When I was briefly single, five years ago, I came out of Harling’s, that great old bar on the second story of a hundred-year-old Spanish-tiled lawyer’s office on Main Street and Westport Road, almost too drunk to stand—I was very careful going down the long flight of steep narrow stairs—and decided I’d walk downtown to sober up. It was about midnight and I’d heard about a bar near the river, about three miles from where I was, that stayed open until four a.m. We have those in Kansas City. One of the best jazz bars in the world is here, a place that doesn’t open until midnight and closes at dawn.
I started walking north toward downtown on Main when a car pulled across the wide boulevard with four young men in it, who asked me for directions to The Peanut. These were aggressive young men, very blonde and muscular, who could have been students of mine at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, but probably went to KU. Or they might have been high school kids. One of them gave me a bottle of Boulevard from a case they had in the back of the car.
“Do you want The Peanut on Main or The Peanut downtown?” I asked. The Peanut on Main is close to campus and it has always been one of my favorite places in Kansas City, drunk or sober. They have the best Buffalo wings in the city.
“Either one,” the driver said. Then the guy in the passenger seat said, “Get in,” and opened the door. All four of them looked at me and I expected them to jump out of the car and start beating me up, or simply kidnap me and take me to some place evil and humiliating. These things happened to me often when I was a drinker, but only in Kansas City, I don’t know why. I started walking briskly up Main before they could make up their minds. They closed the door and put the car in reverse, and drove next to me like that, backwards on Main, right beside me, jeering at me and bouncing up and off the curb, until a couple of cars went by honking loudly, and at last they drove away.
Three years before that, at almost exactly the same spot. It was 9:30 on a summer Saturday night at the corner of 39th street and Main. I had passed the bus stop in front of the CVS, catty-corner to the check cashing place, an H&R Block, the empty bike shop and an old walk-in pizza joint, “Arnie’s,” where I liked to pick up a pepperoni pizza for $9.99 if we had unexpected company. It was late July and the streets seethed with people coming out for the night, for the cheap bars on Main, for the package stores, for the three-table cheese steak restaurant next to the Dianetics center. In our neighborhood, people like to be outside in the hot heavy thick Missouri night. It smells good in our neighborhood in Kansas City at night in the summertime; it smells like honeysuckle and magnolia and fruit trees and a bit of mustiness from the river and the busy city smell of exhaust in the wind.
There were dozens of teenagers from the notorious Westport High School (now closed), just two blocks away, staying close to school even though it’s summer in that funny way you do when you’re still in your teens, especially if you don’t have a car.
During the school year, that high school had been a problem for me. There was a Fast Stop across the street from it, at the end of our block, and the high school kids would stand in the parking lot, the owner of the store watching them the same way every morning, one eye on the customers and one eye on the kids. He had a sign on the door: “UNDER 18? TWO ALLOWED IN THE STORE.” If two kids were in the aisles and another tried to come in, he’d shout, wave and turn them around. I am a philosophy professor and I walked to my own school everyday, two miles south of where we lived, and some mornings I’d go in to the Fast Stop for coffee or a lighter, and the teenagers grouped outside would surround me in threes or fours: “Hey buy me a black! Get me a black! But me a pack of cigarettes!” The trick was to look straight ahead and keep on walking, as though you didn’t see them. Kids had shot each other in the parking lot, and about a year after this night a man in his twenties was shot in the face and killed outside the Fast Stop, and for several months after my wife insisted that I drive to school.
I lived about a block away from the busy corner of 39th and Main, at 3815 Walnut, with my wife (now ex-wife) and two daughters, aged three and one. The boarding house where Hemingway lived when he was a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star—now dilapidated, a three-story brick-and-wood ruin—was exactly one block in the other direction. On this summer night, like every night when she was little, my one-year-old daughter was in a baby-sling on my chest. From the time she was a few months old until she was almost three, the only way she would fall asleep was if I put her in that sling—sometimes improvising one out of a sheet when we travelled—or carried her in my arms and went for a long walk. Normally it took her about forty-five minutes to drift off. She was allergic to breast milk and I’d bring a couple of bottles of soy formula with me. Often I’d stop at the Fast Stop and buy myself a large diet Dr. Pepper in a Styrofoam cup and a couple of airplane bottles of Jack Daniels to give it zip. The owner didn’t mind if I poured them into my soda right there at the register, and then on our walk while my daughter drank her bottle I’d sip my Jack and DDP through a straw.
Those were some of the most soothing, thoughtful, nurturing nights of my life, patrolling the grand old decayed neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Squier Park (where I live now, further east of my old apartment), Westport, the museum district, the campus of the Kansas City Arts Institute, the long bluff-sheltered dangerous-feeling dark stretch of the Gillham Park jogging track.
Tonight I’d finished my walk—I usually went down Main for a few blocks and then over into the busy restaurant district of Westport and then back across the street to the Nelson Atkins Museum and then back up Main past Starbucks to home—and my daughter was fast asleep. I was getting tired myself and I hoped our three-year-old was already in bed by the time I walked in the door. I was standing at the corner, waiting for the light to change, when I realized it looked like a riot was about to erupt. Two bike police had arrested four young men in red shirts and ball caps and had them sitting on the curb in front of Island Spice Caribbean restaurant. $8.25 for an excellent jerk chicken that will feed two.
I supposed that the cause for arrest was vague. People were shouting, demanding an explanation. “This is harassment!” “They ain’t done nothing!” “Those kids were minding their own business!” “Let those kids go!” “You cops get back on your bikes and start pedaling!”
The kids themselves looked woebegone with their hands behind their backs. One had his face down between his knees. But the crowd was gathering and the police looked nervous. People who had been sitting at the bus stop or on the low brick wall behind it, drinking out of paper bags or smoking and talking, were now standing and walking into the traffic. I looked around: I guessed there were fifty, maybe a hundred people in the street. Cars coming up Main Street, a wide four-lane boulevard, were slowing to make U-turns. It was a situation.
A middle-aged man with an unusually high and round beer belly—the kind of belly that some people associate with impending death—stood next to me at the corner in a blue Royals cap and a green and yellow striped jersey. He had grey in his square-trimmed beard. He had a forty in a sack. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at my baby daughter in her sling.
I said, “I guess it’s about time for me to head home.” He said, “Damn straight it’s time to get your ass home.” Then he took a second look at me. “I’ll walk you across the street, if you want,” he said. Main Street was swelling with people like a flooding river. On the corner where we stood, the crowd spilled out in all four directions, east and west on 39th, north and south on Main. The honking and shouting increased, and there were sirens. “You got far to go?”
“No, I’m okay, we’re okay,” I said. “I’m just a block over there, behind that building.” I pointed at the ten story deserted yellow brick art deco building my landlord owned and planned to renovate. My apartment, a turn-of-the-century six-unit duplex style building that was designed for the Helzbergers, one of Kansas City’s great jewelry families, was immediately behind it. It was an enormous apartment with a huge stone balcony, more than 2,000 square feet, luminous hardwood floors and original tile, pocket doors and stained glass, the nicest place I’d ever lived. $1200 a month in 2006.
“Fair enough. You get that baby out of here.”
I jostled my way through the crowd without any difficulty but I could feel people watching me. As I walked up 39 toward the Fast Stop, a white KCPD police van came up the hill from Gillham with its alarm off. The way it skulked slowly up into the crowd I felt sure there were more vans coming. Then I was across 39th street and a block behind Main, back on Walnut, ready to be home.
Photos by Paul Sableman. Image licence: CC