Manny Salzman’s long, strange – and wondrous – trip

Editor’s note: Manny Salzman died on Saturday, July 28. This tribute by his son, our friend Jason Salzman of bigmedia.org, caught our eye on Facebook. We’re posting it with Jason’s permission for more reasons than we can list here. Among them is that we wish the world were full of Manny Salzmans. We at The Indy send our condolences to Manny’s family, to the LoDo community, and to the many people Manny reminded to move through this world with wonder, purpose and soul.

Manny Salzman didn’t get to eat psychedelic mushrooms on his death bed, like he wanted to do, but that’s only because he was never really on a death bed. He was walking (and mostly riding his bike) until the end of his 99.6575 years of life.

His interest in psychedelics was scientific and whimsical, not spiritual or religious, even though his Orthodox Jewish parents first gave him the biblical name of Moses when he was born in Brooklyn in 1918.

But an uncle advised the immigrant couple from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that Moses was not a good name for a Jewish boy in America. So they switched it to the much more American-sounding name of Emanuel, or Manny for short.

He got a lot of mileage out of the name. A coffee shop in the historic part of lower downtown Denver (called LoDo), where he lived, was once called Manny’s Underground, a Wynkoop Brew Pub beer was labeled “Manny’s,” and Charlie Salzman named his dog Manny. John Hickenlooper, who opened his brewpub next door to Manny and Joanne’s place, proclaimed in 2006 that a historic LoDo railway bridge, which Manny had helped save from demolition, be called “Manny’s Bridge.”

Manny tried hard to sell the bridge’s naming rights to his LoDo neighbors. Everyone laughed off his offer, but homeless people in LoDo took Manny seriously.

Manny enjoyed telling the story about one time when he was trash-picking his way through the dumpsters in a LoDo alley in the 1990s, as was his habit.

“A homeless man stopped me and pointed to a dumpster across the alley. ‘Over there,’ he told me. ‘Potato salad.’”
“Sure enough, it was potato salad,” Manny would say. “And it was quite good.”

But you couldn’t trust him when it came to food, given that he once ate a half a can of cat food, labeled “Salmon Delight,” from the refrigerator without any problem or complaint until we noticed it missing. He said it, too, was quite good. (Later, we thought it might have tasted like Gefilte fish to him. So that’s why he liked it.)

Manny’s upbringing in Queens undoubtedly made him feel at home in LoDo in its gritty days in the 1980s. He graduated from Far Rockaway High School in 1936 with classmate Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, and a few years after Jonas Salk graduated from the same school. He went on to graduate from Columbia College in New York City in 1940 and New York Medical School and Brooklyn Jewish Hospital in 1943 and 1944.

Throughout his life, he was amazed by his own luck. For example, he completed his medical residency and lost his draft deferment in May 1945, on the same day World War II ended. His mother Regina chalked it up to her throwing away his letters that kept arriving from the draft board.

When he was finally drafted, he worked on a Navy hospital ship in the Pacific that treated victims from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Japanese and American people with severe burns and hair falling out, he said.

In 1949, shortly after he returned from Japan, he moved to Denver with his first wife, Jean, and became Director of Radiology at Denver General Hospital, where he worked for 25 years.

There, he conducted experiments on cats, which eventually led him to his book titled Lung Calcifications in X-Ray Diagnostics and his new techniques were widely adopted. His Aspen Radiology Conference attracted fellow radiologists who wanted to talk about x-rays (and get a tax write-off for a ski vacation).

By 1963, after his first wife died, Manny had moved to the Hilltop neighborhood with his wife Joanne Clark, and their children Charles, Daniel, Naomi, and me.

They moved to LoDo before anyone called it LoDo. They bought their abandoned warehouse on Wynkoop Street in 1976 and moved in after the last kid left home in 1981 – not, like many people assume, because they thought it was a good investment, but because Joanne wanted to live in the city, like Manny’s brother did in Greenwich Village in New York. They were among the first residents of the area, arriving eight years before the Wynkoop Brewery opened.

“An honest mugger couldn’t make a living there,” Manny would say of lower downtown at the time.

But the absence of muggers didn’t stop Manny from always carrying two wallets, like he did in his New York days – one with a few dollars in it for real muggers and another, hidden, one with his valuable credit cards, license, and more money.

Both wallets had his hand-written business cards. Why pay for printed business cards that sit unused in your desk?

With so few people in LoDo, Manny could bathe in the buff on the roof, in a giant wheelbarrow that was once used to move animal carcasses in an old slaughter house. He managed to secure the wheelbarrow on the top of an unused chimney on his building. He accessed it on a ladder.

Inside their building, which has offices on three floors, Manny grew plants, including psychedelic cactuses, and served as the “Super,” fixing whatever he could, sometimes in the middle of the night. In May, when my daughter was having a party at his loft, he said, “What if the kids eat all my cactuses?”

You’d think that, living in LoDo, Manny might like sports, but he had pretty much zero interest. He liked to say he gave up on baseball “when the Dodgers left Brooklyn,” which was 61 years ago. And he never set foot in the Rockies stadium, which is a short block from his house.

In fact, he and Joanne waged a lonely campaign against the baseball stadium when it was proposed for their neighborhood. It wasn’t a not-in-my-back yard thing, they said, but they didn’t want LoDo to be crushed by the monolithic sports culture of bars and burgers.

