“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.” -Dashiell Hammett from “Red Harvest”
November 13th, 2014
Three Kansas City Kansas Police Department squad cars, an ambulance, and a couple of unmarked police vehicles barricaded the Vega Park, at the corner of 24th Street and Metropolitan in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. The park was located right across the street from the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, which just opened a couple of months ago. There was a big celebration on that Walmart’s grand opening, headlined by the JC Harmon band playing as well as Mayor Mark Holland and Third District Commissioner Angela Salazar speaking about the supermarket’s opening being a sign of the economic progress in the Argentine and Rosedale neighborhoods (both part of Salazar’s district). Balloons, street vendors selling fruit, duros and ice cream bars, and a DJ blaring Banda, Bachata and Reggaeton music further added to the festivity of the event, which felt just like yesterday for many of the residents not just in the Argentine neighborhood, but in the general KCK area as well.
Now, it was 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday night. There were no balloons. No vendors. Not much of anybody really other than police officers, the medical examiner and some assistants taking photos, EMT workers, and a social worker writing details as people tried to scramble for a positive identification on the body.
She was young. She had light brown skin and long straight black hair. She was naked laying face down in the grass underneath the tree adjacent to the playground. And she was dead. Bruised, likely beaten and strangled. No signs of any bullet or knife wounds.
Somebody had anonymously called the police over an hour ago. They were coming back home from the Missouri side, and they noticed somebody lying underneath the tree in Vega Park. They figured it was somebody drunk. Drunks tended to wander around this area, especially with a gas station that sold beer right across the street from the park.
From the sound of it, the callers had no idea that the woman was dead, perhaps for hours from the look of it.
Detective Mike Simonich parked his unmarked navy blue Crown Vic squad car right by the entrance of the Walmart. He wore a brown blazer with a tan heavy duty work shirt underneath, unbuttoned at the top with no tie. He complemented his attire with dark heavy denim jeans, unmatching with his get-up, but at this hour, it was likely he just threw the outfit together in a rush to the get to the crime scene. His short dark brown haircut, speckled with gray, was slightly combed, but still somewhat disheveled, demonstrating that he had just woken up from his slumber less than an hour earlier.
Simonich had been in the KCKPD for nearly 18 years now, with the last eight being in homicide. After six years in patrol, he worked in narcotics/vice for another four before being promoted to the homicide/violent crimes division.
Late nights. No notice. Throwing clothes together. Cluster fuck crime scenes where people were standing around, all holding their dicks, with no direction or plan on what to do next.
These kinds of nights had become all too familiar to him in his eight years on the homicide beat.
Simonich noticed a couple of officers standing near the hood at one of the cars that was barricading the scene. The officers were dressed similarly: dark blue winter jackets, light blue uniform shirts, and complementing dark blue slacks and black shoes. The officer on the right was familiar to Mike, and probably the head officer on the scene: Sgt. Santiago Moreno. Moreno had been in the force just as long as Simonich, but while Simonich went the detective route, Moreno stayed in patrol, became a Sergeant and now was mainly responsible for training officers-in-probation. The officer to the left of Moreno looked young, fresh out of college or junior college, and probably one of the many Moreno mentored for that year-long introductory period to the KCKPD.
“What’s it look like Sergeant Moreno?” Simonich said as he walked up to the two from behind.
Moreno, a Quiktrip coffee in his left hand, turned and shook Simonich’s hand with his right. He had a big grin on his face, and sported a confident, chest-out demeanor. Moreno was well-liked not only Simonich, but in the department: always cordial, always respectful, and always with a story or two when the time was right.
Murder scene in the Argentine late at night wasn’t the time for a story though, especially with someone like Simonich, who had grown less and less patient on the beat in these kinds of scenarios over the years.
“How’s it going Mike? Thanks for coming out. From the look of it, it’s a female victim, and she looks young. Maybe in high school or just recently graduated. We’ve been on the scene for maybe 20-30 minutes now. Nobody was around the body when we got here, and we were first on the scene. Just her body, in the same position as it is now. Sandra is over by the scene, so you can ask her more details.”
Sandra Dominguez. She was one of the two main medical examiners for Wyandotte County. Mike knew her pretty well, as she had been a medical examiner in Wyandotte County for nearly six years now.
“Sounds good,” Simonich said as he pulled his hand away. He put his hand out to the new guy next to him. “And you are?”
“Officer Adam Tomasic, detective,” he said as he shook Simonich’s hand.
“Officer Tomasic is in probation. He’s a Bishop Ward graduate.”
Simonich nodded his head as he pulled his away.
“Great. Last team to have a winning football season at Ward.”
Moreno and Simonich laughed softly, while Tomasic played along with a fake chuckle. They understood. This was probably the kid’s first murder scene. After so many years on the force, and so many scenes like this, Moreno and Simonich found levity whenever they could to help them keep things in perspective with the job. They had seen officers and fellow detectives let the work get to them, push them out of the profession altogether, or worse, into various addictions, be it alcoholism, drugs or adultery.
Fortunately, the job hadn’t gotten to Moreno and Simonich just yet. They partially credited it to the jokes.
“That’s right sir,” Tomasic responded as the laughs died down.
“Well, welcome to the force, kid. Class of 1992 myself. Great school. Appreciated the memories there. You related to Jim?”
Jim Tomasic graduated a couple of years before him. He was also a police detective but on the Missouri side in KCMO. He worked in the vice/narcotics task force, and they tended to cross paths on cases from time to time.
“Yeah he’s my uncle.”
“Well tell him hello for me the next time you see him. I’ll catch you guys later. I’m going to the scene. Only believe 90 percent of what Moreno tells you. The other 10 percent is just to fuck with you.”
Moreno laughed, shook Simonich’s hand one last time and patted him on the back as the detective made his way to the scene. The young Tomasic just nodded in agreement and stood with his hands in his pockets. Simonich figured he was overwhelmed. He probably didn’t expect to experience a murder scene and somebody who knew his uncle all on the same night.
Portable lights and rays from officers’ flashlights flooded the scene. A squad car also had its headlights on to give extra light at the scene. Vega Park didn’t have any lights, as the park closed at sunset, and much like many pockets of Kansas City, Kansas, the light from the streetlights on the adjacent streets were either spare in number and/or dimly lit. As Simonich approached the body, he noticed Sandra standing by the head area, writing down notes in her notebook.
She noticed him when he was about 15 feet away.
“How you doing Simonich? Why is it that you always seem to get the late night calls?” she said, still writing notes in her book.
“Just luck of the draw I guess, Dominguez. How’s the single life?”
Sandra had been divorced now for almost a year. They had a pretty close relationship, but more as friends than anything. He had met her ex-husband at a couple of law enforcement convocations in the past. He worked as a financial analyst for the main Security Bank off of 7th Street and Minnesota avenue, right across from the KCKPD Headquarters. From what Simonich recalled, they had been married for nearly 10 years. That probably was 10 years too long, considering the guy was an arrogant prick in Simonich’s opinion. Then again, he had gone through a divorce himself, so he tended to be pessimistic when it came to marriage.
“Working, raising my son, repeat. You know the drill.”
“You’re still relatively young. What? 33, am I right? You should get out there.”
“Kinda hard when you’re examining dead bodies for a living to find time for drinks or dinner with a man, especially when you live in Wyandotte County. And besides, I’m not ready for Tinder just yet.”
“You know, the dating app where you swipe right on profiles you like, swipe left on ones you don’t like. If somebody also swipes right on you, you match and then you can talk with one another. My girlfriends have told me about it. My friend Tina has been on a couple of dates with the app and she’s been using it for about a month now.”
Simonich wasn’t old by any means, only 40, and he found himself comfortable navigating a smart phone. However, the idea of that kind of “dating” technology (swiping one direction on random people) confounded him.
“Doesn’t sound like my scene.”
“I figured it wouldn’t be Simonich. That’s why I didn’t suggest it to you.”
Simonich smirked and took a squat next to the body. He examined the right side of her body and noticed her brown skin slightly bruised and scratched around the shoulders and back on both sides. From his jacket pocket, he put on some disposable gloves and put his fingers to the flesh of her back. Her body felt cold.
“How long you think she’s been dead, Dominguez?”
“Definitely hours. My guess is about three hours, but I won’t know officially until I get her back to the lab.”
Simonich examined the park around her. For the most part, nothing really stuck out around her except leaves, two trash cans, and playground equipment. He noticed nothing out of sorts around her. No picnic table turned over. No bark from the playground dragged onto the grass. No mud debits or obvious footprints.
It’s like she just fell from the air exactly onto this spot.
“Anybody find anything on the scene?” Simonich asked.
