Sunday, July 11, 2010

Football, Barbecue and Real America

It's been a while since I've posted one of these so I figure I'm long past due. This won't tell you everything you need to know about Kansas City, but if you ever spend a weekend there and get to have anything close to this much fun, consider yourself lucky.

Originally written May 26, 2010.

It’s a testament to Susie’s kindness that she allowed me to invite myself for a second go-round in Kansas City. Knowing that given the NFL’s current schedule rotation, 2009 would be the last time the Giants visited the Chiefs until 2017, and knowing Susie may not be there in eight years, I told her in early 2009, “The Giants are visiting the Chiefs this fall and won’t be back for eight years. As soon as the NFL releases its schedule, I am buying a plane ticket and you are going with me.”


While Susie pulls for the Chiefs her fandom doesn’t quite reach the obsessive levels of mine –certainly to her benefit – but knowing my mission and that we don’t see each other often, she was willing to play along. There was, however, some anxiety leading up to the trip mostly because without any real plans in place beyond my flight, Susie and I were unable to get in touch. A massive game of phone tag lasted nearly six weeks before we finally connected. To her credit, Susie, who was in the midst of grad school for her MSW, was obscenely busy and not overly concerned with a football game months off in the future.

I, however, wanted to make sure she would actually be picking up at the airport, which, given that she got caught in a different time zone the night before I visited her in Sacramento four years earlier, might have been a legitimate concern. At last we finally got together, everything was set in stone, and all was well. Susie would be at Kansas City International Airport when I flew in on October 2 and fun, friends and food would ensue.

Direct flights to the City of Fountains being as pricey as they are, I would be taking my route through Atlanta, Georgia, my first time ever in the Peach State. I hoped to nap away, but instead the woman next to me decided to strike up a conversation. She was attractive, in her early 30s and able to carry an intellectual chat, which was fine, but her intensity was a bit stunning considering she didn’t yet know my name. During the course of the flight she let me know she was moving to D.C. with her husband and desperately needed a sub-letter for their one-bedroom apartment on the upper west side. It was $1,400 per month, not outrageous by New York standards, but being that I was only four months into my current lease with two roommates on the hook and thought this was a peculiar time to be propositioned for a major life decision, I passed.

I would find this wasn’t nearly as peculiar as what would happen 20 minutes later when she attempted to set my brother up with one of her friends. I mentioned at one point during the conversation that two weeks earlier Elliott had won an Emmy for comedy writing, and she noted that she had a few single friends who love intelligent humor. Unfortunately for her and her friend El had gotten engaged three months earlier, and he was quite happy about it. They’d have to look elsewhere.

In Atlanta, I would get to see one of my buddies in the brief two-hour layover I had. My college roommate, Sam, a life-long Atlantan had moved back to the city after college and managed to meet me for lunch at the airport Houlihan’s. Amidst a discussion of life catchup, the peculiarities of being adults and the rotation of which attractive celebrity Sam put as the background on his iPhone, it was a nice break in the day – a refreshing break from those layovers that usually find me ambling around the airport by myself to see what regional fast food chain I can make my lunch for the day. The only tension came at the end of the meal when Sam insisted he pay for the check, telling me, “You’re in my town.”

I told Sam that he would have to let me pick up the tab when he came to New York, and he reluctantly agreed, though as I write this eight months later he is yet to actually arrive in the Big Apple, while I have made a second, longer trip to Atlanta.

No matter.

After lunch I went back into the heart of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which just might be the most massive transit hub I’ve ever had to deal with. Living in New York and going to school in Chicago, you’d think I’d be prepared, but Atlanta’s airport makes just like its city, spreading out massively and requiring long automated walkways and rail transit to get anywhere. Those in and of themselves are not unusual for an international airport, but in Atlanta they are larger than anywhere else, and given that Atlanta has for some time been the busiest airport in the world by measure of passenger traffic and take offs and landings, it probably needs to be.

The good thing about its size is that it was built with this kind of traffic in mind meaning they actually get you in and out fairly smoothly and with little issue. Despite some travel horror stories, with nearly no stress at all, I was on my way to Kansas City, and Susie was ready and waiting as soon as we touched down.

