It was a starry, tranquil, mid-spring night on the West Side of Colorado Springs.
I was reading and fighting off sleep with declining success when this music -- a strange mix of Mideastern, Indian and rock -- began emanating from next door, where a young couple had recently moved in.
Interesting stuff, but it was midnight, and tomorrow would be a workday. When, 20 minutes later, there was no sign of letup, I pulled on my pants, muttering, and went out to investigate.
Annoyance changed to bemusement at the sight of Elizabeth spinning fire-streaming batons while performing a sinuous, sensuous, twisting dance to the music as Peter studiously videotaping the action with a camera perched atop a tripod.
Those two will fit right into the neighborhood, I thought. They have "that West Side thing."
Next door to them is a "visionary artist" (how he describes his livelihood) named Stormy Monday, with daughters Sunni and Breezi Monday. Three doors in the other direction is Cleo, who two years ago celebrated his 90th birthday by sky diving.
Across the street is a tattoo and body-piercing parlor with a Native American theme, run by a single mother of three, named Dream, who is going blind.
The West Side -- essentially, everything west of downtown between Fountain Creek and Garden of the Gods -- is a haven of the offbeat, the various and diverse. Paint your house purple, keep chickens in your yard, form a bikers-for-Jesus motorcycle club, fire dance at midnight -- the neighbors won't say a word, unless they are collectors of culture and nosy reporters like me.
It's always been working-class, slightly run down, a Democratic and a union stronghold, the place to which buttoned-down Little Londoners escaped when they got a yen for something more rousing than High Tea.
Attune your antennae, keep your eyes peeled and take a walk on the West Side. You'll find a diverse array of denizens, hear a great story or two and meet a host of laid-back neighbors who relish living there for precisely that reason.
Aficionados of West Side weirdness should make it a point to check out 10 N. Walnut Street, the business office of Popeye'z Rocky Mountain Undertakers. It's a concert piece of eccentricity and a window into the personality of owner Popeye Malchiodi.
Surrounding the house is a six-foot picket fence, painted red and yellow, and carved to simulate flames.
Nailed to trees and portions of the inside fence are an array of dirt-filled cowboy boots, army boots, galoshes and shoes from which well-tended flowers bloom.
Sticking out from the roof and dangling from the house sides are several wonderfully ornate, Dr. Seuss-ian light fixtures.
Bolted atop the mailbox at the front gate is a cast metal sign reading, "Real men love Jesus."
Walk inside the house and you've entered what Rod Serling called "another dimension." The interior is neat as a pin, but filled with objet d'art oddities, weird whatnots and macabre knickknacks.
Popeye is literally as colorful as they come, his arms densely splotched in tattoos from hands to collarbone, the tattoo of a woman's face dominating his neck. He sports a hipster goatee and in place of his right eye is a solid-white prosthetic -- the source of his "Popeye" moniker.
He has the gravelly basso voice of a professional wrestler, but the vocabulary of a community college English teacher; the vibes of a Sons of Silence enforcer -- he considers himself a "lone wolf" member of the biker community -- but the restrained manners of a prison chaplain. He has brawled in some of the most hellacious biker bars in town, yet he attends church every Sunday and writes poetry.
Popeye's life story is as souped-up as the prize-winning custom motorcycles and hotrods he builds from scratch. It's quite the experience listening to him spin his life's tale amid the biker surrealism and gothic tribute to horsepower that is his living room, that milky white glass eye staring at you all the while, like something out of Poe.
He grew up in San Bernadino and Fontana, California, the son of a high school English teacher. His mother died in a car crash when he was eight.
He graduated from high school with a GPA of 3.7, despite three years of "hot-rodding, drinking and running with girls" while working 30- to 40-hour weeks milking cows at a local dairy as a way to finance his souped-up cars. He built his first "rod" at 16 -- "a '63 Chevy with a 348 and three two-barrels."
Opting for the Air Force over college, Popeye spent two years in covert, illegal, special forces operations in the jungles of Columbia -- a subject (along with several others) he declines to discuss nowadays.
Somehow epitomizing Popeye's life is a string of misadventures during the 1974 holiday season that would have flattened a lesser mortal. On Thanksgiving night, a speeding drunk plowed into his pickup in front of his house, totaling his beloved Harley in the process. Popeye was arrested and taken away in handcuffs for pulling the offending drunk out of the car, tying him to a tree and beating him with a lug wrench, breaking several bones.
Christmas day, his first wife accidentally set fire to the curtains, burning their house to the ground.
