People meet me at the grocery store in Siberia With a View and, as I fondle rock-hard avocados, too many say, “You’re looking really good, things must be going great.”
This is utter bullshit: I am old, and I have never looked “really good.” I have cancer, I’m fat, a certifiable drunk and a charter member of the Substance Abuse Society. The heels on my shoes are rounded by an ambling gait, the backs of my pant cuffs shredded beneath those heels as gravity pulls me earthward, further compressing what was, at best, a stubby frame. My opinions and decisions should be regarded with suspicion; I am more deranged by the day.
Now and then, however, I do a stupid thing that works out well; I accidentally confirm that, “things must be going great.” In step with idiocy, accident is the primary motor propelling my existence.
Jesus and turbines in the mist
Kathy and I make for Kansas. The occasion: a show of my paintings at a Kansas City gallery operated by our friends, Steve and Krystal. I take 35 pieces and the show is set to open during the Arts District’s First Friday event.
There is, at its outset, no guarantee the experience will confirm that, “things must be going great.”
Getting to Kansas City from Siberia With a View is no small feat when you take the journey in a fully loaded 1997 Lexus RX with 253,000 miles on the odometer. Will the engine start? Will the car make it over the Divide? Will the drive train blow up on I-70? The vehicle is old, and prone to breakdowns; I’m old, and prone to breakdowns. I used to gamble at the tables in Vegas; now, I wager on the reliability of an aged Japanese SUV. It’s a long haul to KC, it is freaking hot and the odds are not with us.
We make the trek over the mountains and they disappear behind us as we zip across the high plains. It’s 8 p.m. and we motor on I-70, doing 75 mph, bracketed in a convoy of tractor-trailers and nearly halfway across the State of Kansas. We’ve endured the windy, stultifying, dry flat of it all, cruising east from Denver, the air conditioner in the vehicle straining against 100-degree-plus temperatures outside the windows.
The weather is extreme on the high plains, regardless of season, and I think of the Soddies who slogged here nearly two centuries ago, enduring heat, drought and tornadoes, then digging down for the winter, huddled underground for weeks as blizzards ripped down from Alberta and Saskatchewan, mom, dad and the young ‘uns unwashed and reeking, fingers and toes blackened by the cold, brain meat mashed to goo by incessant wind and long nights. What demons must have invaded those sod homes in the dark, what odd notions bubbled in a settler’s fevered brain?
There are reminders next to the roadway of the anxieties experienced by those pioneers and by the legion of farmers they engendered: Jesus appears alongside the highway too many times to count, bearing promise of relief in word and image, his Germanic face peering out from tall corn on faded signs assuring us of his trustworthiness, of salvation; his promise is heralded on hand-lettered placards tucked into the edges of wheat fields.
Since we left Colorado, Burlington fading in the rearview mirror, we’ve been shadowed by Jesus, and by arrays of giant wind turbines set to the north of the highway, their blades rotating like parts of a massive, boring installation by George Rickey. If you can’t coax corn, wheat or milo from the High Plains dirt, you grow electricity.
A farm boy stands shirtless in a dusty yard next to a decaying frame house, arms at his sides. He stares at thousands of spinning turbine blades, the machines standing helter-skelter to the horizon, his mind emptied by tedium of all but a few, simple thoughts. Can the blades rotate at different rates if turbines are set next to one another? Do the thousands of machines ever synchronize? What does Jesus have to do with it? A constant whooshing sound is audible, pushing past his sunburned ears, thumping his bony ribcage ever so slightly, and he wonders what his mom will make for lunch, or if she’ll get out of bed to make lunch. Her headaches are worse with each new, tornado-kissed day and she eats Valium and Vicodin like candy as she watches reruns of The Housewives of Beverly Hills on a small flatscreen TV, imagining herself riding in a Porsche Boxster with a surgically enhanced girlfriend, on the way to Spago for drinks and a light lunch.