“Neither the officers on scene nor my assistants found anything. Trash cans just had a couple of Old English bottles and Go Chicken Go boxes. Nothing was found on the ground, though we still have officers scouring the park a second time, maybe hoping to find something after another go-around. Not easy considering the shitty lighting, though we may try again in a few hours in the morning.”
Simonich took out a black moleskine from his pocket and a black pen. He opened up to a clean page and began writing down notes. Simonich had developed a skill for writing while standing and sitting in different uncomfortable positions.
He started taking notes from his conversation with Sandra. He started writing notes about the body.
- Woman, anywhere from 16-24 years old. Dark hair, tan skin.
- Body is naked. Bruises and scratches around the shoulders and back. Heavy bruising around the neck.
- Eyes brown and dilated.
- Scratch marks on both buttocks. Could be from nail or external item.
- Hair is long and tangled and messy. Probably a sign of struggle before her death.
- Further bruising on arm. Especially around elbow region. Could be a sign of drug use.
- No clothes or personal items
“Do we have an ID on the victim yet?”
Sandra squatted down next to him.
“We have nothing so far. No identification was found on the scene. No purse. No wallet. No clothes even.”
“So the murder took place elsewhere. She was killed somewhere else, and the body dumped here. Fantastic. Do it a park with a playground in the Argentine. I’m sure Commissioner Salazar will love this.”
“Well, that’s not something for you to worry about, Simonich. The Chief will hear that earful.”
“Or my Captain, who will let it out on me. Classic kick the dog chain of command shit. Was she raped?”
“I took a vaginal sample. I won’t know for sure until we get back to the lab. My guess is yes by the marks on her body and the bruising. Typical sign of sex, in this case, rough sex.”
“I noticed the bruises and scratches. I noticed the extreme bruising around the neck. Asphyxiation?”
“Yeah, that would be my guess as well. But her eyes are unusually dilated. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some kind of narcotics in her system when we do the test at the lab.”
Simonich stood up, finished writing the last bit of what Sandra said, and closed his moleskine, putting it in his pocket. He took a deep sigh and put his hands in his coat pocket, looking around him, the scene starting to tail off a bit. There was only one squad car and one unmarked car now, and the ambulance had been replaced by a white Wyandotte County coroner vehicle.
No use in having an ambulance when the victim was already dead. Might as well keep it available for people who would actually need it.
“How long do you think you will have results?” Simonich asked.
“A couple of hours. I’m wrapped up here. Just going to talk to my people, and then be on my way to the lab,” she replied, now standing with him.
“Give me a call on my cell when you have the test results. Immediately, please. I’ll be up.”
“You sure? I can have them ready in the morning to let you get back to bed.”
“No, I’ll be up, believe me.”
“Okay, you got it Simonich.”
Simonich walked away toward his car. He took his gloves off and tossed them in a garbage can near the entrance of the park. Moreno and Tomasic were gone now. It made sense. They probably had the night shift, and things were probably getting more interesting now. They needed to be available and on patrol.
As he reached his car, he took out his phone and scrolled through his contact list. He found “Big Matt’s” contact and called it.
He picked up on the second ring.
“What’s up Mike?”
“Hey Big Matt. You want meet for a drink. At the spot?”
“Sure. You bring the beer. No foreign or craft shit, okay?”
“I got it.”
The view from Mejak Hall, the parish center to Holy Family Catholic Church, provided a beautiful image of the Kansas City, Missouri skyline. Frank met “Big Matt” at this spot when he was out late on a case and he needed a drink and someone to talk to. “Big Matt” lived around the corner, on Ohio and 5th Street, a long time resident of the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas with his wife Tammy.
“Big Matt” was Matt Dordevic, the former district attorney of Kansas City, Kansas and now a practicing defense attorney. Frank’s father used to be friends with him, and he had kept a close relationship with “Big Matt” even after Frank’s father passed away six years ago. Frank’s father worked for BNSF on the railroads, and was a blue collar type who didn’t say much. “Big Matt” had a career in law who helped Frank understand the system, both criminal and political, in Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri, to help him be more effective as a detective.
It wasn’t surprising to identify who Frank was closer to, especially in his adult years.
“Big Matt” about six-feet, four inches tall with light gray hair and a goatee that matched the color of his short-cropped haircut, wore a blue Kansas sweater and black sweats. They both leaned on the hood of Frank’s Crown Vic as they stared out on the Kansas City skyline at night. The tall buildings, the lights, the bridges in the distance.
The sight never got old.
“I wonder where this city is going ‘Big Matt’. Young. Latina, supposedly. Found dead and naked, probably raped, in Vega Park. Right next to a playground. It is just happening more and more.”
“Murder rate is going up in KCK. And KCMO. That’s the reality we live in.”
“It’s not going to help Jerry’s case anytime soon. He’s going to be up for re-election, and there are already rumors of people challenging him.”
Jerry Novak was the current District Attorney of Kansas City, Kansas. He replaced “Big Matt” nearly three terms ago.
“Jerry will be fine. It’s you I’m worried about. You blur the line between jadedness and anguish. I can’t tell if this fazes you, or you just internalize it so deeply that it is even more piercing than it ought to be. That’s not good, son.”
Frank took a pull of his bottle of Miller Lite. “Big Matt” preferred American lagers, and Miller Lite was his lager of choice. He didn’t like Budweiser, mainly because it came from St. Louis, and he disliked almost everything with that city.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, ‘Big Matt’. I’m fine.”
“We’re doing this more often. I enjoy having a beer with you on the Hill, don’t get me wrong. But I’m worried about you. I’m just ready for one of these nights for you to tell me you’re done with all this.”
Frank smirked and took another drink, killing the bottle. He put it back in an empty-sick pack slot, and grabbed a full replacement. “Big Matt” took a drink himself, though he drank a lot slower than his younger counterpart. He still had half a beer left.
“I’ll be fine. It’s just the job. I’ve been a detective for about twelve years total, eight in homicide. I’ve seen plenty of murders. Plenty of bodies. Plenty of people confess to all kinds of shit. I feel like I’ve seen it all and then some. The job doesn’t fire me up anymore like it used to, sure. But the job is all I got. I’m satisfied with that.”
“Being satisfied doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy, Frank. And a job is just that: a job. You got to find more.”
“Kinda hard to do that when you’re investigating murders for a living.”
“Bullshit. I was district attorney for nearly 16 years. And I had a wife and three kids. The job is never an excuse…unless you make it an excuse.”
“Well, maybe I’m making it an excuse, maybe I’m not. But right now, I really don’t want to worry about anything else but my job. Because as you know, I don’t have a whole lot of luck outside of the job.”
Once divorced. A wife who is now re-married with an Indian-American doctor. A son he rarely talks to and lives in Johnson County; Leawood to be specific. An on-again, off-again mistress who is over a decade younger and works as a cocktail waitress at Hollywood Casino by the Legends and Kansas Speedway.
The job, as depressing and grinding as it could be, really was the high point of his life. He wished he could make “Big Matt” realize that. He wished he could get “Big Matt” out of his old-school thinking that a wife and kids and stability automatically made everything better. Made a person better.
He tried. It didn’t happen.
He didn’t want to go through that shit again.
“You ever think about starting something serious with Mandy?”
Mandy. The 30-year-old cocktail waitress who worked at the casino. Another divorcee with two kids who lived off of 78th street in Western Wyandotte County.
“I don’t think either of us are ready for that. We like what we have.”
“Suit yourself. But you need something. That’s why Wyandotte County is going to shit. Nobody stays stable anymore. And in order for a community to thrive, you need stability. Goddamn shame. It’s why you’re right, Frank. It’s why Wyandotte County and KCK is going to hell and a handbasket. And it don’t matter who is mayor, who is on the board of commissioners, who is district attorney, whatever.”
“So you’re saying we need more married couples staying together to make Wyandotte County better, ‘Big Matt’?”
“Big Matt” laughed and took a long pull, finishing his beer. He replaced it quickly with a fresh one before responding.
“What I’m saying Frank is people in Wyandotte County need to get it together. Once people personally get it together, then our city collectively will get it together. Simple as that. Strong households make strong communities.”
Frank laughed, nearly spitting up some of his beer. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Sounds like you should run for mayor.”
“Big Matt” shook his head and waved his hand in deference to the idea. He had his run as an elected official before. After 16 years, four terms, as district attorney, he had his fill of Wyandotte County civic community and life.
“I’m close to retirement, Frank. Three, four years tops. Even one term as mayor would screw that up. I’m not willing to dive back into the shit after finally crawling out of it.”
They both shared a jovial laugh for a moment and then both sighed, looking directly back into the Kansas City, night skyline. It was a clear, mild night for November. Not frigid, but not exactly warm. It felt more like September weather in Kansas City, not November.