Twelve days later, he was playing basketball in an Air Force league when an elbow to his face sent an eyeglass lens slicing through his cheek to gouge out a third of his eye.
Popeye roared into Colorado Springs in 1979 by way of a job as a firefighter at the Air Force Academy. He left that job three years later to rebuild Harley Davidson engines for Dragon Man -- "the craziest guy I've ever met," says Popeye admiringly.
In the meanwhile, Popeye began moonlighting as a bouncer at biker bars and gaining a reputation as a fearsome fighter who, like gunfighters of yore, was frequently put to the test by "guys who'd show up wanting to try me."
"I loved it, I lived for it," he says of his bar-fighting career. "Street-fighting, no-holds-barred, anything goes."
Ever the serious wage-earner, Popeye branched out to become manager of several biker bars, including Jim and I's (the North Nevada bar, since closed, where Baylis shot up the joint), The Suffering Bastard and The Bank Shot. Eventually, he opened his own bar, Popeye's Cantina.
Popeye's life took a U-turn when, six years ago, he gave up drinking, and four years ago "turned his life over to God" after being "led to the Lord" by Al Leopizei of Soldiers for Jesus, the West Side motorcycle club. He now attends Calvary Chapel, the church of choice for born-again bikers, and says he's "mellowed out" considerably.
He attributes his undertaker career to "the hand of the Lord."
Fiercely loyal to his pals, when a friend named Fat Boy died in Arizona, Popeye flew out with a buddy to retrieve the body. The embalmers, though, did a terrible job, leaving jaggedy, leaking autopsy marks and post-mortem stains. "That really pissed me off," he said, "so we re-embalmed the body."
He went on to do an undertaker apprenticeship and get his Master's rating two-and-a-half years later. Ever since, he's had his own business doing "alternative" funerals for people who can't afford what he calls "the high dollar stuff."
Becoming born again hasn't slaked his love of raising hell, however, even in his work, which he performs with a sense of humor.
In honor of the last wish of a dying friend, for example, Popeye embalmed the guy in a sitting position and then drove him around town in a limousine to have one last drink at all his favorite bars. In obedience to another final request, he laid a friend facedown in the casket with his pants down "so the whole world could kiss his ass."
For years, Popeye used a '72 Cadillac hearse in his job that he customized with "a 472 and two four-barrels, hood scoops and lowered all around. The fastest hearse in town," he grins.
That hotrod hearse became a permanent part of local biker lore. Friends tell of the time when Popeye was living in a house at 217 N. 7th Street, where he'd hung his neon "Rocky Mountain Undertakers" sign in the living room window. One day the cops showed up at his door to tell him the sign violated city code and he'd have to take it down, no matter that it had hung there over four years.
Royally peeved, Popeye retaliated by half-burying his customized hearse in the front yard to make it look like it was erupting at high speed out of the earth toward his front door. He equipped the headlights with sensors so that the lights flicked on to shine on anyone ascending the porch stairs.
As the coup de grace, he hung his neon undertaker sign in the hearse's back window.
These days, Popeye is taking life at a more "mellow" pitch. "I spent so much time drinking and fighting that I lost out on a lot of good stuff in life," he says. "I'm 45 years old, and I want to catch up with the good stuff. God is a big part of my life now."
But Popeye still courts the unconventional. "I don't like 'normal,'" he said. "Stock sucks. I strive to be different from the crowd. I customize."
His latest project is rigging up and refrigerating a trailer he plans to use for a hearse to be pulled by the mega-souped-up '81 Corvette he's driving these days.
"I've got to cut back on my swearing, though," he confesses.
Few people -- even his neighbors of many years -- knew what to make of Tom Panepinto.
He lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, but no one knew much about him. When he died last year at age 81, he passed into West Side lore, a figure of rumor, speculation and shadow.
Central to the mystery was the modest house at 712 W. Kiowa Street that he built with his own hands. This wasn't just a house, though. It was a fortress.
Over the years, neighbors watched in puzzlement as Panepinto assembled an impenetrable maze of eight barbed wire-festooned fences between his front porch and the street.
He also dug out a backyard "bunker," dug a tunnel between his house and the house next door (also owned and built by him), covered all his windows with chain link fences and bars, and installed rows of wicked metal spikes along the window ledges.
He supplemented all that by barricading himself indoors with a series of heavy chains, not emerging for days and weeks at a time.
The neighbors were baffled. Some said he owned a number of properties from which he collected substantial rental income. Rumor had it he'd stashed a lot of money somewhere in the place.
It was also rumored, though no one was sure, that he was a World War II vet. Maybe he was shell-shocked from the war, prey to an obsessive fear of Nazi or Jap sneak attacks.
