So where do I go from here?

That’s your right as an American…

-My Father’s response to an email from my sister who was freaking out after Trump won.

 

On the morning of November 8th, I expected the following things:

  • A resounding Hillary Clinton victory.
  • The chance of a Democratic majority in Senate.
  • The fact that I would missing morning mass at work.
  • Long lines at the voting polls.
  • The shutting up of every Tea Party extremist and racist, misogynist and bigoted Trump voter (note that I didn’t say Republican; more on that later).
  • Popping champagne past midnight when they announced that Hillary was the projected winner on CNN and taking shots if Jason Kander actually pulled off the upset over Roy Blunt for Senate. (My friends and I actually had the champagne and liquor ready.)

But low and behold, here is how it actually turned out.

  • Hillary lost, including three key battleground states that cost her the election (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania which had been solidly blue the last few elections).
  • The Republicans won both the Senate and House majority.
  • There was no morning mass apparently, so I missed nothing.
  • After early reports of long lines in Kansas City (including my own), the lines seemed to die off by mid-morning. A lot of polling centers in the afternoon and mid-day looked deserted in the urban areas of Kansas City from videos I saw on my friend’s Snapchat.
  • The Tea Party won…so you know how they’re handling it (let’s just say not modestly).
  • No champagne. No shots. Hillary and Kander both lost. Just depression and Black and Milds.

 

In the words of my sister, who called me twice on election night to share her displeasure and anger (all while drunk of course), “what…the…fuck.”

Never in my wildest dreams did I think Donald Trump would pull this off. Yes, he won the Republican primary. But I credited that less to him, and more to the hordes of shitty candidates they trotted out there (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz…that’s it I got to stop). If there was another Mitt Romney or John McCain or anybody legitimate, Trump would have not stood a chance. He would have been a celebrity “flash in the pan”, much like his short-lived candidacy for the Reform party presidential slot back in 2000.

Oh how I was wrong.

The signs were there. Bernie Sanders challenged her so hard in the Democratic Primary, and perhaps should have won. But the DNC had promised this thing to Hillary after she lost to Barack in 2008. It was her turn, and they weren’t going to let a Jewish senator out of the tiny state of Vermont fuck with that plan. And so we heard the rumors and read the WikiLeaks and witnessed the protests and the head scratching results during the primaries and caucuses. Most young and liberal Democrats felt Bernie had a better shot at beating Trump than Hillary did. I remember arguing about that in hookah lounges and bars on frequent occasion during those summer primary months.

And yet, Hillary was chosen to be the Democratic nominee. She was the nation’s best bet to prevent the xenophobia, and crazy policies of a potential Trump presidency. Yes, she was flawed. Yes, she had scandal with her e-mails. Yes, she and the Clinton Foundation represented the worst of a “corporate interests” affecting our Federal Government. Yes, she sucked with public speeches. Yes, she was so coached as a candidate that everything felt rather inauthentic at times from her.

But she was our nation’s best shot. And she was a woman. The first female president. That would be enough. Her experience would be enough. Her debate performance would be enough. Her name would be enough.

Oh how Democrats were wrong.

The morning of November 9th proved it.


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I grew up in a primarily Republican-voting family. My grandparents supported Ronald Reagan’s campaign not only for President in 1980, but also when he ran for governor of California in the 60’s. My great aunt on my dad’s side was so conservative and Republican that she voted for Richard Nixon in the presidential election over John F. Kennedy, even though he would eventually be the first Irish-American and Catholic president, traits she (and I) shared as well. My father voted for George W. Bush twice, and Mitt Romney in 2012 (though he did vote for Barack Obama in 2008). My mother has voted Republican in every presidential election since 2000, and actually registered as a Republican in 2000. And in the 2000 election, at my school, I represented George W. Bush in a mock debate to my middle school student body. (I had the vouchers and gun lock issues on point.)

Yes, my background was probably characteristic of any member of a Young or College Republican club.

But since graduating college, I have grown to adopt more liberal and Democrat stances. My experience in the Jesuit order of priests as a novice molded that. Working with migrant workers in East LA confirmed that we needed to change our immigration system in America. Working in the hospitals in South Central LA proved that “privately funded” health care wasn’t the answer, especially when people weren’t getting the care they desperately needed. Working in the juvenile hall in Sylmar, and at the Restorative Justice Initiative in downtown LA demonstrated to me that not only our prison system, but the way we treated African American and Hispanics in the justice system was extremely flawed. My job as a teacher’s aide on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation inspired my career path (teaching) and where I needed to be (in communities where there was high need, like the people of the Lakota tribe I taught for nearly three years). If my Jesuit schooling in high school and college nudged me more toward the left (as I have heard from people on frequent occasions who also are Jesuit education alums), my experience with the Jesuit priests and novices helped me jump without fear or doubt.

Since 2011, I have grown more and more blue on the political spectrum. And that hasn’t been easy, especially considering my business and personal background. I studied economics in college (and journalism as well ironically). I am a big fan of limited regulation in a lot of cases, and was even more so when I was in college (I definitely leaned more toward the Milton Friedman school of Economics). I believe in globalization, free markets and competition, and getting rid of bailouts of big corporations who can’t get their shit together. I believe in limited taxes, especially when those tax dollars end up being abused or under-utilized. And I am a practicing Roman Catholic, a party whose congregation to the most part has gone from more blue to more red over the past decade due to the pro-choice/pro-life argument.

Those aren’t things people think of when they think of democrats, and yet those are some of my core economic beliefs (though in varying shades and modifications; I could write more but I don’t want this to be a fucking college thesis). So why do I identify as a Democrat rather than a Republican? Why did I vote for every Democratic candidate on the Missouri ballot this past Tuesday? Why am I campaigning for Democratic candidates and donating money to them as well and putting their bumper stickers on my car? My economic and religious background scream GOP.

It’s difficult to say. Perhaps because it’s the social issues that fuel my passion into politics, not economic ones. I don’t need to worry about jobs because I am a teacher: I punted the idea of a great retirement package and making six figures long ago. I don’t care about the global market beyond the economics class I teach to high school upperclassmen. Instead, I care about young people who fear their family members getting deported (including some I teach now or have taught in the past). I care about young people in the city not getting the same educational opportunities as those outside of it. I care about too many prisons being filled by people who shouldn’t be there, either literally or figuratively. If my political makeup is a sliding scale between social and economic, the social side will always weigh more than the economic side considerably, and as of now, that advantage is clearly blue.

As long as the Democrats stand for those listed social ideals, the ideals for social justice and protecting the rights of those who need protection and not just throwing them out to the dogs in a laissez faire fashion, I will continue to consider myself a Democrat, irregardless of the economic policies or pro-life announcements from the Catholic Archbishops that come my way.


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But Democrats lost.

We lost the house. We lost the senate. And we lost the Presidency…to him.

What do I do?

The easy solution would be to run. Go to a different country. Immigrate to Canada or some foreign country. I’m young. I’m a teacher. I have a master’s degree. I could teach abroad for four or more years and perhaps enter the country again if Trump is out of office by 2020.

But that’s a coward’s way out. I love my country, and I love where I live, Kansas City and the people within it. I am not moving because of the threat of one man.

Another solution would be to give up. Either accept a Trump presidency because he’s our president and we have no choice. I could give up on the issues I care about and see how I could mold my views to the Republican party for the sake of unity in the nation, and perhaps helping the party be seen in a more positive light.

But that would be another coward’s way out. I am not going to throw out everything I have grown to care and be passionate about due to “fitting in.”

Another solution would just be an anarchist and/or revolutionary. Quit my job and protest. Get arrested. Protest Trump at every turn.

But I have a life, a career I care about (students). And yelling only does so much. Protesting only does so much. Action, concrete, constructive, real society-forming action is what makes a difference, not just a sign or a blow horn. After all, what matters in change are “deeds, not words.”

So what’s the right solution?

I don’t know. I know it’s not the three above.

And honestly, I don’t know if I will uncover that right solution in a year, two years or by the end of the Trump presidency whether that is four more years or eight.

Because one “fix-all” solutions don’t exist. The problems I am facing as an American citizen and adopted Kansas City denizen are layers deep, like a Redwood Tree. The future is too murky; the solutions too disheartening; the people too unpredictable; and the world too evolving for one choice, no matter how bold or noble, to change things, be it myself or the community I live in.

But what can I do? I don’t want to live in a world where I have to accept some of the injustices I might see under this Trump presidency/Republican coup. I have to do something.

Well…

I could keep teaching. Keep promoting to students their importance and role in changing America and Kansas City, especially my students of color, which make up over 70 percent of the students at my school.

I could keep getting involved. Keep going to events and meeting people and organizations where constructive dialogue is encouraged to form plans and programs that bring more equality and opportunities for all in our country and in Kansas City.