Susie is one of those friends that will always be there. Given how long we’ve known each other and the fact that we’ve almost never lived in the same time zone, I’m astonished by how often we see each other. It has been nearly once or twice a year that one of us has found the other on either coast or middle America, and each time, we’re seemingly able to pick up where we left off before as if the time passed since our last rendez-vous was only a couple of minutes. It isn’t often, however, that I see Susie with a car, and each time I do I’m amazed at how much she just loves to drive around. She adores long spins through aesthetically pleasing Kansas City neighborhoods and could spend hours behind the wheel at 25 miles per hour.

On this drive we were headed to Susie’s house, but took the scenic route to gather in some of the KC charm. While she and her friends might assume I mean that facetiously – and given my northeast arrogance there’s no reason for them not to – I rather like Kansas City. I can’t say I’d choose to live there, but it’s a very pleasant place when you have a local cadre of friends to take you in. On my first visit 15 months earlier, I had become very quickly absorbed into Susie’s social web, and the overt friendliness makes adapting much easier.

It was because of this typical congeniality that I was so surprised by what we saw as we passed a Reform Jewish Temple. I have little familiarity with Kansas City’s Jewish community, but I can’t imagine it being insignificant. And they certainly couldn’t have been pleased with the anti-Semitic protesters disrupting Friday night Sabbath services in the parking lot across the street. I have developed patience for a number of things in this world, but bigotry isn’t one of them. I can’t get past racism and prejudice as being both mentally lazy and astoundingly stupid. Nearly all things, diet, sex and global populations among them, require variety to make them palatable, and it is the differences between sub-groups of humanity that makes life that much more interesting. As I would detail during a group discussion on anti-Semitism in Israel months later, this wasn’t the first time I had experienced anti-Semitism, nor will it be the last, either overtly or subtly, but each time it is no less jarring.

In this case, the brilliant minds in the parking lot assumed our refusal to accept Jesus was hindering our ability to reach heaven. It was nice of them to let us know, as well as to reassure us God was charitable to understand and accept our naivete. Each protester, which included boys who looked no older than 15, had giant red paper hearts with the word “Love” written across them taped to their chests, and they toted signs declaring, “God loves everyone. Even these people.”

Perhaps the only thing more pigheaded than racism is my reaction to it. I waved to a few of the protestors behind the safety of a passenger seat window. When they smiled at me and I knew I had attracted their attention. As they looked on I pressed a middle finger against the window and yelled, “Fuck off”, which dramatically changed the expression on their faces, but fortunately for Susie and I, the red light turned green and off we were to Susie’s home.

On my previous visit to Kansas City I made it very clear that I intended to indulge in as much of the city’s famed BBQ as possible, and while the years lost on my life and the damage to my cholesterol were entirely worth it, I left Missouri feeling more vinegar and tomato paste than man. While I would want some BBQ this time around, it was hardly going to be the same nonstop barrage of smoke pits, but I had neglected to mention this to Susie. This didn’t result in her force feeding baby back ribs, but she did worry that every meal needed a BBQ aspect, and she, along with her roommate Stefanie, constantly asked me if I was ok not having heavily slathered pulled pork every time we ate.

I probably should have made it clear I wasn’t on the same tangy kick this time around, but I would have my needs more than met the first night as Susie, her boyfriend Kevin and I strolled into the American Royal BBQ Fest. Until a few weeks earlier, I had been unaware that the American Royal BBQ Fest would be that weekend or that it even existed, but I would soon be educated that it was the largest BBQ festival in the world, in what might have been the most appropriate city for it. It was a massive gathering, featuring a contest with hundreds of competitors and some attendance estimates as high as 100,000 people. It was held, appropriately for my experience, in the parking lot of Kemper Arena, which has been host to the 1976 Republican National Convention, NCAA Tournament games and several professional sports teams both major and minor, including the NBA’s Kansas City Kings and, most dearest to my heart, the NHL’s Kansas City Scouts, who would eventually wind up in New Jersey in 1982 as my beloved Devils.

