Today I walked instead of driving. I’m a dedicated walker everywhere but at home.  I don’t feel like I’ve been someplace unless I’ve taken public transportation.  Subways are my favorite, trains come second, and I can occasionally be persuaded to take a bus.  I’m afraid of ending up in the wrong place on a bus, though.  Buses are the loose canons of public transportation.  We don’t have subways or trains in Kansas City, which is the thing that sucks the most about living here.  We do have buses, but they are dumber than boxes of rocks.

We have mansions, we have apartments, duplexes, houses falling in on themselves a little, houses beaming from careful attention.  Many of our buildings are octogenarians, or older.  I got a closer look at my favorite red brick Victorian mansion, and found one of a similar age (probably turn of the century) that had tall skinny apartment buildings grow up behind it.  Just like that book, The Little House.  Time goes on around you.  That’s a damn sad book.

A gaggle of kids was racing across a grassy lot.  When I was a kid, I didn’t know what an empty lot was.  Every space where I grew up was owned, accounted for, counted and taxed and civilized.  This lot probably had a falling-down condemned thing on it at one point, and now it has some nice scratchy grass.

As I approached, one of the littlest kids didn’t run with the others.  She stood on the sidewalk as I passed her, looking google-eyed at me, like she was thinking, That lady is so big!   I waved at her.  She stared.  She’s so big!  I gave her a wide berth, in case she had stranger danger fears, and turned around once I passed to wave again.  The same stare.

There is nothing in those Scientology windows except your own reflection.

On Main, there is an it’s cool you’re gay center, which I had heard about, but never noticed from driving by.  I stopped to look in a shop window and saw a guy behind me.  I turned around and looked him in the eyes and said, “Hey.”  He had paint splattered work pants and was clearly not on the same channel as most of us started walking along behind me, speaking to me in a voice slightly too low to be conversational.  Hey, we could get a beer.  Hey, just give me your number.  It was broad daylight, busy street, busy part of town, and he didn’t do anything that required me to assert myself, so I just kept walking.  I can only recall one time a man scared me in public.  Guy was grabby, clearly grabbier than I wanted him to be.  I fled to the bathroom, and I lost him.  Girls should have lessons in how to present themselves in public.  Not like the Girl Scout lessons I got, on walking like a lady, but looking like a bitch and talking like a bitch you shouldn’t mess with.

Past the Pizza Hut pizza factory, the delivery guy had just opened the door, and stood there with his charges.  I took a deep breath of pizza.  Corporate pizza, the exact same pizza you’ve always eaten and it tastes the same all over the country, the world.

I’m a big snob about local stuff and experiencing new places, but on my first trip overseas, a week alone in Paris, I remember seeing a Pizza Hut and thinking, Oh, thank you, Jesus, I just want to order something I understand and something I know I can eat.  I opened the door, and saw all they had were big pizzas.  All other issues aside, I couldn’t afford a big pizza.  I wanted to cry.  Went back to my hotel room to psych myself up for another venture out into the city, seeking food that wasn’t French.  French people aren’t vegetarian.

I passed the undertaker’s shop that got shut down for doing something terrible to dead bodies.  I guess it wasn’t terrible enough for me to remember, though.  And then I passed the most beautiful neon in the city, in the dry cleaner’s window.  Glowing mustard, ice green, bluebird.

Things weren’t so different.  More details.  My car is so low to the ground that my vantage point was similar.  And interacting with people on the street isn’t so weird this time of year.  In a convertible, you’ll look at people, occupy similar space.  And truth be told, I was moving only a little slower than in my car.  I’m a fast walker.

At the post office, I caught up to a guy who appeared to be tuned into channel normal, and planned to ask his help if Mr. Space Cadet became a problem.  But I didn’t have to.  I crossed the street, and Cadet kept going straight.  Onward.

That is why I moved to the city, though.  People having to deal with each other.  The threat of crackheads actually feels less dangerous to me than the threat of everyone sealed in separate houses screaming into pillows.  The city laughs at perfectionism.  The older it gets, the more the warts are out, and it helps me feel more comfortable showing mine.  Not that I got any warts today.  It wasn’t that interesting of a walk.

The Look

Jacob Riis is famous for having photographed the tenements in New York City. Real estate rules about rooms having windows, and indoor plumbing, and fire escapes, did not descend upon us from angels.  The relative liveability of modern cities was won by Mr. Riis and other activists.  Today is his feast day in the Anglican calendar.

In many countries, people still live in such tight, filthy conditions.  Riis made people look at the poor.  After looking, they were moved to make changes.

It is not because luxurious living conditions make people happy (though horrible ones do make them miserable).  Rich people need poor people to remind them that we are all poor.  That no matter who you are, materially speaking, you struggle against your own demons, and you will die and all the junk you have will get thrown out and parceled out.

In fact, you may be rich in family, spiritual fervor, talents, creativity.  Any of those can be taken away.  Any of them can go.  The truth is that any richness can become poverty, and everyone is struggling with some kind of poverty all the time.