Frank had no complaints about that. Some yearned for the cold winters, the snowfall a sign of the coming holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, considering how often the side streets in KCK were plowed in the winter, the longer snow first fell, the better, in Frank’s opinion.
The phone in his right coat pocket buzzed. He checked it and saw it was Sandra.
“What’s up Sandra?”
“Got the results. Official cause of death was asphyxiation by strangulation. However, she had a considerable amounts of cocaine in her system as well at the time of death. We also found semen in her vaginal and anal regions, so there was some kind of sexual activity involved. Considering the combination of the semen and bruising and scratches on her body, I think it can be a safe diagnosis to say she was raped.”
“I think it would be safe to say that indeed. Then again though, we’re so far off from making a case at this point considering the lack of evidence at the scene. Do you get a name on her?”
“Yes, we did get an identification on the body. We ran her thumbprints and they matched someone who was charged for a minor in possession of alcohol and marijuana about two years back here in KCK.”
Frank put the bottle on the hood and frantically took out his Moleskine and pen from his coat pocket. He placed the phone on his right shoulder and tilted his head to hold and talk on the phone while keeping his hands free to write notes.
“What’s the victim’s information?”
“Her name’s Stefanie Barreto. 19 years old. Lives at 925 Scott Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas.”
He wrote the information shorthand on a clean page. Stefanie Barreto. From the Armourdale neighborhood. Not even of legal drinking age yet.
“That’s all we got for now. Apparently she lives with her mother. The legal guardian’s name is Marisol Ramirez. She is also registered at that same address.”
He wrote down the mother’s name and circled it. He knew that telling Ms. Ramirez that her daughter was found murdered in the Argentine wasn’t going to be an easy conversation.
But after eight years in homicide though, he had gotten used to those visits. He needed to make sure in the morning to bring a female officer along to soften the blow, perhaps one that was Spanish-speaking as well if the mother didn’t speak English.
“Thanks. Let me know if you find anything in connection to the semen sample or Stefanie. If I get any names of any potential suspects tomorrow from the mother, I’ll try to shoot you some names so you can do a DNA test on them.”
“That sounds good, Frank. I’ll let you know if we find out more from the tests. Have a good night.”
“Thanks, you too.”
Frank put away the pen and Moleskine, and hung up the phone and slid it back in the opposite coat pocket. He noticed “Big Matt” staring at him.
“What did she say?”
“Strangled to death and raped.”
“Shit. And her name?”
“Stefanie Barreto. 19 years old. From Armourdale. I’m going to talk to her mother in the morning. Her mother lives at the same address.”
“Shit. That’s…I don’t know. I don’t know…”
Frank and “Big Matt” paused for a moment, maybe thirty to forty-five seconds. Young girl. Strangled and raped. Those thoughts were hard to stomach and contemplate for them, no matter how long they worked in law or law enforcement.
19 years old. Just too damn early, in both their minds.
“Where was she found?”
“Vega Park. Off of 24th Street and Metropolitan. Across from the new Walmart supermarket.”
“Big Matt” nodded a couple of times and then paused, seeming to have a “light bulb” moment. Frank didn’t really notice. He got distracted by the muffled sounds of a police helicopter in the distance, probably going over the West Bottoms.
“That’s funny. This story is going to cause some noise tomorrow for sure,” “Big Matt” said.
Frank turned, his arms crossed, piqued by his statement.
“What do you mean? How so?”
“Well…that’s just a block away from Commissioner Angela Salazar’s house.”
“… I started to die 36 hours before I was born, so dying was a way of life for me.” -Hubert Selby, Jr.
The high was starting to hit Seth more than ever. His arm had been in pain for about half an hour now but it didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. He had gotten used to it. The rush, the fuzziness, the swirls that were starting to develop in front of his eyes, those were the only things his mind was focused on at the time being, not the sting from the needle or the infection that probably had developed where that red mark beneath his elbow was. Pain was secondary now. It was always secondary.
The high was really all that mattered.
And the high was just how he liked it. It was exactly what he imagined when he initially cleaned off that needle with the handkerchief he had back in his apartment. One shot right in the vein underneath his elbow, and instant happiness, instant pleasure, instant forgiveness came in one fell swoop. Now, thirty minutes in, the thoughts of what brought him to where he was now all came together as he stared at his half-empty cup of coffee.
The four words that he had been waiting months to say. The four words that could change any man’s life forever.
Sara. I love you.
Of course, to say such words was so much easier said in the mind than done in action. As he mulled over in that brain of his whether or not he still had the courage to do such a bold maneuver, he took another drag of his cigarette and sip of his coffee while his stomach began to intertwine a little more by the second. His mind was in a different state right now, a zone one would say perhaps. He could hear the ticking of the clock that hung up on the wall above the waitress, who was sitting right behind the counter, reading a senseless paperback that was the typical drivel read by middle-aged women. The sound annoyed him. Tick…tick…tick…tock. Tick…tick…tick…tock. Three annoying ticks, not two not one. Why did it have to be three? Every clock had two ticks than a tock. Even more clocks had a simple tick tock combo. This one seemed to be the exception. Three lousy ticks, and than a lousy tock. It drove him mad. The three ticks, the lousy coffee, the third Pall Mall he was on. All this caused by the anxiousness of saying four words.
She needed to come quick. He was starting to go insane. The high from shooting up, the anxiousness, being all alone in that coffee shop. All of that now was slowly starting to get him. Seth needed her more than ever.
He took another sip of his coffee and another drag of his cigarette, and then he heard the door behind him open and a gust of cold wind hit his back.
Seth didn’t turn around to look who it was; he heard the footsteps walk towards him and a hand touch his back. He expected an aura to surround him. He could picture the feeling of warmth engulfing his body when that gentle hand would caress his back. It was supposed to be like the movies. He turns around to see her inviting face and then end all that anxiety he had felt earlier with one final act, an act that neither him nor her could explain. How he wanted that. It was the sole thing that had consumed him solely these past eight months. He wanted to end that waiting tonight here in this coffee shop called “Cornerstone”.
“Seth I’m sorry.”
The hand was not gentle, and the voice was not of hers. He recognized the man’s voice even though he didn’t want to say his name. It would only bring further pain to his gut.
Now he felt lost. The feeling of hope, anxiousness and desire had now sunk, and he suddenly felt as if he were falling off a building. He could feel the rush, the chaotic swirl of emotions that pulsed throughout all his nerves. Maybe it was the high. Heroin could do that to a guy sometimes. But maybe it was the feeling of utter hopelessness too. He couldn’t quite say for sure.
“What did she say?”
“Seth, she says, she’s sorry.”
Sorry. All she could say was she was sorry. He didn’t quite expect that. He expected something else. Maybe something dramatic such as “I’ll never love a goddamn heroin junkie!” or “I hope you live a miserable life!” But “sorry?” He sort of wished it were one of the other two, something emotional, or something more concrete so he knew how she really felt about him. Now, he was only more confused, and instead of having the opportunity to ask her what she meant, to maybe truly understand from her lips what she truly felt, he had to deal with this sap. A big dumb oaf who could only relay four damn words: She says she’s sorry.
“Tell her thanks.”
“She couldn’t be here. It would’ve been too hard on her. You know how she feels about you and your…you know…addiction.”
She never understood what it meant to him, how important his addiction was to his life, his existence. She was too caught up in all the Christian bullshit to really understand how it could change and shape one’s life. To Seth, it was the only thing that kept him going. That and her of course. If it wasn’t for those two things, he was just a normal guy, an everyday salesman who punched in his card everyday from 9 to 5. Some people, Seth especially, couldn’t live on that. People like him needed an extra drive to keep on living.
However, now one of those drives was taken from him.
“I’m sorry to break it like this. I wish it were different. You have anything else you want me to say to her?”
Seth shook his head as the guy took his hand off of Seth’s back. He put out his cigarette on the counter, and after flicking it to the ground underneath his seat; he reached into his coat pocket. The handle of his 9 mm felt warm, but it felt like it had been ages since he last touched it. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t remember the last time since he fired the thing. He didn’t like carrying his gun around too much, but he did anyways tonight. After he shot up back at his apartment, he had a funny feeling that it would come in handy for tonight.
Sara. I love you.
To some people, one woman was all you need in your life. Furthermore, to some people, one bullet was all you needed to find yourself from that feeling of being lost.
All he needed was one bullet right in the forehead, and when he would pull the trigger, it would feel just like shooting one up in the arm. It comes quick and then all of a sudden….
