The crowd along the counter seemed light for 10 o’clock on a Saturday night. Headlights and traffic lights turned like a disco ball outside on Denver's East Colfax Avenue, and the sound system at Tom's Diner thumped with the Rolling Stones' “Get Off of My Cloud.”
The kitchen chirped with the crisp decibels of glassware, utensils and plates being collected and stacked.
There’s a collision coming over this greasy spoon -- between the past and the future for this part of town, between dollars and cents, between what’s right for many and what’s right for one.
As Denver grapples with gentrification, the city is deciding how to slow the march of time, and who ultimately pays the cost for that.
That’s what’s on the menu Aug. 19, when the Denver City Council decides whether to put a historic landmark designation on Tom's, based on the diner’s other-timely architecture and history.
The joint first opened as the White Spot in 1967, building its reputation on good eggs, colorful characters, a hangout for vice cops and the place to sober up after a downtown show.
The city's historical landmark commission already has reviewed a tall stack of public petitions and determined it meets the criteria of a place worth saving.
The brick and mortar and taxes and headaches belong to Tom Messina, the owner of the place since 1999.
At 60 years old, Messina wants to sell to a developer who wants to bring in a fancy eight-story condominium to a part of town with fast-food restaurants, old store fronts and swarming traffic, near hotels that take vouchers to house the homeless.
The real estate deal is $4.8 million, but historical preservation activists want Tom’s Diner to be preserved, over the wishes of Tom. The historical designation would keep the current building standing and likely scare off future buyers.
“It feels like the perfect storm of b.s.,” Messina told me, irritation and desperation as distinct in his voice as his New York accent.
“This part of town has begged for a project like this,” he said of the upscale housing. “I don’t feel like I’m doing an injustice to Colfax by wanting to get on with my life.”
Messina understands the love for the place, but he thinks the affection is for the memories and the coffee. He remembers going $800,000 in debt to buy the place when he was 40 years old and “in between jobs.”
He remembers sleeping in the office of the 24-hour restaurant almost every night during the first two years. He remembers cashing out savings and selling possessions to pay on the loan and keep the diner going when business was slow.
“If the dishwasher didn’t show up, I washed dishes," he said. "If a waitress didn’t show up, I waited tables. I was in this 100 percent. I did it for my family.”
Now Messina has no idea what this will cost him or what happens next if he can’t sell his diner.
“It’s something to have your family’s future in the control of strangers,” he told me. “I worked day in and day out at this place for 20 years trying to make ends meet and to plan for retirement, so this is hard. It would be for any small business owner.”
It’s a complicated subject, when you’re talking about somebody else’s money. I felt differently when I didn’t have anything. Now that I have a little, I better understand why no one tolerates having something taken away from them.
“Are you pro- letting Tom retire?” asked the young lady who answered the diner’s phone when I called to speak to the owner and explained to her why.
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” I said. “But I’m sympathetic to his situation, if that’s what you’re asking.”
And who wouldn’t be? A person works all his life for a shot like Tom Messina has. If preserving history comes at a cost, he’s paying it.
It’s like being buried in Grant’s Tomb, when you’re not Grant.
Business picked up on this Saturday night when a half-dozen glassy-eyed millennials ambled in, after a partying at the nearby bars. They browsed the menu past “Groovy Shakes,” “Cheese Styx” and “Belly Bombers” before settling on orders anchored by pancakes and bacon. An hour later they wandered out of Tom's into the neon-lit Denver night straighter than they walked in.
After a little while, my friend and colleague John Ensslin joined me for a late night bite. A New Jerseyan raised in the tradition of East Coast diners, John said Tom’s evokes in him the Hawthorne Grill, the diner at the beginning and end of the Quentin Tarantino classic “Pulp Fiction,” where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny hold a stickup while Jules and Vincent are having breakfast, couriering a briefcase possibly containing the soul of their boss, Marsellus Wallace.
After a little while, my friend and colleague John Ensslin joined me for a late-night bite. A product of New Jersey, he loved diner culture, and we chatted for two hours about movies and music and newspaper war stories, the way men in diners carry on late at night.
A few days later John was found dead in his apartment, the end for a newspaper legend in our city. That night at Tom's was out last talk in more than 17 years of friendship. I'll never forget it.
John said Tom’s evoked in him the Hawthorne Grill, the diner at the beginning of the Quentin Tarantino classic “Pulp Fiction,” where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny hold a stickup while Jules and Vincent are having breakfast, couriering a briefcase possibly containing the soul of their boss, Marsellus Wallace.
They tore that diner down in 1999 to make room for an AutoZone.
John’ was right, though. Tom’s is that kind of place. The soul in this briefcase might well be Denver’s position on personal property rights and a shared treasure.
Sometimes we just have to let go.