The first day I ever spent in Kansas City was the day I interviewed for the job as sports columnist at the musically named Kansas City Star. The paper's sports editor at the time, a dreamer named Dinn Mann -- the grandson of the famed Judge Roy Hofheinz, who built the Astrodome -- picked me up at the airport and began to drive us toward downtown.
"What do you think?" he asked roughly three minutes after I had landed. It was a question he would ask me at least 100 more times during the interview. I didn't think anything. I was 29 years old, single, unattached, living with a poor credit score and a beige couch that someone had given me years before and that sort of represented my life. Every day I would look at that couch and think, "I've got to get rid of that thing." On one side, springs were popping out. I sat on the other side.
What do you think? Highway 29 from the Kansas City Airport -- KCI to people in town, but MCI in official Airport Code -- is pretty a dull stretch of road. The only real building of interest is one with a giant cow etched into it. I had no idea what I wanted out of life. I was happy, as far as that goes, because I was writing sports. But I was also pretty sure that at any point a stern-looking team of management types would call me into an office and say, "well, we looked through our financial report and we realized that we are PAYING you to write about sports. Obviously, this was a mistake ..."
As we headed toward the Broadway Bridge, Dinn began to tell me about the mafia types who used to run Kansas City and how they built Las Vegas. Coffee was in the air, literally, the scent emanating from the old Folger's Plant. We parked a couple blocks from the Star Building -- back then, there were too many cars for the parking lots -- and he told me that Ernest Hemingway had worked there. As we walked toward the building we passed a homeless man who saw us, formed his right thumb and forefinger into the image of a gun, and began shooting imaginary bullets at us while shouting: "Pop! Pop! Pop! You're dead!"
"That's Popeye," Dinn said dully.
What do you think? I did not have the capacity then to know what I thought. It wasn't just that my life was drifting, I was entirely unaware that my life was drifting. What is it that they say about fish being unaware of water and all that? I was plenty happy. I watched sports, and I wrote about sports, and I had good friends, and I had a Skyline Chili restaurant right across the street and a great tennis court a half mile away, and that all seemed pretty good to me. It WAS pretty good.
Still, Dinn kept asking, 'What do you think?" We drove along Ward Parkway and I looked at some of the mansions through the window. We had barbecue at Gates; Dinn explained the restaurant was famous. "Hi may I help you?" the woman screamed at me (twice) while I tried to figure out the difference between a short end and a long end. ("That's one of the reasons they're famous," Dinn said. "The yelling?" I asked. "Yes," he said). Dinn pointed out the fountains in the Plaza, which he explained was the first outdoor shopping mall in the country, or some such thing. He told me that Kansas City has more boulevards than Paris, more fountains than Rome, a little factoid I would hear repeated countless times afterward ... almost as many times as I would hear a stranger ask if Kansas City had a lot of crazy women.
We rode along State Line Road, and Dinn explained that Kansas was to my right and Missouri to my left, a little geographical quirk interested me longer than it probably should have. We drove out to the stadiums, Arrowhead and Kauffman, standing side by side in a parking lot roughly the size of Staten Island. He took me south, to Overland Park, a suburb flanked by farmland that would, within a couple of years, turn into Costcos and French-inspired restaurants and reverse 1 1/2 floor houses and a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. That night he took me to the revolving rooftop restaurant on top of the Hyatt, and he insisted that I order the chocolate cake, and he asked me yet again: What do you think?
I still didn't think anything.
* * *
My friend Tom Sorensen, longtime sports columnist at The Charlotte Observer, once described home as something you feel when you are in descending airplane. You look out the window, out over the landscape, and maybe (like me) you count baseball diamonds or golf courses or you follow the sunlight in the water or you marvel at how slowly the cars seem to move. And there's a feeling you have. Whenever I'm about to land at LaGuardia, I feel this buzz of excitement. The same is true for many other places. Whenever I'm about to land in Denver, I feel this buzz of, "Oh man,
But flying into a city and feeling, "Oh, I'm HOME" ... that's something different. And it's not the, "Oh, I'm home, I can sleep in my own bed," feeling. No, there's something deeper, something that is wordless, a sense that you are going to the one place that makes you feel centered and comfortable and even a bit certain.