Although I grew up in London, I spent summers in Missouri, where my dad lived. It’s quite a liberal town, Kansas City. You’d be surprised…
I’m getting to about four years of living here in Kansas City. This will be my second year living in Midtown, at the Park Central apartments off of Armour and Broadway. Four years sounds like a lot of time to me in Kansas City, especially considering I lived in the Northwest and California most of my life, and nearly moved from Kansas City twice in this time span.
I chose to live in Park Central primarily due to its location. After graduating from Rockhurst in 2015 in May, I had decided to stay in Kansas City rather than move back for a teaching job in Pine Ridge, South Dakota (on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at an old school I used to work). However, I was living up in the Northland, Gladstone to be specific, with an older divorced co-worker, and I didn’t necessarily enjoy living in a Suburban area as a single guy. After all, at the time I was in my late 20’s, finished with school, and looking to have more of a social and urban experience after living on the outskirts in my first couple of years (first in Kansas City, Kansas and then in the Northland).
My two options were Park Central and the Bellerive off of Armour Blvd. They were both former major hotels in the Kansas City area that had been revitalized into apartments thanks to the gentrification going on in the Midtown area of Kansas City over the past decade. Though the Bellerive had nice amenities, I chose to live in Park Central, as it was nearly 100 dollars cheaper and literally the same distance from my job (about a 10 minute walk from the school I taught at).
I no longer work at the same school, but I still live in Park Central (even though my new school is in Kansas City, Kansas). Over the past couple of years, living in Park Central has helped me swoon for and grow more and more fascinated with Kansas City, from the people to the bars to the neighborhoods to the history that has deeper peaks and valleys than I ever thought possible when I moved here from southwestern South Dakota nearly four years ago.
For me, Kansas City and Park Central go hand-in-hand, spiritually connected at the hip.
Park Central is located right outside of Hyde and Gillham Park. The Hyde Park area is something of an old-money neighborhood, classic in the old sense, with houses designed in a way that resemble ones straight out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Hyde Park, originally one of the first golf courses of Kansas City, is a product of the Tom Pendergast era: its beautifully maintained houses consist of generational residents who lean primarily on the liberal and democratic side, hailing from old European-American ancestry, with their children avoiding the public school system (a reason for the beautiful old Westport High and Middle Schools buildings being currently closed today) for nearby private institutions like Notre Dame de Sion, Pembroke Hill, St. Theresa Academy and Rockhurst (high school, not university).
Mixed in with these old homeowners are newer renting residents: hipster families who have bought cheap housing close to Troost, and recently out-of-college or still-in-school young adults who rent out of the many different apartments mostly owned by Mac Properties, and other smaller property management firms. Park Central is located in this area, and thus, I fall into one of these categories, though only marginally (I am recently out of graduate school, not undergraduate like most).
Park Central is an eclectic mix of residents. Yes, there are young grad students and young professionals, as expected. That being said, the eight floors of the apartment complex also consist of older retirees, most likely widows, who are living out their remaining years in the heart of the city, in much smaller accommodations. Being a pet-free environment, nearly everyone has a dog, and it’s common to see people go in and out of the elevator with their dogs in leashes, ready to take morning and evening walks with their pets before and after work, respectively. There are a surprising amount of young couples who live together in the apartments, some from the Kansas City area, some from abroad, including India and Palestine and China, just to name a few, as well as same-sex couples who are within close distance to many of the gay bars down Broadway and Main.
All in all, Park Central is the quintessential urban apartment, no different in many ways than an apartment you would perhaps find in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Boston (albeit much, much cheaper).
But there is more to Park Central than it just being the modern apartment. It’s more than the kind of complex that one would see on sitcoms such as Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, and Master of None. Park Central is also a microcosm of Kansas City, a capsule that has undergone an exterior, and perhaps spiritual, change to help newer potential residents to forget or be unaware of the history of the building as well as the area.
One of the most famous stories of Park Central is the fact that in 1934, mob boss Johnny Lazia was gunned down at the then hotel by rival gangster associates. The fact that a mob boss like Lazia stayed in the Park Central makes sense, as it is central to most establishments in Kansas City, and was in close proximity to Downtown and the Jazz District back then (and even to this day). For some, the history is neat tidbit that displays the history of Kansas City: as a free-wheeling Las Vegas of the Midwest in 1920’s-1940’s.
Kansas City used to be something one would likely see in a Martin Scorsese film or James Ellroy novel: jazz, gangster, gambling, call girls, murder, political corruption, you name it. During the prohibition, alcohol laws were not only ignored, but almost mocked, thanks to Pendergast and his Jackson Democratic Club political machine, as well as the Italian Mafia that ran things in the Northeast. Even up to the 1970’s, Kansas City was the midway point of criminal activity, connecting the East Coast to lucrative laundering deals going on in the West Coast in Las Vegas, as profiled in the movie Casino.
It made sense that Kansas City had this reputation because of it being a center of the railroad system across the country, which aren’t as active today, but it’s remnants still ever present. Kansas City never had the population or glitz of a New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but you could argue that Kansas City was every bit as fascinating as those cities, and deserved as much, perhaps even more profiles than those other three bigger “noir” meccas. There was no Elliot Ness-Al Capone or William Parker-Mickey Cohen rivalry. The criminals pretty much ran the town (thanks to Pendergast), and that’s what made Kansas City a magnet for seediness that went uncovered for decades. Nobody wants to cover the bad guys if there are no good guys to defeat them, and unlike a Chicago or LA, Kansas City never got that “White Knight” that came in and cleaned up Kansas City for good.
The clean up just came with years of convictions of criminals in court and strong municipal policies.
In other words, boring. Kansas City deserved so much better.
So what does this have to do with me? How does this affect my own experience with Kansas City?
Well, I live in Midtown because it is close to everything. It is close to the characters. It is close to the nightlife. It is right on the border of that Troost wall where the injustice of rich and poor, and black and white segregation still exists today as it did decades ago. It is in a blue part of the Midwest that is normally as deep red as old, caked blood.
For somebody that has craved the city experience for so long, since my teenage years, I can’t imagine going anywhere else. Where I am is perfect. I am inspired by new stories every day, whether it’s from the past or present. Whether it’s the stories of elections being fixed by the Pendergast machine, near riots outside of the Donald Trump rally outside of the Midland Theater, or the sight of soaring-high vagrants punching air on the streets of Broadway past midnight right outside of Westport. As somebody who is trying to make his way as a writer, trying to find the right stories to journal, Park Central is the perfect holding spot personally, a DMZ of sorts of the Kansas City urban experience.
This living experience has come with its share of problems of course. Maintaining or finding relationships has been difficult. I have had countless dates that have constantly gone south due to my inability to part with my current home and the stories that flutter around it. I dated a girl for four months, and we struggled to go deeper in the relationship due to her desire to be more settled. She wanted to be out in Leawood or South Kansas City or somewhere perhaps more rural. I told her that I continued to want the city. I wanted to help people in the city. I wanted to help make the city better and deep down, though I never told her, I wanted to be able to write stories about the city that don’t get told or profiled in the KC Star or evening news. She wanted that “White Picket Fence Midwest” experience. I wanted the Jazz Era one. She couldn’t fathom that I was content with living in a studio apartment and sleeping on a futon.
And the same story has been true with various other dates. One girl couldn’t understand my democratic leanings. I struggled recently with another who had kids who wanted to live the rest of her life in Kansas City Kansas around her family and the friends she grew up with for decades. It seems like young adults in the Midwest generally want the same thing: marriage, kids, stability and all rather early in life. I have struggled with those concepts, because even though I want it or think I want that kind of life (my parents certainly want me to), I fall back into my Park Central apartment, sink into its presence, and realize that though I am 29 and single and without any romantic or prospects of long-term stability on the horizon, I am happy or at the very least content with it all. And I think I’m content because I still have the city. The stories. The people. The night. The parks. The runs through Gilham and Hyde Park where I think about what to write on next. The hookah lounges where I smoke and socialize and sometimes write. The coffee places where I can just stare out on the streets for hours. The bars where I can just people watch and eavesdrop and find amusement in some of the stories I hear and so on.
Some might think of all that as the product of a lonely life. And sometimes it feels that way. But I grew up a bit of a loner. I didn’t have many close friends growing up. It’s a reason why I have never had the desire to go back to Sacramento. I don’t need familiar. I don’t need “safe”. I don’t need “it’s time to settle down.” Writing and blogging keep me stable and sane. It’s cheap therapy, and writing about the city, much like therapy, helps give me the ideas and tools to not only help my own life and progress in it, but also help me understand how I can help my own community, this city, the surrounding area of Park Central also known as Midtown Kansas City.
