Simply Nick’s

Business travel is a bit of both bore and chore. The bore part can happen if you travel to the same place a little too often. That’s how it is with Lakewood, Colorado and me. Lakewood is a nice enough city on Denver’s western edge, nestled a few miles from the start of the Rocky Mountains. It has a nice view of the mountains and Denver, many affordable houses, convenient strip malls, a new hospital and the Denver Federal Center, where I hang out during the day. Soon it will have light rail as well. It’s a decent city and might be a nice place to retire to if you dream of retiring to a ranch house and like to bike places. It is quite bike-friendly. Still, there is nothing particularly special about Lakewood, aside from its scenic views. It is the average American city, the sort of place where Dagwood Bumstead would feel at home.

Nick's Cafe
Nick’s Cafe

Business travel to Lakewood usually means sleeping in the same so-so hotels. The TownePlace Suites where we usually stay is very much so-so: standard clean Marriott hotel, just not one of the nicer ones. Calling them a suite is a bit of a stretch. There is a tiny kitchen, but there it is basically one room with a bathroom. There is also something resembling breakfast in the lobby in the morning. Breakfast means a continental breakfast: cereals, milk, bananas, apples and bagels. The closest thing to protein is the hardboiled eggs, which only recently appeared on the menu. The price is right but meal quickly gets boring. You find yourself craving some real breakfast food: like scrambled eggs with bacon, fresh orange juice, pancakes and hash browns. For most Americans this means Denny’s, and there is a Denny’s across Highway 6 about a half a mile from the hotel. There is also a hole in the wall called Nick’s Cafe.

You would be wise to choose Nick’s over Denny’s. Granted, passing this tiny restaurant at 777 Simms Street your first reaction might be to run to Denny’s instead. Nick’s epitomizes the hole in the wall restaurant, and its location in a tiny and disheveled looking strip mall with a liquor store might have you wondering if restaurant inspectors ever come by. Moreover the place is tiny. Your chair might well bump up against a chair of the table next to it. It can’t possibly seat more than two dozen people and when it does it must be with considerable discomfort. There is that plus all the kitschy stuff on the walls, almost all of it with an Elvis theme. Nick, the chef behind the counter, reputedly used to cook for Elvis though for how long I don’t know. Nick’s is part restaurant and part shrine to the crooner, with a dash of Marilyn Monroe thrown in. Rumors of Elvis’s demise may be exaggerated, because at Nick’s he has a parking space awaiting his return.

You can likely get breakfast 24 hours a day at your local Denny’s, but at most restaurants at 4 AM you are out of luck. Not so at Nick’s because Nick is an early bird. He arrives around 4 AM and departs around 3 PM after lunch. Nick is not intimidated that most of us are asleep at 4 AM rather than searching for a hot breakfast. He is there, probably because he’s wide awake anyhow. He knows what he does well which is make great tasting breakfasts and lunches for prices that make him competitive with McDonalds. Unlike McDonalds though you can also get a taste of Greece or Mexico, if not during lunch when his hot and tasty gyros are in high demand, but even during breakfast where if you think your taste buds are awake enough for it you can get the breakfast burrito.

Nick concentrates on the food, not on the silverware, which is plastic, or the glasses, which are paper cups, or the plates which are Styrofoam. You can watch Nick prepare your meal if you want since he is right there behind the window. And you cannot escape Nick, as you pay him, not the waitress, on your way out the door. Tip the hard working waitress of course, but leave your credit card at home. It’s strictly cash at Nick’s.

I eat at Nick’s a few times a year, usually toward the end of my trip when I cannot endure another continental breakfast. I am on per diem anyhow, and breakfast is always cheap at Nick’s. It’s also a short walk across 8th Avenue, across a gas station lot and up a short but steep embankment. It’s worth the short climb just to have the pleasure of sitting down, enjoying the Elvis memorabilia on the wall, the Today show on the TV (in the morning) and to hear the comforting sound of food frying on Nick’s grill. The waitress is always there, so it is a matter of seconds before you get a cup of water and a menu. (Seat yourself.)

