Tuesday, February 16, 2010

But I’m a Good Drunk Driver

Originally written February 1, 2010.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Missouri is, at least as of 2008, it is one of just eight states in the union that allows passengers in a car to drink open alcohol. While I and my compatriots took advantage of this on the way to Kauffman Stadium on July 26, 2008, it became readily apparent to me that in a town where the communal ethos every Saturday night is “I know I’m driving home drunk, but I’m a good drunk driver,” as one Kansas City resident said to me, this is unbelievably stupid. In a state where three years earlier I had seen a sign reminding Cardinals fans that “Missouri law prohibits firearms in a sporting venue with a seating capacity of 5,000 or more,” this was far more disconcerting. Then again, in a city where bars in the Waldo neighborhood sell domestic bottles for $1.50, I can’t blame them for enjoying the revelry. What Lewis Black said of Madison, Wisconsin holds true in Kansas City, Missouri.

Even with the plane ticket it’s cheaper than drinking in New York.

Regardless, I wasn’t thinking of the theoretical implications, I was just enjoying drinking my Sierra Nevada. I always thought the idea of drinking openly and brazenly on the car ride to a baseball game was a little ridiculous, or at the very least required questionable judgment. But here I was, enjoying every minute of it. Not being quite sure what was proper and yet still relishing in it was probably the theme of that trip to Kansas City for me. In a city distinctly different from my own, the brief sojourn was a wholly educational experience.

I had come to Kansas City that summer to visit Susie Sharkey, whom I had met five years earlier while working at Fairview Lake YMCA Camp. Fairview generally hired a large swath of counselors from across the country and the world, prompting me to make friends with people as close as New Jersey and as far as Australia. Kansas City lay somewhere between those two on the exotic scale.

I’m not sure when the moment occurred that Susie and I became so close, though I theorize it was probably the night during staff training when we sang an impromptu rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie”, likely to the chagrin of everyone around us. In the years since, Susie visited me in Chicago, I visited her while she was working in a Jesuit Social Work program in Sacramento, and she visited me in New York in April of 2008. If the pattern involved alternating, well, I suppose it was my turn again.

I bought a plane ticket with a few goals in mind, namely indulging in famed Kansas City BBQ, visiting the Negro Leagues Museum, stepping foot in the state of Kansas and, obviously, seeing a Royals game. Really, it was the barbecue that was key. This trip was far more organized than my trip to Sacramento two and a half years earlier, when a winter storm-induced airline snafu caused me to spend my first day in California as the designated driver for Susie’s roommates whom I had never met before while Susie, ironically, spent the night in Chicago.

This time she was at the airport waiting for me.

Apparently, I prepped Susie for my visit well, because she wasted little time in knocking off the first requirement, as she drove me, her friend Kathleen and her brother John directly from the airport to Arthur Bryant’s, considered by some to be the most famous barbecue restaurant in the world. While it has been patronized by all manner of celebrities – a few months after I visited GOP nominee John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin would stop in – the décor is about as fancy as a high school dining hall.

When you eat there, however, you’re thankful that’s the case. Were they to fritter away money on repairing the chipped formica tables, it might distract them for the more pertinent task of preparing the food. I had the brisket and burnt ends, their specialty, and felt my arteries clogging almost immediately. This would be a trend for the entire weekend.

The next day Susie and I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is located in the same building as the American Jazz Museum and you can buy a joint entry into both of them. We did, but after the Negro Leagues Museum we were fairly wiped out. It contains a number of interesting pieces of memorabilia as well as early 20th century and late 19th century newspaper articles and posters that are riddled with hints of America’s racial tension. The one thing that struck me most, however, was that a number of the placards and exhibits were damaged or otherwise in disrepair. In most museums these things would have quickly been fixed, but much of the damage hadn’t been touched in years it seemed.

This didn’t show me so much that the museum was not well kept or curated – it was well organized and very interesting – but rather it gave you the feeling that it wasn’t fixed because people didn’t seem to care as much about this particular museum. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but torn plaques in exhibits would never fly at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. But that, I feel, was long a white institution. Making sure that the dedication to African-American heritage in baseball history was just as pristine and professional just didn’t seem important to enough people, which is truly a shame. Neglecting greats like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell is as tragic a situation for all of baseball as it is for black baseball. But in the racial wounds of this country, some of which will never heal, this one, I suppose, is fairly minor on the grand scale.

