describe the house. “Just think of it as a crack den, only without any addicts,” I said. If I am honest, it wasn’t far off how crack dens are portrayed in the movies. Not wanting to miss the opportunity for a good story on Instagram, I shared my experience there too. The response was unanimous. “Lock your door!” My only problem though, was that my bedroom door had no lock.
Get me out of here!
Messages poured in telling me to find somewhere else to stay. These only intensified when I described my fellow housemates, which I met when I went upstairs for a glass of water.
First, I met Timothy, a very slight greying man with sunken cheeks and crossed eyes. He had moved 2000 miles across the country. Why? I will never know, but I instantly assumed he must have been running from something or someone.
Then I met dishevelled Morgan. Tall and skinny with crazy wiry grey hair and thick glasses, wearing old tatty and I’ll fitting clothes. He had been homeless a few months earlier when he had been dropped off at Freddy’s door.
Freddy himself had seen hardship too, having struggled with alcoholism as he chased a life of riches and fame. He’d dabbled in drugs and gambled far too much, until ultimately, he had lost it all.
I knew there were 4 other guests in the house, but I wouldn’t meet them until much later on.
As I sat on my bed contemplating my choices, I started to judge. What on earth was I doing here?! Travelling on a budget was one thing, but putting myself in danger by staying in an unlocked room with all these “dodgy” individuals was surely insane!? The messages on Instagram were flooding in now. “Please, Bea, don’t take chances. This place isn’t safe”. “Bea, if you need money, say; I’ll pay for you to stay somewhere else”.
I was doing the thing I despise most: I was judging a book by its cover. My gut wasn’t telling me there was anything wrong. In fact, from the moment I walked into the house, I felt an incredible energy of peace and kindness. My brain, on the other hand, was telling me that because of these people’s situations, I was not safe. I was judging them not for who they were but for what they were.
My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. “Bea!”. Freddy’s enthusiastic greeting came through the paper-thin walls. I opened the door to see his grinning face and intense eyes. I couldn’t help but smile, his energy was infectious.
“I’ve got you two water bottles. Make sure you drink them! We are a mile high here”. I thanked Freddy and watched him turn and go. Just as I was closing my door though, he turned around: “Oh, I’m making burgers tomorrow night. Do you want some?”.
I smiled. “That would be lovely, yes please”.
“There is no better leveller than travel”
There is no better leveller than travel. We all have stories. We have good stories and bad stories. Most people have gone through hardship. Just for some that hardship is more visible than it is for others.
My stay in Denver was the best out of all 9 weeks in the USA. That following night Freddy cooked burgers for everyone in the house. Despite not having a penny to his name, he still ensured we were all fed. And as we sat around the table sharing stories, I realised I could not have been more wrong about my housemates.
Morgan, who had found himself homeless, was in fact a teacher. He was a teacher in full-time work when he became homeless. Yet, despite his personal plight, he continued to go to work every day to teach his class of special education children. It was evident in the way he talked about his work just how much those kids meant to him, and how much he had sacrificed to provide them with the best possible education he could.
He was also well-traveled and had no end of happy memories of his trips through the USA, South Africa, and the UK. I adopted Morgan as my new grandad. We laughed and cried together as we shared our life experiences. I sensed in him a kindness I have rarely felt before.
I still don’t know why Timothy moved so far from home, but who was I to judge? I left Spain at 17 and headed to Ireland before settling in Wales and then England. Did anybody avoid me because of it? No! So why should I instantly think he had been hiding something?
As it happens, he was a really kind soul who gave up way too much of his time sharing with me his knowledge of the area. What to see, where to go, what hikes to do, and where to eat. He always had time for me.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
But the one who I was definitely wrong to judge was Freddy. Freddy, with the intense eyes and easy smile. Every time one of us passed by his desk, he’d look up and say: “How youuuuu doing?”. Freddy, who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, yet still had time for every one of his guests. Freddy, who is about to be made bankrupt yet still buys food every week for his tenants. Freddy, who spent two years giving away every last bit of money to charitable causes as he left behind everything that tied him to his years of alcoholism. Freddy, who reminded me of the power of kindness.