Perhaps it is just as well that Nick’s Cafe is unknown. With a restaurant so small, Nick simply does not need much more business. It’s the sort of place that should have a line outside the door but I have never seen one. This may be due in part to the severely limited parking. It may be small but that does not mean it does not have loyal clientele. They are also friendly clientele, perhaps too friendly. As I had breakfast the other morning, one patron walked in to pick up her usual order of takeout, but stayed just long enough to sit on the lap of a much older patron. Nick’s is apparently the dining choice of penny pinching Lakewood police, two of whom came in for breakfast while I was there.

As much as I enjoy the ambiance of Nick’s as well as its great food, I confess my primary motivation is the bacon. Nick knows his bacon and he delivers thick strips of bacon cooked just right: neither too greasy nor too brown. It’s bacon you can sink your teeth into and ingest with great satisfaction. I haven’t found it served in any other restaurant, probably because other restaurants are too busy making their bottom line to worry about giving patrons thick slices of bacon. At Nick’s there is only Nick behind the counter and a waitress handling customers. He serves what is good, not what makes him the most money. He cannot be in this business to get rich, as he charges so little. I figure he works simply because he enjoys it. He is the master of his own small domain, a cash-only business, and it works for him. He can open his own damn store at 4 AM if he wants and there is no one to complain. And so it goes until the last gyro is sold around 3 PM. If you need to see Nick, he will be back at 4 AM. Count on him.

Top of the world

Perhaps when you were young you had dreams similar to mine. The nightmare rarely varied and they were always ended the same way: I would end up falling off something very high and feeling very panicked, knowing I was about to die. In the dream, I never quite actually met the bottom of the cliff and my maker. Perhaps they were a result of watching too many Road Runner cartoons, or perhaps they were vestigial memories of being in utero.

Perhaps this explains my vertigo. I am fine peering down over something from way up high, providing there is a guardrail or something similar to inhibit my fall. Otherwise I am incapable of getting near the edge of anything with a precipitous drop.

This phobia makes little sense as I can and do fly frequently. In fact, if the weather is nice, I prefer a window seat. Only a couple times have a felt panicky in an airplane, and only during moderate or severe turbulence.

I only rarely experience vertigo, mainly because I deal with it through rigorous avoidance. Occasionally though I have no choice. For those of us who suffer from vertigo, you should avoid Trail Ridge Road in The Rocky Mountain National Park. Up there above the tree line at altitudes from 10,000 to 12,000 feet there are miles of road where you drive literally along the side of the mountain with not so much as a guardrail between you, your car and careening thousands of feet down the side of the Rocky Mountains to certain death. Moreover you may be shadowed by tailgaters because you are going the speed limit of 35 mph and they want you to go faster. In short, if you suffer from vertigo like me the drive will be nerve wracking and heart pounding, and that is assuming that the weather is fine, which it often isn’t. The wind has been clocked at up to 150 mph at the Alpine Ridge Visitors Center, and you can get snow, hail or sleet on the road at any time of the year.

View from Alpine Ridge Vistors Center
View from Alpine Ridge Vistors Center

Granted, if you want to kill yourself, you should have a spectacular view on the vertical descent. You may piss off a few elk, big horn sheep and moose on the tundra on your way down. Yet, even if you suffer from vertigo, you might want to take Trail Ridge Road anyhow, for few roads command such a breathtaking view. You are only guardrail-less for a few miles and once you get below the tree line the feelings of vertigo should recede. Trail Ridge Road is as close as many of us ordinary mortals will get to being on top of the world.

The Alpine Ridge Visitors Center is only publicly accessible during the short summer months. During the winter the road is closed. The snowdrifts can extend up to thirty five feet above the road. It takes the National Park Service months to make the road drivable during its short driving season. As I discovered, even in August the weather can be bracing at the Alpine Ridge Visitors Center so bring a jacket and gloves. If you are not too faint from the thin air, you can take a trail a thousand feet or so to the summit and, like me (see picture) perch next to a sign that tells you that you are at 12,005 feet above sea level. This is likely as high up as I will get in my life.

