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I went to Kansas City assuming I’d be a brown girl in a decidedly red state. I went to Kansas City thinking, I live in New York and there’s no way KC is a real urban center. I went to Kansas City suspecting it was flyover territory for a reason. Basically, I went in without an open mind. But Kansas City challenged me at every turn. Nay! It double-dog dared me to resist its charms. Your preconceptions are putty in Kansas City’s hands, because, it turns out, Kansas City is not what you think it is, and it will confront the pants off of your assumptions.
I landed at the airport in the middle of a bright, sunny September day and immediately realized that the airport was bigger than I thought it would be. I somehow imagined that a city of 418,000 with a metro area of 2.1 million would have two gates and a horse stand. Come on, snooty urban elites, deep down, didn’t you think the same thing? It was merely the first of many things I was wrong about.
I got in a cab helmed by an Eritrean refugee. He had first immigrated to another U.S. city—whose name I shall not besmirch—and ended up moving to Kansas City because that other nameless city wasn’t friendly. In KC, he says, everyone is friendly. They help you figure things out. They’re lovely. This was a common refrain on my trip. Everyone is really nice. They’re really friendly. They’re friendlier than whatever Meanie McAsshole Town you just came from. They’re good people. The Palestinian Lyft driver said it, the Dominican branding expert said it, the Australian restaurateur said it. Kansas City’s evil, maniacal plan for global domination is to turn everyone into a delightful person.
I used this eager friendliness to create an itinerary. I decided not to google, yelp, tripadvisor, foursquare, smooj, flook, sink, or hustle anything off the internet. This itinerary would be derived from word-of-mouth Kansasian goodness. Er, or Kansan goodness. Er—also Missourian goodness, because it’s one of those metro areas that straddles two states. And if we’re honest, which, up to this point, I’ve held up my end of the bargain, it’s anchored on the Missouri side.
My first human google was the hotel concierge. “Jazz!!!” she screamed enthusiastically⎯“you have to go see some live JAZZ.” She said it in all caps.
For my first two days I stayed at the Fontaine hotel, so named because Kansas City is “The City of Fountains.” I was suspicious of this moniker, because a city’s fountain game really needs to be on point to make that tagline work. But I took it as a warning, a warning that I would see fountains. Weirdly, the Fontaine itself did not display any fountains so… I got my eye on you, “City of Fountains.”
My first human google was the hotel concierge. “Jazz!!!” she screamed enthusiastically⎯“you have to go see some live JAZZ.” She said it in all caps. I took notes. Within an hour I met a friend of a friend, Eric, for coffee at the Made in Kansas City Marketplace. The Marketplace was made for skeptical New York City tourists: a place where you could behold all of KC’s best artisan, bespoke, be-snooty offerings—beard balm, sriracha pickled green beans—all while drinking great coffee and snacking on an unexpected crêpe.
Eric is a branding/creative director and is a member of KC’s extremely small Dominican immigrant population. He, like my cab driver, also moved his family from a less friendly American city to the more friendly Kansas City. I learned from Eric what many people would tell me: Kansas City is segregated. Very segregated. But it doesn’t want to be. KC wants you to focus on the local artisans with their feminist statement tees, and hopefully you won’t notice that black neighborhoods are isolated and economically disadvantaged. Maybe enough fountains in other parts of the city will make up for it?? Eric gave me his list of sights—which included a surprisingly long list of museums and a strong dose of barbecue—and I was off to the races.
To form your image of me, I should mention that I’m not only a brown lady from New York, I’m also a stand-up comedian. Like most comedians, I look at every U.S. city—and every English-speaking city around the world—with dirty, hungry comedy eyes. Which is to say, everywhere comedians go, we wonder: Could I get up and do a set? If I could just do 10 minutes in this random town, I’d feel better. . . . I’d know what this place is about. I’d get closer to having laughter fill the unfillable void left by parents who never complimented me as a child. Ahem. But it was my first night, and I had to focus on discovering the city. Stand-up would have to wait. Besides, maybe a Friday night in Kansas City will give me some material.
