Where Stories Come From: Sarge

There’s a scene in Anthropocene Rag where one of the characters is invited to play chess by a ragged wanderer in Kansas. The wanderer is unnamed, but he was based on a homeless guy I used to play chess with in Denver in the late 90s, at the outdoor tables on the 16th Street Mall. All I knew about him was he went by Sarge but his real name was Lester.

He was a much better player than I was, especially in the morning. If I showed up at the tables later in the afternoon, often he was tired or a little boozy. But man, did he tell stories. Not about Vietnam, but about everything else: homeless life in Denver, the ins and outs of riding the rails, places he’d stopped to work for a while on his journeys. One of my favorites was his story of working for a few weeks on a tobacco farm, after which he took part of his pay in tobacco, hopped a westbound long-haul train with a couple of other guys, rolled a cigarette…and discovered none of them had matches. I have no idea how many of the stories were true, and I don’t want to know. The flow of Sarge’s storytelling only stopped when he zeroed in on the board to take pitiless advantage of another player’s mistake–at which moments he always said, “I didn’t do that. You did that.” I liked him a lot.

Anyway, while I was reading through the page proofs of Anthropocene Rag, 20 years after the last time I tried to match wits with him, I wondered whatever happened to Sarge. I figured it was a long shot, but I Googled ‘Sarge Lester Denver,’ and up popped this Westword article from 2002.