I was not looking for that kind of home. I was firmly in the "home is where you hang your hat," cliche camp. I had lived in Cleveland and Charlotte and Rock Hill and North Augusta and Augusta and Cincinnati, and they all felt like home to me, as far as that goes. When I took the job at the Star, I expected to like Kansas City about as much as I liked all those other places. Why not? My second day in town, high on my new salary, I bought the biggest television I had ever bought -- 32 inches, or something -- and the hot girl who worked into the apartment offices helped me carry it into my place, and I watched an NFL game while sitting on that broken couch and eating Nacho Cheese Doritos and I was home. Lower case: home.
The hot girl is now a mother of two, and friends of our family. The television is now at my-in-laws house, where it still works perfectly well. Nacho Cheese Doritos are entirely off-limits for a wide variety of reasons.
And Home, upper case, has a whole different meaning for me now.
* * *
I met my wife, Margo, at our weekly office basketball games. I proposed to her over pasta and champagne at Garrozzo's restaurant downtown, owned by Michael Garrozzo who happily sounds like every gangster you have ever heard in the movies. We were married in an old stone house just after a brass quartet, without provocation, played "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." We bought a brick tudor in the city, and on the first day I took out the carpet though I had no idea how to do it. We named our first daughter Elizabeth with the intention of calling her Beth, though we never have called her Beth. We had a house built in what people call the Northland, up near the airport. We named our second daughter Katherine with the intention of calling her Katie, which we do.
And all the while, in tiny little ways every day, Kansas City became more and more a part of me. I ate the chicken spiedini at a restaurant called Governor Stumpy's so many times that it is now named for me on the menu. I wandered into Rainy Day Books so many times that they started to meet me at the door with book recommendations. I wrote about Kansas City's Tom Watson so many times that, after a while, he used to hold up press conferences until I arrived (at which point he would spend a minute admonishing me for being late).
Everything about Kansas City became deeply familiar. The guy at the stadium gate knew the names of my children. The server at Arthur Bryant's piled a a few extra burnt ends for me. The guy at the car dealership was more interested in asking who I thought should be Chiefs quarterback than selling me a car.
Every day, just about, I walked by the house where former FBI director Clarence Kelley used to live -- it was on our old street. They say that his house was under 24 hours surveillance, and so neighbors would use the FBI agents as baby sitters while they ran out to get groceries. Sometimes, I would have lunch at Union Station, where Pretty Boy Floyd and his cronies tried unsuccessfully to free Frank Nash. Sometimes, I would drive by where Charlie Parker would play when he was young and had these strange sounds buzzing in his mind. Sometimes, I would drive up to where Jesse James was buried, or drive down to where Thomas Hart Benton taught Jackson Pollock art.
Sometimes, I would just wander the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium before a Chiefs game and smell the barbecue and marvel at how many people called out to me and offered food.
I could keep going with this for 5,000 paragraphs because that's how many days I've lived here. Every corner in town, it seems, sparks a memory. Every face, it seems, sparks a story. Kansas City people ... well, every place has nice people. I never like it when a coach talks about how his team has "great kids" as if other teams don't, or when someone talks about how nice the people are in their town as if ogres live everywhere else.
Sure, people in Kansas City are nice. But I think there's something about life in Kansas City, something about the pace, something about the ease of parking, something about the small market sports, something about the farming background, something about the opposing harshness of summer and winter, something that makes that good-hearted part of themselves come out. People in New York are nice too -- many of the nicest people I know are New Yorkers -- but in New York there isn't often TIME to be nice. If you're nice and let people in at the Holland Tunnel you will NEVER get where you're going. In Kansas City, people have the time t be nice.
And so people would come up to me all the time and just ... be ... nice. I was lucky enough to be a newspaper columnist when everybody still read the newspaper. I heard from a man who would read my columns to his wife at the breakfast table ... his wife was blind. I heard from college graduates who would say they had grown up reading me. I received cards, so many cards, from the glorious Janet Stephenson, who read every one of my columns and whose kinds words were like sunbursts on cloudy days.