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I headed to the Green Lady Lounge. The Green Lady is historic. It has that musty velveteen banquette vibe without actually having velveteen banquettes. And, indeed, jazz in Kansas City is . . . “a thing.” I think of jazz as native to New Orleans or New York, but this was yet another area in which I failed to give Kansas City its proper respect. Jazz may have been born in another city, but it came to life in KC. Or at least, that’s what my jazz nerd friend told me later when I asked for some jazz history verification. Even Charlie Parker was born and raised here! I don’t know shit about jazz, and even I know that Parker and his bebop stylings were seminal.
Just to further round out the image you might have of me, I’m not just a brown lady comedian but I’m also doing this trip all while being over six months pregnant. Turns out, being pregnant is a great entrée to talk to strangers. No one suspects you of being evil or having an agenda. They assume you’re a nice person—I wanted to tell them, “Hey! Be careful talking to me, because I could be evil AND pregnant at the same time. Don’t be fooled by the belly; my soul could still be filled with dark sludge.” But I didn’t say any of that, because this was working well, and I wanted to meet as many locals as I could. Plus, full disclosure, I’m not that evil. Of course, an evil person would say that. (Hmph, there’s a bit in this somewhere. Enjoy the jazz and note that for later.)
The people at the Green Lady Lounge immediately seemed like they were the edgier end of a public radio audience. They shop carrying a nonprofit-branded tote bag but still get tipsy on the weekends. I do well with this kind of crowd. A lovely couple sitting next to me got all up in my chat. They explained to me that Kansas City was moving and shaking, that it was like Austin was 10 years ago, i.e., still cool and on the rise. That in the ’80s, downtown was just a couple of wig shops, strip clubs, and an inexplicable fur coat store. No one went there; it was sad and abandoned. They told me that the city’s first female mayor, Kay Barnes, got the ball rolling on downtown revitalization. People thought she was nuts to build an arena and develop an entertainment district around the old Kansas City Power and Light building. What will people do, see a game and then have a nightcap in the fur coat store?
But she was right. Now, downtown has all this . . . stuff. It’s like a real downtown that people actually go to. It represents the kind of urban living that encouraged the couple’s children to go away for college but come back to KC for actual life. One of their daughters—they were a newly engaged middle-aged couple with previous lives—had just moved into a loft downtown and was thrilled. Sheʼd considered living in Denver and San Francisco, but the cost didn’t make sense to her—she could get all the same urban cool without living in a shoebox and wasting all her income on rent. I toasted their pending nuptials with my nonalcoholic mango lassi and made my way back to the hotel. One drawback of being pregnant: My ability to rage didn’t extend past 10:30 p.m.
Everyone said Kansas City was an artists’ town, including Asheer, another friend of a friend, who is an artist in this artists’ town. He couldn’t stop raving about Open Spaces—a series of installations and performing arts events scattered throughout the city. I decided to see the Nick Cave exhibit, Hy-Dyve. Cave had taken over the Hope Center, a former church in a historically black neighborhood, to breathtaking effect. The church had no pews, no altars, no religious tchotchkes, just a large open space with vaulted ceilings and that haunting feeling that this place was once bumpin’. That it used to be the anchor of this neighborhood until it wasn’t. That at some point people wore their Sunday best, listened to the words of a preacher, and checked each other out. They gossiped, they kvetched, they praised, they observed. And now, the world-famous Nick Cave—another Missouri native—had filled it with something entirely different. He filled it with the howl of wind and the percussive sounds of an avalanche on loop. He filled it with film projections of minstrels in blackface who danced across the walls of the church and with ocean waves, overwhelming crashing waves, projected underfoot.
Like all of America, [Kansas City] hasn’t figured out its inequality problem. But it really wants to.