I could keep reading. Reading not just the Buzzfeed bits or shit I see on fivethirtyeight.com, but articles and studies written and conducted by people who really want to make a difference or who have done so in various ways through different approaches in educational or civic matters.

I could keep living life. My life. Not the life Republicans tell me to live, and not exactly the life Democrats tell me to live either.

Because we are people. Not Donkeys or Elephants.

I thought November 9th, a day ago when Donald Trump was elected president that this was the end of the world. I thought I would be depressed and give up on life. I thought that racism and sexism and prejudice won.

But I am motivated to do more. I am motivated to stay in teaching, which wasn’t exactly the case less than a month ago. I am motivated to be even more involved in my community, Jackson County, Wyandotte County and Kansas City in general more than ever, looking to advocate and aid in whatever area I can, in whatever aspect that would be a good fit for both me and whom I’m helping.

There is hope. Not just for me. But for Hillary voters. For Democrat voters.

We can and will be better. And the journey will be worth it, because people will say it won’t matter or will be a waste of time and effort. Trump won November 9th, remember? He got 279 electoral votes and counting.

That doesn’t mean he can decide how I can help people or tell me what issues I need to believe in.

Trump won an election. He won paper votes.

Winning over a person’s ideals takes a lot more than showing them the results of an election.

What am I thinking today, November 10th?

Optimism. Drive. Hope. The future. Our people. Kansas City. Social justice. Immigration reform. Health care reform. Optimism. Real change, not fear-mongering or vitriol. Catholic AND Muslim unity. The long, peaceful, arduous road. One day at a time.

All this DESPITE Trump and Trump surrogates and supporters pointing fingers, laughing and telling me “You lost!”

Damn. I wonder if I would have felt this way if Hillary won…

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Residency at Park Central

Although I grew up in London, I spent summers in Missouri, where my dad lived. It’s quite a liberal town, Kansas City. You’d be surprised…

I’m getting to about four years of living here in Kansas City. This will be my second year living in Midtown, at the Park Central apartments off of Armour and Broadway. Four years sounds like a lot of time to me in Kansas City, especially considering I lived in the Northwest and California most of my life, and nearly moved from Kansas City twice in this time span.

I chose to live in Park Central primarily due to its location. After graduating from Rockhurst in 2015 in May, I had decided to stay in Kansas City rather than move back for a teaching job in Pine Ridge, South Dakota (on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at an old school I used to work). However, I was living up in the Northland, Gladstone to be specific, with an older divorced co-worker, and I didn’t necessarily enjoy living in a Suburban area as a single guy. After all, at the time I was in my late 20’s, finished with school, and looking to have more of a social and urban experience after living on the outskirts in my first couple of years (first in Kansas City, Kansas and then in the Northland).

My two options were Park Central and the Bellerive off of Armour Blvd. They were both former major hotels in the Kansas City area that had been revitalized into apartments thanks to the gentrification going on in the Midtown area of Kansas City over the past decade. Though the Bellerive had nice amenities, I chose to live in Park Central, as it was nearly 100 dollars cheaper and literally the same distance from my job (about a 10 minute walk from the school I taught at).

I no longer work at the same school, but I still live in Park Central (even though my new school is in Kansas City, Kansas). Over the past couple of years, living in Park Central has helped me swoon for and grow more and more fascinated with Kansas City, from the people to the bars to the neighborhoods to the history that has deeper peaks and valleys than I ever thought possible when I moved here from southwestern South Dakota nearly four years ago.

For me, Kansas City and Park Central go hand-in-hand, spiritually connected at the hip.


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Park Central is located right outside of Hyde and Gillham Park. The Hyde Park area is something of an old-money neighborhood, classic in the old sense, with houses designed in a way that resemble ones straight out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Hyde Park, originally one of the first golf courses of Kansas City, is a product of the Tom Pendergast era: its beautifully maintained houses consist of generational residents who lean primarily on the liberal and democratic side, hailing from old European-American ancestry, with their children avoiding the public school system (a reason for the beautiful old Westport High and Middle Schools buildings being currently closed today) for nearby private institutions like Notre Dame de Sion, Pembroke Hill, St. Theresa Academy and Rockhurst (high school, not university).

Mixed in with these old homeowners are newer renting residents: hipster families who have bought cheap housing close to Troost, and recently out-of-college or still-in-school young adults who rent out of the many different apartments mostly owned by Mac Properties, and other smaller property management firms. Park Central is located in this area, and thus, I fall into one of these categories, though only marginally (I am recently out of graduate school, not undergraduate like most).

Park Central is an eclectic mix of residents. Yes, there are young grad students and young professionals, as expected. That being said, the eight floors of the apartment complex also consist of older retirees, most likely widows, who are living out their remaining years in the heart of the city, in much smaller accommodations. Being a pet-free environment, nearly everyone has a dog, and it’s common to see people go in and out of the elevator with their dogs in leashes, ready to take morning and evening walks with their pets before and after work, respectively. There are a surprising amount of young couples who live together in the apartments, some from the Kansas City area, some from abroad, including India and Palestine and China, just to name a few, as well as same-sex couples who are within close distance to many of the gay bars down Broadway and Main.

All in all, Park Central is the quintessential urban apartment, no different in many ways than an apartment you would perhaps find in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Boston (albeit much, much cheaper).

But there is more to Park Central than it just being the modern apartment. It’s more than the kind of complex that one would see on sitcoms such as Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, and Master of None. Park Central is also a microcosm of Kansas City, a capsule that has undergone an exterior, and perhaps spiritual, change to help newer potential residents to forget or be unaware of the history of the building as well as the area.

One of the most famous stories of Park Central is the fact that in 1934, mob boss Johnny Lazia was gunned down at the then hotel by rival gangster associates. The fact that a mob boss like Lazia stayed in the Park Central makes sense, as it is central to most establishments in Kansas City, and was in close proximity to Downtown and the Jazz District back then (and even to this day). For some, the history is neat tidbit that displays the history of Kansas City: as a free-wheeling Las Vegas of the Midwest in 1920’s-1940’s.

Kansas City used to be something one would likely see in a Martin Scorsese film or James Ellroy novel: jazz, gangster, gambling, call girls, murder, political corruption, you name it. During the prohibition, alcohol laws were not only ignored, but almost mocked, thanks to Pendergast and his Jackson Democratic Club political machine, as well as the Italian Mafia that ran things in the Northeast. Even up to the 1970’s, Kansas City was the midway point of criminal activity, connecting the East Coast to lucrative laundering deals going on in the West Coast in Las Vegas, as profiled in the movie Casino.

It made sense that Kansas City had this reputation because of it being a center of the railroad system across the country, which aren’t as active today, but it’s remnants still ever present. Kansas City never had the population or glitz of a New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but you could argue that Kansas City was every bit as fascinating as those cities, and deserved as much, perhaps even more profiles than those other three bigger “noir” meccas. There was no Elliot Ness-Al Capone or William Parker-Mickey Cohen rivalry. The criminals pretty much ran the town (thanks to Pendergast), and that’s what made Kansas City a magnet for seediness that went uncovered for decades. Nobody wants to cover the bad guys if there are no good guys to defeat them, and unlike a Chicago or LA, Kansas City never got that “White Knight” that came in and cleaned up Kansas City for good.

The clean up just came with years of convictions of criminals in court and strong municipal policies.

In other words, boring. Kansas City deserved so much better.


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So what does this have to do with me? How does this affect my own experience with Kansas City?

Well, I live in Midtown because it is close to everything. It is close to the characters. It is close to the nightlife. It is right on the border of that Troost wall where the injustice of rich and poor, and black and white segregation still exists today as it did decades ago. It is in a blue part of the Midwest that is normally as deep red as old, caked blood.

For somebody that has craved the city experience for so long, since my teenage years, I can’t imagine going anywhere else. Where I am is perfect. I am inspired by new stories every day, whether it’s from the past or present. Whether it’s the stories of elections being fixed by the Pendergast machine, near riots outside of the Donald Trump rally outside of the Midland Theater, or the sight of soaring-high vagrants punching air on the streets of Broadway past midnight right outside of Westport. As somebody who is trying to make his way as a writer, trying to find the right stories to journal, Park Central is the perfect holding spot personally, a DMZ of sorts of the Kansas City urban experience.

This living experience has come with its share of problems of course. Maintaining or finding relationships has been difficult. I have had countless dates that have constantly gone south due to my inability to part with my current home and the stories that flutter around it. I dated a girl for four months, and we struggled to go deeper in the relationship due to her desire to be more settled. She wanted to be out in Leawood or South Kansas City or somewhere perhaps more rural. I told her that I continued to want the city. I wanted to help people in the city. I wanted to help make the city better and deep down, though I never told her, I wanted to be able to write stories about the city that don’t get told or profiled in the KC Star or evening news. She wanted that “White Picket Fence Midwest” experience. I wanted the Jazz Era one. She couldn’t fathom that I was content with living in a studio apartment and sleeping on a futon.

