On Assignment at Chicago’s

“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.


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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.”

“Such as?”

“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.

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Thursday Night at Sinbad’s

“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.

“Umm…I’m Raul?”

“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.

“Smell bro.”

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.

An Introduction to Wyandotte Confidential

“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.

Wyandotte County: the “Small, Off-Beat Town” within Kansas City

“Really…you work in Wyandotte?”

It’s a comment I hear all the time, but somebody uttered this statement to me a weekend ago at a community event I worked at in Johnson County. I found the comment to be rude and surprising, especially considering the event I worked at mostly involved people who were not born in this part of the country, let alone this country in general. And yet, despite their outsider status, that doesn’t prevent them from holding that negative opinion of Wyandotte County that most people in Johnson County (or other counties in Missouri or Kansas) have of people or places from Wyandotte.

To me, Wyandotte County is synonymous with Kansas City. There is no Kansas City experience without Wyandotte County for me. In my four years of living in Kansas City, only 1 year involved me not working or living in Wyandotte County, specifically Kansas City, Kansas. To me, Wyandotte County has a special place in my heart, in my mind and in my goals down the road. Yes, I am currently a Jackson County resident now, living in the MidTown area of Kansas City. But I have a feeling I will be moving back to KCK soon in the near future, especially now that I’m working again in the county, and realizing how much the area and the citizens of the county fascinate me and make me want to be a part of it again.

But for those who are unfamiliar (whether unwillingly or not), what do I need to know about Wyandotte County?


2012_comm_dist_map

Wyandotte County is the most northeast county of the state of Kansas, as its main city, Kansas City, Kansas, is just a stone’s throw across the river from Kansas City, Missouri (the 70 and 670 highways connect the downtown area of KCMO to KCK). The county is separated into 8 districts, with a commissioner seats for each district, as well as two at-large commissioners for Districts 1 and 2. The mayor/ceo currently is Mark Holland, who has been the mayor since April 2, 2013. In addition to Kansas City, Kansas, the county also includes neighborhood communities such as Bonner Springs and Edwardsville to the southwest of the county, the Piper and Legends/Speedway area to the northwest; Argentine, Armourdale, and Turner in the south; Rosedale in the southeast, right near the border on Southwest Boulevard; the KU Med area to the West; Quindaro to the Northeast; and Welborn in the North.

Demographically, Wyandotte county also remains a diverse county, especially in comparison to neighboring Kansas counties. The projected population of Wyandotte County in 2015 is 163,369, which would be a 3.7 percent increase from their population total recorded in the 2010 census. From the 2015 projections according to the census, the population within the county is 42.1 percent non-Latino white, 24.3 percent African-American, 27.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, 4.1 percent Asian, and 1.3 Native American. All of those populations are an increase from the 2010 census, with the exception of African-Americans, whose population went down from 25.2 percent to 24.3 percent, and non-Latino white, which went from 43.3 to 42.1 percent.

Education-wise there are four districts that serve citizens in Wyandotte County: Tuner USD 202, Piper USD 203, Bonner Springs USD 204 and Kansas City USD 500. In addition, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas has five K-8 elementary schools (Resurrection, Our Lady of Unity, Christ the King, St. Patrick’s and Holy Name) and one high school (Bishop Ward High School), which is one of the oldest high schools in the state of Kansas (it was established in 1908). In terms of post-secondary education, Kansas City Kansas Community College is the main junior college for secondary graduates in Wyandotte County, and the University of Kansas Medical Center (right on the border of Missouri and Kansas) also provides medical studies for students, in addition to medical services for people in the area.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wyandotte County is its economic and educational status, as well as where it stands politically in comparison to the state overall. In terms of economic and educational statistics,  65.9 percent of the population in Wyandotte County 16 and over is in the workforce, with the household median income low at $39, 326. The poverty population in Wyandotte County is at 24.4 percent, 18.9 percent of the population is without health care, and and the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is only 15.8 percent (to put things further into context, those with a high school diploma is 78.4 percent).