Matt, a friend of the Sharkey family whom I had met a year earlier in New York, was hosting a party in one of the many BBQ tents. Included was an unlimited supply of pulled pork, chicken wings, ribs, cheesy potatoes (courtesy of Susie’s mother), baked beans and a full bar being tended by Susie’s brother Steve, who made sure to operate with a heavy hand. In addition to the delicious food, I was surrounded by an atmosphere I was in so many ways unfamiliar with. I was in the middle of a huge collection of handlebar mustaches, denim and leather jackets, black and brown Stetsons, live country bands playing every 20 feet, and hundreds of men wearing chaps without any hint of irony. I was wholly out of place and felt as if I was in the most quintessentially non-elitist, real American moment I would ever experience.

And while I had no particular love for Garth Brooks and those chaps looked astonishingly uncomfortable, I loved every minute of it.

After being thrust into the enormity of Susie’s family at her bowling league a year earlier, this time I would gain familiarity with its intimacy, as Susie’s mother and father, both of whom I had never met, were in attendance. I didn’t spend much time chatting with Mrs. Sharkey, but I soon found that in the case of Mr. Sharkey it was impossible not to. While we first talked about the Chiefs, since I was obviously in town for the game, which no one seemed to think the Chiefs could win, we soon moved onto Raiders owner , whom Susie’s dad made a point to note numerous times had been passed by by the increasing complexity of the evolving NFL.

These were topics on which I could hold my own, but soon I found myself cornered as Mr. Sharkey gave me a running history of his son Steve’s little league team, which had three great pitchers, one of whom had an unbelievable breaking pitch and another of whom was Kellen Winslow Jr. Seeking a rescue, I soon incorporated Kevin into the conversation who told me later on that when he first met Susie’s dad, he had been cornered and forced to talk about the Royals for two hours.

In a perfect world I would have stuck around for as long as possible. The drinks were still flowing, the food was still delicious, the company great and the music, well, energizing if not my favorite. Unfortunately, with work to be sent off to New York and a long day of traveling on little sleep behind me, I needed to be getting home and getting to bed. I would be sleeping on Susie’s couch for the weekend, which normally would be fine, but in this case, the living room was in the very front of the house, and apparently a serial rapist had recently been in the neighborhood. (Update: He has since, finally, been caught) Amidst concerns for every resident and heightened police presence, I can’t say I was comfortable being the first line of defense against any potential intruders, particularly considering the lock on their front door did not inspire confidence. On a windy night in an older creaky house, I heard the breeze blowing through the floorboards every few minutes and spent much of the night sleeping with one eye open.

I made it through the weekend unharmed and managed to cure Susie’s worries that I might demand constant attention while she had work to do. In actuality, I told her to take her time doing school work on Saturday while I watched Northwestern knock off Purdue in the living room, relaxed and enjoyed some Culver’s that she and Stefanie had brought back for me during their morning errands. Really, the entire afternoon and night served as a prelude to the main event on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, though it became very obvious that absolutely no one in Kansas City thought the Chiefs had a shot in hell of toppling New York that Sunday.

They may have had a point. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Chiefs, mostly due to their rich place in NFL history as a founding AFL franchise, albeit in Dallas, and because of their almost unchanged, classic uniforms. They have always been, in my mind, one of the more underrated outfits in professional spots. There is a beautiful simplicity to them that belongs with the Giants, Steelers, Cowboys, Celtics or Yankees.

To go along with my infatuation with their uniforms, the Chiefs, when I was growing up, were quite good. One of my earlier memories as a football fan is seeing Joe Montana arrive from San Francisco to lead the Chiefs to a near Super Bowl berth in 1993. For much of the 1990s, the Chiefs were one of the most consistently successful teams in the NFL, topping 10 wins six times in eight seasons and establishing a fierce homefield advantage. In 2009, those days were long gone. The Chiefs of Montana, Marcus Allen, Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas had given way to the slightly less impressive Chiefs of Trent Green and Dante Hall before finally arriving in their promising, but unbearably young and inexperienced squad featuring Matt Cassel, Dwayne Bowe, Glen Dorsey and Tamba Hali.