Every time I went out, it seemed, people would wander over just to say something kind. Every day, every single day, I would get a letter or an email or a call or a visit from someone in town, someone with something nice to say, someone with encouragement to offer, someone who just wanted to make sure that I was happy.
Every now and again, someone would call and ask me to consider moving to another place. A few times, I took the interview. Why not? A couple of times, I even considered moving. There are a lot of good places to live.
But then I would ask myself: Why? What was missing? What did I think? When I was riding around in that car with Dinn Mann, I had no idea what I wanted out of my life other than I wanted it to keep going. But quietly, without me noticing, an idea began to form in my head. It wasn't a complicated idea. It was so simple, in fact, that I could describe it in a single word. Trouble is, that word, like always, is on the tip of my tongue, just out of reach. All I really knew was that when I imagined myself waking at home, my bed was in Kansas City.
* * *
There's really no other way to say it: Kansas City sports stunk when I was a columnist at the Star. The Chiefs did not win a playoff game. The Royals never came close to making the playoffs. Kansas State fumbled away the chance to play in the national championship game -- Wildcats coach Bill Snyder compared the loss to the loss of his mother. Missouri had a long series of bad things happen, so many that every time I would go to Columbia I would look up for the dark cloud. Kansas basketball finally won a national championship, but only after a decade of heartbreaking losses that invariably led to Roy Williams crying.
One time Jamie Farr yelled at me. This involved the Kansas City senior golf tournament -- and you could write an entire book about the travails of that golf tournament. It moved sites a half dozen times, always struggled to find a sponsor, always was tortured and half-ruined by the unpredictable Kansas City weather (I feel sure that it is the only golf tournament in the history of the world to have the final day rained out in back-to-back years on SUNNY DAYS). At one point, the tournament -- in an effort to save itself again -- decided to become a celebrity Pro-Am, sort of a Pebble Beach for the senior set. They announced this move on a perfect spring day, under a tent, there was so much hope.
And the idea had merit, I suppose. The only problem was, you know, actually getting celebrities to play in the thing. It seems that celebrities find it more appealing to play Pebble Beach along perhaps the most beautiful stretch of land in America than come to play golf in the Kansas City rain. I remember one of the low points was when tournament officials made the announcement that Eddie, the dog from the show "Frazier," would be appearing. Only, they made it clear, it wasn't really Eddie ... it was the stand-in dog for Eddie. That probably sums it up.
Or this does: Jamie Farr was the biggest celebrity at the event. That's not what's interesting, though. What's interesting is that Jamie Farr only went because he was already in town, performing at the New Dinner Theater Restaurant. I have to take a moment to tell you about The New Dinner Theater Restaurant. It is an amazing place in town where every TV minor star from the 1970s or 1980s that you have not thought about in more than 25 years shows up to perform in plays. It's uncanny. You will be thinking: "Gee, what happened to the guy who played Larry on Three's Company" and BLAMMO at that exact moment Larry would be acting in Arsenic and Old Lace at the New Dinner Theater.
In fact, try to think of a minor TV star from the 1980s right now. Go ahead. Think of a minor TV star you have not thought about in forever. OK? You got that person in mind?
You are thinking about Norm from Cheers.
Or you are thinking about Tim Kazurinsky, the funny little guy who played the landlord in Mr. Robinson's neighborhood from the old Saturday Night Live.
How did I know? Because they are performing in The Odd Couple right now.*
*On the off-chance that you were NOT thinking about either Norm or Tim Kazurinsky, you were undoubtedly thinking about Hot Lips from M*A*S*H, J. Peterman from Seinfeld, Gonzo from Trapper John or Al from Home Improvement. They're the stars for the upcoming season at The New Dinner Theater Restaurant. It's uncanny, I tell you.
In any case, I wrote a gently mocking column about the fact that Jamie Farr was the biggest celebrity at the golf tournament -- and he only played because he just happened to BE in town -- and Jamie Farr called and left voice mail that was so long it actually took three calls for him to get in everything he wanted to say. It all turned out fine once Jamie Farr realized that I was not making fun of him but of the golf tournament -- he invited me to come out to the show -- but getting yelled at by Jamie Farr was one of those odd moments that might make you, not unhappily, retrace the steps of your life.