When you leave the Hope Center’s decommissioned church you realize what revitalization really means when it comes to Kansas City. How does this black neighborhood become an everybody neighborhood? Or do we perceive white neighborhoods as the default standard? How do the riches of the nearby fancy Plaza district move east of Troost Avenue—the unofficial dividing line between rich and poor, white and nonwhite? The Hope Center was firmly on the east side of the city—the side everyone told me to be careful of, to be fearful of. It was filled with beautiful old houses, half of them boarded up, half of them lovingly maintained.
This is how Kansas City proved itself to be a real city, because like most real cities in America, it still hasn’t figured out its segregation problem. Like all of America, it hasn’t figured out its inequality problem. But it really wants to. It beckons the cultural elite like Nick Cave to seduce the bourgeois types to the east side. In the hopes that they’ll come, they’ll mix, they’ll transform.
I made my way to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the city’s pièce de résistance of prestige museum-i-ness. That’s right, I said museum-i-ness. . .
I decided to walk to my next destination, and I looked out of place in this neighborhood, a brown pregnant lady who was clearly not a local. But then again, I’m from one of those severely underrepresented ethnic minorities, so I’m out of place everywhere. Never mind the fact that walking in most of this country is considered bananas behavior, and Kansas City is no different. But if I hadn’t walked, I would have missed the adorable Yum bakery and its signature Sweet Potato Donut. I would have missed the beautiful walkway along Brush Creek. I would have missed the colorful crosswalk art—whimsical geometric designs that tell you, in KC they take art seriously, even underfoot. I would have missed the devouring sound of crickets and cicadas that reminds you, even though you’re in a decidedly urban landscape, the critters are waiting in the wings to take over the moment you fuck up.
I made my way to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the city’s pièce de résistance of prestige museum-i-ness. That’s right, I said museum-i-ness, because, look, I have gone to museums, I’ve thrown around terms like “watercolors” and “Renaissance” and “that thing where it’s just a sculpture of some dead guy’s face.” But I’m not going to pretend I know about museums. To my untrained eye, the Nelson-Atkins was quite lovely. It had its fair share of European masterpieces: Gauguins, Delacroixs, and Monets. I beheld, I revered, I appreciated. Because I’m a New York City bastard whose soul may or may not be filled with dark sludge, I thought this museum would be, you know, a building. But here again, my arrogance was put in check. It’s not just “a building.” It’s multiple buildings, and it’s HUGE. It’s on grounds, there’s landscaping and sculptures, and tons of people clamoring to see impressionist thingamajigs. It’s got many floors, it takes time, it commands respect. There are sarcophagi for chrissakes.
I’m not even sure where I get off being arrogant. I’ve performed in the backs of bars, in delis that have been converted to “stages,” in parking lots. I’ve slept on torn-up couches and in motels with stained walls . . . and I . . . I thought the Nelson-Atkins Museum was gonna be less than? Hilarious.
After being face-palmed by a museum, I needed barbecue. Everyone in KC has strong opinions on what the best barbecue is. It’s a matter of ongoing dispute and civic pride. There is a right answer and there are multiple wrong answers. I had been compiling a list from my various encounters with strangers, and I went with Char Bar. It wasn’t the most commonly recommended—like Q39 or Joe’s Kansas City or Arthur Bryant’s—but I chose it because I liked the name, the rhyme sounded funny. Also, sometimes I choose my wine by how the label looks. It’s a garbage method of selection that works for me.
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Char Bar was in the old Westport neighborhood, which had a Portland vibe. The kind of neighborhood where I imagine there were a lot of CD shops back in the day. I ordered the Burnt Heaven with a side of jalapeño cheesy corn. The Burnt Heaven lived up to its name, and when it was doused in the house sauce I began to see what all the fuss was about—why you could end up throwing punches if anyone talked shit about your favorite barbecue spot. The cheesy corn was cheesy. It had the kind of cheese volume where, in mixed company, you would pretend like “oh man, that’s too much cheese!” but secretly, you really like that there’s too much cheese. Afterwards, the waitress saw dessert in my eyes, and within moments she brought me the Burnt Pudding, a butterscotch-meets-crème-brûlée concoction that would have made a French pastry chef blush. My belly engorged with a boatload of food, on top of a preexisting baby, I determined that I had successfully eaten the hell out of Char Bar.