The barbecue tour was far from over, and Susie was as strong a partner as I could hope for. Our next stop was Oklahoma Joe’s, a slightly more well-kept, but equally as casual joint as Arthur Bryant’s that lies past a scenic drive of industrial factories at 3002 West 47th Avenue in Kansas City, KS. The line was long – it was the heart of lunch time – and the people behind the counter were good-natured and slopped an outrageous amount of food on your wax-paper covered trays. I went for the jumbo size pulled beef and pork sandwich with a side of French fries. It was probably enough calories to keep me running for a year or so.

After this, other highlights of the trip included a venture to Hallmark headquarters, an obligatory visit to Culver’s so I could get a double butter burger with cheese and frozen custard, and perhaps the most interesting, the Sprint Center in downtown KC. The thoroughly modern arena is a sharp building. Its outside is entirely made of glass and curves in a modern and tasteful fashion. The stadium is meant to be the anchor of the revitalized Power and Light District, which also has a number of apartments and restaurants, one of which, a location of the Famous Dave’s BBQ chain, was pointed out to me by Susie as a restaurant we would not be going to when there was authentic Kansas City BBQ to be had.

There is only one problem with the arena, and that is, well, no one plays there. It does regularly host concerts as well as college basketball tournaments – it is hardly vacant – but professional sports, aside from a few preseason games, have yet to make their presence felt there.

It is, however, home to the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Experience, which is completely awesome. Susie and I did our best to beat the buzzer with three-pointers and test our passing accuracy. Each activity has a sign explaining the museum’s rules which, adorably, include “absolutely no swearing or cursing.”

There I learned that Shaquille O’Neal, not surprisingly, has feet about twice the size of mine. Also, dunking is hard.

Really hard.

Visitors can test their skills dunking on hoops 7, 8, 9 and 10 feet high, and while, I have never been noted for my athletic prowess, I struggled with the shortest one. It was here that I came to the stunning conclusion that dunking a basketball is an obscenely difficult task. It is absurd that human beings can actually do it.

The last bit of the museum is a quiet hall denoting all the members of the college basketball Hall of Fame, which happens to be accompanied by softly playing college fight songs. I cracked a smile when “Go U Northwestern” started playing, though given NU’s inauspicious basketball history –it is the only school in the six major conferences never to make the NCAA Tournament – it seemed an odd choice. Then again, as a freshman I practiced with the Ultimate Frisbee team at Patten Gymnasium in Evanston, which hosted the first ever NCAA Tournament Championship Game in 1939. I struck up a conversation with an older man, a Michigan alum, while Susie watched on in amazement that I could reel off so much pointless sports trivia with a man three times my age. I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or seek to do more productive things with my time.

Other highlights of the weekend included a party at Susie’s house where I made sure to bring six packs both of Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat and Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, which I hid in the back of the fridge. About 10 beers later, and after generally making a fool of myself, it was time to slow down.

The next day was the main event, a Saturday night showdown at the K with Susie, her boyfriend Kevin and her friend Hennie. As the non-drivers among us sipped our beers on the car ride, we approached the stadium, which sits in a complex next to the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, and were informed by Hennie that her ex-boyfriend was apparently also attending. The potential for awkwardness abounded, but surely we wouldn’t bump into him in a stadium that held more than 38,000 people.

The odds were that we wouldn’t even see him, let alone park just a few spots away from him in the stadium lot. Ah, but the odds are odds and not certainties for a reason. Sure enough there he was, and the uncomfortable hello conversation ensued. I’m fairly convinced in the years since that this was the moment Hennie decided she no longer wanted to be at the game. I can’t say I blame her – I would probably feel uncomfortable in the same position, but having come halfway across the country to see this baseball game, I was less than sympathetic.

We bought our tickets and entered the big winding circular entrance ramp and were presented with our Dan Quisenberry Bobblehead dolls, complete with a Royals fireman’s helmet in reference to his reputation as one of the best relievers, or firemen, of his day. I would be lying if I said the giveaway didn’t factor into when I scheduled my visit to the Paris of the Plains.

Kauffman Stadium is one of the more interesting  I have seen. It is fairly old, but for a building from an era typified by multi-use cylinders, it is a very modern baseball-specific design. The stadium’s upper deck has a unique slope at the ends that give it a crescent-like shape. The main stands open up to a view beyond the outfield of grassy fields and trees. While there is a road that cuts through the landscape, the picture is very idyllic, giving you the sense that while you are at a Major League game, the field connects to baseball’s mythological Field of Dreams roots. It is a simple and subtle fixture in the stadium, but there is something rare and overtly pleasant about it that I enjoy tremendously.

