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Before I came to Kansas City this week to read AP exams, I was like
Socrates: I knew nothing about the Midwest, and knew I knew nothing.
According to Socrates, this is wisdom.
I still know nothing, but now I have impressions, and am going to share them. This is known as stupidity.
On the morning we teachers arrived, the archetype of the Midwest oil
man/rancher/hail-fellow-well-met type drove us by bus to the hotel, and
gave us a cheerful FYI of some of the basic attractions of the city.
"On this side've the river is Kansas City, Missouri. And on t'other side is Kansas City, Kansas."
"Which one's the nicer city?" one of us asked.
"Well, Kansas City, Missouri is bigger. And that's as far as I'll go on that."
The border between the state of Missouri and the state of Kansas
bisects the KC metropolitan area, so that one of the streets near it is
called Bi-State Drive.
And the border seems to be largely symbolic. Kansas City, Missouri
gives the impression of awareness of and pride in its Kansan name
through its celebration of all things Wizard of Oz and of the era when
the movie of the same name came out.
It's big things and little things that stamped this thought on my
brain: first, that the Kansas City MLS soccer team is called the
Wizards. That when you listen to native KCers speak, they sound like
the Scarecrow or the Tin Man or Dorothy herself.
That there was a print of a painting of ruby slippers in my hotel bathroom.
That the company who did the plumbing in the KC convention center is called TOTO.
That when a tornado is pureeing the landscape somewhere near the
city, the sky and horizon and clouds and the whole world take on a
bilious grey-green hue that matches exactly the black-and-white portion
of The Wizard of Oz movie.
In Kansas City, Missouri, you are not in Kansas anymore. You are in
a Depression-era cinemascape that seems to have been carefully
cultivated and maintained.
Downtown Kansas City architecture loves its early twentieth-century
heritage. The old Music Hall is a sandstone coal car without the
wheels, stamped with Art Deco figures from Greek Mythology, and with an
inscription that decades of tornado-driven rain plumes have begun to
The Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (diocese of Western
Missouri) sports a wrought-iron Tiffany rude screen, and a Tiffany
window above the choir loft.
Above the Convention Center, a huge, newish-looking complex where we
read our exams, there is a curious set of towers with lightning rods
affixed, all in different arrays, looking like those electrical
thingie-ma-bobs in the mad scientist movies of the thirties, starring
Lon Chaney. When you watch a thunderstorm from your hotel room and
those stacks light up, you may feel you are back in the times
when modernism was threatening, and exhilirating, and optimistic all at
the same time.
Our visit to the Art Museum started with the 20-foot tall
shuttlecock on the front lawn, which our docent told us was
controversial. "The artist envisioned the museum as the net," she told
us. Suburban leisure activity as art.
After the tour, we raced around looking for the museum's other
masterpieces, one of which was Thomas Hart Benton's Persephone (1939,
In it, a raven-haired nude stretches out next to a river, on a bed of
moss or grass, her picnic basket full of red roses and tiger lily, her
pumps pointy-toed and black (not ruby, but close enough), with a China
blue-and-white handkerchief or pair of underwear draped nearby.
Hades is a pushbroom-mustached oldster who has an ox-cart nearby,
ready to abduct his bride, if only he can get over his astonishment at
seeing this gorgeous treasure laid out so near him.
Could I help it if I saw Dorothy in that model, all grown up and full of worldly knowledge?
On the days when the sky was not painted for a tornado, we got
beautiful westerly breezes and mellow, cream-soda head floats of
clouds. Then, it was as if Kansas City was a Main Street of the Gods,
and the floats were parading by, serene, and the gods themselves had
set up their lawn chairs, entertained in the timeless moment that
is a parade, when there is no past or future, but only the next one
rolling down the line.
"That there, that brick building there," our driver told us, "that's
the Folgers Coffee Company. You see that truck? That's unloading coffee
beans. If you're in downtown between midnight and 4 AM, the whole city
smells like roasted coffee beans."
"The city smells like coffee beans?" someone said.
"Yes, ma'am," said the driver. "But only between midnight and 4 AM. That's when they roast the beans."
I feel as if I have been here only between midnight and 4 AM, and
have picked up something that only a first-time tourist sees. Maybe
someday I will see Kansas City in the light, as it really is,
and I will wake up and smell something other than coffee.
I've written my 200,000 words? It's tracking that way. Still, it's mucho exciting. I just finished the Lesson on Persephone and incorporated my cut pomegranate photo. I feel somewhat like I've descended into the Underworld as well, with the only light being the glow from my computer screen.