I decided to change hotels to mix up the experience and went to 21c. It’s downtown, where, as we’ve established, the cool kids are relocating. It’s a museum-meets-hotel and everything from the changing light beams in the entranceway—designed to reflect the colors of the KC skyline—to the rotating art exhibits to the world-class dry-aged burger at the hotel restaurant was delightful and cool and hip and authentic all rolled into one. I was glad I made the change.
But after all this erudite art consumption, I really needed to be with my people: laughing audiences who are fond of fart jokes. I needed to scratch the comedy itch. So I got a spot at the Improv. It’s in a sprawling strip mall called the Zona Rosa, surrounded by a bunch of Kansas City’s more suburban entertainment fare. Like, you could buy some fruity lotion at the Bath & Body Works and then sidestep into a Cold Stone Creamery. It has none of the “Made in Kansas City” vibe that I had been steeped in for two days.
The lineup was two African American male comedians and me. They seemed . . . surprised to see me. They were probably expecting a dude. But admittedly, to get a New York−based ethnic lady who’s got a bat in the cave would be surprising. Especially for stand-up, because, even now, it’s still overwhelmingly male.
The audience was more than half black. This was the most mixed group I had encountered in Kansas City. I wondered how this crowd would take my set. I still perform at colleges that some comics complain about because they think the student body is too “sensitive.” I’ve never had that problem, maybe because I’m already sensitive to all the stuff the students are sensitive about. But I’m about to walk on a stage in Kansas City and I have NO IDEA what these people want. The opening comic is getting laughs about big-chested women and their huge bras. Hmph, this could go either way, but I figured I should start with some universal stuff about being pregnant and married. Oh yes: I’ll tell them how I never wear my wedding ring because it gets in the way of banging other dudes. That’s simple, it’s universal. Most important, it’s not political. Then I’ll dip my toe into the political stuff.
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The comedy club is where I got a hint of red-on-blue political turmoil. A joke about Trump got a laugh . . . but also got people shaking their heads. They were NOT comfortable with political material. Not because they were Trump supporters, but because it seemed like they had already had too many fights with friends and family over this. Often people cover their mouths and do a tittering laugh if they’re worried that the material has gone too far or is offending the person they came with.
My material on being Iranian and marrying a black guy—making the baby in my belly a “Bliranian,” who will surely be on the cover of all the brochures!— also got laughs, but . . . some uncomfortable ones. I thought maybe jokes on race, from an outsider, felt like a lecture. Even if they were a really specific take about my very own specific marriage. My new Dominican friends had come to the show, and afterwards they said they thought maybe race was still something that Kansas City hadn’t figured out how to talk about. It’s a subject that gets cautious laughs if delivered by a black comedian and extra-cautious laughs if delivered by a Muz. Laughs that say, “Is she allowed to talk about race or is she only allowed to talk about being Muslim? I don’t know!” Don’t worry, KC, the rest of the country doesn’t know either. At least doing stand-up made me stop itching like a laugh addict in withdrawal.
My last night I went to the Majestic to enjoy the beautiful marriage of steak and live jazz. Jazz, it turns out, is something I really enjoy hearing live, even though I never go in my regular life. If you let him, the bartender downstairs at the Majestic will make you a drink of no particular provenance. Mine had cherry and cream and what looked like 17 additional ingredients. I asked him what he liked about KC. He said, “I love that I’ve been able to see it go back to being a bustling city.” He was right.
It was a bustling city, like nothing I had ever anticipated. And it wants to be even more bustling, with its still underused trolley and its pedestrian walkways waiting for more pedestrians. But now it’s at that perfect mid-bustle rising, where it still has the capacity to surprise you. It certainly surprised me.