Adding to it are the famed fountains that sprout up beyond the centerfield wall. I have always remembered them as a special characteristic of the building since I first saw a game in Kansas City on ESPN as a child. Seeing them in person is interesting, if for no other reason than because those types of ballpark features were practically unheard of when the K was built. The fountain is the largest privately funded one in the world, and gives the stadium authentic charm that is often sought and rarely matched in newer buildings. Make no mistake, the building is uniquely 1970s in its design, which bears many similarities to cookie-cutter stadiums such as its steep upper deck, but it is also unique in a number of ways.

At the time I was there, the building was in the midst of a major renovation designed at adding restaurants and luxury seating which would keep the Royals competitive in the ever financially expanding Major Leagues. As a result, the gigantic Royals crown that typically circles the top of the scoreboard lay in pieces on the grass beyond the right field wall. Part of the renovations, a positively enormous LED scoreboard – at the time the world’s largest – was already installed.

Opposite Kansas City’s starter, a rookie right-hander with high hopes named Luke Hochevar, was Tampa Bay ace Scott Kazmir. As a Mets fan, watching Kazmir pitch in a Rays uniform still hurt. Kazmir had been a highly touted prospect for New York until 2004 when he was dealt in a foolishly lopsided trade to the Rays for the eternal Victor Zambrano.

In the years since, Kazmir has become an all star. By 2008, Zambrano was out of baseball.

The Royals played the Rays close, keeping the game tied at 2-2 for the first five innings, and then, like so much bad luck, the rains came. A 73-minute delay was sparked by a rain and hail storm that provided some beautiful red skies in the distance but also resulted in a lot of soaked clothes. I, having never been there before and never a fan of leaving early, made it a point to stay. Susie was reluctantly willing to back me on this, at least for a brief period, and Kevin, too stuck with me.

Hennie, was less than enthusiastic. Her feelings might have been influenced by the fact that not only was her ex-boyfriend at the game, but he was seated in the same section as us. We stuck out the rains, but eventually everyone had gotten grouchy except me and with the majority – and the moisture – ruling, we headed to the car shortly after the delay ended.

The next day, Susie and I made one more stop on the way to the airport, a lunch at the popular Kansas City-area chain Gates Bar-B-Q. Gates, along with Arthur Bryant’s, is one of two area restaurants that draws roots from the father of Kansas City barbecue, Henry Perry. Ironically, Gates is the only place in Kansas City that I actually had ribs at. The sauce was a nice change of pace, tangy like the others but with a peppery kick at the end. I decided to splurge on the $3 and buy a bottle to take home.

By the end of the trip I was thoroughly worn down and full of more barbecue sauce than I think any normal person should eat in a year, let alone a weekend. After Susie dropped me off at the airport, a place that in and of itself was a new experience because of how much smaller it was than any other airport I had been to, I went to the desk to get my ticket and when asked to check my bag, I told the clerk, “No thanks.” I had made a point to borrow a rolling weekend bag from my roommate, Brandon, so I wouldn’t have to bother with baggage claim when I got home, particularly since my flight wasn’t direct.

As I went through security, the woman checking bags, a skinny blond in her 50s, sharply informed me of a problem.

“You can’t take the barbecue sauce on the plane, sir.”

Federal regulations don’t allow you to bring liquids larger than three ounces in volume onto planes as a carry-on item. While I have no problem with the rules, I am always stunned at how much more pointed and dedicated to enforcing them I’ve found security people at smaller airports to be than their counterparts in major population centers that are more likely targets of terrorism. Annoyed, I went back to the clerk to check my bag rather than throw out my memento of Kansas City.

“Back again, huh?” the clerk said.

“Yes, apparently my barbecue sauce is too dangerous to bring on the plane,” I told her.

If there was nothing else I learned in Kansas City that weekend, it was that the people are very perceptive. And they also know their barbecue.

“Is it Gates?”

“Actually, yes it is.”

“Yeah,” she said. “That stuff’s pretty potent.”


  1. not bad for a nor'easter. :) ok, it was a thoroughly insightful take on KC. As aptly as it describes the stadium (and Susie Sharkey, for that matter) your phrase "rare and overtly pleasant" encapsulates KC. i would've like a bit more about that Saturday night party, though...

  2. Understandable, but there's only so many people I can embarrass in one post.

    I'll do my best to keep you more entertained when I write about the Chiefs.