Like her, Kathy and I can take no more: our butts are numb, our backs ache and we are hungry. Hays, Kansas, is just ahead, home to Fort Hays State University. Set in the middle of this dreary landscape, the school is used by desperate parents as a depository for flawed offspring, the spoiled, useless tykes warehoused at the institution from late August to May. We know the town is near: billboards next to the highway feature garish graphics of a Tiger’s head. The snarling tiger shares top billing with Jesus in this part of Kansas.
I turn off the interstate and stop at a restaurant. The sun has set but we open the car doors to an oven: 97 degrees and the asphalt of the parking lot is soft beneath our feet. We order from a menu of mundane fare and the excess of salt portends a blowout. Jesus is suddenly nowhere to be found. When you most need his help, he skips town, leaves the cooking to ill-trained disciples, and ascends to the heavens, ready to welcome you (if you qualify) following your fatal ischemic event.
Back on the road, an unnerving sight appears in the dark ahead of us: a line of hundreds of red lights stretches for miles from left to right, the lights blinking in unison every two seconds. As we drive on, the number of lights increases and Kathy figures it out.
“It’s the damned mothership,” she says. “It’s landed in front of us. Aliens are going to take us aboard and violate our anuses. What else could it be?”
“I think you’re right,” I reply, maintaining a calm tone of voice. I struggle to find something to say that will allay her fear. “I’ve heard that, if you can control your sphincter and think of things like unicorns and ponies, it’s no worse than childbirth.”
“Great,” she says. “As if it’s not dumb enough that we drive a decrepit car across the most boring state in the union, now we are going to get our asses invaded by ice-cold instruments made of exotic space metals. I knew this was a bad idea. If I get hemorrhoids and a prolapsed anus, it’s your fault, and I’m not sure I can forgive you.”
I switch on Cruise Control, practice relaxing my asshole, and drive on.
The lights grow in number and rise higher in the sky, each blinking every two seconds, the hypnotic rhythm lulling us into a drowsy, pre-probe state. I snap out of my trance when I realize the lights are warning beacons set atop wind turbines. It’s not aliens, it’s the damned FAA! We’re screwed either way, however: interstellar travelers or Big Government, the trash chute is ever in jeopardy.
As we crest a rise, we are among the towers, the interior of the car washed by glowing red light. I imagine hundreds of farmers driven insane by the beacons, crouched inside doublewides set near the array, the windows of the flimsy dwellings covered with tin foil in futile attempts to shut out the maddening light.
We can go no farther; we stop in Salina and seek lodging. The hotel near the truckstop reeks of diesel fuel and road sweat, and there is a ring of black grease around the elevator button. We are lulled to sleep by the purr of truck engines idling in a nearby lot. Kathy dreams she is chased by Nazis driving huge trucks filled with tigers.
The next morning, Kathy and I are the smallest customers at the Iron Skillet restaurant during the breakfast hour. A line of truckers and farmers, not one of them lighter than 300 pounds, forms at the buffet, the men’s calloused paws gripping large cast iron pans stacked with biscuits, gravy, sausage links, limp hashbrowns, clots of dry scrambled eggs. Waitresses of similar girth slosh weak coffee into chipped mugs, chew gum with their mouths open and call the customers “Hon.” There is a picture of Jesus on the wall next to our booth.
Kathy gnaws on a hunk of French toast that is at least an hour from the stove. “An anal probe would be preferable to this,” she says, and excuses herself to visit the restroom. She returns with the thousand-yard stare of one who has witnessed something too horrible for words. If there is such a thing as Post Traumatic Bathroom Syndrome, she has it.
We lumber to the car, outgassing as we go. I check the odometer: 253,800 miles.
The terrain changes as we roll to eastern Kansas: we see green again; trees grow on slopes that rise next to small streams. Our moods lighten as we leave the flat plains, the corn, turbines and truckstops, and make our way past Topeka and Lawrence to KC. Ms. Google directs us to the gallery via Kathy’s phone, the odd but reassuring Moon-Mission voice instructing me to, “in two-hundred feet, turn right on to McGee Street to reach your destination.”