They lost. But they succeeded in beating back lots of other mega-developers. They became dedicated activists for historic buildings, and they founded LoDo’s first neighborhood group, which scored a huge victory in 1987 when it created the LoDo historic district. The zoning designation imposed serious development restrictions on the neighborhood, including a prohibition on the destruction of most all existing historic buildings.

About the same time he moved to LoDo, Manny founded the Telluride Mushroom Festival, along with Gary Lincoff and Andrew Weil. This explains why, when you walk into his and Joanne’s LoDo loft, you see photos of Manny dressed mushroom-like in spotted shirts with mushrooms on his head, like hats. He was always a star in the festival’s Mushroom Parade, carrying signs advocating for legalization of psychedelics or something similarly rational about drugs.

For many years, I would buy his birthday gifts exclusively at head shops.

On the serious side of mushrooms, he edited a book (with Barry Rumack) called Mushroom Poisoning: Diagnosis and Treatment, which was groundbreaking, and for five years before the Telluride festival began, he ran a conference in Aspen mostly for doctors who wanted to learn about mushroom poisoning.

Working with Joanne Salzman, Gary, Andy, Irene Liberman, Paul Stamets, Art Goodtimes, Linnea Gillman, the Adams family, John Sir Jesse, and many others, Manny brought some of the world’s leading mycologists to the Telluride festival — mixing them with respected advocates for drug legalization and the hippie, psychedelic crowd that formed the heart of the festival.

In a mushroom festival innovation, he and Joanne, along with Gary Lincoff, led “Mushroom Study Tours” to 23 countries from 1982-1995, including Russia, Japan, China, India, Thailand, Burma, Madagascar, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea.

They ran the mushroom tours with no insurance or liability coverage whatsoever, but even the participants who were seriously injured – one with a broken hip after falling into an empty swimming pool in Peru and another with a broken pelvis from a tipped-over carriage in Burma – never sued. But they joined the trips again.

Manny turned his off-beat ideas into reality in part because he was so head strong. To him, a pushy and stubborn person like him was respected for being “tenacious.”

After he stopped running the trips, and as he kept getting older and older and older and older, he and his thick white hair became a fixture on his bike in LoDo.

People would ask if he was still riding his bike. “How else do you get around?” he’d answer.

Once, when his Mazi bike was stolen, Manny’s bike messenger friends, who’d admired the fancy Italian bicycle, got the word and quickly went searching for it and found it at a homeless camp along the Platte River. And Manny got it back.

Even a crash with an RTD bus in 1999, resulting in six weeks in the Intensive Care Unit where doctors told us deadly fungus had overtaken his blood, didn’t kill him – though it almost did, with 11 broken ribs, a broken collar bone, pneumonia, a collapsed lung, and a destroyed bike.

This and numerous lesser bike accidents (resulting in a broken hip and wrist, among other injuries) would have been catastrophic to most people. But Manny kept bouncing back, mostly rejecting pain killers along the way.

He’d joke that he was “too old to die,” and he had a lot to do: “It’s a full-time job taking care of my aging children.”

Toward the end, when Manny said he was the oldest person he knew, he could ride a bike better than he could walk. He’d stagger to his bike for a ride, even though he’d forgotten how to change his gears. And you’d wonder if he’d find his way home. But he did, even though his rides were shorter, and he didn’t even remember where he’d gone. Or how he’d fallen when he came home bleeding.

Until this June he continued playing in his beloved Denver Mandolin Orchestra, which he’d been a part of for decades after switching out his violin for a mandolin in the 1970’s.

During one of his last concerts this year, he forgot his hearing aids and his glasses. But it didn’t matter to him that he couldn’t see or hear. He said, all through his life, that he wasn’t a perfectionist.

On the day he died, about a month after he’d fallen off his bike for the last time and had been getting weaker and weaker, I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Perfect.”

Photo of Manny Salzman on the LoDo bridge named after him taken on Father’s Day of this year by Jason Salzman 

14 COMMENTS

  1. You know when you read a narrative obituary and you’re sad not because you’ll miss the person but because you never met him? Yeah, it’s like that. Perfect.

  2. I was honored to help Manny & Joanne when they brought the mushroom event to Telluride in 1981. And I have been blessed to be their friend ever since. An amazing man, an amazing family. I will live in the shadow of his huge aura for the rest of my life, bicycling into the future behind him

  3. Jason, that was a work of art. Thank you. I’m sorry for your loss… but what an impressive stint on this earth.

  4. What a lovely tribute, Jason. Thank you. I am very fortunate to have known Manny and family the last 9+ years. Sorry for your loss. Keep the spirit alive!

  5. What a wonderful tribute to your father. I had only met him and Joanne for an interview for Life on Capitol Hill as a way to publicize the rock garden plant sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I also attended a concert of the mandolin orchestra and chatted with them whenever I could.

    Kathleen Stewart

  6. I had the privilege of knowing Manny my entire life, with my Dad a tenant in his building for 30 years. Such a unique and wonderful soul. Does anyone know of any plans for a service?

  7. I met Manny when the mandolin orchestra reconvened in 1999. He was 80 then… and I STILL got to be his friend for 20 years. Amazing! One night he greeted me at a DMO show, and I said, “Manny! You are looking great!” He looked at me and said, “when you’re my age and they say ‘You’re looking great,’ it means you’re looking old!” Manny, you ALWAYS looked great to me!

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