That lack of experience would leave Kansas City with a 4-12 record at the end of the year, which came on the heels of a 2-14 campaign a season before and another 4-12 mark the year before that. The Chiefs had made two playoff appearance in the last 12 seasons, and while the future might be brighter, it wasn’t soon. This was evident from talking to any of the fans in the area, who approached me with such pleasantries as, “I hope they just keep the game close” and “Man, that Eli Manning is awesome.”

Indeed he was, and at this time, it appeared, so were the Giants. Big Blue headed into the game 3-0 to Kansas City’s 0-3 record. New York was aiming to make a fifth consecutive postseason berth and was just two years removed from a stunning victory in Super Bowl XLII. If there were a dramatic mismatch in the first quarter of the 2009 NFL season, this looked to be it. If I had learned nothing in my life of sports-related heartbreak however, it was not to take individual games for granted, and while an easy Giant victory appeared as though it should be in the offing, I was hesitant to assume anything.

I’ve always been amazed by the capricious nature of Midwest weather, but the plains states make it that much wilder. On the morning of the game it was quite chilly, and I, prepared, wore my Giants jersey over a long sleeved shirt anticipating the cold. Susie did likewise with her late-90s Derrick Thomas, but as both of us would find later, this would prove unnecessary. We went to her friend Matt’s house because he apparently had several sets of season tickets that weren’t going to be used. The last-place Chiefs weren’t the draw they once were.

Arrowhead has become legendary for the tailgating prowess of its denizens and this, to me, was more than half the reason for the trip. Granted, given the team’s current mediocrity, the crowd was less excitable, but the parking lots were still full of fans decked out in bright red under their tents grilling ribs and drinking light domestic beer at 10 in the morning. Matt had given us a pass to closer parking areas, and all along the drive to the building groups of tailgaters were set up along the hilly, grassy areas by I-70. More than one vehicle was painted and covered with massive Chiefs logos, including several fan-owned mini school buses. Fans cooked and drank their breakfast while a group of drummers calling themselves the Chiefs Rumble made their way from tent to tent.

Susie and I pulled up next to Matt and set up a spread that included Krispy Kreme donuts, cupcakes, tortilla chips, Busch Light and Matt’s homemade chili. While I was told by several sources that this was a more subdued affair than it used to be, I was still enjoying being reingratiated with the Midwest. Something about drinking that early made me feel like I was back in college.

From the outside Arrowhead looks uniquely 70s, not unlike the Royals home of Kauffman stadium – clearly dated in design, but still tasteful and unique. The two stadiums sit together in the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex and original designs for the buildings included a rolling roof that would move between the stadiums when they were in use. While the idea was eventually scrapped for its extraneous cost, I can think of no idea that comes close to it in the current day. Perhaps the shifting roof of Seattle’s Safeco Field is the most similar, but it only involves one playing field. This would have been a link between two sports and two buildings that made two large structures one massive one.

Instead the buildings stand next to each other with no connection beyond similar architecture. Arrowhead itself has a dramatic dipping curve on either side of it that almost gives the upper decks the appearance of horns rising up when you view it from one end zone. Both sides of the stadium have massive ovular TV screens that sit above the dipping curves and look like they, too, are either distinctly 70s or something out of an episode of the Jetsons. That would make perfect sense given that the stadium opened in 1972, except that I later learned the TVs were actually added to the stadium in 1991, which makes them seem entirely out of place, but the theory goes that they’re ovular not to reflect the style of the times but because they look like footballs. While I’ll accept that explanation, the resemblance is extremely vague.

Despite that structural peculiarity, there’s no denying this is a fun place to watch football, and the fact that they serve Gates BBQ there overwhelms just about any negative aspects the experience might provide. While the Chiefs were playing a lost season, the crowds still provided significant evidence for Arrowhead’s unofficial nickname of “The Red Sea”. The stands are still packed and everyone is wearing their jersey even if they suspect they won’t be headed home happy. On this day, there was still a mix of blue sprinkled in patches with that red, as the Giants brought a surprisingly strong crowd to a city that doesn’t get a large number of Big Apple transplants. It occurred to me once we were inside the stadium that this was the first time I would see the Giants on the road, and suffice it to say, they draw well.

Very well.

