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Hello everyone! We are excited to welcome Brooklynite writer and filmmaker Peter von Ziegesar who wrote his entry while on a recent Reading Tour to Kansas City with his kids. Nostalgic…informative…take it away Peter:
This week I fly to Kansas City to do a reading of my book The Looking Glass Brother: A Memoir (St. Martin’s Press, June, 2013) at the Boulevard Brewing Company. Why a brewery? Because it has a beautiful space that overlooks downtown Kansas City. I have a reasonable expectation of a large turnout, since The Kansas City Star has run a full-page article written by Donna Seaman of Booklist. Also, a children’s bookstore called The Reading Reptile has agreed to sell my books there. This is going to be a typical exuberant, cobbled-together Kansas City event. My only fear is a stampede when word gets out to my fellow Kansas City Art Institute graduates that free beer is going to be served!
I have a lot of good memories of Kansas City. Here is where I more or less came of age (at 35 or so), where I first started writing – for The Kansas City Star – where I went to art school, and where I met my wife, Hali. We stay with an old college friend, Kathy Marchant. Kathy is an artist, contractor, restaurateur, beekeeper, gardener and urban developer. The block of Madison Street in which she lives with Michael now contains most of my oldest friends. Called Billy Goat Hill, it’s an ancient shabby brownstone neighborhood overlooking downtown, just a walk bridge over I-80 from the somewhat scary concrete-slab FBI headquarters and near a life-sized plastic statue of a Hereford steer on a tall column whose testicles, liver and spleen light up from within, thanks to the miracle of the incandescent bulb.
Years ago, Kathy started The Bluebird Café on the nearby corner of 17th and Summit, and now the intersection is hopping with restaurants and cafes. Everyone has watched each other’s kids grow up on this block and there is a strong feeling of group child-rearing. My old friend John McDonald, who started the Boulevard Brewing Company, is next door with his wife Anne, and two kids, Piper and Jake, and we spend much of our time wallowing in his unusual elongated urban swimming pool. Down the street are Allen Winkler and his wife Leslie and their two kids, Eli and Emma, Scott and Barbara with their son Oscar, Susie and her son Nicky, and around the corner are Howard and Kirby and Adam and Noori. Several sets of grandparents have moved into the street to be near their kids and grandkids. Sometime I want to do an ethnographic study of this block from the point of view of how people move their entrances according to how they are getting along with their particular neighbors.
I’m finding it’s good to travel with two kids as they keep each other exercised like puppies. On the flight my daughter Maya, 15, and son, Magnus, 12, watch TV serials with conjoined headphones and formed a happy, sometimes impenetrable bubble around themselves. Kansas City turns out to be a culinary tour for them. The first thing Magnus does on arrival is google the ten most expensive restaurants in Kansas City. That does worry me a bit.
The first morning we eat bright orange eggs from Kathy’s backyard hens and amazing fruity orchard bread from a bakery located down the street. Even though Magnus is allegedly into haute cuisine, we are also on a hunt for the best mac and cheese in Kansas City. Kathy may have already won with her gluten-free version, which we devour our first night, but we try Anna’s Oven, owned by the mother of a boy who graciously agrees to play a round of tennis with Magnus in the afternoon. Anna makes mac and cheese with radiatore, pronounced not like the cast-iron heat-spreaders you find in New York apartment buildings, but ROD-i-ah-TOR-aye. Maya and I are vegetarians so we later go to Succotash, a midtown eatery that serves truly mammoth breakfasts, such as “Vegan Sink,” an indescribable scramble of lima bean hummus and succotash (limas and corn stew), roasted peppers, portabella mushrooms and home fries. Like most places in KC we wrap much of it up and take it home
On Friday night David Byrne is playing with St. Vincent at an open-air place called Grinders, owned by a fellow ex-KCAI sculpture student known only as Stretch. Stretch somehow managed to buy up half of downtown Kansas City before city real estate moguls caught on. The kids and I head over in an open-topped Swiss Army surplus vehicle owned by one of Kathy’s neighbors and arrive just in time for the show. Maya and Magnus have been complaining that they’d rather stay home and that I’m beastly old and strange, but they perk up when they get there, especially when door guards magic marker huge X’s on their hands to mark them as non-drinkers.
This is how I remember Kansas City, hundreds of scruffy but happy cowtowners standing around in the cooling evening air under a talismanic sky, chomping on slices of pizza, sipping beer as the red neon Tension Envelope sign blinks on and off, and listening to great unconventional music and enjoying the deepening sunset. Maya and Magnus of course know the Talking Head songs and start to jump up and down in imitation of David Byrne’s stilted marching and mysterious hand motions, inspired by the brass ensemble he’s assembled. As the set breaks with “You’re on the Road to Nowhere,” we demobilize and walk home, myself proud to have been able to show the kids something of what’s great about KC.
“Father, thou art ancient, but it was good,” is my daughter’s final verdict. David Byrne’s onstage music partner, St. Vincent, confessed that she was four-years-old when she first heard a David Byrne song in the movie, Revenge of the Nerds. Well, shoot, I was 25, but I feel like a grizzled castaway from of Game of Thrones.
The reading’s on Sunday at the brewery. On Thursday I sit down at KCUR public radio for an interview supposedly about my book, but the conversation drifts off course to the Kansas City art scene and never gets back. Ah, well, a worthy topic. The kids are still sleeping when I return to Kathy’s at noon.
On Sunday morning I go to the brewery early to set up the reading, but there’s no need; the staff has put up chairs and audio-visual and has three sturdy bartenders ready to serve beer. Kathy and Michael bring Maya and Magnus over from their house, which is only a few blocks away, and I send them downstairs to provide enigmatic hand signals to entering audience members. True to predictions the place fills up fast with an interesting mixture of Kansas City’s Bohemian-restaurant-carpenter-Art-Institute-urban pioneer-drug-culture underground, combined with scattered literati and mental health professionals. Many old friends are here.
My book is not a confess-all, but there are some seriously gamy parts. I have had the heroin talk with my kids weeks before, so I feel able to answer questions honestly without fear of causing sudden childhood trauma, but some of my old friends are hearing about certain parts of my life for the first time. As I read from the opening chapter, I am halting at first, but look over and see Maya and Magnus listening raptly, and encouraged, I stop being nervous. Eventually my voice catches the rhythm of the words and I’m off.
Steve Paul, my old editor at The Star, keeps the ball rolling by asking incisive questions and pulling in a few from the audience. Many people here have dealt with a schizophrenic relative – a central theme in my book – and others are just returning from a NAMI conference. The talk is brisk. Some want to hear more about Peacock Point – the faded Gilded-Age Long Island estate where I spent my summers, and others about childrearing and family life. I get a laugh quoting Mary Karr: “The definition of a dysfunctional family is a family with more than one member.” Steve seems to know exactly what he’s doing and the time never drags. We cut off exactly at the hour.
“What did you think?” I ask the kids afterwards.
“Bueno, bueno,” says Maya. “The first five minutes, you messed up a few times, but it was fine. The last part was better.”
“And you know that time when you stopped to tell everyone that it was a metaphorical glass ball you were talking about? Everyone already knew it was a metaphorical glass ball.”
“You do realize, Dad, that we can use some of this stuff against you,” says Magnus.
“Yeah, I know.”