And the same story has been true with various other dates. One girl couldn’t understand my democratic leanings. I struggled recently with another who had kids who wanted to live the rest of her life in Kansas City Kansas around her family and the friends she grew up with for decades. It seems like young adults in the Midwest generally want the same thing: marriage, kids, stability and all rather early in life. I have struggled with those concepts, because even though I want it or think I want that kind of life (my parents certainly want me to), I fall back into my Park Central apartment, sink into its presence, and realize that though I am 29 and single and without any romantic or prospects of long-term stability on the horizon, I am happy or at the very least content with it all. And I think I’m content because I still have the city. The stories. The people. The night. The parks. The runs through Gilham and Hyde Park where I think about what to write on next. The hookah lounges where I smoke and socialize and sometimes write. The coffee places where I can just stare out on the streets for hours. The bars where I can just people watch and eavesdrop and find amusement in some of the stories I hear and so on.

Some might think of all that as the product of a lonely life. And sometimes it feels that way. But I grew up a bit of a loner. I didn’t have many close friends growing up. It’s a reason why I have never had the desire to go back to Sacramento. I don’t need familiar. I don’t need “safe”. I don’t need “it’s time to settle down.” Writing and blogging keep me stable and sane. It’s cheap therapy, and writing about the city, much like therapy, helps give me the ideas and tools to not only help my own life and progress in it, but also help me understand how I can help my own community, this city, the surrounding area of Park Central also known as Midtown Kansas City.

Because cities are wonderful things. Nothing is more fascinating than the American city. They are decaying in ways because people have their biases. They don’t think their children should go into schools in the cities or they think the crime is too much. I don’t have to worry about those things (because I don’t have kids or nice shit), and thus, I can do what I need to help, and learn about the day to day, night to night of what goes in Kansas City, a city with its own history of sordidness that it battles with each and every day. Kansas City is really a perfect city for me. Small enough to get wrapped up in, but big enough to still find new places, circles and issues to discover.

And I am able to do that from the central of it all in my current apartment, which has its own sordid history which it’s trying to get rid of, like the city itself.

When I first moved to Kansas City, I thought I was on my way to settling into the Midwest experience. I had plans for marriage within a couple of years. I thought about living in a house, and having my own self-built smoker. I pictured barbeques and hanging out at the community pools with my neighbors over cans of Bud Light. I thought about sending my kids to Catholic School, much like my parents did for me.

I remember one night I spent with my ex at the time. We were in St. John’s park, looking out on the Kansas City skyline from Strawberry Hill, which is a beautiful damn thing at night. I knew we were going to break up, but I made one last pitch to her to convince her to stay together.

You know. When I was young, I pictured myself living in a big city. I pictured myself living paycheck to paycheck as a writer. I would be living in a small apartment and writing freelance or for a newspaper living pretty simply with the idea that I would make it big. I pictured myself living like a Charles Bukowski or John Fante and that’s what I wanted more than anything when I was growing up in middle and high school.”

“What happened?”

“Well, now I don’t want that anymore. I realized that was just a stupid fantasy. I want to settle down. I want to have kids. I want to have a house and raise a family now.

We broke up a week later. And though it’s not exact, I’m closer to that former dream than the latter nearly three years later.

I wonder if I really wanted the latter or I was just saying it because I scared rejection or was scared of being in and taking on Kansas City alone.

I know what they mean now by certain events being blessings in disguise.

My blessing comes in an Eight-story former hotel called the Park Central.

Wyandotte County: the “Small, Off-Beat Town” within Kansas City

“Really…you work in Wyandotte?”

It’s a comment I hear all the time, but somebody uttered this statement to me a weekend ago at a community event I worked at in Johnson County. I found the comment to be rude and surprising, especially considering the event I worked at mostly involved people who were not born in this part of the country, let alone this country in general. And yet, despite their outsider status, that doesn’t prevent them from holding that negative opinion of Wyandotte County that most people in Johnson County (or other counties in Missouri or Kansas) have of people or places from Wyandotte.

To me, Wyandotte County is synonymous with Kansas City. There is no Kansas City experience without Wyandotte County for me. In my four years of living in Kansas City, only 1 year involved me not working or living in Wyandotte County, specifically Kansas City, Kansas. To me, Wyandotte County has a special place in my heart, in my mind and in my goals down the road. Yes, I am currently a Jackson County resident now, living in the MidTown area of Kansas City. But I have a feeling I will be moving back to KCK soon in the near future, especially now that I’m working again in the county, and realizing how much the area and the citizens of the county fascinate me and make me want to be a part of it again.

But for those who are unfamiliar (whether unwillingly or not), what do I need to know about Wyandotte County?


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Wyandotte County is the most northeast county of the state of Kansas, as its main city, Kansas City, Kansas, is just a stone’s throw across the river from Kansas City, Missouri (the 70 and 670 highways connect the downtown area of KCMO to KCK). The county is separated into 8 districts, with a commissioner seats for each district, as well as two at-large commissioners for Districts 1 and 2. The mayor/ceo currently is Mark Holland, who has been the mayor since April 2, 2013. In addition to Kansas City, Kansas, the county also includes neighborhood communities such as Bonner Springs and Edwardsville to the southwest of the county, the Piper and Legends/Speedway area to the northwest; Argentine, Armourdale, and Turner in the south; Rosedale in the southeast, right near the border on Southwest Boulevard; the KU Med area to the West; Quindaro to the Northeast; and Welborn in the North.

Demographically, Wyandotte county also remains a diverse county, especially in comparison to neighboring Kansas counties. The projected population of Wyandotte County in 2015 is 163,369, which would be a 3.7 percent increase from their population total recorded in the 2010 census. From the 2015 projections according to the census, the population within the county is 42.1 percent non-Latino white, 24.3 percent African-American, 27.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, 4.1 percent Asian, and 1.3 Native American. All of those populations are an increase from the 2010 census, with the exception of African-Americans, whose population went down from 25.2 percent to 24.3 percent, and non-Latino white, which went from 43.3 to 42.1 percent.

Education-wise there are four districts that serve citizens in Wyandotte County: Tuner USD 202, Piper USD 203, Bonner Springs USD 204 and Kansas City USD 500. In addition, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas has five K-8 elementary schools (Resurrection, Our Lady of Unity, Christ the King, St. Patrick’s and Holy Name) and one high school (Bishop Ward High School), which is one of the oldest high schools in the state of Kansas (it was established in 1908). In terms of post-secondary education, Kansas City Kansas Community College is the main junior college for secondary graduates in Wyandotte County, and the University of Kansas Medical Center (right on the border of Missouri and Kansas) also provides medical studies for students, in addition to medical services for people in the area.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wyandotte County is its economic and educational status, as well as where it stands politically in comparison to the state overall. In terms of economic and educational statistics,  65.9 percent of the population in Wyandotte County 16 and over is in the workforce, with the household median income low at $39, 326. The poverty population in Wyandotte County is at 24.4 percent, 18.9 percent of the population is without health care, and and the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is only 15.8 percent (to put things further into context, those with a high school diploma is 78.4 percent).

Compare this with statistics of those same categories in neighboring Johnson County: 72.9 percent of the population 16 and over is in the civilian workforce; the household median income $75,017; the poverty population is only 6.6 percent, and only 7.6 percent of the population is without health care; and 52.1 percent of the county population has a college degree (and 95.7 percent of the population has a high school diploma). When you look at the whole picture, not only is Johnson County a wealthier county, but they dwarf Wyandotte in so many categories. It’s crazy to think that just a few miles south, a person is three times more likely to have a college degree, and will make almost twice more than someone. And that’s where the bias and prejudice steps in: because of their higher incomes, more education and less people in poverty, Johnson County naturally has this bias over their Wyandotte County neighbors. The stats overall prove it in their mind, and those stats prove why people who get more money or education are more than apt to move south beyond the county lines.

The story of Wyandotte County’s economic and educational woes in comparison to the larger neighboring suburb of Johnson County is one thing, but what makes it even more interesting is how different both counties are politically: while Johnson county tends to be more of a red county, falling in line with what is typical voting wise throughout the state of Kansas (i.e. conservative republican), Wyandotte County tends to fall in the opposite category.

Of the elected state senators representing Wyandotte County, two of the four senators (as of 2015), David Haley (4th District) and Pat Pettey (6th District) are democrats. All seven state representatives representing the county are democrats. And all 16 judges as well as the district attorney, are democrats. And this political affiliation was even stronger represented in the last presidential election, as Wyandotte County was one of two counties in all of Kansas to vote for Barack Obama by a wide margin as he earned 67.3 percent of the vote in Wyandotte County (compare this to Johnson, which saw a 58-40 split in favor of Mitt Romney). Even Douglas County, which includes Lawrence and students from the University of Kansas (college towns tend to be more democrat leaning due to students being more liberal), didn’t have as high a percentage (60.3 percent) for Obama in the latest elections.

