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.

So how do you find yourself in the Midwest?

I have a strange fascination with the Midwest… -Jason Reitman

Unlike many people who reminisce or get nostalgic about the Midwest, I am not from this part of the country. I was born and raised in California, and spent most of my life in a part of the country where snow was rare-to-non-existent, and a trip to the beach was a three-hour drive, not a three-hour flight.

But here I am…now a Midwest transplant for at least a little bit longer.  (Kansas City transplant to be specific; Missouri side for now, though I have lived in Kansas and may move back since I work in Kansas again.)

So, how did a West Coast guy get here?

To those who don’t know me (which probably is about 80-90 percent of people who come across this blog), for about a year and a half I was studying to be a Jesuit priest. I had just graduated from a small Catholic college in Washington state, and the August after my grduated I joined the California Province for the Society of Jesus and entered their novitiate (like a seminary, but less focus on “studying” and more focus on “living the life”) in Culver City, California, which is in the heart of Los Angeles. Typically how the process works, after a two year tenure in the novitiate, the next step in  the Jesuit formation to become a priest is to attend a university (of their choosing, though you have options) for philosophy studies and earn a master’s degree in philosophy in a 3-4 year timetable (again, I will probably talk more about the whole process of being a priest, and what separates a “Jesuit” priest from a “regular” priest in some subsequent posts). At about the one-year-point in my Jesuit novice tenure, I sat down with the person responsible for “study” assignments, which basically meant I told him what my educational and personal interests and goals were going to be during this important time in religious formation. (Did I just want to study philosophy or was I thinking about getting additional studies in another area? And how would this help me contribute to the Society and Catholic community and well…world? So yeah, no pressure, right? )

We basically had three choices: Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, Loyola University in Chicago, and Fordham University in the Bronx.

Fordham was my overwhelming favorite followed by Loyola Chicago. I didn’t even consider St. Louis, because to be perfectly honest, I didn’t see myself in a small city in the Midwest in my future. (And I know there are those saying right now “But Chicago is in the Midwest!” I get it. But let’s face it, Chicago is technically the mecca of the Midwest, and closer in spirit to an East Coast city; it just happens to geographically be in the Midwest and get a lot of Midwest transplants.)

Almost 30 years old, I have been in the Midwest for six years. I spent two years in South Dakota, living and working on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota near the South Dakota-Nebraska border (Pine Ridge for those that needed clarification), and have resided for about four years in Kansas City (two years on the Kansas side and coming on two years on the Missouri side).

In all honesty, that is six more years in the Midwest than I ever would have thought when I was fresh out of college or even still in novitiate. But now as I enter the third decade of my life, I am finding it harder and harder to think I will ever leave.

It’s amazing how a certain place, a geographical area, can change one’s perspective over time.

I had the chance to move back to California last year, in the Spring for the upcoming Fall. I had a teaching job offer in California, San Jose, to be specific. The idea of moving back to the South Bay was intriguing to me (I worked in San Jose for about a semester in the Spring after leaving the Jesuits). I would be paid handsomely salary-wise (though in retrospect, while the figure was high, I wonder if it would have been much more than my current circumstances here in the Midwest).I would have been closer to my parents, who are getting older in years, and moved into a cozy house in the Midtown area of Sacramento. I would have been around the sports teams I cheered for in my youth (the San Francisco Giants, 49ers, Golden State Warriors, San Jose Sharks, and California Golden Bears). I would have been out of snow, and around good public rail transportation. Years ago, San Jose was a bit of a dream destination, not the absolute dream like San Francisco (I have always had a profound fondness for that city), but a good, comfortable second I would have been satisfied with.

Though I initially made a commitment months before I had to report to my job, I ended up not going. I had to arrive  in August, and from the time I accepted the job in early April, my excitement in the job started to slowly fade. Over a month’s time, I realized that though job was a tremendous offer and opportunity, I couldn’t take it.

To be cut and dry about it, well…I was not ready to leave Kansas City and the Midwest.

It’s amazing to think to someone who hasn’t lived here or visited here much my reasons for wanting to stay in Middle America over the West Coast (or East Coast for that matter). I had college and high school friends ask me if I “was making the right decision?” I had family that questioned my desire to not be closer to home (though more extended family, not parents). Even Midwest natives wondered why I wouldn’t want to be back in California after spending so much time away, as the decision to leave the Midwest for sunny Northern California was a no-brainer to them. (This is not necessarily Native Americans, but people who grew up in the Midwest…though ironically, this personal circle also included some Native Americans).

