05 March, 2021

The Neighborhood

Apparently, there are whole Facebook pages devoted to my teenage years. Kind of. The Hurricane, arguably the most popular live-music venue in Westport, until its closing in the early aughts, has a remembrance page there. As a prisoner, I don't have access to the Web, but I hear that a community of 1990s nostalgists maintain a lively conversation there. There's a Facebook page for fans of the Broadway Café, too. "The Broadway," however, remains in business today. In fact, it seems to be thriving.

During what many consider the heyday of both places, my mother and I shared a three-story redbrick apartment building a quarter of a mile away. As a mature-for-his-years teenager, I owned no car but was prone to roaming. Acutely grateful to be within walking distance of Kansas City's premier entertainment district, I took full advantage of our close proximity to hipster havens such as these. When I stayed with my father, in the other Kansas City, no such freedoms presented themselves.

It always struck me as ironic that Kansas City, Kansas, located in the state that gave the city its name, is the lesser of the two Kansas Citys. That Kansas City, Missouri, surpassed it in cultural relevance and sheer population alike must've been a slap in the face to the Wheat State, which worked so hard to get to the mediocrity that obtains there today.

Gen-X students from the Art Institute and the University of Missouri-Kansas City played chess and smoked (indoors!) at the Broadway's mosaic-tiled tables. The same man with a dark ponytail, glasses, and a single name made everyone's drinks. He always struck me as prickly, but any other kid wearing heavy eyeliner and all-black clothes, as I did, might've felt the same.

I went to the Broadway to people-watch. Enough regulars came that I got to recognize a few faces – the twenty-somethings who parked their baby's stroller in front, the Rastafarian chess master who schooled countless newcomers, the gutter punks who'd spanged enough that day to share a cup of espresso, the goth girl I spent whole minutes staring at before she looked up and my eyes darted away.... The place offered comfort to all, drawing suit-wearing professionals and homeless people, disaffected teens and bubbly teachers, Mormon missionaries and queer activists, med students and drug addicts. The coffeehouse somehow catered to this variety of patrons, who all behaved themselves enough to sit side by side with nothing more heated than an occasional ideological debate flaring up.

The neighborhood is called Westport, a historic area of Kansas City that was once a town. There are statues and plaques, but few who live there today could tell you that Westport got its name for having been a gateway, back in the 1800s, to the Santa Fe Trail. Nor could they tell you much about the Civil War battle waged there.

Nineteenth-century merchants and settlers traveled the Santa Fe Trail en route to America's untamed West, and the westward migration of people seeking better lives endured even in my time, in the form of young runaways aspiring to better lives in Portland, Oregon. I befriended several of them. Some kids, unshowered but not unfriendly, hung out in the miniature labyrinth of brick corridors behind the Broadway. (See "Double Life, Part Two" for an earlier post about them.) At some point I fell into their circle, or at least into its periphery, and was made to feel welcome whenever I came around.

The Jerusalem Cafe, right around the corner, offered salubrious Mediterranean food at fair prices. Across the street, Vulcan's Forge sold handmade jewelry, incense, and New Age books, while down the block was a shop named Zowie!, which sold "SCREWING THE NEXT SEVEN GENERATIONS" bumper stickers and Urban Decay hair dye to a more jaded clientele. (I once bought some incense, a satin shirt, and a studded collar with five feet of chrome dog chain there.) A block away, Pyramid Pizza sold big two-buck slices from a window counter until mismanagement led to bounced paychecks. The cleaner-looking Joe's Pizza took its place overnight, but Pyramid's unruly, freewheeling vibe was gone.

Neighborhood nostalgia seems silly when deeply considered. The word, neighborhood – a static concept of a group's agreed-upon perception – does it really refer to anything of value? Why are the memories we accumulate in a given place, at a certain time, prized more than certain others? Those Facebook pages for bygone zeitgeists are efforts to trap lightning in a bottle, to recreate what their members miss. It's all gone, really. In another sense, it – that specific time and place, the ephemeral subject of this little meander – was never there at all.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.