So, Wyandotte County is heavily democrat and lags in terms of education as well as economically to some of the neighboring counties. For most people in the Midwest, this may sound like a cruddy place to live.

On the other hand, I would argue otherwise, and I would credit it’s intimate population that are actually HELPING the county over the past five years, and make it even more prime for positive growth.


“The one thing about Wyandotte county is that it’s a small town…and everyone knows your business in one way or the other.”

My principal, who originally was from New York and moved here for school, told me this during my first year in Kansas City, Kansas. I didn’t know if she meant it in a bad or good way, but while there is some obvious negative aspects to this statement (like people can be big time gossip hounds), one could look at this statement in a positive way.

One of the main positives of living in Wyandotte County is that if you get involved in a group or network, that network can grow incredibly fast and be incredibly supportive. I have been in Kansas City for four years, and some of my closest connections stem from people I know who live or work in Wyandotte County. As a business teacher, I have already gotten multitudes of offers from local business people to help speak in classes or help students with connections. I taught in a school in Kansas City, Missouri, and though we had some help here and there, people were not as eager to help or provide the same kind of assistance. That’s not to say people on the Missouri side didn’t give a shit. But there are so many schools in KCMO. One charter school is just another in the whole grand mix of things. And with so many schools closing within 10 year periods in Missouri, people can be suspect of “newer” schools: will it even be around in 20 years and is my time to help worth it if the school won’t even be around?

In Kansas City, Kansas there is a stability here that KCMO doesn’t necessarily enjoy. Yes businesses change, but they take new identities rather than demolished or abandoned. There is a certain pride in the diversity of the population displayed through community celebrations, be it a parish ice cream social or a neighborhood fall parade, that seems organic and genuine and not put together solely for economic purposes. And the schools, though struggling in some ways, are still accredited, still producing an education that means something. Despite KCMO and other districts on the Missouri side’s struggles with keeping accreditation, KCKPS has continued to keep theirs and continued to keep high student populations despite wild changes in racial and economic backgrounds of students attending their schools from decades ago.

And I think that is what makes Wyandotte the “small town” worth admiring in the Kansas City metro area. They know their population isn’t as big as on the Missouri side or even south of them in Johnson County. They don’t have the economic advantages down south either, or the educational advantage. That being said, they make do, they get things done, and they rally behind people in their community that are trying to do good. The city government tries things to help build the economy and promote entrepreneurship. “A Cup on the Hill” is the latest example of such progressive thinking. Yes, it’s a coffee shop, but it’s a coffee shop that is run by the Community Housing Authority of Wyandotte County that looks to help with employment, while also promoting the positive of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County not just by selling coffee, but also by displaying art in their shop local artists. It’s similar to what “Homeboy Industries” is doing in Los Angeles: giving those in need in the community a chance to make steps in the right direction personally, while helping the local economy as well. (After all, how many coffee shops are there in KCK? Not a lot, and “A Cup on the Hill” will help bring in more independent coffee houses who may find it tough to compete in MidTown KC’s over-saturated market.)

And Wyandotte County’s population is growing, which just goes to show you how people are starting to recognize the positives in living in such a community with a genuine “small town” feel. The 3.7 percent jump is a major bright spot for a county that had suffered a decrease in population according to their last census in 2010. And the reasons to come to Wyandotte County are plenty: it’s still close to the city (especially if you live in Strawberry Hill), the downtown economy is growing, and the real estate is a lot cheaper than what most would find not just in Johnson County, but especially in comparison to MidTown and Downtown Kansas City. Young people are realizing that living in KCK, especially Strawberry Hill or Rosedale is a better deal, and you aren’t far off from it all either.

Of course, there has to be a bit of caution with such growth. We have seen how gentrification can have “inverse” effects on cities and communities. Even in Kansas City we have seen it. 15 years ago, living in the Westside and MidTown off of Armour was a bargain. Now, thanks to gentrification, people have been priced out of their respective neighborhoods. Yes, there are more restaurants and bars and shops and nicer houses and apartment complexes. However, the soul of the communities are dwindling, nearly gone. Just look at the Westside, as it struggles to fight for the spirit of their neighborhood against developers who are trying to mold it more for economic purposes rather than community ones. That is a risk KCK could experience, especially as a younger population starts to migrate toward that downtown area.

But I think what will make KCK push up against that “community blunting” from gentrification is their community spirit. The neighborhoods in KCMO are part of a huge whole, and really, one district is going to struggle to have a voice in the midst of so many other voices in the big city. The greater good (in the city’s mind) will trump the desires of the small, as is natural in any big city. In KCK, the population is still intimate, and those neighborhoods can have their voice. And we have seen it. There has been an embrace of the changing diversity of the KCK population. It has grown from a primarily Slavic population to mostly Latino one, but you know what? People are still active, and I think the Latino population in KCK is about as active as any in the KC Metro (though the Westside and Northeast certainly are also active). Even with this latest election coming up, we are seeing advocates against some of the new Kansas registration policies that could be deemed as “racist” and “prejudiced” in nature, in order to sway the election toward a party’s “candidate” (you know who I am referring to). These kind of actions demonstrate not only the change in Wyandotte County, but how the community continues to supports one another despite the difference in race and cultural. The old supporting the new is the prime characteristic of a strong community, no matter what the population size or part of the country.

I don’t live in Wyandotte County currently. I work there and if I continue to stay in Kansas City, I plan to move back soon. Wyandotte County is different. It’s a blue dot in a sea of red. The people are working class who offer a stark diversity to what is typical of most communities in the Kansas City metro. There is pride in the work being done within the county, even if most of the stories and reputation of the county tends to focus on the bad, the crime, the poverty and all the other negative noise. And lastly, there seems to be a sense of hope on the horizon. The population and the economic growth in parts of the county where “naysayers” thought it couldn’t be done showcases that rise.

The looks and questions still abound when I tell people I work and used to live in Wyandotte County. I don’t think I will ever shake them.

But they don’t know. They don’t know about the “small town” community of Wyandotte County. They don’t know about the support, the charm, or hidden opportunities this area of Kansas City provides.

I’m glad they’re missing out. Wyandotte County doesn’t need them anyways.

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 “This Midwest Life.” 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 “This Midwest Life” 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.

Happy Hour at the Belfry in Downtown/Crossroads

Not feeling the need to drive through late 4/early 5 o’clock traffic on Main Street in downtown Kansas City, I parked my car just outside Union Station and decided to take a ride on the KC Streetcar, which had opened in May. The KC Streetcar has stirred up all kinds of emotions with KC citizens and taxpayers: some think it’s the start of a major change in public transportation in KC that will ultimately make KC more of a major city in the Midwest; some think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money to satisfy the ego of Mayor Sly James, a train enthusiast, who has made it his main agenda since taking office to get create a major transportation system in the KC Metro area. It’s kind of early to tell what is the right stance on this issue. Sure, it would be nice if the Streetcar would be able to go through red lights, or was on a separate line that wouldn’t interfere with traffic (similar to what I saw in San Jose with their light rail system, which is built in the middle of the street so it doesn’t need to adhere to traffic signals), but it’s a good start for the city in terms of getting people on board with public transportation (which isn’t easy to do in cities in the Midwest outside of Chicago); makes traveling around the downtown area of KC a lot easier (it’s nice that you can go from the River Market to the Crossroads without having to drive around or walk long distance); and the train itself has a sleek design that’s better than other transits I have seen from other major cities (SacTown, you need to get your act together).

Anyways, to bring things back, this isn’t a post about the KC Streetcar (though I probably will write one in due time). In addition to taking the Streetcar to avoid traffic headaches off of Main Street Downtown, I also decided to take it because their Kauffman Center stop took me to 16th street. No, I was not going to the Symphony or to see Los Tigres del Norte perform (or anything perform…it was Wednesday at 5 p.m.). Instead, I was going down the other direction down 16th street, in between Main and Grand, for Happy Hour at a small cocktail lounge called the Belfry.

To be honest, I had never really heard of the Belfry, mostly due to the fact that it sits in a weird “No Man’s Land” between Downtown KC and the Crossroads. I don’t feel anything is “truly downtown” south of Truman Road, but the location of Belfry is a bit north for Crossroads as it would be quite a hike for someone to go there on a First Friday’s. (But hey…Streetcar solves that! So maybe it’s not so bad, taxpaying haters!) And it’s location in between Main and Grand, makes it get ignored in the “what neighborhood does it belong to?” shuffle. To make matters worse in its favor, it doesn’t have that “prime” location off of Main Street that benefits other establishments in the “No Man’s Land” like Anton’s or Nara or Bazooka’s (if you have to ask what kind of place Bazooka’s is…well…it may not be for you and you probably can’t afford it). And yet, despite it’s “humble” location (and establishment, which I will go into more later), the Belfry surprises as an affordable whiskey/beer lounge that offers a down-to-earth atmosphere, as well as competitive fare in comparison to any other “Happy Hour Crowd”-catering bar in the Downtown/Crossroads area.