We deliver the paintings, help hang them, and go to lunch with Steve. This begins the best part of the trip: eating and drinking. We couldn’t have a better guide than Steve. After all, he is Bohemian.
Bohemian? There are two types.
- A 28-year-old child of the white middle class, living an inauthentic and shallow “alternative” lifestyle; sipping espresso and craft cocktails; playing in a band; creating installation art pieces with resins and old carpet samples; writing inane poetry to recite at slams; sporting a goofy beard; getting an STD, and tattoos that will give birth to regret in 20 years; returning to a room in Mom and Dad’s basement when the bike and iPad are stolen; going back to school, getting a degree in accounting, shaving and taking a job at Uncle Bill’s firm.
- Of Czech descent.
Steve is the second type of Bohemian. As a result, he is rooted in a tradition that cherishes the glories of roasted, grilled, smoked and fried flesh. And there are few places better than Kansas City when it comes to fleshy eats. In particular, pork.
With Steve breaking trail, I eat more pork in three days than I have consumed during the previous year.
Kathy watches the spectacle with a mix of horror and begrudging admiration; she cannot join the fray. For one thing, she is a “Supertaster” (her term), i.e. “Someone who tastes things in foods ordinary people do not.” She claims she tastes, “the hormones released in an animal when its impending death causes panic. Pigs are intelligent and sensitive, Karl, so they know something is up. If this isn’t enough to cause you to abandon your vile habits, re-read Leviticus and you’ll find all the reasons you need to avoid a whole bunch of nasty foods, including pork and osprey. The Torah is old, but it’s stood the test of time.”
Me: I don’t detect hormones, I just taste pork, and I know what I like, dietary law be damned.
For lunch on the day of our arrival: two slices of sausage and crab pizza at a brewery near the gallery. Sausage with crab? Yep, it works and, featuring a combo of pork, crustacean and cheese … this pizza is an abomination!
That night, we take it easy, edging up on an impending Porkapalooza. I enjoy one of the best pasta dishes in recent memory — sea urchin pasta. (Sea urchin, in Kansas City? Do sea urchins breed in the Missouri River? What does Leviticus say about sea urchins?) I secure a minor pork fix from Spanish meatballs in order to avoid the DTs.
We finish the evening with a visit to a sculptor’s studio in the West Bottoms area. She has finished a large sheet metal gryphon and throws a party to celebrate. The gryphon is present, the sculptor is not. She must be a Bohemian, Type 1 (hopefully without a goofy beard).
Steve puts the pedal down and we get to business. We finish hanging the show readying for the evening opening.
“We need to go,” says Steve, nervously checking his watch. “It’s eleven and we have to be there by eleven-thirty or there’ll be a line around the block.”
“There” is Arthur Bryant’s, one of the most renowned barbecue restaurants in the nation. The cafeteria-style joint has a history extending back to 1908, and it’s been at its current location since 1958. The grease on the floor at the end of the serving line attests to the age and essence of the place: traversing the expanse of slippery floor tiles is like walking across the surface of an ice rink in your street shoes.
“Get the sliced pork sandwich,” suggests Steve. When a Bohemian offers advice about meat, I comply. Step one: a large oval plate receives two slices of white bread. Step two: each slice of white bread receives a squirt of a vinegar-based sauce from a squeeze bottle. Step three: barbecue pork is stacked four inches high atop one slice of bread, and the second slice caps the creation. Step four: the empty end of the platter is loaded with hot fries. Step five: attempt to remain upright on the greasy floor while searching for an empty table. Step six: devour sandwich and fries. And half an order of pork rib ends.