The team isn’t half bad either. The clinical dismantling most fans were expecting ran its course for three quarters. Big Blue would jump out to a 17-3 halftime lead, as Eli Manning would finish the day with 292 passing yards and three touchdowns, including a 54-yard toss to promising rookie wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. The only thing marring the day for Manning, who also passed Fran Tarkenton for third place on the Giants all-time passing TD list, was that he bruised his heel while dropping back on one of his passes. Manning would play out the rest of the season, but the wound would nag.

One of my favorite aspects of the experience was that this being the 50th anniversary season of the AFL, tidbits on AFL history were everywhere to be found. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of the many days that the AFL’s original eight teams decided to wear 1960 throwback unis, but midfield did feature the Chiefs enormous 50th anniversary logo, which, somewhat to my surprise included their old logo from 1960 when they started play as the Dallas Texans. The most prominent feature of the day however was the color pink, which in some ways almost overwhelmed the red and blue that could be found all over. The NFL had set aside that week to promote awareness for breast cancer research and so any and all things that could be colored pink would be. Gloves, cleats, towels, scoreboards and the halftime entertainers were all sporting the hue.

In the case of halftime, however, it was hard not to be distracted by the bizzarity of the performance, a group of at least two hundred women circling the field in pink shirts and putting on a robust jazzercise display.

The day more or less went according to plan except that I didn’t expect the afternoon sun to be quite so powerful. Not only were the long-sleeve undershirts far from necessary in the eventual 70-degree sun, but I wound up coming home with quite the dramatic sun burn. The Giants themselves would feel somewhat wounded by the end of the day, too. While they came away with the expected victory, Kansas City woke up just about the time the Giants were on the sideline making their dinner plans. The Chiefs reeled off 13 points in the fourth quarter to draw the game to a respectable 27-16 final score, and also forced some unwelcome familiarity with the people sitting in front of us.

To this point, the only one of them I saw as noteworthy was the man in front of me encouraging people to ask him about libertarian Ron Paul’s campaign for president, though the Elvis impersonator in our section did raise an eyebrow. This adorable fellow wouldn’t wind up the most memorable fan, however, as the unpleasant looking woman in front of me continued to lean forward and show off her all too classy Chiefs logo tattoo on the small of her back. Some things are not meant to be shown off to the masses, and this was one of them. In addition, there are some things you can’t unsee, and one of those hit me in the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs finally found the end zone on a one-yard touchdown pass from Matt Cassel to Sean Ryan five and a half minutes into the period.

Most of the crowd unleashed typical warm-hearted cheers. She, however, decided a more robust celebration was in order, and lifted up her shirt for all the world to see. I know normally this should have been the highlight of my day, but for the reason that a) this was not an appealing female, and b) I’m no longer 12, seeing those unsightly C-Cups bouncing around is something I would absolutely love to erase from my cortex.

As the clock wound down in the fourth quarter, just about everyone in the stadium had left except for the masses of Giants fans who were now gathering behind the New York bench on the bottom bowl. Just about all the Chiefs fans had left other than Susie, who I’m sure would have been extremely content leaving at halftime, but, trooper that she is, she stuck it out with me for the full 60 minutes. Exiting after the final whistle was a procession of one high-five from a traveling Giants fan after another, as we happily walked back to Susie’s car.

The rest of the night was a big family pizza party at Susie and Stefanie’s where I insisted they let me buy the beer because they wouldn’t let me buy the pizza after housing me for the weekend. From that point on, I ate too much, drank too much and was invited by Kevin to return yet again for a trip to see Allen Fieldhouse and his beloved KU Jayhawks. Perhaps in due time, but as far as this mission is concerned, with the Chiefs and Royals out of the way, I never need to return to Kansas City again.

That’s not to say I don’t want to, and I’m sure I’ll be there at least once more for Susie’s wedding if for no other reason, but as it stands now, in my goal to see all 122 teams of the four major sports leagues, the Paris of the Plains is the first multi-sport city that I’ve completely tapped out – including New York and Chicago, remarkably. It feels good to strike a city from the map, and hopefully they’ll start falling like dominoes as I get closer and closer to the end.

But for that to happen, I’ve got to move own and continue knocking them down. I’ll always have fond memories of Kansas City, but it’s on to the next adventure.

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