Don’t let the “Are you sure this isn’t an affordable Health Care clinic?” look from the outside fool you.

As you walk down 16th street, the Belfry barely sticks out. The street consists mostly of converted lofts, used for both residential as well as office use, and the Belfry’s exterior blends into those surroundings. If you just took a glance at it, and didn’t know what it was, you probably would confuse it for a Non-Profit office or some “new-age Christian church” that caters to Millennials. But then you take a step inside…

Well, not much else sticks out either (sorry for the dramatic pause). You walk up a small stairwell, and you are greeted with a fork which can take you to two main areas in the complex. Granted, it still has that initial appearance of an office building, but more like one of those “Hmm…this could be a civil engineering or architecture firm” office and less like a “I could probably get my TB test done here” center (which it could also pass for from the outside if you have been to some of those clinics downtown or in midtown). The owner of the Belfry owns the whole building, but the room to the right, spacious and decorated with multiple tables and a bar in the corner, is reserved for special events and parties, and isn’t used regularly, especially during the week and in the afternoon (when I was there).

So, being that the right side was as deserted and gravitating as the ballroom in the Stanley Hotel (and that’s from a non-Jack perspective; Jack would disagree and say that the dining room was the shit), I veered to the left, which was empty, but it at least had a bartender at the counter, cleaning glasses as I walked in. Considering it was just before 5, when most people (unlike myself in the months of June-August) were just getting off of work, the sparseness of the bar didn’t put me off or make me want to go somewhere else (not that I had a choice since I was meeting someone there). It had just opened. And when bars just open, they can be dead. Unfortunately, not every bar or establishment can be like Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.

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The look of the Belfry from the inside is one that is both cozy and modern; minimal meets classic. There are about five-to-six hardwood tall tables with an accompanying four tall stools at each table. In the back corner, to the right of the clock on the wall, a plush four-person couch is designed for people to engage in conversation as a group or get a little “cozy” without crossing the line. And at the bar, about 10-12 tall stools sit at the dark brown, hardwood counter, with flexible backs of the stools that make leaning back an occasional plus. The Belfry doesn’t really try to “wow” their patrons with their interior design, though it’s not off-putting by any means. Think of it as a modernized VFW that can allow anyone in, coupled with the kind of hipster flair one would see from a dining or coffee establishment on the Westside.

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In addition to glorifying Chelsea FC (woof…rough year last season), the Belfry also showcases all kinds of whiskey and beer (notice the 20 taps).

What makes the Belfry aesthetically pleasing is behind the bar, as the extensive beer and whiskey selection will make any millennial grow a chest hair in awe. As you can see in the picture above, this is a “whiskey” lounge in every sense of the word. They have probably dozens of selections of bourbons, Scotch whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, you name it. They have local whiskeys like the J. Rieger Kansas City Whiskey, made by the same people who own the Rieger Hotel in the Crossroads, but they also have a lot of nice varieties of the expensive small batch bourbons and Johnny Walker’s as well (I’m talking “Blue Label” shit here). They have a small Gin, Tequila and Vodka selection (as you can see in the bottom right of the photo), but truth be told, the Belfry is about showcasing the whiskey, and in its pure forms. Yes, they can make classic cocktails, but in terms of specialty drinks, they only feature about 8-10. If you do feel the need for something mixed into your whiskey, I would suggest that Grand Fashioned, the Belfry’s take on a classic old-fashioned using J. Rieger bourbon. It’s the kind of drink that will make you feel like Don Draper in “Mad Men” only without the 50’s racism and misogyny.

The Belfry has a quality cocktail selection (the trafficway was also a solid cocktail that utilized Rye), but to be honest, whiskey, especially expensive stuff, is meant to be consumed in its purest forms: single or double, neat. No fancy mixers. No vermouths or shit. Thankfully for whiskey purists, the Belfry adheres to that kind of minimalistic perfection with their expansive whiskey selection. So, to get the full Belfry whiskey experience, find a bourbon or scotch or Irish whiskey on the menu that entices you, order a single (or a double) neat, and just sink it in.

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Whiskey may be one of the feature characteristics of the Belfry, but Kansas City is not Tennessee or Kentucky. Kansas City is a beer town, and a growing craft beer city with the rise of Boulevard being served in drinking establishments now all over the country (I have a friend who drinks Boulevard in DC), and more and more smaller craft breweries opening up in the Metro every year. The Belfry also pays homage to KC’s craft beer scene with 20 beers on tap, showcasing everything from IPAs, to Gose’s, to Saisons to even Imperial Stouts. The beers rotate regularly, as evidenced by a clipboard/office paper menu that look similar to the check in sheet I used to have as a RA when freshmen reported to their dorms for orientation day. It’s not fancy, nor is it the kind of feature Jon Taffer would approve of, but I can appreciate such a “low cost” menu design to make sure everything remains accurate on a daily basis. They also have a massive chalkboard near the entrance that lists all 20 beer selections, for over-anxious types (i.e. me) who don’t trust everything on that piece of paper on the clipboard. For those looking for a suggestion, the Great Divide Yeti, an Imperial Stout from Colorado, is a beer enthusiasts’ pound of pure, with the dark coffee/chocolate appearance and taste one would expect from an Imperial Stout, but not as heavy as the typical IS. And, at 9.4% it also packs a punch, so enjoy 1 or 2 and you’ll be good (though as with any stout, you probably will be good after 1 or 2 anyways, considering they can be filling).

But, any kind of specialty cocktail/craft beer lounge such as the Belfry wouldn’t be good for Happy Hour without a decent food menu. Despite its simple appearance inside, the food is a dantiful surprise, as James Beard Award-winning chef, Celina Tio, who also owns Julian in Brookside, is in charge of the menu at the Belfry. The food is a fusion mix of sorts, ranging from homestyle favorites one would find at a good local cafe, to small-plate dishes (on special during happy hour), to more modern takes on pub food. Yes, you can get a classic burger with fresh cut fries, and the rigatoni entices with fresh ricotta cheese, a chunky tomato sauce, and spicy Italian sausage that tastes like it came from a local butcher shop. (Anton’s or Broadway Butcher perhaps?) However, what really made Tio and the Belfry’s menu stand out was their take on vegetables. Their special pan fried cauliflower has a sweet spicy texture it, with the cauliflower nice and tender, and the spiciness enhancing the flavor of the vegetables, not overpowering it.

And while that was good, it still paled in comparison to their tempura-fried broccoli rabe.

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Words cannot describe the balance of the crunchiness of the tempura batter with the honey Sriracha glaze. Yes, you read that right FUCKING HONEY SRIRACHA GLAZE. (I know what you’re thinking: “GTFO!”) An explosion of Asian-American flavors burst through in this dish, as the hot, sweet, salty, and crispy textures made it worth savoring for seconds before going onto the next bite. Tio is an Asian-American chef who holds multiple Asian heritages (with Chinese and Filipino being two of them), and her multi-Asian ethnicity is showcased proudly in this dish, with multiple references to different Asian flavors present. This dish may go under the radar with most patrons. After all, fried broccoli? “Fuck that. I didn’t come to this whiskey and craft beer bar to eat a dish my fucking mom made me eat before I got spumoni ice cream, homie.”

But trust me. The honey sriracha tempura fried broccoli rabe blows flavor gaskets to the 100th degree.

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The Belfry may not resonate with everyone. If you want a nicer, more traditional cocktail bar environment, Julep in Westport may be your cup of tea. If you want a cocktail bar with more flair, then Manifesto in the basement of the Rieger Hotel would be a better pick. If you want multitudes upon multitudes of beer selections, than the Ruins in the Crossroads and their self-pour station is your best bet.

But the Belfry is a nice balance. It’s simple. Both in menu and in environment. It’s a great to hang out with people after work or on a lazy afternoon or evening. It’s free of distractions. And despite it’s lack of amenities, the Belfry proves to be a special place where one can grab a bite to eat and a glass of whiskey or pint of craft beer during happy hour. It feels like your place, like your club, like your friend’s gallery or print press in the Crossroads  that chills the fuck out on First Friday’s and serves liquor and beer to whoever drops in.

That kind of special environment can not be duplicated with amenities or fancy decorating. It has to be truly genuine for that vibe to be replicated.

Luckily for KC bar and happy hour patrons, the Belfry has that authenticity, and more importantly…charm.

A Tale of the Kings, Tiny and Two Cities: The Kansas City-Omaha Era

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“I wonder if the NBA will ever come back to Kansas City…”

During the first month in my move to Kansas City, I went to a bar nearby in Kansas City, Kansas called “Chicago’s“. It was a small bar that just served alcohol, no food (as typical with most bars in the Strawberry Hill area), and was mostly frequented by alums of Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, one of the oldest Catholic high schools in the State of Kansas.  At the bar, I got into a conversation with somebody who was a heavy NBA and Oklahoma City Thunder fan (weird for me because I went to Gonzaga and most fans were Sonics fans and the Thunder brought up so many bad memories for them), and he said the quote above, and followed up with positive affirmation that it was going to happen soon in the near future.