Me at the top of Alpine Ridge
Me at the top of Alpine Ridge

When you vacation around The Rocky Mountains, you have to expect to be altitude challenged. I have flown to Denver enough times to no longer notice the thinner air, but move a couple thousand feet higher and I found myself short of breath and my heart racing, even while sitting still. East of The Rocky Mountain National Park is the city of Estes Park, which sits 7500 feet above sea level. My wife and I spent two nights in this mountain-lined city but even at that modest altitude my wife and I noticed the change in elevation.

Estes Park, a beautiful touristy city with expansive views, is something of a low altitude city compared to the last destination of our journey, Leadville, Colorado. Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the continental United States at 10,200 feet in elevation. It sits below the tree line, but not much below it. My wife and I spent a night in The Ice Palace Inn, one of dozens of bed and breakfasts in Leadville, a historic mining town that was once the largest city in the state and its presumed state capital. Even in August the weather in Leadville was bracing with cool blustery westerly winds and evening temperatures in the forties. Much of its lower temperature was likely due to its high altitude. Leadville can make an east coast guy like me feel humbled, for you can be at rest and still find yourself breathing heavily and your heart racing. Monday we took the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad ride 900 feet higher into the mountains. While the view was breathtaking, you will probably find yourself hyperventilating out of necessity. I found myself constantly taking deep breaths. We were grateful later in the day to be back with my brother and his wife in Boulder at a mere 5400 feet.

Today we fly back to low altitude Northern Virginia where we can breathe effortlessly again. Our trip out west exceeded both our expectations. In addition to the places I documented, we also spent two nights in Laramie, Wyoming at a B&B called The Mad Carpenter Inn, absolutely the best B&B where we have ever stayed. There we toured the well restored Ivinson Victorian Mansion, a local art museum and the Wyoming Territorial Prison (a far more interesting a place than it sounds) which housed many a ruffian including Butch Cassidy. Overall Wyoming is a beautiful state, if vastly underpopulated and very dry by east coast standards. The whole state has just 533,000 people in it. By contrast, the county I live in, Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, has over a million inhabitants. To go from one city to another in Montana usually requires a journey by car of several hours. There are no large cities in the state, with Cheyenne being its largest at about 53,000 residents.

We were amazed by the friendliness of people we met. We found it disarmingly easy to slip into intimate conversations with relative strangers. Perhaps the lack of people in states like Wyoming makes people naturally friendlier and inquisitive. In Estes Park, Colorado we had continental breakfasts at a Comfort Inn with the same two couples two mornings in a row. One couple left us their name and address so we could visit them in Western Nebraska.

The West has much to teach us somewhat insular East Coasters, including the somewhat lost art of friendliness. We will be back again. Perhaps we will retire out here.

Random thoughts during another business trip

I do not know how people endured business trips before laptop computers and high speed wired hotels became par for the course. Business travel is easier to endure if the destinations are exotic, your coworkers are fun to be with, and your work days are short.

Alas, such trips are the exception, not the rule. This one qualifies as somewhere in the middle. I am back in Denver on business this week. More specifically, I am in Lakewood. Denver is a big city, but as big cities go there is not too much to recommend it over any other big city. One thing I really notice being an East Coast dude: the air is so thin and dry out here. No wonder my skin is still so wrinkle free at age 49: it’s spent most of that time in a moisture bath. This dry Denver weather plays havoc with my hair. It makes me look like Albert Einstein. My sinus cavities soon feel like a desert. I feel the need to buy some saline solution for my nose but know the effect would be only momentary.

Work is more of the same too. I spend my days partly in meetings, partly chatting with my customers, but mostly doing exactly the same things that I would be doing back in the office. I simply unpack my laptop computer and plug it into the local area network, and it is as if I were back in Reston. All my files back at the office are available, and the latency in fetching them is hard to notice just because I am 1500 miles away. This still feels like wiz bang stuff to me.

There are usually evening activities with coworkers that I can elect to attend. But tonight I choose to catch up on my blogging. The alternative was bowling, which is not my cup of tea. The people I work with are very nice and I generally enjoy spending time with them off hours, but not necessarily every night. While I am not antisocial, neither am I a social butterfly. I can take or leave the social aspects of my job. I can entertain myself quite happily. So I give the social aspects of my job 50%. I usually attend the happy hour. Once or twice during the week I will partake in a social event. (A colleague who works out here throws a party once a year, so I will be there tomorrow night.) I am equally as happy on my own in my free hours. Tonight was my night to be antisocial.