Kathy is in a dither as she approaches the counter. She can’t eat pork; she can’t consume any combination of meat and cheese. She doesn’t like beef. What to do? She orders the chicken sandwich. Step one: large oval plate receives two slices of white bread (she is concerned about GMO wheat). Step two: each slice of white bread receives a spurt of sauce from a squeeze bottle (she frets about high fructose corn syrup). Step three: half a barbecue chicken, intact, is slapped on the bread (hormones, free range, humanely dispatched?). Step four: fries (GMO? What kind of oil?). Deal done. On her way to the table, she has the same expression on her face as she did when she exited the bathroom at the Iron Skillet. She is the kid who dares to walk to the end of the diving board in front of her friends, with no choice but to jump into the deep end of the pool.
That night, Kathy and I excuse ourselves from the show’s opening and walk across the street to a parking lot ringed by the city’s finest food trucks. I wolf down a “lasagna cupcake,” crammed with Italian sausage, while I listen to a guy yodel and bang on a five-gallon plastic tub with sticks. I drink my fourth beer of the evening.
Two days into the adventure, my pants no longer fit; my artery walls are lined with globs of gluey pork fat; I need an implantable cardioverter defibrillator and percutaneous coronary intervention. But, slicked with a film of grease, I am happy.
This First Friday affair is a big deal in Kansas City. The Arts District teems with people who walk from gallery to gallery, bar to bar, sampling goodies from food vendors along the way. It is a huge party and art comes second on the agenda. Perhaps, third.
I’ve had many exhibits of paintings in 50 years as an artist, but never have so many people attended the opening of a show. A conservative estimate is that at least 450 people stroll through the gallery. I figure 40 of them look at the paintings and, of those, perhaps 10 know why. The doors open at 5 p.m. and by 8 p.m. the majority of visitors are inebriated. The only person who talks knowledgably about paintings during the evening introduces himself as “Drunk John.” John is shirtless, wears a torn and stained pair of cargo pants cut off below the knee and a pair of mismatched, laceless sneakers. It’s obvious John cuts his own hair, and he leaves an empty pint bottle on the floor when he departs. I reckon that John is a tenured professor at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Another visitor, who has just knocked a painting from the wall and broken its frame, asks to be introduced to “th’arrist.” She announces that she is 19 years old and has always wanted to meet a real “arrist,” not someone like her cousin, Rudy, who tags buildings and rail cars, and huffs gold spray paint.
Leaning close, she asks: “Whazz my name? Huh? Whazz my name?”
Her: “Nooooooo, I’ne no bizzy. Doan you memmer? I’ne Ariana. I wanna mee th’arrist.”
Me: “I’m the artist.”
Her: “Yurrr old. Whazz my name? Huh? Whazz my name?”
Ariana throws her arms around my neck and, slobbering a bit, places her head on my shoulder, spilling some of her rum and coke down the back of my Hawaiian shirt. I am fairly sure Ariana goes to sleep for a moment.
Her, awake again: “I doan feel so good.”
Me: “Nice to meet you, Bitsy.”
The opening would be an unmitigated success, but for the fact no one gives me money.
Krystal and Steve start our morning with a deceptive move: they take us to a small French bakery for breakfast. I am confused by the fruity flakiness, but I spot a wedge of ham and cheese quiche in the display case. The tiny bit of pork in the quiche will suffice, until the big guns are wheeled to the field. Krystal picks up desserts for the dinner party planned for that evening; she returns home to prepare for the party while Steve leads a trek to Porkville.
The destination: The Local Pig — the meat lover’s Vatican. The joint is housed in an old building once part of a brewery complex, set next to the tracks. As you enter the shop to the accompaniment of a train horn, you see a line of display cases to the left, shelves filled with charcuterie and cuts of beef, lamb, pork and chicken. I stare at an array of freshly made sausages, eyes wide, like an art history student examining a Giotto fresco.
The end of the space is given over to a butcher shop and a sturdy lad muscles a quarter beef to the block before setting to the flesh with saw and knife, working the boning knife with the reverse grip of a pro and the skill of a surgeon. The establishment offers classes in the butcher’s art and the preparation of charcuterie — a worthy reason for a return trip to the city.