“We built the Sprint Center, it’s a NBA-style arena. The downtown area, though not my thing, can attract people before and after games. It’s a sure thing man. They have to bring a NBA team back to Kansas City!”

Back then and to this day, I do agree with him in some regards. The Sprint Center is an arena that can adequately host a NBA franchise (or NHL franchise, should Kansas City ever want one) and is a considerable upgrade over the Kings’ former home, Kemper Arena. The Power and Light District is a good venue for NBA fans to get a bite before weekday games and a drink after them. And with the opening of the KC Streetcar, there is an avenue of public transportation that could ease game day parking anxiety for fans. If there ever was a time for Kansas City to acquire a NBA franchise, the next few years would be it.

However, I do not remain hopeful a NBA franchise will come back to Kansas City, even though I did buy this Charlie Hustle shirt a couple of days ago. For starters, the NBA is probably doing as well as it ever has in its organizational history. The game is slowly becoming the most global sport in the world, especially with FIFA and soccer having all kinds of organizational issues. NBA superstars are becoming household names, and their popularity and imprint on social media and the web has made the league more accessible to fans than other professional sports like the NFL and MLB which seem like “Insiders-only” clubs. (Though the NFL is a lot worse than MLB). And teams are playing good basketball, much better than the college variety that is being seen today. The Warriors clearly are one of the NBA’s best teams, but if you look around the league, there is growing parity, as multiple different teams have made the playoffs within the past five years. Competitively, the NBA is as good as it has ever been, and that has made it a hot ticket with not only passionate basketball fans, but casual fans who are looking for sporting excitement during the Winter and Spring months.

But, with all that being said, these factors hurt the prospect of a NBA franchise coming to Kansas City. With the game being better than ever, franchises are less likely to sell or move from their current locations. As of this moment, every NBA franchise seems to be on solid footing in their current location, and with revenue in the league getting higher and higher each year, NBA owners would be foolish to move during such a renaissance in the league’s history. And with that being said, expansion doesn’t look to be the best idea for the league either. There is a considerable diversity and depth of talent in the league, as each NBA team has a marketable Superstar they can build their franchise around. (With the exception of maybe the 76ers…but hey, maybe Dario Saric and Ben Simmons can reverse that trend!) Expansion would only dilute the talent pool in the league, and make the league less competitive, which wouldn’t help the national or global imprint the league currently has.

This was evident back in 1995, when the league expanded to 30 teams with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. The league really didn’t have enough talent, and though the Raptors were able to climb toward respectability  eventually, the Grizzlies struggled to find talent, and this inevitably led to their move to Memphis, as they could not generate enough fan interest to support their lackluster on-court product. If the league were to expand to two more teams, the same issue would rear its ugly hand, and it could be decades before the league adequately recovers competitively (the late 90’s and early 2000’s saw a lot of competitive imbalance due to expansion).

And lastly, there are other cities they right now would be more attractive sites for the NBA than Kansas City, as painful as that it is to write. Seattle is the front runner for relocation and expansion as they have the right figurehead (Chris Hansen) and fan base to attract a NBA franchise. Other cities like Anaheim (which almost got the Kings before the Maloofs decided at the last minute not to sell), and possibly Vancouver (with basketball now more popular than ever in Canada, the idea of a second franchise again in Vancouver makes sense; David Stern, in one of his last years as commissioner, also remarked that moving the franchise out of Vancouver was one of his biggest regrets). So, Kansas City isn’t exactly top on the queue of possible “relocation” or “expansion” spots, and that should deter any NBA fan in Kansas City of dreaming about the possibility of professional basketball being resurrected in Kansas City in the near or even distant future. Yes, Kansas City has the resources, but it may just be that the NBA and Kansas City will never be the right fit, which is unfortunate as Kansas City is becoming one of the more landmark and major cities in the Midwest, and it could expand the game’s popularity in the “Heart of America”.

That being said, even though the future for the NBA in Kansas City looks bleak, there is a rich NBA tradition in the city as one of the major franchises during the 70’s and 80’s. And one of the cooler things that happened in their history was their “joint-city” franchise from 1972-1975 when the Kings were known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. So, let’s take a brief look back at the history of this franchise when they were truly the “Heartland’s” NBA franchise.

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The Kings franchise began in 1948-1949 as the Rochester Royals out of Rochester, New York. In just the franchise’s third year of existence, the Royals won the NBA Championship in 1951, which has been the only championship in franchise history. In 1956, the Royals moved to Cincinnati where they became the Cincinnati Royals. During their 15-year run, the franchise was mostly led by former Bearcat and future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who averaged 29.3 ppg, 10.3 apg and 8.5 rpg in his 10 seasons with the Royals from 1960-1970 (he finished his last four seasons in Milwaukee). The franchise in Cincinnati experienced some success, as they made the playoffs six straight seasons from 196-1967 during the peak of Robertson’s career. However, they never made it past the conference finals, and after Robertson went to Milwaukee, the Royals suffered a couple of miserable seasons before they decided to move further west to Kansas City.

Because of the baseball team already being the Royals, the NBA team renamed their franchise the Kings in their move to heart of the Midwest. Originally, the Kings were supposed to play in three locations: Kansas City, Omaha and St. Louis. However, the plans for St. Louis fell apart shortly before the 1972-1973 season their first year in Kansas City and Omaha. The Kings split their games during their first two seasons between Municipal Auditorium in downtown Kansas City and the Omaha Civic Auditorium. While a classic arena, Municipal, even at the time, was hardly a NBA venue, as it only seated 7,316 people for games (nearly 2,000 less than the Omaha Civic Auditorium).

Now to people nowadays, the idea of a split-city franchise seems unheard of. With how big public funding is with arenas, and how much economic impact a NBA franchise has on a city, today, such a thing wouldn’t exist. Cities invest too much in their sport franchises to “share” with another city, and the splitting of revenue from merchandise and taxes would be an accounting nightmare. However, back in the day, when the NBA was still trying to compete with college basketball for fans and revenue, this was a lot more common, though in more minor instances. For example, the Boston Celtics used to regularly play games in Hartford, Connecticut (to reiterate the Celtics’ legacy as “New England’s Team”), and the Clippers used to split their home games between Los Angeles and Anaheim (the Clippers toyed with moving permanently to Orange County for a while as their Anaheim crowds consistently outdrew their Los Angeles ones). Even the Golden State Warriors are called “Golden State” for a reason, as they originally were going to split their home games between Oakland and San Diego after they moved from San Francisco (though they ditched this idea before even implementing it and simply made Oakland their exclusive home).

That being said, Kansas City-Omaha was really the only NBA franchise that had the two city identity, even if it only lasted for a few years. And to be honest, the idea really was a smart one. With Kansas City and Omaha being both border cities, the Kings were not just catering to two cities (like in the Clippers’ situation) or even two states (like the Celtics), but rather four states (Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa). By being in Kansas City AND Omaha, the Kings really were trying to be the Midwest’s NBA team, and even though it was short-lived, the three years undoubtedly had some kind of impact in generating NBA fan interest in communities where the NBA, let alone basketball in general, is not necessarily enticing or a priority.

(And another underrated contribution: the Kings in Kansas City-Omaha introduced the name underneath the number, as seen below; even to this day, the Kansas City Omaha Kings jerseys stand the test of time in terms of their aesthetic value)

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The Kansas City-Omaha Kings struggled in their first two years, finishing 36-46 under head coach and former Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy, and then 33-49 in a year where the franchise saw three different head coaches. Cousy stepped down after a 6-14 start, they had 4 games led by interim coach Draff Young (which they lost all 4), and then the year was finished by Phil Johnson, who went a respectable 27-31 for the remainder of the year.

In Johnson’s first full season though, the Kings tasted their first morsel of success in the Midwest. In Kansas City, the Kings went from playing at the old Municipal to the newly opened Kemper Arena, state of the art at the time, and a much bigger venue than either Municipal or the Civic Auditorium in Omaha (Kemper sat 16,785 people). Because of access to this new arena in the West Bottoms, the Kings only played 11 games in Omaha during the 1974-1975 season, a significant downgrade from the previous two years, and a sign of things to come: the Kings decided to play solely in Kansas City and dropped the “Omaha” from their name the next season.

But in their last year as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, they went 44-38 and made the playoffs, where they matched up against Bob Love, Jerry Sloan and the Chicago Bulls, whom they lost to in 6 games. However, it was the first winning record for the Kings in their history in Kansas City/Omaha area, and it set the wheels in motion for what would be more lasting on court success in Kansas City in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

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The Kings had some good players during their run in Kansas City and Omaha. They had Jimmy Walker, who was a standout at Providence College and Sam Lacey, a double-double machine in the post for the Kings. Also, in 1974-1975, they had two future NBA coaches on the team in Rick Adelman, who eventually would coach the Kings to their most successful period in franchise history in Sacramento, and Mike D’Antoni, the architect of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns.

