Leaving Kansas City

Stephanie and I loved living in San Francisco in the 1990s and early 2000s, and we loved living in Madison after we arrived here, in 2004. In between, 2001-2004, we lived in Kansas City, and frankly, we didn't love it.

As described in an earlier entry, when we decided we couldn't afford to stay in San Francisco, Steph wanted to live in the Midwest, so we'd plotted and ranked all the major Midwestern cities before selecting KCMO as our new home. We thought we'd considered all the pertinent variables — the weather, the geography, the average income and the availability of jobs, and the presence of things we liked, including baseball, movies, museums, etc. It took us a couple of years to realize the error we'd made, and I'd be curious, dear reader, if you can see the factor we forgot to consider?

With a red marker on an atlas of American highways, we planned our route across the West. We didn't have as much stuff to pack and haul as we'd had when Steph first moved to Frisco, and we'd had a scary incident the last time we'd rented a truck, so we decided we'd rent a car instead. It was a fairly big car, and most of what we owned fit into the trunk, the back seat, and the small trailer hitched to the back, but we did give some of our bulkier but rarely-used possessions to charity.

The details of our earlier cross-country road trip, Madison to San Francisco, are indelibly etched on my brain, but the trip from S.F. to K.C. is a blur to me. I don't remember what highways we drove, or what towns we slept in. There was no real drama, we never got lost or pulled over, and the car ran well but drank too much gasoline. Maybe the difference is, we were still getting to know each other during our first move, but by our second move we knew each other very, very well. In a good way, of course.

Two days after we'd left San Francisco, we checked into a chain motel in the suburbs of Kansas City. It was a Rodeway Inn; I remember Stephanie wondering why they'd misspelled 'roadway'.

Even years later, Steph & I agreed on what was our first vivid memory of Kansas City. We had decided to have lunch at a café in the Westport neighborhood. The lunch was forgettable, and we never returned to that café, but we almost fainted at the shock of opening the car door on an asphalt parking lot, and stepping from the air-conditioned comfort of a rented Buick into Missouri at 108° Fahrenheit. Welcome to the Midwest, Doug, where summers can get astoundingly hot, since there's no ocean to keep things cool.

The Rodeway Inn was our base of operations for the next few days. Every morning we bought a newspaper, circled classified ads for apartments, made appointments with prospective landlords, drove into the city and looked at apartments. In our spare time, we were also looking for work.

We looked at half a dozen apartments, some of which were too swanky or too skanky, and we found three buildings that seemed comfortable and affordable. Twice, though, leasing agents politely explained that with no local references, we might as well not bother filling out an application to rent — they simply wouldn't rent to us. At the third apartment that we liked, they didn't ask for references, just ran a credit check. Steph had good credit, so they handed her the keys.

She signed the lease, and we drove back to the hotel, had Chinese food delivered and watched cable TV until we fell asleep. The next day we moved into our new apartment on Walnut Street, on the edge of Kansas City's Westport neighborhood.

It was an old building, but clean and in good repair. Three stories tall, it was built in the 1920s or 1930s, but built solid. Our apartment had one big bedroom, a living room, a smallish kitchen, and a spacious back porch overlooking the parking lot.

Once settled, we began exploring the city. We took long bus rides, just looking out the window to see our new home town, and when we found something interesting we'd get off the bus and explore on foot. That's how we'd gotten to know San Francisco, but in Kansas City we mostly just rode the buses. We rarely saw anything out the window that merited dinging the bell and stepping off. That was our first clue that Kansas City wasn't for us.

We liked Country Club Plaza, a shopping-centric neighborhood full of charmingly aged storefronts, but many of the businesses were chain operations — the same stores you'd find anywhere.

We liked Loose Park, where there are old cannons commemorating a Civil War battle which was fought there and won by the good guys. Steph joked that Tight Park must be around here somewhere.

We liked the Westport neighborhood, so named because it was a major stop on the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California trails, where westbound settlers started their perilous journeys. Nowadays it's a nice place to stroll, with lots of shops, most of which were beyond our budget.

We liked the museums in our neighborhood, and frequently visited the free one — Kemper Museum, or as Steph called it, Spider Museum. It has a much, much larger-than-life-sized spider sculpture on the front lawn.

We wanted to find the cool neighborhoods, with funky coffee shops and curious bookstores, charming restaurants, the theaters that showed arty or unusual movies, etc. These were the things that, to us, were synonymous with big-city life. What we discovered, slowly, was that Kansas City has each of those things, but they're generally not in the same neighborhoods.

Over the course of our three years in K.C., we found a coffee shop we loved, but there was nothing interesting near it. We found a diner that became our favorite, but it was in a remote and scary industrial neighborhood, across a rickety potholed bridge from anywhere else you'd want to be. We found a nice theater that showed out-of-the-mainstream movies, but there were no passable restaurants or coffee shops nearby, for a bite to eat before or after the show. We found a few cafés and bookstores along 39th Street, the city's coolest and most interesting stretch of sidewalk, but Kansas City didn't seem to have many (or any) neighborhoods we'd describe as cool or interesting.

We liked a lot of things in K.C. — the independent grocery within walking distance of our apartment, the Boulevard Drive-In Theater, pleasant parks and beautiful fountains and some nice neighbors, so I don't want to bad-mouth Kansas City. I'm sure it has charms we never noticed, and the natives undoubtedly love it there. We'd come from San Francisco, and what city wouldn't pale in comparison to San Francisco?

But this is our story, Steph's and mine, and I need to tell the truth. We just didn't like living there.

We'd found jobs fairly quickly, and found our way around the city and several suburbs. Every weekend we'd find something to do that seemed interesting, but many times those weekend adventures were a disappointment. The art show turned out to be a bit snooty for our taste. The restaurant we'd heard was good was lackadaisical instead. And so was the next one. The ball park was hard to get to, and felt oddly cold — not in temperature, but in atmosphere.