Because cities are wonderful things. Nothing is more fascinating than the American city. They are decaying in ways because people have their biases. They don’t think their children should go into schools in the cities or they think the crime is too much. I don’t have to worry about those things (because I don’t have kids or nice shit), and thus, I can do what I need to help, and learn about the day to day, night to night of what goes in Kansas City, a city with its own history of sordidness that it battles with each and every day. Kansas City is really a perfect city for me. Small enough to get wrapped up in, but big enough to still find new places, circles and issues to discover.
And I am able to do that from the central of it all in my current apartment, which has its own sordid history which it’s trying to get rid of, like the city itself.
When I first moved to Kansas City, I thought I was on my way to settling into the Midwest experience. I had plans for marriage within a couple of years. I thought about living in a house, and having my own self-built smoker. I pictured barbeques and hanging out at the community pools with my neighbors over cans of Bud Light. I thought about sending my kids to Catholic School, much like my parents did for me.
I remember one night I spent with my ex at the time. We were in St. John’s park, looking out on the Kansas City skyline from Strawberry Hill, which is a beautiful damn thing at night. I knew we were going to break up, but I made one last pitch to her to convince her to stay together.
You know. When I was young, I pictured myself living in a big city. I pictured myself living paycheck to paycheck as a writer. I would be living in a small apartment and writing freelance or for a newspaper living pretty simply with the idea that I would make it big. I pictured myself living like a Charles Bukowski or John Fante and that’s what I wanted more than anything when I was growing up in middle and high school.”
“Well, now I don’t want that anymore. I realized that was just a stupid fantasy. I want to settle down. I want to have kids. I want to have a house and raise a family now.
We broke up a week later. And though it’s not exact, I’m closer to that former dream than the latter nearly three years later.
I wonder if I really wanted the latter or I was just saying it because I scared rejection or was scared of being in and taking on Kansas City alone.
I know what they mean now by certain events being blessings in disguise.
My blessing comes in an Eight-story former hotel called the Park Central.
“Networking is rubbish; have friends instead.” -Steve Winwood
Part 1 of a 3-part “Political Noir.”
Disclaimer: This story, though based on real people, places, and events is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual events is merely coincidental.
I should have gone home. I didn’t know why I felt the urge to go buy burritos at this hour, especially considering what I did tonight and what I uncovered.
Maybe my anxiety prompted me to drive here; my anxiety stunting common sensibility at the moment. Maybe it was the nostalgia of being back in my old neighborhood that prompted me to get burritos even though I wasn’t that hungry.
Perhaps it was the irrational thought that it would be better to confront the people following me from the bar in a public place rather than in my own neighborhood, where cop sirens and late-night wanderers were expected, not signs for alarm, from neighbors.
Then again though, in that regard, there wasn’t much difference between KCK and Midtown KCMO.
I should have known better. Maybe there was no comprehensible reason why I took a seat at the picnic table and not back in my car after I bought my food. Perhaps I was just resigning to the fact it would be wise to deal with these guys now rather than drag this out all night.
The journalist in me just had to take the picture on my phone. I couldn’t let that image just lay…
She had nothing to do with it.
Or at least that’s what I told myself.
The two guys standing on both sides of me at the table were big, white and tall, both dressed in black, heavy winter coats and jeans to combat the cool late fall weather that night. They had their hands in the pockets and stared me down in initial silence as I sat at one of the tables outside of the “Burritos to Go” stand, located in a gas station strip mall off of 7th street and Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. The strip mall also included a 24-hour convenience store and checking cashing outlet in addition to about 10 gas pumps underneath a well-lit canopy. There was no one else in the parking lot nor at the pumps, typical at nearly midnight on a Wednesday night.
The anxiety I felt when I stepped out of the 403 Club minutes earlier was heightened when I parked in front of the all-night burrito counter and saw the red Ford pickup truck roll in behind and park next to my car when I started ordering. I noticed that same red pickup truck following me immediately when I turned left onto 7th Street Trafficway from Reynolds Avenue. What sent me off the charts was the fact that they didn’t get out of their cars until the lady at the counter handed me my brown paper bag which contained two chicharron burritos, two green salsitas cups and a stack of napkins.
They were waiting for me to be alone.
And here I was. Sitting there, not looking at either of them initially, but instead my bag of burritos on the table, slowly getting cold thanks to the late October night. The two men looked more from Bonner Springs than Strawberry Hill, and tried to intimidate me with their size and silence.
“You know why we’re here, right?” the man on my right finally said after a long mute minute.
The man had light brown hair, much lighter than the other (the man with him had dark brown hair, closer to black). He also sported a goatee (the other was clean shaven) and appeared to be the slimmer of the two. However, saying he was slim was like saying a steer weighed less than a cow. He also happened to be a bit taller than his “partner” (if you could call them that; I didn’t know their backstory or occupation at the moment, and I didn’t care to either), so he may not have been slimmer, but just spread his weight out better over his frame.
Before the man initiated the conversation, I had an initial inclination about why they tailed me out of the 403 Club, why they parked next to me in the gas station, and why they surrounded me at the burrito stand picnic tables on the eastern edge of KCK this late at night, a weekday night of all nights.
The unknown man’s rhetorical question confirmed my suspicions.
“I imagine you’re not here for burritos. You should. 3 bucks and pretty good. Though they don’t serve grilled chicken here like they do at Chipotle.”
His partner snorted to my comment.
“A bit of a wise-ass we got here, huh Eddie?” He said.
“I would say so, Kam. Kind of a big mouth for a scrawny guy,” Eddie said.
I slowly lifted my gaze toward them. They had nefarious smirks on their face, like fishermen ready to put fresh, dependable bait on a hook. In fact, they looked like the kind of Kansas guys who went fishing on a regular, if not weekly basis. I didn’t cower, or at least I think I didn’t. My body and nerves were pulsating so wildly internally that I couldn’t tell for sure how I appeared physically or facially at the moment in front of these two men.
“You’re with Wayne Yantz, right? You work for him?”
Eddie spoke up again. He seemed to be the spokesman of the pair.
“We don’t work for him. We are simply concerned voters and volunteers. We’re staunch supporters of the progress Congressman Yantz is doing in our district, and we are here to make sure that nothing will get in the way of that fine work.”
I nodded my head. Eddie surprised me with a more eloquent answer than expected.
“Sounds noble. No wonder he got elected. With a ground game featuring guys like you, he should run for Senate in the next election cycle.”
“Funny. You know, not all Republicans are right-wing nutjobs. I know you bleeding heart liberals like to think so, but we’re just ordinary American tax payers, like you.”
I was tempted to throw his comment back in his face, but at this hour, and with no one else remotely in the area except for a middle-aged primarily Spanish-speaking lady at the burrito stand, I decided to not push my luck.
“Fair enough, I guess. So what do you want from me? An article about Yantz? Sorry, I don’t make those calls, but I can ask my editor in the morning.”
“Cut the shit. You know what we want,” Eddie continued. Kam had now grown mum and stuck to just appearing menacing and crossing his arms to stay warm. “Now listen here son. Are we going to have to do this the easy way or the hard way?”
A difficult decision to make on what I initially thought would be a trivial Wednesday night. When I took this assignment, I imagined covering a routine civic event and afterward watching a debate of a presidential election that pretty much was all but over a couple of weeks out.
I just had to bump into Juliana tonight.
I had been working for the Kansas City Hispanic News for over a year now. My technical title at the paper was “staff writer”, but we were a small operation: just a couple of desk editors and one full-time writer other than myself (Juan, an elderly artist, who always got the art scene assignments as well as the press pass for the Chiefs game; I didn’t know how those two things went together, but he had been around since the KC Hispanic News started publishing in 1993). In fact, it was common for the editor-in-chief and founder of the Hispanic News, Joe Hernandez, to write an article or two himself a week. It wasn’t easy to run a bilingual paper in a Midwest city like Kansas City. Sure, it had a rising Hispanic population, but it was a far cry from major cities like Los Angeles or Chicago in terms of Hispanic population. Thus, to keep the paper afloat, everyone had to do their part in one way or the other.
In addition to being a writer, I was also in sales. It was common for me to do an interview and push to sell ad space with that person or organization after we were finished. It wasn’t exactly what I imagined when I decided to leave the teaching profession after three years and get back into journalism, but it was a start. Writing jobs were hard to come by, and the fact that I was able to get a full-time paid gig was a blessing considering my circumstances (i.e. I needed money as I had been pretty self-sufficient as a teacher and didn’t want to move back in with my parents in St. Louis).