So tonight I discreetly headed alone to the Colorado Mills Mall, which is across the highway from the hotel, to finally give it a once over. There I dined alone in a food court, and noshed on Chinese food from the Panda Express. I wandered the length of this very large mall and browsed a bookstore. It may be a big mall, but there was nothing that I particularly wanted to buy.

Now I am back to the sanctuary of my hotel room. Here though I am not really bounded by four walls. Thanks to my laptop and the high speed internet, cyberspace can be my playground. With this basic infrastructure, location no longer matters. Here I can read my favorite blogs, catch up on the day’s news, play with Google Earth and mostly just relax, just like I might to at home. The major difference is of course that my domestic companion, a.k.a. my wife, has not spent fifteen minutes debriefing me about her day. Nor will she be giving me the latest briefings from the world of slash that she inhabits in her off hours. While I miss my wife and daughter back in Northern Virginia, and would prefer to be home, a little time apart every few months is not a bad thing either. It makes me appreciate them more when I get home.

Off come my shoes and socks. My feet are liberated at last. This room would be a bit more comfortable for surfing the internet and writing if it had a desk. Perhaps because we negotiated such a discount rate, I got a “studio suite”. There is no desk in this room, but there is a couch. Time to put a pillow on the coffee table and prop up my aching feet.

My thoughts are pretty muddled. I am thinking about how early the day starts here in Denver in June. I went running yesterday morning before 6 a.m. and the sun was already well above the horizon. While I cursed the lack of sidewalks at least there were not many cars to harass me. It is no problem getting up at 5 a.m. Mountain Time when you are used to living on Eastern Time. When the sun is out, it is like you have a few hours to enjoy life before beginning the workday. The prairie dogs kept me company as I jogged by Red Rocks Community College. Sometimes their squeaky sounds remind me of a bird call. There are many rabbits out at that hour too, and they are not as afraid as I would have expected. I see them scurrying near the side of the road. A dog barks at me from the front lawn of a house a couple hundred feet away. Why is he alone and untethered? Fortunately, he doesn’t want to do more than let me know I am one of the few people awake at this hour.

From so many trips here, Denver has become a lot less enchanting. My first business trip out here was in 1984. I thought it was really neat. The Rocky Mountains are still an impressive site, but the terrain, which once seemed exotic, now seems ordinary. At one time I wanted to live out here. Now, I can’t imagine it. I have grown accustomed to how lush everything is out East. Despite the humidity, despite the rain, despite a limited ski season, despite the population density, I would rather live on the east coast than here.

I will be glad to return to it on Friday.

My harried week out west

Occam’s Razor fans will have to forgive my inability to post much lately. I have just finished a weeklong business trip in Denver. Between work and visiting family, I have been kept fully engaged. It is only now on a 777 moving across the country that I have something resembling sufficient personal time in which to order my thoughts.

My work took me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, Colorado. This is my third trip out there for the agency I joined two years ago. The trips now have a certain familiarity to them, which will only increase when I return again the first week of June. So far, we have stayed in the same hotels: a pair of Marriott hotels in Golden, Colorado a couple miles away from the Federal Center. They are clean and comfortable and provide an excellent view of the Rocky Mountains. Like most hotels these days, they offer a decent complementary breakfast consisting mostly of foods most sedentary adults should avoid.

On Monday evening, I went to sleep in my room at the Residence Inn at Golden, only to awaken unexpectedly at 1 AM. A fire alarm was putting out a deafening ring. 1 AM must be the worst time for me to have to awaken unexpectedly. I knew where I was but mentally I was on some other planet. For the longest time I could simply not figure out what was happening. Once my foggy mind put the facts together, I was unable to figure out how to do the simplest thing like turn on the light. When after a minute or so I had finally mastered that act, I could not figure out what to do next. Should I dash outside in my underwear? Eventually I decided to throw on my bathrobe, slip my shoes into my sneakers, and grab my room key. I staggered out of my room into the hallway in a dazed state. Fortunately, I was only a dozen feet or so from an exit.