However, no player was more important during the Kansas City-Omaha days than Nate “Tiny” Archibald.

Archibald was originally drafted in 1970 in the second round when the Kings were still the Royals in Cincinnati in 1970 out of the University of Texas El-Paso (which was formerly Texas Western, which was profiled in the film “Glory Road”). Archibald was a New York streetball legend who made his name on the playgrounds throughout the city, especially in the South Bronx. Unlike some high school players out of New York, Archibald’s high school accomplishments did not match his playground ones, as he only played one and a half-years of basketball at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and nearly dropped out of high school completely due to truancy. However, despite getting cut as a sophomore from the varsity team, Archibald eventually became a team captain and All-City player, though his poor academic performance during his early high school years ended up hurting him from getting more major college offers.

Tiny was the epitome of the “streetball” city player, as he was known for his strong dribbling ability and toughness on the court despite his size, and one had to wonder how he would mesh in the middle of the country where there were more farms and corn than concrete and basketball playgrounds. He didn’t have any local ties to any of the colleges (like Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa, Iowa State, or Nebraska), which is how many expansion franchises cater to local fanbases. However, Archibald played some of his best basketball in Kansas City, especially during the franchise’s time in Kansas City and Omaha, and Kings fans seemed to endear to him, despite his unfamiliarity to them, since day one.

In his first season as a Kansas City-Omaha King, Archibald proved he was one of the league’s superstars, which helped put the Kings, (and consequently Kansas City and Omaha) on the national media’s radar. He made the All-Star team that year and led the league in minutes played, field goals made, field goals attempted, assists and points scored (he averaged 34 points per game and 11.4 assists per game). Archibald was a one-man team of sorts and he did so from the point guard position and as one of the smaller men on the floor on a night in and night out basis. Archibald regressed a little bit the following season (not a surprise considering all the turmoil going on with the coaching situation), but in the final year as the Kansas City and Omaha Kings, Archibald was the key component to the Kings 44-38 record and appearance in the playoffs. He scored 26.5 ppg and averaged 6.8 apg, while playing all 82 games. In the playoffs, Archibald was the Kings’ best player, as he averaged 20.2 ppg during the six-game series.

While he continued his success on the court as the Kings made the move on a permanent basis to Kansas City, one could argue that Archibald saw his best years when they were split between Kansas City and Omaha. When you watch highlights of Archibald, he continues to amaze, and it’s easy to see how he influenced the game today. His ball handling skills, his jump shot, his scoring ability, his speed on the court. Archibald had a grasp of the game that not many players, let alone point guards, have had in NBA history. We hear all the time of players like Pete Maravich and Jerry West and Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson impacting point guards of today. That being said, Archibald also deserves to be in that mix, especially when you consider his size, his impact on professional basketball in the Midwest, and his ability to overcome a lot of odds and roadblocks in his personal life to be successful. Tiny is in the Hall of Fame for a reason and the video below should be further reason why.

It’s fun to watch him play back then. The way he creates with the ball, the way he cuts through defenders on the way to the basket, the way he scores with such versatility and ease, and how he displays such bravado on the court and humility off of it. It reminds the younger generations that there were entertaining one-man shows in the NBA prior to Jason Williams and  Stephen Curry.

It’s too bad there are not more tapes and highlights of Archibald in the NBA vault.

1972-73 Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball team. Seated (l-r): Sam Lacey, Don Kojis, Ron Riley, Capt. Tom Van Arsdale, Ken Kurrett, Sam Sibert, Johnny Gree. Standing (l-r): Trainer Joe Keefe, coach bob Cousy, Dick Gibbs, Toby Kimball, Mike Ratliff, Matt G

Professional basketball most likely will not be coming back to Kansas City anytime soon, if ever. And the same could be said for Omaha as well, which doesn’t have any professional sports franchise other than a minor league baseball team. And yet for three seasons, NBA basketball was played in the Midwest between two cities and among four states. For three seasons, the Kings were not just a city’s NBA team, but an overlooked geographical area’s, and they produced some memorable teams and some memorable players. Yes, there were no championships in Kansas City-Omaha, nor were there any championships when the franchise was solely in Kansas City. And that is too bad, especially since championships can save franchises financially and spiritually (fans won’t want to part with a team that won a championship for their community).

But, Kansas City and Omaha Kings fans were a witness to professional basketball. They were a witness to the playoffs, where the Kings won two home games in front of the raucous Kemper Arena faithful (they used alternate home and away games every game rather than every two like today). And they were witness to a Hall of Famer playing the best and most entertaining basketball of his career in the Heart of America, the Midwest, typically seen as the “Flyover States.”

For three years, Kansas City and Omaha had something truly wonderful, not to mention something people currently in Kansas City and Omaha will never see in those cities again.

I know Kings fans say they envy those Kings fans who were around when the Kings were in Kansas City. I know I can say I envy those Kings fans who will be there for the new arena opening this October in Sacramento (though I know I will see a Kings game at some point in the new arena, so my envy is not that high).

But I think those currently in Kansas City and Omaha, especially those who grow up here in the post-Kings era, can definitely say they envy those who were Kings fans from 1972-1975. Because they missed out on so much, and will never get that opportunity down the road in Kansas City and Omaha. Those three years were a simply a comet of basketball wonder in the Midwest.

And I envy that, even as a Kansas City transplant.

Fresh Friday: Reminiscing R. Kelly and Prepping for the “Buffet Tour”

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This Saturday, April 30th, I will be seeing R. Kelly perform at the Sprint Center in Kansas City as he will be promoting his newest album “The Buffet”. While I have only listened to a couple of tracks here and there from his new album, this concert is a bit of a culminating lifetime event for me, as R. Kelly has been an active part of my musical listening life since I was in 3rd grade. Yes, that sounds odd for a R&B artist who is known for singing sexually provocative songs to be booming through the earbuds of a 9-year-old Pinoy kid, but believe me, R. Kelly is sacred to me. R. Kelly (along with Bone Thugs and Harmony) was responsible for introducing my young ears to the world of R&B and Hip Hop, and even to this day, R. Kelly has always been considered one of my music staples.

So, to get ready for the concert, not to mention this weekend in general, I will be examining two R. Kelly songs that I have the closest ties to. Furthermore, they’re dope throwback jams (which come at different points in R. Kelly’s career), and they’re worth listening to in your car or in your place if you got company or are getting ready to go out. These two songs are not only R. Kelly classics, but in my mind, they are essentials in the modern R&B world as well.

“Down Low” featuring the Isley Brothers (1995)

Down Low was my first exposure to R. Kelly when I was in the 3rd grade and just discovering Hip Hop on MTV. I was living in Spokane, Washington, which is a cool town (I went to Gonzaga University, which is also located in Spokane, so obviously I did not hate the place if I decided to spend four years there to get my academic degree) but to be honest, is very white and for a while, was the biggest city in the state of Washington that was mostly Republican (that has changed a bit over the years, as more Gonzaga graduates are staying in Spokane, hence changing the Blue-Red spectrum). My only really exposure to R&B and Hip Hop was through MTV Music Videos, and while Down Low was not the first (That belonged to Bone Thugs’ “Crossroads“), it was probably one of the more profound and impacting songs/music videos I listened to that got me transitioning from grunge rock to R&B and Hip Hop.

To be honest, one of my reasons for the musical transition was at the time, I knew my family and I were moving to California, and I looked up to my cousins on my Mom’s side (the Filipino side) and they were all about Rap, and I wanted to associate myself with as much Hip Hop as humanely possible so I wouldn’t look like an ass hole who “didn’t know jack about music” in front of my cousins, not to mention my soon-to-be California classmates wherever I went to school to (which, considering I went to a Catholic school that was mostly white, proved to be fruitless, as not many kids in my class ended up listening to hip hop; they mostly were the punk and metal rock crowd, and I had my brief period of time with those genres as well). So, whatever I listened to that mirrored Rap, I was into, and R. Kelly, in my pre-pubescent mind fit in that category. It had the same kind of beat as Rap, though a bit slower and softer, and better yet, I could buy the albums because they didn’t have the parental advisory label on it.