It was funny that my first full-time gig in journalism happened to be at a bilingual newspaper. My Spanish wasn’t great, but I was half-Mexican, and Joe liked my writing and my ideas and the fact that I was single and able to go out wherever and whenever to do a story. He promised to walk with me through the translation process when he offered the position and he had remained true to his word. He handled most of that, though he encouraged me to do as much translation as possible for my own career-sake down the road. Joe knew this was a temporary gig for me, that I probably would leave for a bigger writing job once the opportunity opened up (whether here or outside of Kansas City), so I guess he figured that he might as well mentor me as long as I was churning out articles on a weekly basis and got a decent amount of ads sold.
Joe assigned me to cover a happy hour/debate watch party sponsored by the Kansas City Kansas Chamber of Commerce at Chicago’s off of 6th Street and Central around 5:30, right after most people got off of work. He didn’t expect the story to be anything extraordinary. In fact, he knew it would most likely be a puff-piece, where I would just get a quote or two from Danny Tapia, the head of the KCK Chamber of Commerce and from other Latino/a business owners who showed up for the event to network and get their business out there by word of mouth.
Danny was always good for a quote, especially since he had a good relationship with Joe that went way back before Joe founded the Hispanic News and actually was on staff at the KC Star. On the other hand though, Danny usually proved to be a stilted interview, as he was an aspiring politician, always talking like one or putting up the appearance that he was priming up his resume and networking skills to make a run for commissioner in an election cycle or two. Currently, he worked in the Community Housing Authority of KCK, and had made a name for himself in the community by contributing to some local economic development projects, specifically helping establish a coffee shop that would be a pathway to work for in-need KCK residents, as well as help stimulate the downtown local KCK economy in different ways from what traditionally was seen business-wise around the area: i.e. Taquerias, auto shops, thrift shops, and check cashing outlets, just to name a few. KCK was aiming to be the next “Westside” in terms of development and gentrification, and Danny was one of the many in the Chamber leading that charge.
I arrived to the happy hour and checked in at a table located in front of the Chicago’s building. Luckily, Joe RSVP’d for me ahead of time, so there were no problems on getting entry. They crossed my name off, I put my business card in a glass fish bowl for a raffle at the end of the night, and placed a name tag on the right side of my chest that had my name on it as well as “KC Hispanic News” underneath.
Chicago’s was not meant for large crowds. The front area featured a long 20-seat counter and about four or five tall tables and stools to the west wall of the building. On the eastern side, there was a small community area with an electric darts board near the south wall and about another four-to-five smaller tables with four chairs at each table. Nearly every table on both sides of the bar was taken, making it standing room only even though the event hadn’t even been a half-hour in yet. What made matters worse was the podium with the microphone near the front door by the popcorn machine. It took up more room than it needed, and I knew in another half-hour or so, when the “fashionably late” would arrive, it would make the small, dive bar even harder to move around in. I had thought about staying for the third presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The train wreck that was Trump and the Republican presidential campaign this summer and fall had amused me greatly, not to mention hooked my interest as a journalist for months. But with this crowd, and such tight quarters, I figured I’d be better off watching it at one of the many other bars within walking distance around Strawberry Hill.
Strawberry Hill had that going for it: it was prime real estate for someone of the Catholic faith. You could always find a place not only for mass on Sunday, but a place to drink for cheap any other day of the week. In addition to four Catholic churches being within walking distance, there also happened to be nearly five or six bars.
Hence, it was a perfect place for me to live and had been for a couple of years when I first moved to Kansas City from college in the Pacific Northwest, nearly a half-decade ago. But, my apartment complex had acquired some rough neighbors after my first year (i.e. they were running a prostitution ring I think; a story for another time) and my place had a developed a bit of a mice problem as well that the landlord refused to acknowledge. So, while it was tough to leave the charm of Strawberry Hill, I needed a safer living situation and more “sanitary” complex, and thus, I made my way to Midtown, my current living circumstances. My new place happened to be a bit more expensive (nearly 300 dollars more a month), but it still managed to be ideal for a late 20-something without a wife or significant other: five minutes to Westport, five minutes to the Crossroads, 8-10 minutes to the River Market and Downtown, and 10 minutes to Strawberry Hill, though clearly not as close as before.
After ordering a Rolling Rock on tap, which was on special for two bucks during happy hour, I bumped into Danny, who was wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit, lavender shirt and matching lavender-designed tie. He recognized me immediately and gave me shit for walking around with a Moleskine notebook and a pen.
“What are you Raul? A fucking archeologist or something?”
He told terrible jokes. He also looked a beer or two deep. I laughed to appease him and got a quick interview, quick being five minutes, which was actually decently long in the world of business networking events like this. At events like this, you were lucky to go beyond the two or three minute mark before they ended up migrating toward someone else to engage in the same kind of shallow, run-of-the-mill conversation.
He promoted the event in the fashion of a true municipal diplomat.
“It is nice to be doing a networking event like this at a local KCK establishment, and not somewhere across the river. We always like it when we can support local businesses as much as possible.”
“Nearly 175 people RSVP’d for the event, and we expect nearly half to be from the Latino community, demonstrating the progress Latinos have made in small business in the Kansas City metro. I think events like this and the past year really buck the biases we have seen during this year’s presidential campaign.”
Pretty routine stuff. At this point, I could have skipped my interview with Danny, guessed the quotes, and wouldn’t have been all that far off.
But the last bit he gave me caught me by surprise.
“Congressman Wayne Yantz will also be here as well to speak briefly. We are excited for him to bring positive energy and encouragement to our local business community.”
Wayne Yantz. Congressman of the 3rd District of Kansas.
Wayne Yantz. A Republican up for re-election.
Wayne Yantz. Speaking at a bar located in a county that in 2012 had the highest percentage of votes for Barack Obama in the state of Kansas.
“What the fuck is a Republican politician speaking at an event in Wyandotte County, Danny?”
Saying Wyandotte County was primarily Democrat was like saying Pabst Blue Ribbon was served in dive bars. Not only were both assumed, but came in massive quantities as well.
“Yantz is a good guy. He’s done some great things in this part of Kansas and in Wyandotte County since Dennis Moore stepped down in 2011.”
“He’s done a lot to help the Community Housing Authority, especially with ‘A Cup on the Hill’. He was a big supporter of that economic initiative and pushed for some measures to help fund it. He’s also pushed for a lot of incentives to keep business owners in Wyandotte County in order to make KCK a better place to do business, not to mention live, in for residents . And we’re seeing the results. He and Mayor Holland have done a lot the past couple of years to help increase the population in Kansas City, Kansas.”
I shook my head and wrote down his quotes. It was bullshit, and I could tell from the way he grinned as he spit out those statements.
“Okay, we’re off the record now. I know that’s bullshit. You know that’s bullshit. Yantz caters to the suburbs in Johnson County and will continue to do so. Yantz is a Sam Brownback flunky, and a poor one at that, especially considering he panders to everyone south of the county line. Why is he here? Why didn’t you invite his Democratic opponent, Jay Brown?”
Sam Brownback. One of the shittiest governors in the history of the state of Kansas and I only lived in the state for two years. Brownback made me glad to be a Jackson County resident.
Danny maintained his smirk in response to my suggestion and shrugged, trying to be indifferent. His body language gave away that he had his mind spinning on something, a plan perhaps, probably in the area of networking with Yantz to his advantage for his future political aspirations.
“Honestly and off the record? Somebody on the Chamber is close friends with him. Nobody is friends with Brown. When you got that connection, you have to go for it.”
Basically, Brown was a double-digit underdog in this race, and in a red “GOP-or-Death” state like Kansas (with the exception of Wyandotte and Douglas County, which has the University of Kansas), sometimes bringing the “likely” winner was a better choice for an event than bringing a guy who most likely was “dead man walking” election-wise. You couldn’t blame the Chamber for their thinking, even if more than half of the attendees would be grumbling underneath their breath when he hit the podium to speak.
“I highly doubt that nobody on the KCK Chamber knows Brown considering most of them will be voting for him in November. Who’s the person with the Yantz connection?”
“You know I can’t reveal that. Even off the record. They are a business owner in Wyandotte County, and they got to protect their interests.”
“Well let me know when he is due up to speak so I can go outside and have a smoke.”
Danny shook his head to my comment, and patted me on the shoulder.
“That’s why I like you Raul. You never compromise on anything. That’s why you’re a journalist. Teaching just didn’t suit you. Middle school kids and parents couldn’t appreciate your honesty.”
I pretended to laugh, shook his hand and went to find some more people to talk with and he did likewise, though in a faster manner than me. As far as I was concerned, he could have shoved that last sentence. No wonder nobody wanted to be a teacher these days. You had to deal with people making ass hole statements like that on a regular basis.
I was able to get a couple of quick interviews.