Of course, any weekend adventure anywhere could go sour, but we rarely regretted any of the things we did in San Francisco or Madison. In Kansas City, though, it felt like we were disappointed half the time we did anything. Steph said she'd felt at home in San Francisco after living there only a few months, but even after a couple of years in Kansas City, neither of us felt "at home" there.

And it has to be mentioned: We frequently heard mean and/or racist comments in conversation. Usually it was subtle, just a general "vibe" that implied Welfare is for lazy people, or that only Christians can be good people, or that all Democrats are commie pinkos. But sometimes it was blunt. In any month in Kansas City, I heard more racial and ethnic slurs in casual conversation than in all my adult life before arriving there.

Steph had wanted to live in the Midwest, but we gradually came to recognize that while Kansas City is in the Midwest, it's also almost the South. On one of our walks, we stumbled across a memorial to the Confederacy — the Stars & Bars flag etched in granite and the dates 1861-65, a tombstone for the Confederate States of America.

We'd lived in Kansas City for 2½ years, and bit by bit we'd grown the opposite of enamored with the City of Fountains, though we hadn't admitted it to each other or even to ourselves. And that's when Steph read a brief blurb in the newspaper about an upcoming annual street fair in nearby Lawrence, Kansas, an hour's drive across the state line. By then we had a car (unlike S.F., you really can't live in Kansas City without a car), so our plans for the weekend were set.

I don't remember what the street fair in Lawrence was called, but Stephanie and I had a blast. We walked along crowded streets, chatting with vendors and strangers, and we were enthusiastically invited to join a chess club and adopt a puppy. We found a store that sold bongs and pipes, and Steph mentioned that she hadn't smoked or even seen or smelled marijuana since we'd left California. We didn't smoke any pot that day, but yeah, we definitely smelled it.

All along several blocks of downtown Lawrence we saw dozens of funky stores and cafés and "artsy people." We saw college kids carrying protest signs we agreed with, with nary an n-word spoken or written.

When our feet got tired we wandered in to the local library, thinking we'd take a break and read a newspaper, and the local newspaper in Lawrence seemed more awake and interesting than the Kansas City Star. And then a librarian approached us — not to shush us for talking too loud, but to ask if we had a library card or perhaps wanted to sign up for one. Basically, for booky people like Stephanie and I, this was the equivalent of an invitation to ride the gondolas while visiting Venice.

Before driving home, we enjoyed a delightful dinner in a soup-and-sandwich place, and marveled at the day we'd had. We'd come for a street fair, so of course the area was putting its best face forward, but the several blocks of Lawrence we'd seen were more vibrant, more fun, more alive than any neighborhood we'd seen in Kansas City.

With my mouth full of sandwich, I said, "The best time we've had since moving to Kansas City wasn't even in Kansas City; it was here in lovely Lawrence, Kansas."

"Maybe we should move to Lawrence," Stephanie replied. The idea left me wordless, but who needs words? I smiled, and emphatically shook my head up and down, meaning "Yes."

We drove home that evening chattering about Lawrence, and began researching the town. Population: around 100,000. It's famous for its violent opposition to the Confederacy. It's the main campus for the University of Kansas, so it's a college town.

At our apartment, with a few Google searches, Stephanie figured out what we'd done wrong, when we'd researched Kansas City a few years earlier. "We considered the weather, the geography, the economy, but there's an important factor we failed to consider, before deciding to move to Kansas City. College kids."

Let's run the numbers. The San Francisco area has several major universities, with a combined 100,000 or more college kids and, of course, a hippie/beatnik atmosphere. Madison, the city Steph loved, has the University of Wisconsin, with 40,000 students. Lawrence, where we'd decided to move, has the University of Kansas and its 25,000 students.

Kansas City is much bigger than either Madison or Lawrence, but its most crowded college is a satellite campus of the University of Missouri (the main facility is far away, in Columbia, Missouri). UMKC has only about 16,000 students.

"There are more college kids in little old Lawrence than in great big Kansas City," Steph said. "Sure, sometimes college kids are loud or obnoxious or stupid or smell funny, but it's the college kids and the college atmosphere that fuels any city's coolness."

She'd figured out our mistake, and as usual, she was right. In every city where I've lived — Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, Berkeley, Madison — the most lively, interesting neighborhoods are near the college campus.

We weren't going to make that mistake again, but we were about to make a different mistake. We spent a week, maybe longer, researching Lawrence, calculating how long it would take to save up the money for a move, looking into affordable rents in various neighborhoods, and hoping we could find a place near the part of the city we'd seen and liked. Looking into Lawrence, we kept finding things we were pretty sure we'd want to do.

One night Steph was reading aloud, something from the web about a specific neighborhood in Lawrence, and she said, "That sounds a lot like State Street in Madison, so I think we're really going to like it in Lawrence."

That's when the idea popped into my head. "You know, you keep saying that Lawrence reminds you of Madison. And I know, you loved living in Madison, and you miss it. So … like they say in the commercials on TV, why don't we cut out the middleman? Instead of moving to a city that reminds you of Madison, why don't we just move to Madison?"

She didn't say anything for a while, and then she still didn't say anything, but I could almost hear her thinking. "That's a much bigger move," she said. The room had been silent for perhaps a minute.

"Yeah, it's a much bigger move. 500 miles instead of fifty miles, and several extra tanks of gas. But isn't it the move you really want?"

Her eyes were starting to well up, so I lifted myself out of my chair and snuggled in next to her on the couch, put my arm around her and gently squeezed. "I think we ought to move to Madison."

She held my hand. A teardrop rolled down her face. "I didn't see that coming," she said, "but you're right. Let's move to Madison."