It may have been 1 AM, but one of my employees, Dave, was still awake and in his business attire. Apparently, he is a night owl. Some birdbrain a few floors above apparently hung something on a sprinkler head, causing it to rupture, so there was no actual fire. After a few minutes outside, we were allowed back into our rooms. I went back to sleep, wary of another fire alarm. I could hear the sound of water coming down between the walls and a wet/dry vacuum above me. Needless to say, the rest of my sleep that night was restless. The next day we were all a bit groggy.

Linda, a coworker from my office in Reston, had a rental car. I became both one of her passengers and one of her dinner mates. Fortunately, Linda is an adventurous person. Despite having been to Denver at least twice a year for a decade, she felt there was much more to see. On Tuesday night for example, she took us on I-70 over the continental divide. This was my first time crossing the continental divide by car. The drive fifty miles or so into the Rocky Mountains was quite awe inspiring. For this east coast person, the mountains on either side of us struck me as incredibly steep and high. We made it through the Eisenhower tunnel before turning around. We dined at Beau Jo’s in the small town of Idaho Springs. The restaurant offered something called “Colorado Pizza”. I later asked my brother Tom, a resident of Boulder, if there was such a thing. He had never heard of it. Colorado pizza apparently consists of very thick crusts around the rim of the pizza pan and thin crusts in the middle. Since there is plenty of crust remaining after consuming the pizza, you are supposed to spread honey on the remaining crusts and eat them for dessert. While the pizza itself was okay, by getting dessert “free” it made for an inexpensive meal. It was also the first pizza parlor that I have ever been in where you order pizza by the pound. A two-pound pizza can feed three normal people more than adequately.

There is hardly room for the town of Idaho Springs between the Rocky Mountains. Except for the restaurants, there was little in the “downtown” that remained open after 6 p.m. For someone looking for an authentic small town experience, it seems a great and inexpensive place to live. We passed a realtor’s office and learned we could rent a mobile home for only $250 a month. The town is not big enough to justify a Wal-Mart.

Thursday night Linda took us to Mataam Fez, a Moroccan restaurant in Denver. I had never eaten Moroccan food before. The entertainment was as much a part of the experience as the meal. If you have never eaten in a Moroccan restaurant, be prepared to remove your shoes and sit on cushions on the floor. Expect the table to be about two feet off the ground. We had a five-course meal and shared our food. The food was overall quite tasty (though expensive), but rather elemental too. My Shrimp Pel Pel, for example, came in the shells with the feet still attached. A partner’s salmon was quite good but still had the scales on it. Moroccans apparently dispense with silverware. We ate everything with our hands. Before eating we had to wash our hands at the table. The waiter had us place our hands above a pot while he poured lemon water on them from a pitcher. After trying to eat dishes like creamed spinach with our fingers, I realized why silverware was invented.

The entertainment came in two forms. First, there was the belly dancer, an achingly beautiful and buxom woman half my age who I suspect was a local American co-ed, rather than a Moroccan. No matter, she was excellent at being both alluring and doing impressive things with her abdominal muscles. For example, she was able to balance the edge of a sword on her tummy and work it down her abdomen. Many patrons stuffed dollar bills into her skirt. In addition, the waiters had a unique talent of pouring tea into cups from behind their backs. They also demonstrated they could pour it from a high height into three cups stacked on top of each other. As best I could tell, not a drop landed on the floor. The spiced tea was excellent.

The business part of my trip was intense and exhausting. There were about fifty of us. Most participants were users who were rigorously testing changes to a system we manage. A typical day consisted of three or four formal meetings where they gave reports on the problems they were uncovering. Since these meetings have a critical mass of important users from across the country, it is hard not to have many other ad-hoc meetings too. I was sucked into many of these, and some of these meetings were intense.

