Monday, December 24, 2018

From a spirit of Christmas past

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To Kansas Citians of a hundred years from today:

I'm looking out my window on the morning of Christmas Eve, watching snowfall taper off after a heavy storm that began yesterday. It blew in from the southwest, from Arizona and New Mexico and Colorado, and swept across the plains. It now lies a foot deep across the city, and a driving wind has created even deeper drifts. I suppose it could have been worse. Western Kansas was hit harder, and parts of Oklahoma have as much as two feet of snow! Railroad men are calling it one of the worst storms they've ever seen. No trains are moving down at the Union Station. The place is full of passengers stranded for the holiday. Telephone lines are down. Mail delivery has stopped.

Traffic downtown is a mess, as you might imagine, and at the busiest time of the year for shoppers. There's a streetcar strike on (with some labor violence) so service was already limited before this storm hit. Now it's worse. Autos skidding on ice, clogging viaducts, abandoned in snowdrifts. Taxi and jitney drivers – those few who can negotiate deep snow – are taking full advantage, overcharging for rides. I hear some weary people couldn't get home last night – or wouldn't pay the profiteer's price – and simply checked into hotels.

We're only weeks past the Armistice that ended the Great War to End All Wars (surely you now enjoy Peace on Earth), but are only now receiving news of local casualties – the wounded, missing, or killed in action. Families will be without loved ones this Christmas, for even returning discharged soldiers are snowbound somewhere by this storm.

The influenza epidemic is still with us. Hospitals reported ten flu deaths here this week. Everyone has been trying to avoid large crowds, but that is a challenge this time of year. The weather is hardest on the poor, and on poor animals like working horses and stray dogs. Unemployed men down in the river wards, many without overcoats, shelter in dingy saloons and doorways out of the sharp wind.

All that on top of the usual crime – petty and violent – that seem to be part of city life these days. Through my window I see the sky and the pristine carpet of snow are darkening under sootfall from a thousand chimneys and smokestacks.

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Blogger interlude: I've often said that reading old newspapers is as close as you get to time travel. Old newspapers have been the primary inspiration all along for this blog, 10 years old this month. Repeatedly they show how much has changed over time, and how much human nature remains the same. This often appears in the smallest stories, what might be called ephemera and minutiae, found in "news briefs" or police reports or "city notes" or classified ads. The kind of stuff that flies under the radar in today's journalism. Not that sensation and provocation aren't part of the past, too. But an old daily newspaper presents a panoramic world, both dark and light. There is History, yes. But also small-h history, full of nuance and quiet wonder.

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Anyway, not all is dark. The young ones are out sledding, building forts and snowmen, including a Kaiser Wilhelm creation – mustache, helmet, sword – built for gleeful destruction. 

Down at the Union Station, people have waited all night for trains that didn’t arrive. But a choir sings Christmas carols from the south balcony, and the crowd below applauds after each selection. There are plenty of soldiers there. A round-bellied traveling salesman treats twenty of them to dinner in the Fred Harvey restaurant.  

The streetcar strike has actually helped improve the influenza crisis, and the city health director has lifted the ban on children attending large public events. He still recommends avoiding crowds if possible. 

There are Christmas trees in all the major hotels, and in the hospitals and orphans homes. Tom Pendergast will be feeding hundreds of down-and-outers (and several stray dogs) at his annual Christmas dinner in a North Side cafe. And a woman's club is again sponsoring a special dinner of oats for all working horses in the city. 

And it's a white Christmas, after all. People are making their way to work or to the stores for last-minute shopping. Some driving autos offer free rides downtown.  One man with a pair of homemade snowshoes seems to float above his fellow pedestrians. They slip and tramp and stomp through knee-high drifts in the streets, but many don't seem to mind. They make jokes and toss snowballs and shout to one another.

"Put on your Christmas smile," cries one, and many of them do.