The excessive security was far from Panepinto's sole eccentricity, however. His place was a junkyard of unbelievable dimensions. Apparently, he was a compulsive hoarder, unable to throw anything away.
Much of his house and the "bunker" in back was packed floor to ceiling with junk, refuse and clutter, movement from room to room possible only via tiny passageways through the mind-boggling jumble.
In January, brothers Nelson and Dominic Rufran saw the place advertised in the Thrifty Nickel and purchased it for $40,000. Nelson is a Spanish teacher at Emerson Elementary, Dominic a roofer. The brothers supplement their incomes by buying dilapidated houses, repairing and refurbishing them and then selling them at a modest profit.
They have some hard-to-believe stories about what they found in Panepinto's place -- and a photo album and video tape to document it all.
One curiosity was hundreds and hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of dollars worth of pocket change strewn about the floor and amid the clutter. "The first week of shoveling junk," said Dominic, "we picked out quarters and fifty-cent pieces, but it was so tedious and time-consuming that we stopped bothering."
Panepinto apparently lived without heat, electricity and water. The brothers said they found the furnace buried and unusable, the toilet filled with anti-freeze.
Several neighbors said that relatives showed up with a U-haul the day Panepinto's body was found, ransacking the house and tearing paneling from the walls in search of money.
Attempts to contact a surviving son proved fruitless, but a new clue emerged when it turned out Panepinto was a long-time parishoner at St. Mary's church. Father Don Dunn knew how to reach a friend of Panepinto.
The friend is Pete Madrid, a fellow West Sider and a Vietnam vet who met Panepinto when they both ushered at St. Mary's.
"Tom was a devout Catholic," said Madrid. "He came across pretty normal and got along fine with everybody. We all assumed he had a home life like everyone else."
Madrid struck up a friendship with Panepinto when he learned that, like himself, he was a veteran. "The 50th anniversary of V-Day was coming up, and he was having a hell of a time dealing with war memories," said Madrid. "He was extremely depressed."
Responding to Madrid's sympathetic ear, Panepinto unburdened himself, telling of a brutal 54-day firefight in New Guinea that left him harrowed, emaciated and wounded in both knees. He was one of only several people from his platoon to survive.
"In action at Corregidor, he saw an entire platoon blown up right in front of him. Fifty years later, and it still haunted him," said Madrid. "He couldn't put it behind him."
Madrid suspects unresolved war horror behind Panepinto's barbed wire, bunker and barricades. "They didn't have counseling programs for vets like they do now," he said. "Tom had to face his nightmares the best he could."
Madrid tried to help his "little friend" in whatever way he could, giving him rides to the grocery store, giving him a sympathetic ear to help him through difficult moments.
"I was never in his house," he said, "because I wasn't invited in. How people live is their business. Toward the end, I couldn't even make it up to his porch. Those fences ripped you to shreds.
"Tom was a very caring person, though. He just didn't have a way to show it. I know he's in heaven. Everybody at church knows it, too. A few us were inspired by his simple, humble way."
Little Saint Rose
Dorothy Arveson sees the image of Christ everywhere she looks.
She sees it in trees on distant hillsides. In patches of moss on the sides of boulders. In the shapes of shadows and reflections of light on glass. In cloud formations.
She documents the likenesses in photos. If you use your imagination and look just right, in the way she suggests, you can kind of see what she means.
Dorothy sees Christ most often, though, in the West Side garden that she and her sister, Pauline, maintain at 3540 West Pikes Peak Avenue as a shrine dedicated to the memory of their mother, Rose Ella Scott Arveson Simmons (1897-1963).
When their mother died, the sisters turned her beloved garden into a religious shrine that includes a sanctuary featuring her likeness, a statue of Christ, and various memorabilia, a framed letter from President Ronald Reagan among them.
Inside their house, directly adjacent to the garden, is a "Rose Chapel" furnished with plush red curtains, an organ, and portraits of Rose and the Virgin Mary.
The sisters have devoted their lives to pious reverence of their mother, whom they believe is a saint -- literally. It's their lives' highest goal to see their mother -- "Little Saint Rose," as they call her -- canonized by the Catholic Church, even though Rose herself was Methodist.
They believe their mother's life is a miracle that reverberates through the ages and manifests itself in impossible healings and divine interventions throughout the world.
They claim that Christ physically appeared to Rose in the living room of their house (in which both sisters still live) one day back in 1936.