While the testing part went quite well for my team (no underpowered web servers crashed this year), discussions with customers about delays in projects closing up and underway were less successful. I am under a lot of pressure to complete a current project, which, by some measures, is a year late. There are good reasons why it is a year late. Inadequate planning was certainly part of it, but it was also late because we spent much of the latter half of last year scrambling to install new web servers to keep up with demand from the public. (Demand is increasing by about a third a year.) However, our customers are wholly inured to operational issues. (They would have cared had the system come to a screeching halt last year, which it did not. Naturally, my team gets no credit for preventing this from happening.) Missing deadlines are perceived as bad management on my part. I am confident that over the next couple of years that most of these problems will be ironed out. Putting in place predictable processes and teaching excellent scientists the discipline of software engineering takes time.

As I told my boss, things will and in fact are already improving. However, given flat funding and a staff that is constant, changes occur in an evolutionary manner only. There is no magic wand to wave that can make long-term problems disappear overnight. Instead, solutions require much up front thought, planning, careful execution, rigorous monitoring, and integrating the many concerns. Bill Gates said managing programmers is like herding cats, and the same is true with my developers. Change is effected by getting their buy in and earning their respect. Over time, new and better practices will become institutionalized, and then plans will more accurately reflect reality.

While struggling with this I had to drop a bombshell on another set of customers. A key contract employee may have to leave us. The new contractor may not pick him up. In the federal government, contracting works in mysterious and often counterproductive ways. Against my wishes, the contracting officer selected another contractor because it bid lower. That makes a certain amount of financial sense if you assume two contractors can provide precisely the same service. Real life, of course, does not work that way, no matter how carefully you write the statement of work. That something like this would result in a six month or more delay in this project was irrelevant to the contracting officer. She had to follow the contracting laws. Apparently, I did not sufficiently plan for this specific contingency, and for that, I came up lacking. At the time, I was busy doing other things that seemed a whole lot more important, like instituting better ways of doing requirements management and system design. I occasionally get miffed by the pointless and counterproductive pressure, but I usually succeed in not taking it personally. I know that my strategy is sound and will prove itself in time.

Therefore, Friday found me glad to put the week behind me. My brother Tom lives in Boulder. The transit strike in Denver made it hard for me to get to Boulder from Lakewood via established means. Fortunately, Kip, a coworker who lives near Denver, drove me up to Boulder. We went along U.S. 93, a lovely road through the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Tom and some of his friends from NOAA do a regular Friday night dinner in a restaurant on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. I was glad to enjoy their company. The Indian food at the Himalayan Restaurant was quite good too.

Saturday, Tom took me biking. My feet are a bit challenged at the moment, due to a recent toe injury, but I was able to enjoy a bike ride of about twenty miles with him by peddling with care. Boulder is a very bike-friendly city, with numerous wide and well-maintained biking trails. Most roads have extra space for bike lanes. I am impressed by how its residents take exercise and proper eating so seriously. A car is not an absolute necessity in Boulder if you are adventurous and an outdoor type. The prevalent obesity I see in the East is largely missing in Boulder. The cultural values are to be trim, eat organic foods and stay in shape. Boulder is really a model of how a city should be laid out and managed. It also demonstrates a pragmatic way for modern Americans to live healthy and engaged lives. It should be proud of its sensible land use planning and a pedestrian friendly infrastructure. As the age of oil ends, cities like Boulder will prosper while others that depend on hydrocarbons for transportation are likely to whither.

Tom’s girlfriend Beth invited me to spend last night at her house with Tom. Her townhouse was more home-like than Tom’s rather small condominium. It was good to meet Beth again, who I met for the first time in January. She is a skinny, intelligent, attractive, athletic and caring woman, which means she is a good match for my brother. Beth has a 9-year-old daughter named Erica who was fun to get to know. She reminded me of my daughter at that age. Beth must be a better parent than I am though, because Erica seems to be about as well adjusted as a nine year old can be. Beth also has two cats, one of whom is a lap kitty and deigned to sit on my lap for a while and be worshipped. While certainly not as affectionate as my recently departed feline Sprite, it was nonetheless comforting to be in a house with felines again.

In my absence, my wife has had about a dozen friends over for a party. She has also purchased a fish to replace Fred the Ferocious Fish. The fish is another betta and I understand she has named him Sid Vicious.

Tomorrow it is back to the salt mines. Those pressing problems I put on hold Friday afternoon will be back to challenge me again.