The first was with with Clarence Lewis, who had run a AAA insurance agency off of 10th and Central for over 20 years. He advocated for more Hispanic and African-American youth to be running more businesses in the next 10-15 years.
“We need solutions. Young African-Americans and Latinos need to be involved. If they aren’t, we are going to be keeping these young black and brown brothers in poverty.”
“What are some solutions, Mr. Lewis?”
“More business education. I am part of the KCKPS school board here, and there is a new and stronger emphasis on business and career education in our district. You aren’t seeing that on the other side of the river with KCPS.”
“Well that’s because KCPS is unaccredited, shrinking as a district, hemorrhaging funds, and trying to catch up students to no avail thanks to ‘No Child Left Behind’. And to put the icing on the cake, they’re on their third superintendent in 5 years.”
“You’re absolutely right. But are they offering as many business educational opportunities in Missouri like there are here in Kansas? Yeah they got Manual Tech, but what else? And to be honest, we need more opportunities in our district. We need more business classes. We need more internships. And then, we will see our black and brown brothers and sisters thrive even more so in the business world.”
The other person I interviewed at the event was Sonya Gonzalez, an admissions director at Bishop Ward High School, located on 18th Street just off of Minnesota Avenue, who promoted their business academic program at the high school. Again, typical material. All positive. All filled with hope. Talking to them made me feel like I was at an Obama rally in 2008.
“At Bishop Ward High School, we’re all about making connections with our business and civic leaders. We know our kids are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, and developing the pathways to allow them to do that is why we as a school have a strong relationship with the KCK Chamber of Commerce.”
“How’s the school doing financially?”
“We just had our largest freshman enrollment in five years.”
“Last I read enrollment is still low at 320. You think that’s a good sign with other schools like St. James and Bishop Miege growing?”
“Believe me. We are on the upswing. We’re showing that Ward still is one of the leading high schools not just in Wyandotte County, but in Kansas City, Catholic schools included. We are the only high school in Kansas that participates in the National Academy of Business, a national organization. I’ll let that speak for itself in terms of how well the school is doing, Raul.”
After my interview with Sonya finished, the thought of leaving Chicago’s crossed my mind. I had my quotes and had an idea what the story would look like, and by the time the debate rolled around, the place would be beyond jammed. However, a tall table opened up a few minutes after I finished my interview, and I took my half-empty beer and Moleskine and sat down.
It was a nice place to camp, as it wasn’t too far from the podium, so I would be able to hear the speakers, which would add to my story with some good quotes, perhaps even from Yantz, whom I didn’t want to hear, but had to include simply because a speech from a congressman couldn’t be ignored. So, with a prime spot, I decided my plan was to spend another half-hour or so at Chicago’s, listen to the guest speakers (who were due in about 10 minutes or so according to the conversations I eavesdropped on) and then make my way to a more quiet place in Strawberry Hill (or less crowded at least) to watch the debate. Perhaps the 403 Club, a pinball bar known to be a haven for Millenial hipsters, would be a good spot, as it wasn’t exactly the kind of place that would attract hordes of politically-active adults like Chicago’s currently.
After taking a large sip of my beer, nearly killing it, I started to look over my notes. I heard somebody took the seat across from me, though my eyes were so buried in my notes that I didn’t initially see who.
“Raul! It’s been a long time.”
The voice made me nearly drop my notebook. I was in disbelief that I would bump into her at an event like this.
Juliana Merlino. Her blonde hair bright and straight. Her face slim and poignant, a sign that she had kept herself in good physical shape over the years. Her lips full, highlighted with a thick, dark shade of red lipstick. Her blue eyes sharp and dressed in medium mascara. She wore a white blouse with a black jacket. I couldn’t totally tell, but I imagined she had matching dark slacks to complement her coat.She hadn’t changed much from when I last saw her over two and a half years ago. Always professional and looking her best, especially at events.
“Hello Juliana. It has been. What are you doing here?”
The words came nearly stuttering out of my mouth thanks to the large pit of anxiety sitting in my stomach causing me to shake a bit in nervousness.
Her smile and gaze made me feel even weaker as our eyes locked. They summoned up old feelings and mixed nostalgia.
An ex-girlfriend you haven’t seen in almost three years will tend to have that kind of an effect.
“Funny you should ask. I am an associate campaign manager for Congressman Wayne Yantz.”
End of part one.
“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.” -Virginia Woolf “Jacob’s Room.”
It was a mild Thursday night in October, probably around 50 degrees, a sign that Winter was on its way in the Midwest. There were about 10 people in Sinbad’s that night, a hookah lounge in Midtown right off of Broadway on the outskirts of Westport. It had been a long day for me. I needed a smoke, needed to relax, needed to end the day on a bit of a chill note after constantly moving, constantly thinking, constantly improvising and working with people. Well…teenage people. I was a high school teacher, and if there was one thing being a high school teacher did, it was drain me energy-wise by five o’clock.
I debated where to go for hookah as I drove toward Midtown, where my apartment was located. I had lived in Midtown for almost a couple of years now. I was at that age where I needed to be thinking about settling down, according to most people older than me. A few weeks ago, a middle-aged Filipina asked my why I was still single at 29 years old. I shrugged her off. I told her “I hadn’t met the right person yet.” She told me that I needed to find a relationship and possible wife soon, that I wasn’t getting any younger, and that I needed to settle down and have children. In that moment, I thought for a second I was talking to my Mexican mother back in California.
I usually rotated between two options for hookah: Sahara off of 39th street near Kansas University Medical Center, and Sinbad’s. Sahara had better hookah. Sinbad’s was closer to my place and located in a great spot in Midtown. Speeding cop cars down Broadway; drugged out bums walking down the sidewalk humming Drake and punching air; young 20-somethings drunkenly migrating in and out of Westport like San Diego college students crossing the border from the United States to Tijuana, Mexico and back. There was always something to see. Sahara was just couches, chairs, and older Arab men playing cards, drinking Turkish coffee and tea, talking loudly in Arabic.
I opted for Sinbad’s.
The cashier was new. He wore a blue hooded sweatshirt and had a receding hairline. He looked out of shape, skinnier probably in his younger years, but age and inactivity had recently gotten the best of him. He was a far cry from the last guy who mainly worked here, Dia. Dia was from Jordan. Muscular, clean cut, always wore clothes that were probably too tight. He looked like he could have passed for a professional wrestler. Maybe he was. I heard there was a small independent wrestling promotion that put on shows once a month at Turner Rec in the Turner neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.
But Dia no longer worked here. He moved back to Jordan a week ago to be closer to his newborn baby. His wife and newly born girl still lived in Jordan and he wanted to spend a couple of months with her. After a couple of months, he planned to bring his family back to Kansas City and open up a restaurant. He said his family owned a couple of restaurants back in Jordan, and he wanted to get back in that business. He had grown tired working in hookah lounges the past couple of years.
I was going to miss Dia. He was a charming guy, and he knew how to make his customers feel at ease. It was going to be hard to replace him and this new guy wasn’t off to a good start.
Rap remixes boomed through the speakers as I looked at the menu. The new guy was high energy. He swayed from left to right unprovoked. He mumbled a bunch of questions to me and I couldn’t understand or comprehend what he was saying due to the combination of his ruffled voice and heavy bass in the background.
“No! ID bro. I’m new here. Haven’t seen you around but I got to ask.”
What the fuck? Fine. I showed him my ID. He probably looked at it for a second, if that and said it was cool. He asked me what I was feeling to smoke.
“Minty? Fruity? Cirtus-y?”
Only in hookah lounges was the word “citrus-y” used. I doubt I would be able to use it when I played on my Scrabble app.
I was just going to order a Watermelon Mint. I didn’t trust anybody creating mixes beyond Dia. The owner, Sammy, made crappy mixes. He usually took the bottom of the bucket stuff and mixed it together. It usually proved to be dry and harsh. Not worth the 15 bucks, which was a bit overpriced considering Sahara was a buck or two less, and was much better quality.
But he seemed insistent. I decided to just go with it. I was tired. The kids had gotten to me today. It was October. These were the dog days of teaching. Bickering, laziness, procrastination and panic as the quarter reached its end. I couldn’t wait to get to Thanksgiving break where I would have an extended period of time to chill the hell out.
“Okay, citrus-y I guess.”
He put up his finger to tell me to wait and in a flash, he brought back a silver opened bag and held it in front of me.
This shit was getting tiresome. I smelled. It smelled like fresh-squeezed, not yet ripe lemon. God damn, it smelled like I was cutting up lemons before a crawfish boil. But whatever. I just wanted to smoke. I said that was cool, paid, and took a seat in the corner, on one of the couches.
