Gangsters

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.

Niche

There was a hawk sitting on the window air conditioner, three stories up.  There was me.  But otherwise the place was dead.I kind of figured there’d be a lot of liquor bottles, but mostly the empties had held water or pop.  Westport Junior High has been closed for a year.  Across the street is Westport High, a place much mourned at its closing.  I didn’t hear much about the junior high.  It’s a red brick building with plenty of architectural flourishes.  Bold, proud ionic columns on each side of the main door, and those curls like Hawaiian surfing waves roaring over it.  At some point, they built a clumsy-looking parking garage to the west of the main building, and a bridge from one structure to the other, about three stories up.

I walked around the whole place.  Imagining a kid getting pushed down the steps.  Kids screaming and waving down at people below from the bridge to the parking garage.  Kids walking around there in the worst state of their bodies, in the worst moods of their lives, enduring the worst social traumas.  In the back, there’s a long, paved strip of blacktop, only one runner’s lane wide, that looks like it might loop around the field back there.  It doesn’t.  It just stops.

The school where I work is much plainer.  It’s also red brick, but our only decorative features are a few images around the front door: an oil lamp, an open book, some Latin that I don’t know what it means.  Inside, we have the empty niches where saints and Jesuses used to preside.  There are still crosses embedded above them.  Once a kid was perched up there during passing period, and I didn’t think that was such a great idea, so I said, “Do you know who used to sit there?”  He looked up at the cross.  “Oh.”  “So maybe you don’t belong there.”  He smiled and got down.

In places, it’s crumbly, but our school is alive.  I went by today to pick something up, and the voices of the students are, as always, scampering around and bouncing up new expressions.  There’s usually someone in the garden, picking collard greens– a kid who doesn’t want to be at home and couldn’t get a summer job.  In the library, there are kids gossiping about what happened at a party last weekend, and what someone said on facebook.  The summer school kids burst out at 12:30 and zip in to bug the library kids.  There’s football weight lifting and volleyball practice and cheerleading practice and open gym and people coming in to pick up bags of produce from the garden for tonight’s dinner.

I love schools, places where people were vulnerable, and places where they changed, for good or for ill.  At my school, I know the stories: my mother, my aunts and uncles, my friends, friends of friends, people who only exist in stories that I pass along over pitchers of beer– they’ve given the walls character, and it pleases me to see it still so alive.  We don’t need perfect schools in the inner city.  We just need schools that are healthy enough spots for kids to grow.

News Flash

Title.newsflash.jpg

Yibbet Turman here, reporting from Kansas City, Missouri, where something almost happened, but it turned out nothing did.  The world is looking a lot like a Chopin nocturne, due to the fact that everything almost got destroyed, but it turned out nothing did.  The trees are still looking solid and strong.  Except that maybe they’re not.  The clouds are just sitting up there now, scenery again, not the main event.

In a local coffee house, the owner and his kid and the patrons headed across the street to where they could get a basement, and sat it out with twenty old ladies wearing brightly colored pants.

In another local coffee house, a patron holed up in the bathroom with all the baristas and got to know them maybe more than she wanted to.

(What can I tell you?  I’m highly connected to the world of coffee.)

In a local high school, a student objected to the defensive posture she was ordered to take, claiming that her back needed protection, but her behind did not.  Students fiddled with their cell phones, begged to know how soon they could go to the bathroom, and teachers patted shoulders and sneaked away to watch the radar on a television hung above the treadmill, and made jokes amongst themselves that really weren’t appropriate.

In a local hospital, a day-old baby and a day-old mom were taken into the hallway, away from windows, and the mom planned to tell the baby the story, when she is old enough.

The people in Kansas City have just had the shit scared out of them because Joplin got it so rough.  Joplin is a town we have heard of.  The people who died weren’t just the unlucky in trailers and driving out alone.  And their town, all the buildings we think of as being “real,” making the place the place, lots of them are just gone.  We’re used to shrugging off tornado warnings.  Right now it’s harder to resist imagining your house as a pile.  What would it be like, folded down, and scattered?

Spring is not easy.  To get to spring, here, we have to ride out the clashes of the clouds.  After our blizzard and our record snowfall, we feel like we deserve an easy spring and we’re not getting it.  Now joy is dangerous (it always was) and sun is not sunshiny, it’s the interruption of clouds so dramatic they look computer generated.  This summer is having a difficult birth.

image “borrowed” from: http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Sesame_Street_News_Flash

The End of the World

As you may have heard, the world is ending on May 21.  All the teachers, and all the students, are like, no way!  Not before school’s out!  The world will end on May 21. I believe that.  The world ends every day.

I was on the rooftop of a building downtown.  They had a little swimming pool, chaise lounges, and a view of everything north of 20th Street.  I’d seen an apartment, underneath.  I’d taken off my heels to walk barefoot on the impossibly smooth concrete floor.  The kitchen had a black marble-topped island.  The chocolate brown couches were new.  I’ve never bought a piece of furniture that was new.  And I’m less familiar with that view.  I haven’t often looked north.

The view I used to have was east.  The Western Auto sign.  I loved that thing so much I always referred to it as “my husband.”  Tension Envelope.  And south.  Union Station.  The Liberty Memorial.  We used to sit in the brick oven of an upper floor and love each other, too overheated to touch.  Sweaty people only get romantic in the movies.  In real life too hot is not hot.  We used to worry about how the buildings were being rehabbed, one by one, and worried by people moving in who had enough money to afford air conditioning and new cars and bathrooms with regular faucets and showers, regular kitchens with regular refrigerators and stoves.  People who didn’t need huge ceilings to make huge paintings or sculptures or parties.  People who wouldn’t walk around barefoot on that hundred year old pine floor, which was always so filthy the bottoms of my feet were imprinted charcoal.

It was a relief to think you were better than them because beautiful broken things moved you, and you still smoked.  It was a relief to think you loved things more than they did, that money wasn’t important to you, and that was why you didn’t have any.  That screaming and crying when your car broke down was worth the freedom you had, and the curiosity, and the openness.  Having your car break down would break you.  Maybe it was worth it.  But they did move in.  They have moved in.

I was many years with the southern and eastern view.  In Kansas City, looking east from the center is looking at decay, at what has crumbled, and been let go, what has grown its scraggly way, aggressive and gorgeous and heartbreaking, like what my dad called the “creeper” vines.  The ones he cut back year after year, that crawled out again and again.  There was nothing ugly about them.  They were admirably persistent.  They might choke other plants, though.  To look south is to look at the overgrownness, at least in my mind.  When I was in high school, 103rd street was the edge of civilization.  Now, I’m told, the city (if you can call it that) bleeds out 150 streets.

Looking north, there is that hotel with the light show.  The new roofs of the new performing arts center.  The Power and Light building, color coded.  And north is to the river.  Always to the river, even though the river isn’t important.  No one goes there, much.  It’s why we’re here, even though it doesn’t matter anymore.