And I get it. It bothers me at times as well, the idea that a place with a reputation for flat, endless farmland; hot, muggy, and story, summers; and cold and icy winters, would be a more enticing place to live.

And yet, there is something about the Midwest that keep me here. Something that prevents me from leaving, even when I think I would be better served personally and professionally back in an an area of the United States where I grew up, and possessed more familiar roots and connections.

If there is a reason to explain my stay in the Midwest despite opportunities elsewhere, I guess I would have to say the “lifestyle” of the Midwest is what attracts me the most here. And not just my personal lifestyle on it’s own, but how my own lifestyle meshes into the predominant lifestyle of the diversity of people here in Kansas City as well as in the Midwest. Because though people don’t like to think about it, there is a diversity here in the Midwest. Yes, some ethnic groups are under-represented in comparison to other areas of the country. And yes, this area of the country tends to be more Christian, Conservative and Republican, something I am not quite used to being from the West Coast.

However, to say that represents ALL the Midwest would be silly and misinforming. In my six years, I have discovered so much about the Kansas City and the Midwest:

  • The Latino and Chicano culture and communities in the Midwest who are growing and developing rapidly over the past couple of decades, and differ a bit in values and feel from the Latino cultures of major communities on the coasts.
  • The Middle-Eastern influence that is growing in many of the Midwestern cities thanks to foreign exchange students growing accustomed to the Midwest life as well as opportunistic businessmen who are trying to make a better living for their families here and abroad, as I have learned from my frequent visits to hookah lounges, something I never did until I came to the Midwest. (Yes, I lived in California and Washington and it wasn’t until I moved to Kansas City that I started using Hookah.)
  • The African-American communities, which despite years of injustice and discrimination in this part of the country, who continue to push forward for change in their communities and schools, while still maintaining their proud heritage and contributions in the Midwest, including their influence on the media (The weekly newspaper “The Call” is one of the oldest African-American-run newspapers in the United States), Jazz as a musical art form, as well as baseball, including the Negro Leagues (the Midwest was where it really shone; Kansas City being the mecca for it) and the many former NL players who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the late 40’s.
  • The BBQ culture known nationally that spans from the “mom and pop” shacks in rural areas of Kansas and Missouri to the urban center of Kansas City where African-American owned BBQ restaurants helped Kansas City become the BBQ capital of the USA in comparison to their brethren in the Carolina’s and Memphis.
  • The Catholic community who credit their roots in the Midwest from strong and proud immigrants from Croatia, Slovenia, Ireland, Italy, and Poland (just to name a few), and has a closer, more familial feel in comparison to their Coastal counterparts, as evidenced by their emphasis on putting on frequent church socials, high priority in sending their children to Catholic schools, and financial and spiritual contributions to their local parishes.

I could go on and on, and I know I will go into more depth onto these topics and more in the future. There is so much to write about on the Midwest, and not just Kansas City, either (though I know I will go on plenty about Kansas City considering that is my home and where a majority of my life in the Midwest has taken place). The people. The issues. The history. The traditions. The culture. The future.

Perhaps that’s why I stayed in Kansas City and the Midwest. This part of the area inspires me, almost serves as my muse, and I still feel like I have only scratched the surface, have yet to go deep into what really makes the Midwest Life what it is, not to mention different from life on the East or West Coast. I have invested a lot in my six years in the Midwest. I have invested in my job and my students, sure. But, I also have invested in my communities, whether it has been on the reservation, in Wyandotte County, or in Jackson County. And despite that investment, I still know I can do more, and more importantly, I want to do more.

And that’s why I have created this blog. To chronicle my experience as I continue to dig deeper and deeper into my experiences with “Wyandotte Confidential” Furthermore, I also intend to tell stories of and about the people here in Kansas City and the Midwest. (Though to be honest, my stories will probably be more predominant; sorry, I am not a professional journalist, just an amateur one at this point). Some stories will be short memoirs. Some stories might be fictional. Some stories might be simple reviews or reflections. And some stories might blur all those genres together in some weird, chaotic fashion that I can’t even begin to describe.

Just like I have learned from my own experiences, the Midwest is a surprising fusion of all kinds: transplants and homebodies; old and new; traditional and modern; conservative and liberal; backward and forward thinking; slow and… less-slow (well, I guess that is one thing I can say about the Midwest: life is a little bit slower here than on the Coasts; though I hear it is faster than in the Deep South).

I hope that’s what “Wyandotte Confidential” will try to portray: a glance into the life and culture and diversity and mystery that is in the middle of the country, i.e. the glorious Midwest.

What six years in this part of the country can do to a person.