A story of Tom Pendergast: “This was back in the ’30s.  These kids were freezing.  They slept in their coats.  They had no coal.  The mom went to ask Pendergast for help, and right away a truck pulled up with a huge load of coal.  Every night, ever after, before they ate dinner, this woman would include in the prayer, ‘And God bless Tom Pendergast.'” Ah, the good old days of family values and small government!  The storyteller and I rolled our eyes.

For the last six years, I’ve taught at a local history program, here in Kansas City, focusing on 18th and Vine.  A teacher should show interest and enthusiasm, but mine had worn out.  So I focused on gangsters this time.

The awkward thing about teaching kids history is that so much of Kansas City’s greatness was fueled by lawlessness and vice.  A lot of people got beat up and shot near election day under Pendergast, and a lot of musicians had jobs and swapped ideas.  It’s also awkward that many of the inheritors of the legacy of the civil rights struggle are wistful about segregation’s charms.  “Everyone got along then.  There wasn’t all this crime.”  Well.  It depends on how you define “crime.”  Just as slippery a term as “gangster.”

In, say, 1923, heroin was legal, but alcohol wasn’t.  My Nebraska great-grandfathers closed down his tavern and sold liquor out of his barn instead.  Criminal?  Betting “on the numbers” and shooting craps in the subterranean Subway Club on 18th Street was illegal, while today our state governments use the very same games to pay for critical basic services like schools.

The best part of this year was being taken on a walking tour of the area by a local expert.  I had never done that before.  The hotel next to the famous Musician’s union was one of the last whorehouses in Kansas City, he said.  There’s still a battered sign that says, “Clean rooms.  By the month, week, or hour.”

He once took a group of Japanese tourists to the spot, and two women ran out with razors in their hands.  “Who’s the instigator?!  Who’s going to jail?!” a third, maybe the madam, yelled.  Our eighth grade students were hot.  It was 95 degrees, heavy humidity.  Thank goodness we were talking about prostitutes.

We heard some stories about the guys who ran numbers.  Maybe they picked up the mafia’s cut from the clubs?

We knocked on the door of the musician’s union, the Mutual Musician’s Foundation.  I’ve been in there with students for the last six years.  Sometimes we have a musician play for us and let the kids play along.  Sometimes they tell stories about how they learned to play instruments.  The union and the black newspaper, The Call, are the only two institutions still vital after all these years.  In the last couple of years, though, there has been a lot of fighting and turnover at the Foundation.

Someone opened the door a crack, we asked to come in, explained about the kids, and the answer came back, “No.”  She slammed the door.

Maybe there were gangsters in there, maybe criminals.  Nah.  I think they were just rather negligent in keeping history open to everyone, and welcoming people to our city’s greatest treasure.

Made Up

IMG_0778 Sparkly eyeshadow and inky, aerodynamic eyebrows peer at me over my boyfriend’s shoulder, as he hugs the glam rock guy and says hello.
This is reassuring.  Sparkly eyeshadow on a man is so reassuring.

I had left the house that evening feeling jittery.  Through the wonders of the internet, I was aware that six blocks south, friends of friends had been assaulted on their own front porch.  We live in an exciting part of town.  This means that the parties are wilder, and that we hear gunshots regularly.  We are free to create things, and to destroy them.

I walked down to my landlord’s mailbox and pulled out the copy of my key that I had left for him.  At least I wasn’t rolling out the welcome mat for intruders.  At least I would have the smashing of wood and glass to announce that someone was breaking in.  I pondered leaving my front light on all night.  Did the light say, “Don’t come up here, everyone will see you”?  Or did it say, “Someone lives up here, come get me”?  Then I vacuumed for a while.  I didn’t really feel like going out, but in a nervous frame of mind, I wouldn’t sleep well, either.

The boyfriend and I drove down to a darker, crumblier part of town, where the plodding ghosts of millions of cows cause congestion for the livelier ghosts of cowboys and prostitutes and hobos.

We hiked up some elderly wooden stairs.  At the top: the swaying band and the dancing people and the uneven floor and the giant Cyclops sculpture with the stake sticking way out of his eye and the random castoff furniture and the hand-painted cutouts that turn the back of the space into a sort of a stage.

None of your problems will be solved by happy brass instruments and drums and wiggling singers lined up.  Or by people drinking things that warm their throats.  Or by people in the audience eyeing each other approvingly as they dance, making one big animal of arms and hips.

And nothing is solved by men wearing sparkly eyeshadow.  My nerves are calmed, though, by seeing the dazzle of freedom.  It is expensive because it is valuable.