"The only thing mother told us about the conversation," said Dorothy, "is that he wanted her to come with him, but she said she couldn't because of us kids. We asked if God looks like his pictures, and she said, 'No, not really.' When he left, he disappeared through a wall."
Dorothy claims her mother's life was marked by piety and compassion for all living things. Especially, though, for her beloved roses, which she believed to manifest Christ's love.
"Mother was one of the happiest, sweetest, bubbliest persons you could ever know," said Dorothy. "She was physically and emotionally abused in the most terrible ways by her alcoholic father, and she had grave health problems. She never let anyone see her suffering, though. She was a ball to be around."
Rose suffered from a disease that attacks the kidneys and enlarges the heart, creating a host of other problems. She was close to death on a number of occasions and had eight surgeries and three heart attacks.
In one surgery, her blood pressure was so high that doctors couldn't administer anesthetic. Her many operations left her skin so scarred and weakened in places that by the last three surgeries doctors had to send her home unsutured, leaving the wounds to close up of their own accord over bedridden periods of months.
"I remember changing her bandages and seeing her insides," said Dorothy, appalled.
Rose, though, never let her sufferings define her life.
Dorothy tells of the day Rose returned from shopping to find she'd been given 50 cents too much change. She didn't have money for another bus fare so, despite her pain and poor health, she walked the entire four-and-a-half miles to downtown Colorado Springs and back again in order to return the illicit 50 cents.
It was upon her death at age 65, however, that Rose's sainthood began manifesting itself in high gear.
By then, her hair was white and her skin withered. Immediately upon dying, however, her daughters were shocked to see her hair turn back to the dark auburn of her youth, her skin supple and smooth. "I think God did that to show us that she is a saint," Dorothy surmises.
The miracles began multiplying.
Dorothy herself was in grave health at the time. In 1949, she'd come down with myasthenia gravis, a progressive disease that brings paralysis to the respiratory system and loss of reflexes, resulting in eventual "vegetabledom," as Dorothy put it.
"I could barely stand up," said Dorothy. "I couldn't talk well enough to make myself understood. At the moment of mother's death, though, I was instantly healed. To my astonishment, I could walk again. I could talk."
That wasn't all.
Dorothy said that the hundreds of plants Rose kept inside the house flopped over and withered at the moment of her death. Following the funeral, Dorothy put seven dried-up roses that had sat on her mother's casket among the dead houseplants.
"Ten days later, all the plants were back to their natural green state, and the seven roses were blooming again," she said.
Dorothy claims the miraculously rejuvenated plants began slanting toward the picture of her mother in the room. "One night," she said, "we watched a vine grow at miraculous speed and wrap itself around mother's crochet basket."
The miracle of the reblooming roses has come to define Dorothy's and Pauline's lives. Upon hearing of the sisters' tales, people began asking for a petal from the roses. Several recipients reported miraculous healings and answers to prayer.
"We documented 33 miracles in the first month after Mother's death," said Dorothy. To honor their mother, the sisters took to providing roses to anyone who asks. They buy 2,000 at a time, set them before a picture of their mother, offer them to God, and watch a three-day miracle unfold.
"When I offer them to God in mother's memory," Dorothy explained, "they immediately wilt and flop over. The second day, they're dead like Christ on the cross, but the third day they transform into an 'everlasting state' of preservation."
The sisters have sent out over 100,000 "everlasting" roses over the years. They personally answer every request, asking only that the recipient report any miracles. Dorothy produces a bulging notebook of letters from all over the world -- including letters from priests -- reporting miraculous healings.
That project consumes most of Dorothy's income from her job as a self-employed accountant (she is on the board of the Colorado Association of Accountants, and has taught at Blair Business College). It takes up nearly every moment of the sisters' free time.
They never charge a penny for their efforts. "We think God would stop the miracles if we started charging," said Dorothy.
The sisters hope, though, to see their mother sainted.
"That would require tons of testimony and cost tons of money," Dorothy lamented. "We can't afford it on our own."
Their shrine, open to all faiths, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dorothy reports having seen people praying there at 2 in the morning.
"More than one person has told me they went out for a walk and were mysteriously drawn here like a magnet, even though they didn't know this place existed," said Dorothy.
Anyone wishing for an "everlasting rose" can get one from a plastic box kept at the sanctuary site. While there, you can put your name (or someone else's) on the prayer list the sisters keep at the site. Pauline spends her entire days sequestered, saying perpetual novenas for people on the list.
You can also call Dorothy at 636-2622. She'll be pleased and honored if you do. Little Saint Rose -- "the universal saint of all time," as the sisters want her to be known -- is her life's devotion.
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