Steve orders two, large pork loin roasts, fat caps intact. He turns to me, his delirious expression that of an ecstatic devotee who has seen the thigh bone of a favorite saint. “I’m going to coat them with my special rub,” he says, “then open them like books and tie those sausages inside before I grill the pork.” He points to long, thick links of porcini and thyme sausage and orders four of them. He cradles his package of flesh like a father holding his newborn daughter.
At the north end of the building is a sandwich shop.
“Let’s eat,” says Steve.
“You bet,” says Karl.
“Oh, no,” says Kathy.
The list of sandwiches is extensive, nearly all featuring some form of pig, and one option beckons: a porchetta sandwich, with truffle aioli. In Italy, this masterpiece begins with a small, gutted and deboned pig, its body stuffed with all manner of herbs, meats, organs, etc. after which it is rolled, tied and roasted for hours, the skin becoming unimaginably crisp. The local Pig’s version of the porchetta sandwich involves a rolled hunk o’pig stuffed with herbal goodies, roasted and sliced, the meat stacked on a crusty bun with braised broccoli rabe and slathered with fungus-blessed mayo. Since we’re not in Rome, this will do.
Kathy orders a bag of non-GMO potato chips and averts her gaze as Steve and I attack our prizes, rivulets of grease and aioli rolling down fingers and chins. The pig did not die in vain.
We go from one aspect of the sublime to another with a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. We shuffle through the contemporary galleries in the Bloch Building then take in a show of art created as the modernist movement gained momentum during and following World War I. Nothing smoothes an afternoon like Kirchner and a first-rate Marsden Hartley.
After a brief rest at the hotel, and a shower to wash away the grease, it’s off to the dinner party.
The twelve guests at the party include artists, teachers, musicians, students, engineers, world-renowned metal fabricators and art restorers. The conversation is entertaining and informed; Kansas City is, to my surprise, a cosmopolitan oasis. The food (pork in the lead) is delicious, the drink effective. Ever a paragon of the ideal guest, Kathy takes small bites of nearly everything offered. Later, she bloats and stretches out on the bed at the hotel, moaning and lamenting her childhood etiquette lessons.
I thrash through the night, wandering dazed through a pork- and cheese-studded dreamscape.
Time to leave, but not without more food, and pork.
Kathy studies the screen of her iPad. “I’ve found it,” she says. “The best place in the city for breakfast.”
“The car is packed and we’re ready to leave. Is the place nearby?”
“It’s hard to say; I have trouble with maps. Let’s get in the car and go. The disembodied Google voice will guide us. It can’t be more than five minutes from here.”
An hour later, the voice leads us to an eatery on the far side of the city. The destination is well worth the effort and the agony. The menu states that the restaurant staff uses only local, organic produce and free-range meats. Kathy declares the place to be, “one of the best restaurants, ever!”
We drive west, determined to make it to Denver by dark. The journey is uneventful: shredded recaps flung from overheated truck tires litter the roadway; corn, wheat and milo appear as the terrain grows flat; an “Adult Mecca-Super Stop for Men and Women,” sits on a hill next to an off ramp, its bright yellow sign adjacent to a large, plywood Jesus warning us of the evils of pornography. I tune the car radio to a mega-watt country station and endure saccharine, sentimental, mindless ear crap for 300 miles. As I listen, I understand the staying power of the Republican Party. It is 108 degrees outside the car as we cross the Colorado border; a hawk rises from the highway shoulder, a squirming bunny clutched in its talons.
We spend a night in Denver and take 285 into the mountains the next morning, hoping the car survives the ascent to South Park. It is Labor Day and vehicles in the opposing lanes creep back to the Mile High City, bumper to bumper in a line that stretches nearly 100 miles.
Our elderly Japanese miracle machine makes it over Wolf Creek Pass to Siberia With a View.
We stop at the grocery store.
A woman comes up to me as I fondle hard avocados, and says, “You’re looking really good, things must be going great.”
My stomach flops over my belt as I waddle toward the meat department.
Yes, indeed, things are going great: we and the car survived the trip … and pork tenderloins are on sale today!