On that day in Emeryville, CA, when I used the time given to me by missing the train to plan out every travel leg and sleeping accommodation, I made the choice to go to Kansas City, MO. There’s no easy way to get from Denver to Austin on Amtrak, which was my real goal, so Kansas City would provide a good transfer point and help me burn up a couple more legs of my pass so to help me feel like I got my money’s worth.
But the question remained: Why am I going to Kansas City?
Kansas City doesn’t exactly grab the traveler’s attention. It isn’t known for its sites of interest or night life. There were no hostels to be found in the city–the cheapest room I found was at the Econo Lodge on the other side of the Missouri River. And when the city bus dropped me off behind Harrah’s Casino at 11pm on a Friday night, and I still had a three-mile walk to the hotel, I wondered, Is this the reason I came to Kansas City? To gamble?
I never got the chance to find out. With my heavy pack on I grabbed a cab at the front entrance and made it toward my room, still not sure, especially if public transportation couldn’t get me to and from my hotel, what the hell I was doing in KCY.
I had, however, gotten a tip to seek out blues and barbecue, so the next day, after renting a car because I saw no other option, I drove over to 18th and Vine, the seat of the jazz and blues culture that contributes so much to the heritage of the city. 80 years ago, the corner of 18th and Vine marked a hotspot in Kansas City nightlife, part of a long strip of clubs featuring live music and dancing that stretched all the way into downtown. And it lay in the heart of the African American neighborhood which fostered some of America’s proudest music.
Nowadays, the famous corner features a few clubs, a museum, some banners and musical sculptures, and a famous barbecue joint, Arthur Bryants, just a few blocks down. I walked over to Arthur Bryant’s, mouth watering for some authentic KCY BBQ, got in line, and ordered the special: burnt ends and fries.
Sliding my plate down the line toward the cashier, the guy behind me said, “That looks good. What’d you get? Man, I’ve been coming here for years and never had that.”
“It’s my first time,” I said, and explained how I was touring the country on the Amtrak.
“No way!” His eyes lit up. “That is too cool.” And when the cashier gave me my total, he leaned in and said “I’ll get his and mine. He’s traveling all over the country on the Amtrak.” The look on the faces of the guy and girl behind the counter went from unenthused to wide eyed like the kind stranger next to me.
“That’s right,” I said. “Thanks so much. Let me grab us a table.”
The two of us sat in the middle of the bustling restaurant, we gave more formal introductions, and he said, “So tell me a story.” For the next forty minutes, as I picked over my tough and succulent ends doused in thick, vinegary barbecue sauce on a layer of white bread and he put together and ate his sliced pork sandwich, I told all about the different cities I visited and the particulars of train travel. A contractor who just bought an abandoned warehouse to convert into a domicile, he decided he and his wife, a Latvian who loves to travel, would look into passes for themselves next summer. I gave him my card and said thanks again, feeling reinvigorated in my journey by his infectious enthusiasm and generosity.
I exited Athur Bryant’s into the warm Missouri afternoon a new man. Deciding to try the blues club at 18th and Vine, I walked in with an eight-piece band cooking in the front and ordered a beer at the bar in the back. I looked to my right and a big-bossomed black woman grinned wide and shook her finger in the air to the rhythm, gesturing for me to wait just a minute. For what, I wasn’t sure. She squeezed between the bar stools, tables, and supporting beams, and started grooving in front of my stool. I grinned and grooved back.
After a few bars of this grooving she yelled over the music. “No no. You’re going too fast. You got to feel it, baby.” She put her hand to my heart. “You got to feel it in here.” She put her fingers to my ears. “You got to listen.” She took my hand and swayed it to the sound of “Superstition” and a ripping guitar solo.
Then I realized how little I actually was listening with my ears, how much I was filtering and analyzing with my mind. Always scanning my surroundings for good anecdotes, good dialogue snippets, good stories to write about, I often forget to tap into my senses, to allow the sensations around me to ground me in the moment and experience outward from the seat of the now. This woman brought me back with a hand to the heart and a finger in each ear.
After a pause to find the beat, I eased back into my groove, rolling my shoulders, sliding my hips, tapping my hand to the bar. “There you go,” she said. “You got it now, baby! That’s how you listen to the blues.”
Barbecue, blues music, and the most kind and sincere people I’ve met in America. A reinvigoration on my purpose on this journey and a coming to my senses. I found out on 18th Street why I came to Kansas City.