When I moved to California the summer after 3rd grade, and was hanging out with my cousins in Vallejo, we went to the Wherehouse where they were trading and buying albums. Since they were a combination of 8th graders in middle school and freshmen in high school, and had parents who didn’t give a “F” what they bought musically, they bought all the cool stuff: Bone Thugs, E-40, Wu Tang Clan, etc. I could not buy that stuff because you know, I was nine years old and not only would the cashier not sell me a “36 Chambers” album on cassette, but my parents would flip their shit if they found out I was jamming to “C.R.E.A.M.” in my room (though as I got older and visited my cousins more often, they were able to sneak me cassette copies of their albums, and I was able to listen to them on my cassette Walkman; damn those days were great). So, as they bought “the good stuff” I decided to buy the R. Kelly self-titled album because a.) I had seen the “Down Low” music video on MTV when I was in Spokane and b.) it was the closest thing to rap I could get because it didn’t have a parental advisory sticker on it (the more I think about it, I have to imagine that the Wherehouse cashier was like “WTF????” when I paid the money to buy that tape).

Now, going back to the “Down Low” music video, when I watched it initially when I was nine, I loved it because I loved the beat, I thought R. Kelly was cool as shit, and the whole music video had this elaborate story with some serious production values, which catered to a wild-imagination kid like myself who also liked mystery stories and action films. But holy crap, I HAD NO IDEA WHAT KELLY WAS TALKING ABOUT OR DOING WITH LILA HEART IN THE DAMN VIDEO!!! I mean, the ripping off of her shirt; setting her on the kitchen island; the making out with him on top of her while she was only in her red lace bra (though I didn’t really know what a bra was at the time let alone lace); Isley getting all pissed off when he finds Kelly in bed with her (and taking off his sunglasses and whipping his ponytail back in the most dramatic fashion); Isley and his crew beating the shit out of Kelly (and eventually Lila to death…though you never see it); and finally, leaving him in the middle of the desert and him grabbing a bloody Kelly by his tanktop and yelling “LOOK AT ME!!! I DID THIS TO YOU!!”

Yeah. I didn’t really understand any of that as a 9-10 year old. And to be honest, I really thought Isley was overreacting. In my mind, I was like “What’s he so mad about? Yeah they kissed and stuff, but they were just taking a nap! Why the hell was he flipping out?”

(Then again, I also thought the girl originally was his daughter when I first watched this, which got me all confused, because Disney animated movies (mostly Aladdin, which also came out at the time, and involved a dad trying to hook Jasmine up with a variety of suitors; so to me Aladdin and Kelly were like the same person) taught me as a kid that all dads wanted their daughters to find good dudes to marry. And I thought Isley was just trying to be a protective “father” in the opening scene of the music video (I also came to realize later that older guys could date younger women). This brand of naivety also came into play with AZ Yet’s “Last night” as I thought the verse “Last night, I was inside of you” was talking about a baby being born; they were talking about a baby, but more about making one than giving one, which I found out later in my teenage years.)

But then years later, I found out that Lila was Isley’s “woman” (never specifies whether she’s a wife, girlfriend or “side” of his), Kelly was having sex in secret with her at her request, and Isley was pissed because Kelly worked for him and trusted him (like a “bro”) and that’s why he flipped out and tried to leave him in the middle of the desert to die “Casino”-style (though he somehow not only gets to the hospital all right, but also the same hospital as Lila; this really was under-explained and deserved more…and yes, this is me demanding more from a R. Kelly music video, which sounds like sacrilege after “Trapped in the Closet”). I realized that this song was referring to having an affair and keeping it quiet, which in my teenage years sounded like the craziest concept ever, especially since I was pretty sheltered as a kid by my parents and anything beyond a monogamous relationship at the time sounded not only so against the grain, but also unfathomable because I assumed all marriages were “happy” partnerships. “Down Low” and R. Kelly exposed me to the underbelly of “secret” relationships, and in a rhythmic and entrancing way that encouraged me to push down the walls of “cloistered-ness” that I grew up in. That isn’t saying I got into a “Down Low” relationship or wanted one, but it made me realize that this “secret” world existed and as bad as it sounded, good music could come out of it.

And yes, this realization all developed in my middle and high schools years. R. Kelly had me examining the “morality” of infidelity through his 1995 hit song, all because I wanted to listen to hip hop. That is some Socrates shit right there, and in addition to a new realization of relationships, I also delved into R&B hardcore. Because of “Down Low” and R. Kelly’s self-titled album, I went on to buy other albums from artists like Keith Sweat, Blackstreet, AZ Yet, Boyz II Men and even Toni Braxton (though that was more my mom who loved “Unbreak My Heart” for whatever reason…I’m not going to ask her on that one).

And I did this all before I graduated middle school.

 

“Fiesta” (Remix) featuring Jay-Z, Boo and Gotti

The “Fiesta” remix came out in 2001, right when I was becoming a freshman in high school. The song was absolutely dope, as it was a hot track that was widely played on 102.5 and 103.5, two hip-hop and R&B based radio stations in Sacramento. To be honest, my listening to R. Kelly and R&B waned in my late middle school years, as I went through this weird metal phase where I listened to Limp Bizkit and Rob Zombie (I instantly regret and try to forget this period of my life musically). However, after being exposed to the “Fiesta” Remix, I was back all-in on R. Kelly.

During the Christmas Break of my Freshman year, I got a Borders Bookstore certificate and went to the music aisle to buy some CDs (because Borders had music, so why the hell would I buy books when I could by music instead? My parents hated me for this and stopped giving me Borders gift certificates as gifts when they realized I wasn’t buying it on books). In the “Top Hits” section, I found the TP-2.com CD which had the song “Fiesta” on it, and since I loved that song, and had fond memories of it from my younger days, I decided to use my gift certificate money on it.

There was one problem: it had a parental advisory label on it.

I remember taking about 10 minutes debating whether I should buy it or not. I looked at it, thought about going to the cashier to buy it, then I changed my mind, put it back, went to another aisle, saw some Matchbox 20 or shit like that, realized that I was compromising, and then would go back and stare at the TP-2.com CD some more. It was very similar to how I approached girls at dances in high school, with the only difference being that unlike the album which was still there on the rack, either a.) the girl would be dancing with another dude by the time I made the second pass-by or b.) they would be creeped out and wouldn’t want to dance (Yes, I didn’t date much in high school consequently).

After much deliberation, I grabbed the CD and decided to buy it. I remember sweating bullets as I gave it to the cashier, who looked to be a dude in high school or college. I thought he was going to ask how old I was or if I had ID, like I was buying beer or cigarettes or porn. But much to surprise, all that anxiety and worry came to naught. He rang it up, I paid with my gift card, he put it in the bag and I was on my way. He didn’t mention a damn thing about the parental advisory label.

And boy, I remember strutting out of that Borders with all the damn confidence in the world. I had just bought the TP-2.com and my first parental advisory album. It was like I just grew my first armpit hair or had sex for the first time. That’s how elated I felt as I gazed at R. Kelly in his white beanie, sunglasses and fur coat on the cover when I got home in my room with the door closed,  right before I popped it in to my CD Walkman (notice how I remained loyal to the Sony Walkman brand after all these years).

But there was one problem: the album didn’t have the “Fiesta” Remix! It had the original “Fiesta” song, which was cool, but it wasn’t the version with Jay-Z and Boo and Gotti.

I felt like I had just gotten a number from a girl at a dance, only to find out she had given me a fake (not to say that such a thing happened…sigh…okay it did…like I said, I didn’t have a lot of dating experience in high school; sue me).

After some time with the album, I grew to appreciate it. The original “Fiesta” song, though not as good as the remix, still had its moments, and I enjoyed the “I Wish” song more than most, even though it is really a depressing song that no 15-year-old freshman should be listening to. But the “Fiesta” Remix in my opinion is one of Kelly’s best. It’s at a time in his career when Kelly revamped his style and  blended his sound and writing skills into the hip hop genre. While LL Cool J and A Tribe Called Quest obviously came before when it came to the “Rap Ballad”, Kelly’s “Fiesta” was one of the major “R&B Hop” songs that fused an R&B song with a Rap flair. The song is flexible in all kinds of scenarios: You can put it on at a party, you can jam to it in your car, you can put it on when you’re hanging out with that special someone, and guess what? It’ll still be appropriate and match the mood. That is how great the “Fiesta Remix” is and what cemented Kelly with me as one of my favorite artists in the R&B genre, even to this day.

Kelly has had some highs (“Happy People” is one of my guilty pleasures; though lyrically it does sort of suck) and lows (“Trapped in the Closet” probably remains one of his most embarrassing and ridiculous ventures) in my musical experience with him. However, Kelly has always struck a chord with me when it came to how I developed my musical taste, and if it wasn’t for Kelly I wouldn’t have appreciated R&B music like I have over the years. R&B to me is like that girlfriend who you keep breaking up and getting back together with time and time again. Just when I think I’m going all House music, I am listening to Avant. When I am convinced I’m an Indie Folk guy, I am downloading The Weeknd’s mix tapes. R&B and me are forever twined, and R. Kelly is responsible for that, mostly thanks to “Down Low” and “Fiesta” Remix.

April 30th is going to be a big day. At midnight, I will be turning 29 years old, one year shy of 30.

It seems fitting to celebrate such a day with someone who has been part of my life for nearly 20 years.