Hoping you find many reasons to smile there in the future
– from Kansas City, 1918.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A river town Thanksgiving

The ASB bridge once had an auto deck a level above the railroad tracks.
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It’s the night before Thanksgiving. Henry, a cook in a restaurant at 18thand Prospect, is hitching a ride home with his boss, Vogel. Henry’s houseboat is moored on the Clay County shore of the Missouri River, below the Armour-Swift-Burlington bridge. As Vogel swings his car onto the bridge Henry spots a woman leaning on the railing near the south end. He rolls down the window, asks if anything is wrong. 

 “Had a toothache and got off the streetcar,” she says. She wears a red coat, a shawl over her head. Henry can see her jaw is swollen. He gets a bad feeling. It’s an 80-foot drop to the river.

“Don’t get funny and jump,” he says.

“I wouldn’t think of doing anything like that,” she replies, and walks on.

The day had dawned in a chilly drizzle as hordes of shoppers filled the City Market, seeking ingredients for a feast. The canopied stalls displayed fresh celery just in from California, radishes, leeks, hothouse tomatoes. There were oysters and pickles and mincemeat, lamb roasts, beef and ham. Live chickens, ducks, and geese, available for backyard slaughter. Turkeys, live or dressed, were scarce and pricey, owing to a poor season down south. 

Whatever the budget, thanks will be offered over a meal, as it has in America for three hundred and seven years. Even the King Joy Lo CafĂ©, a Chinese restaurant at 12thand Grand, promises a traditional Thanksgiving menu, with choices: Young Turkey with oyster dressing, Baked Goose, or Filet Mignon. Soup, Relish, Vegetables, Dessert. One dollar. Served from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Vogel’s Prospect Inn will be serving something similar too. But Henry’s not thinking about work as he leaves Vogel’s car and starts down the river bank to his houseboat. Looking up, he sees the woman in the red coat climb the bridge railing.

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There’s plenty to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day in Kansas City. 

The day is bright and sunny after yesterday’s gloom. Feral cats who keep the old county courthouse mouse-free are happy the office worker who feeds them has returned from vacation. About a hundred boys who live in the Boys’ Hotel on Admiral Boulevard are pleased that someone has donated ten large turkeys for their feast today. The chairman of the Jones Store Company says “Kansas City should be thankful because we have the most American city in the United States, and one destined to be one of the greatest inland cities.” A newspaper editor, with Lindbergh fresh in mind, gives thanks for “that high spirit of adventure and of conquest ... that this year sent our explorers of the air to carry a message of deathless courage and achievement across the Atlantic.

Missouri football fans are happy to be able to watch this afternoon’s big game – their Tigers playing Oklahoma’s Sooners for the Missouri Valley Conference title – unfold play by play (a few seconds late) on the big “grid-graph” board at the Ararat Shrine Temple. Any local fans of the University of Southern California are tickled to get a chance to see their Trojans down at Union Station on a layover in their cross-country trip to play Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame team on Saturday.

Shoppers look forward to stores opening at 9 a.m. Friday. Kids know what that means.

Lovers of night life appreciate the opportunity to see the four Marx Brothers, live on the Shubert stage.

And who isn’t excited about tonight’s grand opening of the new dance palace down on Main street.
A man who lives on Woodland avenue is especially thankful today, now that his mother is back home. He hadn’t heard that she'd been out of town all week on business. He reported her missing. This morning the papers reported an unidentified woman last night had leaped from the ASB bridge. He worried because the description fit his mother. A cook named Henry said he had seen her climb the rail and jump, moments before hearing the splash. No body has yet been found. 

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Early next spring, after a long, frigid winter, an unknown woman's naked body will be pulled from the Missouri River near Waverly, some 70 miles downstream from the bridge. 

And today Henry is perhaps most thankful for his bootlegger.  It’s Prohibition, but tonight after work he’ll be down on the river, in his little houseboat under the bridge, hitting the bottle hard.