Looking at poverty is the important thing.  Poverty of all types breeds humility, and humility is a great good.  What troubles me most is not that people refuse to give to the poor, but that they refuse to look at them.  Often I’ve heard people speak with disbelief about the treatment of the poor after Hurricane Katrina.  It’s good that they were shocked, and felt compassion, but we have to look at how are poor people treated every day, not just when a major disaster hits.  We have to look, and know, how the poor suffer, and ask ourselves, is it too much?  Is it fixable?  Or is that level of frustration for some the cost of letting the luckier or the harder working or the more ambitious take their turns in a free society?

In fact, it may be hardest to look and do nothing. We want to glance and act, feel guilty and move to distract ourselves.  But looking is important.  It is always the first right thing to do.  Look and listen and consider.  What does it mean that some people are born “rich” and others are born “poor”?  What does it mean that some people are born physically and mentally sick?  How much can we change about that, and when do we have to leave the ugliness be and just hold it tenderly and helplessly?

It’s sort of like when you have a friend who loses a loved one– you don’t “fix” that.  You don’t always jump to action.  You listen, and you are present.  Sometimes that is the only thing you need to do.  You have to look and listen first, to find out if there is more.

Riis is sometimes criticized for meddling– if people want to live dirt cheap, sometimes they are saving up for something better, and they want the choice to live bare bones.  He is also rightfully criticized for nasty stuff he said about Jewish, Asian, and Italian folks.  I do appreciate one thing he did well: he made people look.

So, look here:

Still Waters

St. Paul was a New Yorker. People from New York are recognizeable by their svelte builds, the glow of 14 karat cultural immersion, and the easy eyes that own everything and are never impressed.  Two thousand years ago, you see, Rome was New York.  Now it is a tourist trap.  That might give New York a little humility, although with humility, New York would not be itself.

I don’t know how to describe Kansas City. I’ve lived here most of my life, so I can’t really see it clearly.  I try a few comparisons: it’s Detroit without Motown.  It’s Chicago with way less money, many fewer people, and better weather.  It’s Minneapolis without famous writers.  It’s Omaha, with more grit and slobber.  It’s home, which is always and never enough.

I have described Kansas City as a “backwater,” which isn’t necessarily an insult.  You won’t be swept away here.  Your talent might go unexpressed, unfired, or unappreciated, but you won’t be worn down by the current.  You won’t be tossed aside.  There isn’t that much force in the life here.  You can soak peacefully.

The things I do love in Kansas City are the western city things: the space and the broken and abandoned spaces in the city, the way people put things together and share.  What I love is that there is a rebellion to creating culture in a place where people don’t look for culture.  We make things for ourselves and for their own sake.  If your ambition was to set the world on fire, you wouldn’t be here.  But who needs the world?  What does that mean, anyway?  How dare other people define “the world” for us?

Other people are out front of us.  The coasts are trying things out, so that we don’t have to.  They make the bigger mistakes.  They make themselves fools.  We wait things out.  They think bigger and wilder.  We think deeper and sleep more.  Some days I think that the fateful events that kept me a Kansas Citian all these years strangled my ambition and muffled my voice.  That I am one of the lost, small people that no one cares about, where nothing starts and nothing flames up.

Today is the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. The day they share, although they both have their own individual holidays as well.  Today is the day they stand together, two people who had little in common, and almost definitely did not get along.  It’s encouragement to everyone now who goes to church with people they have nothing in common with, and don’t like.

St. Peter was from a backwater, and probably remained a person who would be dismissed by New Yorkers. He did not know how to navigate Rome.  I love St. Paul because he is the Chrysler Building.  While I’ve always loved Paul more, mouthy, scholarly Paul, I am probably more like Peter: his serviceable boat, his insistence on circumcision, and my about-town Honda, my dismissal of skinny jeans.  That doesn’t mean some of us won’t make a splash.  Some of Peter’s friends became quite famous, considering how boring and lame as Galilee was.  You just never know.

Nothing Happened

I think from the first time I saw “Sesame Street,” I thought: I want to live in the city!  I want to live with a lot of weird people and mismatch architecture and monsters!  Get me out of here! 

I hated that the suburbs were clean and neat.  There was no room for my anger and shame and lust.  The suburbs laughed them off.  In the city, we have bars for anger and shame, and strip clubs and sex shops  for lust. 

I don’t frequent strip clubs or sex shops, but it comforts me to know that they are there.  They are only a mile from my house, showing how unsavory and measly people are.  The sickness of the human condition is there, and it doesn’t apologize.

As a child, I never saw a drunk person.  I never heard profanity.  I only knew one other kid whose parents had divorced.

I have forgotten how when you are driving at night in the suburbs, you can’t tell if everyone else has been kidnapped or dead or evaporated.  Miles and miles of seamless pavement and clean streetlights.  Any other moving car is a coconspirator.  Acres and acres of residential neighborhoods asleep.  Lights out, cars garaged, quiet as church.

My city neighborhood can be quiet, too, but just around the corner is a busy 7-11 and sometimes the quiet is interrupted with raving people at the bus stop or gunshots.

Flannery O’Conner maintained that “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”  And I think that’s true.  I had the feeling that in the suburbs nothing could happen to me, but O’Conner points out the truth.  Things did happen.