The couches were prime real estate in Sinbad’s. Not only were they most comfortable seats in Sinbad’s, but they also had outlets, which was good because my phone was on 20 percent power. I had just put it on low power mode, to help it charge quickly. I plugged in my IPhone charger to the outlet underneath me and put in the jack to my phone. It made that charging noise as I put it on the table. I didn’t feel an incessant need to be on it right away. Let it charge organically and be off the grid for a bit.
About five minutes passed before the new worker came with my hookah. However, he forgot my plastic smoking tip and it took him another minute to fetch one before I could take a pull. I don’t think he mixed anything with it. It was pretty harsh. It tasted like steamed lemons, and not in the good way (though I don’t think steamed lemons would be good anyways beyond a seafood boil). Oh well. It was Thursday night. I was off tomorrow. Some holiday. I couldn’t remember. That was nice thing about teaching. Time off made up for the meager pay.
I laid back, put my feet on the chair in front of me and checked out the scene around me. A guy with thick, messy, curly hair and dark skin approached a college-aged blonde who seemed to be glued to her laptop. She could have been working on a paper, studying for a test…but most likely she probably was just on Facebook, catching up on her friends’ relationships or what her ex was doing. Not that I knew. I was just hypothesizing. I liked to do that. Guess what people were doing. Especially while I was smoking hookah in a hookah lounge.
The guy wore a baggy white t-shirt and jeans, as if he were a product of the 90’s rap world. He was high strung. His arms and body moved in all kinds of directions as he talked to her. She was polite. She gazed at him like she gave a fuck, but she probably didn’t. She probably came from a solid family background, probably went to a private Catholic high school or a nice public high school in the suburbs. She had that kind of look to her, that “I graduated from St. Theresa’s but I hated my girlfriends in high school and I hate the frat boys at UMKC so I’m going to meet people in hookah lounges instead” vibe.
I couldn’t tell what he was saying to her, but he was all over the place. Minutes passed. She began to look a bit more uncomfortable, but not enough so for him to notice. He either was lit or high, maybe a bit of both. In Northern California, we called that “hyphy”. I hadn’t heard the term migrate this way toward the Midwest.
He took out his phone. Really? She’s giving him her number? No, she’s not. He’s showing something to her. Maybe some artwork or the cover to his mixtape…or his friend’s mixtape. He looked like a “let me tell you about my mixtape, it’s fire” guy. He resembles the light brown skinned guy in “The Rookie” and “Coach Carter”. The guy who hates his coach or thinks he’s too good for the team but changes his way for the good of his colleagues. God, whoever that actor was, he played that role great. I haven’t seen him in a film though since “Coach Carter.”
This guy however is a more tweaked version of that character. She grabs his phone and nods politely. She must be Catholic. Who else would give this hyperactive dude this much time? A few people walk through the doorway. An older white couple and a dark-haired girl who probably is no older than 13 years old. There is a 21-and-over law for hookah lounges in Missouri. I get asked for my ID, and this girl strolls in. The new guy has to pick it up.
The couple look middle-aged and worn. The woman sports medium-length curly red hair and is overweight and wearing a black fleece and jeans. The guy is even more overweight, has a neck tattoo and is wearing a beater of a black t-shirt that hasn’t been washed in weeks from the look of it. They are odd for this time of night, this day of the week, and the crowd currently in Sinbad’s. The crowd is young: all Millenials and chill, except for the hyped up “savant” talking to the polite liberal Catholic college student. They looked like they could be from Raytown or Independence. Not quite country; not quite whiskey tango; not quite Johnson County suburban; and not quite Hyde Park denizens either.
They tapped the “Coach Carter” understudy on the shoulder and said a couple of things to him and pointed to the underage girl, probably giving some instructions to him. My guess was that he was their son and the girl was their daughter (though they didn’t look related judging by her paler complexion; step-siblings perhaps). He barely broke from his conversation (or should I say monologue) with the blonde. The couple then left. The pre-teen to teenage girl stayed next to him. The blonde switched glances from the girl to the guy. She probably was thinking what most of us were at that moment: what the fuck is this girl doing in here and why did her parents (allegedly; I couldn’t say for sure) leave her with you?
He wrapped up. He put out his hand and she shook it. The guy with the messy, bouncy black hair took a seat back on the couch underneath the flat wide screen television. The underage girl followed him and took a seat in a chair next to him. She looked uncomfortable. I bet she didn’t want to be there, but maybe they were brother and sister and he had to take her home.
For about 10 minutes they talked. He showed the girl stuff on his phone. He took pulls from his hookah in front of her but didn’t offer her any. She just sat there, sitting up straight, listening intently to every word he said. She had long black straight hair that was parted to the left side. The black t-shirt she wore appeared to have a punk band design to it. She wore a gray hooded sweater unzipped over the shirt. The two were polar opposite. She looked too scared to say a word and he looked too overly-confident to shut up. The new worker didn’t do anything. He just remained behind the cashier, talking to Jacob, one of the servers who also prepared hookah. Jacob would’ve done a much better job with my hookah, but he arrived 10 minutes after I ordered.
After his one-sided conversation ended, the high-strung guy took the plate of his hookah and returned it to the cashier. He then walked back to his seat and table and took apart his hookah, putting the coals on a deserted hookah next to his, and the bowl on the table in front of his seat. The girl stood up and put her hair in a pony tail and re-strapped her teal backpack over her shoulders. Judging from the size of the pack, I was guessing she had homework. I didn’t know if any of the public schools had the day off tomorrow. I worked at a Catholic school and our schedule often varied from the public school system.
He grabbed the water pipe bottom of the hookah and then told the underage girl to follow him. He shouted over and waved with his free hand to the blonde in a loud fashion, probably to not just grab her attention, but to let everyone know he was talking with her. He probably thought it was a major accomplishment to talk to a cute girl like that. Everyone talked to her. She was polite and young. She didn’t know any better. Wait until she reached her late 20’s. Her patience would be more thin.
They walked out. They both sprinted across Broadway toward the Broadway Mission Church. I was surprised he didn’t drop his hookah on the road considering it had started to mist a bit outside. Friday’s forecast called for rain. They disappeared into the Midtown night.
I took another pull. It now tasted like slightly burnt, steamed lemons.
This new guy sucked. I missed Dia.
“Noir fiction (or roman noir) is a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include the self-destructive qualities of the protagonist.”
Kansas City is a big small-town metropolis, if that makes any sense. It’s located in the middle of the country, in the heartland, “fly over territory.” When people think of Kansas City, they think barbecue, farmland, the Royals, the American Royal, Midwestern values, Evangelical conservatism, you name it. In the grand scheme of things, for most people, Kansas City is the Midwest, and it fits neatly into what people think of the Midwest who live outside of it, be it the West Coast, the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest, wherever.
However, Kansas City is a city at the core of it, no different than a Chicago, a New York, a Los Angeles. It’s smaller in size sure, but like any big metro, there are stories. There are stories of people who make it, but there are stories of people who don’t. Stories of people who may want or have tried to fit into that “white picket fence” image of the Midwest, but ultimately fell short. They found themselves and their futures in the grime, the gutters, lost amidst bad decisions and bad relationships that pulled them away from that “Midwestern American Dream.”
No genre of fiction describes these stories better than noir fiction. Noir fiction is a close cousin to hardboiled fiction, but it’s darker, more bleak and offers less room for hope. Redemption exists in noir fiction, but the opposite proves more true than not. Hardboiled fiction deals with the anti-heroes who buck the odds despite their jagged qualities. Noir fiction is about the losers who fall in line because of their flaws.
But more importantly, noir fiction is about people. The common man, the temptations we face, and how those temptations can submerge them even despite their best intentions. It doesn’t matter who you are: a wino, a city politician, a police officer, a drug dealer, a private detective, a stripper, etc. Noir encompasses that walk of life, the night, the dark, the stories that either stay in the back pages or avoid the newspapers completely.
And that is where “Wyandotte Confidential” comes in. It’s a fiction blog. Serial stories will be produced here, with each post a chapter in a series that culminates in an online short story/novella. Wyandotte County is probably the most “noir” of any county in the KC Metro area: it’s small town meets big city, a clash of old and new that sees its winners stopped higher than they should, and it’s losers more redeemable than they are given credit for. Whether it’s in downtown KCK, the Argentine or Strawberry Hill, there’s a noir story worth telling. Of course, not every story will take place in Wyandotte County. There will be some stories that touch into the Missouri side as well as Johnson County and the Northland, but a majority will, and it only feels right that this blog, this collection, should pay homage to an area of Kansas City that constantly serves as inspiration to me both professionally as well as artistically.
So stay tuned to Wyandotte Confidential…a place where stories on the “hush” are brought rightfully to light.