Compare this with statistics of those same categories in neighboring Johnson County: 72.9 percent of the population 16 and over is in the civilian workforce; the household median income $75,017; the poverty population is only 6.6 percent, and only 7.6 percent of the population is without health care; and 52.1 percent of the county population has a college degree (and 95.7 percent of the population has a high school diploma). When you look at the whole picture, not only is Johnson County a wealthier county, but they dwarf Wyandotte in so many categories. It’s crazy to think that just a few miles south, a person is three times more likely to have a college degree, and will make almost twice more than someone. And that’s where the bias and prejudice steps in: because of their higher incomes, more education and less people in poverty, Johnson County naturally has this bias over their Wyandotte County neighbors. The stats overall prove it in their mind, and those stats prove why people who get more money or education are more than apt to move south beyond the county lines.

The story of Wyandotte County’s economic and educational woes in comparison to the larger neighboring suburb of Johnson County is one thing, but what makes it even more interesting is how different both counties are politically: while Johnson county tends to be more of a red county, falling in line with what is typical voting wise throughout the state of Kansas (i.e. conservative republican), Wyandotte County tends to fall in the opposite category.

Of the elected state senators representing Wyandotte County, two of the four senators (as of 2015), David Haley (4th District) and Pat Pettey (6th District) are democrats. All seven state representatives representing the county are democrats. And all 16 judges as well as the district attorney, are democrats. And this political affiliation was even stronger represented in the last presidential election, as Wyandotte County was one of two counties in all of Kansas to vote for Barack Obama by a wide margin as he earned 67.3 percent of the vote in Wyandotte County (compare this to Johnson, which saw a 58-40 split in favor of Mitt Romney). Even Douglas County, which includes Lawrence and students from the University of Kansas (college towns tend to be more democrat leaning due to students being more liberal), didn’t have as high a percentage (60.3 percent) for Obama in the latest elections.

So, Wyandotte County is heavily democrat and lags in terms of education as well as economically to some of the neighboring counties. For most people in the Midwest, this may sound like a cruddy place to live.

On the other hand, I would argue otherwise, and I would credit it’s intimate population that are actually HELPING the county over the past five years, and make it even more prime for positive growth.


“The one thing about Wyandotte county is that it’s a small town…and everyone knows your business in one way or the other.”

My principal, who originally was from New York and moved here for school, told me this during my first year in Kansas City, Kansas. I didn’t know if she meant it in a bad or good way, but while there is some obvious negative aspects to this statement (like people can be big time gossip hounds), one could look at this statement in a positive way.

One of the main positives of living in Wyandotte County is that if you get involved in a group or network, that network can grow incredibly fast and be incredibly supportive. I have been in Kansas City for four years, and some of my closest connections stem from people I know who live or work in Wyandotte County. As a business teacher, I have already gotten multitudes of offers from local business people to help speak in classes or help students with connections. I taught in a school in Kansas City, Missouri, and though we had some help here and there, people were not as eager to help or provide the same kind of assistance. That’s not to say people on the Missouri side didn’t give a shit. But there are so many schools in KCMO. One charter school is just another in the whole grand mix of things. And with so many schools closing within 10 year periods in Missouri, people can be suspect of “newer” schools: will it even be around in 20 years and is my time to help worth it if the school won’t even be around?

In Kansas City, Kansas there is a stability here that KCMO doesn’t necessarily enjoy. Yes businesses change, but they take new identities rather than demolished or abandoned. There is a certain pride in the diversity of the population displayed through community celebrations, be it a parish ice cream social or a neighborhood fall parade, that seems organic and genuine and not put together solely for economic purposes. And the schools, though struggling in some ways, are still accredited, still producing an education that means something. Despite KCMO and other districts on the Missouri side’s struggles with keeping accreditation, KCKPS has continued to keep theirs and continued to keep high student populations despite wild changes in racial and economic backgrounds of students attending their schools from decades ago.