The point is that there wasn't much sports glory to write about. I certainly had not planned it that way. When I came to town, the Chiefs looked like one of the best teams in football, the Royals were not so far removed from their days as a model baseball franchise, the NCAA was still in town, Tom Watson was still viewed as young enough to win big tournaments. Things looked as promising as just about anyplace else. But there was to be little but sports misery and sports heartbreak.
And, as it turned out, that kind of fit my personality. I had grown up in Cleveland. I knew all about sports misery and heartbreak. I knew all about irrational hope and crushing defeats and making the best of things. There is no way for a sportswriter to fit everyone's tastes, and there were many people who could not stand me and let me know about it. They still do. But, all in all, I think my own view of sports fit in with the view of many people in town. When two Royals outfielders jogged toward the dugout with the ball still in the air ... when the Chiefs lost a playoff game without a punt on either side ... when Johnny Damon was traded because the Royals could no long afford him (Johnny Damon! Not Barry Bonds, but Johnny Damon!) ... when quarterback Elvis Grbac announced that he could not throw the ball and catch it too ... when Missouri almost fired its athletic director on the very day that he had hired a basketball coach ... when the Royals announced that they would not wear Negro Leagues uniforms on Negro Leagues Day because it cost too much money ... when so many things like that happened, we were all in it together.
When good things happened, wonderful things ... when Priest Holmes set the single-season touchdown record ... when Mike Sweeney emerged as a great hitter ... when Mario Chalmers hit the shot ... when Missouri beat Kansas in the biggest football game in America ... when Derrick Thomas came free around the end ... when Bill Snyder's Kansas State team turned around after a near-century of futility ... when Tom Watson led the U.S. Open ... when good things happened ... we were in that together too. It was wonderful. There's a famous joke about the guy who wears his shoes three sizes too small. When asked why, he said because it felt so good when he took them off. That's how the good moments felt.
* * *
Popeye no longer shoots imaginary bullets at strangers downtown. Dinn Mann is now editor of MLB.com. I have not walked by the old FBI Chief house in years. I no longer work at The Kansas City Star. A lot has changed.
I still love Kansas City. I love it in ways I never could have imagined that first day we drove around town. What do you think? Now I know what I think. I have lived here longer than any other place. I know this place, know its rhythms, know its flaws, know its music. When my flight lands at KCI, I feel that thing Tom Sorensen talks about. I feel Home. Capital letters: Home.
And ... now we're moving. Well, you didn't think that I would write all this if we were staying, did you? We are moving to Charlotte, N.C. for many reasons, personal and professional -- it is the right thing for us -- and the last couple of months have been wrenching, both physically and emotionally. We have spent those days packing and hauling and talking it through with the girls and giving away things ("All those books HAVE to go," my wife said) and painting and caulking and interviewing people and it has been pure madness. It has been so busy that I have not taken time at all to look back. I don't like looking back anyway. I shudder at goodbyes.
But we're getting close now. Dates have been set. Papers have been signed. Plans have been made. When we drive around Charlotte, it feels familiar -- that is where I went to high school and college. It also feels unfamiliar -- so much has changed. But it does not feel like Kansas City. The girls don't know anything about it. It does not feel like Home.
Maybe it will someday. I think so. I hope so. That's all for later. For now, I just feel wonder that this town in the Midwest that felt so unfamiliar to me that first day has become such an intense and thorough part of my life.
Something kind of funny happened in my later years in Kansas City. People were always nice, but in those early years there was a distance. I was a Clevelander. Everybody understood that. Nobody seemed bothered by this -- Kansas City does not feel to me to be a town, like others, that excludes outsiders -- but it was there.
After a while, though, that distance disappeared. And lately, when I meet people around town, they often ask me something like: What part of Kansas City did you grow up in? They even seem surprised when I tell them that, no, I didn't grow up in Kansas City, I grew up in Cleveland. "Really," they will say, as if they don't quite believe me. And maybe they shouldn't believe me. I did grow up in Kansas City. What part? All of it.