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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Return of the blackbirds

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Late October, 1933: For weeks hundreds of blackbirds have been returning each evening to one block – the high ground of Olive between 35th and 36th streets. They roost nights in trees, clacking and squawking and irritating residents to the point of action. One, a streetcar driver by day, has been losing sleep at night.

“One shot with a small-gauge shotgun at random into the dark brought three out of a tree,” he says. “The others flew, but returned.”

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Streetcars run on Brooklyn, two blocks west of the blackbirds. That’s the Brooklyn-Sunset Hill line, the city’s most democratic. It links east-side working-class neighborhoods to captains-of-industry Ward Parkwayvia what’s known as “the colored district” around 18th and Vine.

One day a Brooklyn-Sunset car stops at 36th and Broadway. Passengers board and a dog jumps in. A male German shepherd, gray with black markings. The operator lets him stay, but on the return trip, when no one has claimed him, the dog is put off where he got on.

During his ride the dog picks a newspaper off the floor and drops it in a man’s lap.

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The newspapers carry ads for nightclubs. The Paramount Club (Kansas City’s Smart Night Club). The Pla-Mor (Tables for 1,000). The Silver Slipper (Spectacular Fan Dance!). The Hey-Hay Club (Hot-cha Negro Band). The Beetle (The Party’s On Till Dawn). The Harlem Nite Club (Exclusively White Patronage. Spend Your Halloween at the Harlem).

There are ads for Halloween party favors and costumes: Clowns and pirates and devils and bats. Puritans and Mexicans. Daniel Boone and Felix the Cat and Popeye.

There’s an article about someone on Olive Street, lighting Roman candles and shooting them at blackbirds in trees.

And a story about a man who lives in Midtown, a short walk from the Brooklyn-Sunset line, with a sick relative who’s lost her companion – a dog named Duke. The man has been delivering hand-bills all over town. Three thousand hand-bills describing Duke: Male police dog, dark-gray streaked with black. Black face. Front legs scarred from surgery. Missing some teeth. Small in stature. Carries head high. Playful. Reward: $10.

And stories about pre-Halloween vandalism. Gangs of boys soaping car windows, tipping garbage cans, cutting clothes lines, setting fires, slashing tires, throwing rocks and eggs, shooting out streetlights with .22-caliber rifles. About a man answering his doorbell, finding two small boys who offer to get their gang to quit bothering him if he will give them some candy. The man says he thinks he’ll call the police instead.

Halloween costumes, 1933.
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
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Down at police headquarters the mail brings a handwritten letter. “Dear chief of police,” it begins. “I promise you I will not soap any cars or windows. I will tell the other children not to do it too.”

The letter is from an 8-year-old boy whose parents have told him the Spirit of Halloween doesn’t approve of vandalism. Only harmless pranks. Knocking on windows, ringing doorbells. That sort of thing. The return address on the letter is the Emerson Apartment Hotelon Linwood Boulevard, a 10-minute walk from the chattering trees of Olive Street.

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The day after Halloween, the 8-year-old says he and his group of friends tapped on a few windows and rang some doorbells. Says he convinced some other boys they shouldn’t set fire to some leaves in a yard, and stopped some older girls from soaping car windows.

The police name him an unofficial assistant chief-of-police. They’ve had another busy night, answering 75 reports of vandalism, from the east-side working-class neighborhoods to the well-to-do blocks of the Country Club District. Almost citywide. Almost. The Kansas City Call reports “not a single such call was received in the colored district.” 

One family in that district – they live near 16th and Troost, a few blocks from the Harlem Nite Club and its all-white patronage – is now $10 richer, having dialed a midtown telephone number to report a gray-and-black German shepherd at their home.

Duke, 15 pounds thinner, is headed back to his sick companion.

And out on Olive Street, the fire department has answered a call and aimed a high-pressure stream of water into the densely populated trees there. Finally, the blackbirds have flown. One firefighter is not convinced.

“We’ll be getting a call from some place about six blocks away,” he says.

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This is a slightly different version of a post from October 2009.

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