“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.