And I think that is what makes Wyandotte the “small town” worth admiring in the Kansas City metro area. They know their population isn’t as big as on the Missouri side or even south of them in Johnson County. They don’t have the economic advantages down south either, or the educational advantage. That being said, they make do, they get things done, and they rally behind people in their community that are trying to do good. The city government tries things to help build the economy and promote entrepreneurship. “A Cup on the Hill” is the latest example of such progressive thinking. Yes, it’s a coffee shop, but it’s a coffee shop that is run by the Community Housing Authority of Wyandotte County that looks to help with employment, while also promoting the positive of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County not just by selling coffee, but also by displaying art in their shop local artists. It’s similar to what “Homeboy Industries” is doing in Los Angeles: giving those in need in the community a chance to make steps in the right direction personally, while helping the local economy as well. (After all, how many coffee shops are there in KCK? Not a lot, and “A Cup on the Hill” will help bring in more independent coffee houses who may find it tough to compete in MidTown KC’s over-saturated market.)

And Wyandotte County’s population is growing, which just goes to show you how people are starting to recognize the positives in living in such a community with a genuine “small town” feel. The 3.7 percent jump is a major bright spot for a county that had suffered a decrease in population according to their last census in 2010. And the reasons to come to Wyandotte County are plenty: it’s still close to the city (especially if you live in Strawberry Hill), the downtown economy is growing, and the real estate is a lot cheaper than what most would find not just in Johnson County, but especially in comparison to MidTown and Downtown Kansas City. Young people are realizing that living in KCK, especially Strawberry Hill or Rosedale is a better deal, and you aren’t far off from it all either.

Of course, there has to be a bit of caution with such growth. We have seen how gentrification can have “inverse” effects on cities and communities. Even in Kansas City we have seen it. 15 years ago, living in the Westside and MidTown off of Armour was a bargain. Now, thanks to gentrification, people have been priced out of their respective neighborhoods. Yes, there are more restaurants and bars and shops and nicer houses and apartment complexes. However, the soul of the communities are dwindling, nearly gone. Just look at the Westside, as it struggles to fight for the spirit of their neighborhood against developers who are trying to mold it more for economic purposes rather than community ones. That is a risk KCK could experience, especially as a younger population starts to migrate toward that downtown area.

But I think what will make KCK push up against that “community blunting” from gentrification is their community spirit. The neighborhoods in KCMO are part of a huge whole, and really, one district is going to struggle to have a voice in the midst of so many other voices in the big city. The greater good (in the city’s mind) will trump the desires of the small, as is natural in any big city. In KCK, the population is still intimate, and those neighborhoods can have their voice. And we have seen it. There has been an embrace of the changing diversity of the KCK population. It has grown from a primarily Slavic population to mostly Latino one, but you know what? People are still active, and I think the Latino population in KCK is about as active as any in the KC Metro (though the Westside and Northeast certainly are also active). Even with this latest election coming up, we are seeing advocates against some of the new Kansas registration policies that could be deemed as “racist” and “prejudiced” in nature, in order to sway the election toward a party’s “candidate” (you know who I am referring to). These kind of actions demonstrate not only the change in Wyandotte County, but how the community continues to supports one another despite the difference in race and cultural. The old supporting the new is the prime characteristic of a strong community, no matter what the population size or part of the country.

I don’t live in Wyandotte County currently. I work there and if I continue to stay in Kansas City, I plan to move back soon. Wyandotte County is different. It’s a blue dot in a sea of red. The people are working class who offer a stark diversity to what is typical of most communities in the Kansas City metro. There is pride in the work being done within the county, even if most of the stories and reputation of the county tends to focus on the bad, the crime, the poverty and all the other negative noise. And lastly, there seems to be a sense of hope on the horizon. The population and the economic growth in parts of the county where “naysayers” thought it couldn’t be done showcases that rise.

The looks and questions still abound when I tell people I work and used to live in Wyandotte County. I don’t think I will ever shake them.

But they don’t know. They don’t know about the “small town” community of Wyandotte County. They don’t know about the support, the charm, or hidden opportunities this area of Kansas City provides.

I’m glad they’re missing out. Wyandotte County doesn’t need them anyways.