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.


Immediate apology: this is not about going crazy.  It’s about getting sane.  I know that’s less interesting.

But: some people like to read about how sanity can return.  Especially the currently insane.  If you’re not insane, and think you could never be, or that no tough, clever person could ever go crazy, then you can stop here.  And if you think insanity is sexy and exciting, like Van Gogh was sexy and exciting, you should go read some poetry by some dude on acid.  Or try cutting off your ear.  Enjoy.

After several months of antidepressants,  my panic attacks and anxiety have settled down.  I dropped back to worrying, only occasionally, that I might get crazy-anxious.   Normal-anxious is like oh, I’m worried about these bills.  Crazy-anxious is like, oh, God, the walls are pressing in.  It’s definitely hard to understand if you’re not, you know, insane.  Six months ago, I never would have believed it.

It comforted me to refer to myself as insane, as sick.  It suggested that I could get sane, and well.   I have.  (Knock on wood.)

I told an old friend, “If I had done drugs with you back in the day, this wouldn’t seem so scary to me.  I would be used to having my head messed with.  It wouldn’t scare me so much.”  He agreed that this was a great loss.  My previous experiences with mind-altering substances weren’t good preparation for psychiatric drugs.  Because I am a ninny.

The first drugs that messed with my mind were actually for migraines.  One induced my first official panic attack.  Then, with another, I had that oft-mentioned “thoughts of suicide” thing.  Yeah, that’s unpleasant.  At least the tone of these thoughts didn’t sound like me (even crazier, right?).  So I felt sure that it was a side effect, and not something I’d brought to the party.

After such unpleasant experiences, I had to be in a lot of discomfort to try another drug.  It took months of wrestling crazy-variety anxiety for me to voluntarily add the anxiety of ingesting new chemicals.  I thought taking antidepressants would mean I was weak and crazy.  Well, I was weak and crazy.  Before and after I took the pills, I obsessively read about them.  I realized, to my chagrin and to my amusement, that you can’t really believe any of those drug reviews because they’re all written by crazy people.  Especially the reviews of anxiety drugs!  If leaving the house could scare me silly, how do you think I felt about pills from a bottle covered with stern official medical warnings?

(Aside: I love the website , which is irreverent to the point of crudeness.  It’s the only place I found descriptions and explanations on this topic that left me wry rather than depressed.  Sample text: “If you’re in shock about or trying to understand the whole overwhelming deal of medications and being classified as some flavor of mentally interesting / mentally ill / batshit crazy, or want to know what this site is all about, just keep reading.  I know, the meds suck donkey dong.)

“The worst thing in the world would be to know that you were losing your mind,” someone told me.  “Not really,” I said.  “Been there.  Done that.”  Accepting you’re sick in the head, getting brave enough to be labeled as sick, and take scary pills.  Ugly clouds.  Two small silver linings: I have huge new empathy for the mentally ill (many of them are way worse off than me), and I’m no longer afraid of losing my mind.  Been there.  Done that.

More Tales of Intoxication and Sobriety

Several years ago, I wrote letters and schemed to get my boss fired.  It was a Friday afternoon when I got the news that he had been canned.  (Please don’t waste any time here worrying about whether he deserved it– everyone was grateful to see him go.)  A coworker appeared in my door and delivered the news.  I said, “I really want to kiss you right now, but I won’t.”  A sixty-year-old gay man, he got a Kermit the Frog look on his face and backed out of the room, chuckling. 

That year, I broke Lent to have a drink with my elated colleagues.  Over pitchers and pitchers of beer, we raved about our happy plans for turning things around, now that the dark clouds had lifted.  I thought, It’s wrong not to celebrate something that will only happen once, just because it happens during Lent.

During another Lent, there was a death.  The violent death of a kid I knew.  After the shock and well into the outrage, there was another barroom support group.  That time I didn\’t break Lent.  Not because of any great willpower.  One of my Catholic friends sweetly said, This doesn’t count.  You can have a drink.  I just didn’t want to.  I ate a grilled cheese and fries.  It was so greasy it made me sicker than if I’d had three drinks.

I always notice how hard it is to judge the effects of alcohol when I stop drinking.  I drove home that grilled cheese night and felt woozy, spacey.  I couldn’t blame my haze on alcohol.

And I couldn’t blame my hysterics on alcohol, either.  My face hurt from smiling and my stomach hurt from laughing.  There’s no funnier group than a group that just came from a funeral.  I don’t think I laughed any less or was any less engaging with friends because I was sober. 

But the weird thing about using drugs is that you really don’t know.  They impair your ability to evaluate yourself, and the ability to evaluate yourself is shaky in humans anyway. 

When I had a tooth pulled, I got narcotics.  I took them for one day.  By the end of that day, I had become obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet.  I sat on the couch with my boyfriend, and he said, “You’re fine.  You CAN feel them.  Feel that?”  And he smacked the top of my foot.  In a kindly way.  I could feel my feet, sort of, but they were as blurry as an Impressionist painting.  I kept seeing myself tumbling down the stairs and snapping both ankles, then shrugging.  Oh, well.  Guess I broke my ankles.  I went back to the Advil the next day.

I don’t know how these artists who drank so heavily and used so many drugs could still feel.  It seems like being able to feel, and experience your life deeply, is a prerequisite for creation.  Maybe they were so sensitive to begin with that they had to numb out a lot just to catch up with the rest of us.

When the kid was killed, I could have had enough to drink to loosen me up, or enough that my mind was blown.   I was feeling so blank to begin with, maybe I couldn\’t even imagine altering my emotional state.  Or maybe taking any step to soothe my grief would only have emphasized that nothing could help.