“This town is good at looking away.”
— — — Alix E. Harrow
— — — Starling House
The door of BLK+BRWN A Smart Bookstore sticks when I try it. I wonder what I’m doing wrong to make it stick, right before I wonder how I got to be such a weakling that I can’t open a door. A little extra oomph, and it gives.
Cori looks up; we make eye contact; the grinning starts. “Hey, Ms. Dawn.” She comes out from behind the counter, and the bear hug is on. We settle in for a chat. At the end of this visit I forget that I came in today to buy the book for the next Feminist Book Club meeting. I have to come back in after I get out the door. I’m glad to retrace my steps into this cozy shop. I fit in here.
I’m not used to that feeling. I’ve had a hard time fitting into Kansas City.
After forty years, I still feel like a misfit.
I was optimistic when I first moved here in 1990. As a major city, KC would have a major downtown to mark the heart of it.
Downtowns support my favorite hobbies — wanting stuff and walking around.
I expected to find department stores, their plate glass windows offering up clothes and jewelry for me to covet as I meandered by. I imagined folks speeding up to a half-run to get to work on time. I expected to find hustle and bustle, a beehive humming with the sweetness of being alive with purpose.
But in 1990, downtown Kansas City was a canyon of deserted brick buildings, the tallest only five stories high. Looking north on Broadway, I could see the canyon open out to the Broadway Bridge, which spanned the Missouri River. I couldn’t see anything beyond that. The heart of the city was the edge of town.
Over the years, I tried to fit in by doing Kansas City-ish things. Disclaimer here — I’m not into football, church, or barbecue; and If you know Kansas City, you know these exclusions make fitting in really, really hard.
Sure, there were work friends. On Fridays they cheerfully shared their weekend plans, neglecting to extend an invitation my way or explain why everyone was wearing red. Work friends were friendly enough, but I didn’t feel embraced.
KC was known for art. I liked art. The path forward seemed clear. I attended the Plaza Art Fair. Held annually, the juried show was very much an activity KC-ers, planned their weekend around. Since Everybody went, the possibility loomed large for running into a work friend, an encounter that would blossom into lunch next Saturday, followed by chummy texts full of inside jokes. I ran into people alright, a couple hundred thousand, who shouted at each other over my head, elbowed me in the back, and stepped on my feet. I couldn’t squeeze close enough to see any art. I did not fit in at the Plaza Art Fair.
I tried the more neighborly Brookside Art Fair, also an annual tradition, one held the weekend after the Plaza fair. The Brookside festival was small enough so I could see the art and talk with the artists. I was mingling, immediate buddy-ship an ever-present hope.
Given the relaxed atmosphere created by local artists eager to talk about their work, I felt like a part of Kansas City, until I glanced up from a photography display and noticed the crowd. All the faces were white. I was shocked. Where were the Brown and Black people? Was this an unspoken-whites-only event? Did everyone know the rules except me? I felt unwelcome.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was famous for its Asian collection. Having an affinity for Eastern aesthetics, I wandered through those exhibits regularly. I couldn’t count the number of times I sat in Guanyin’s temple home to soak up its surreal silence.
Maybe I started thinking too hard, but it became a challenge to walk through the Nelson without questioning how they acquired what’s under the soft lights in all those rooms. Where did any of it come from way back when? I was conflicted.
This so-very-KC institution was beautiful, serene, and usually no one stepped on my feet. Still, even though I bought a membership, the Nelson seemed to belong to someone else. No matter how often I sat in Guanyin’s temple, I felt like a tourist.
Which brings us up to date.
My misfit self ended up as a guest on Up to Date, a news/interview show on KC’s NPR affiliate station. The kind of show you listen to on your car radio, and if someone you know is on, you holler at your steering wheel. “Hey, I know them!” Host Steve Kraske focuses the show on “pressing issues that are local, regional, and national.” He’s an avid reader and a booster of local authors.
When he asked local book reviewers and bookshop owners for recommendations, Cori recommended me. On the day of my interview, Up to Date staff tweeted, “Today, we speak to local author Dawn Downey.” And then he talked to me about my book, Blindsided. Like he’d known me forever. I didn’t want to leave. I felt at home.
You could call Steve Kraske a Kansas City institution. He’s also a regular person, who talked to me.
The Nelson never talked to me.
I needed conversations; I needed regular people.
The door to BLK+BRWN A Smart Bookstore opens wide. Cori’s taking care of customers, so I sit on the couch to wait my turn, next to Ashanti, a mom watching her little girl pet the bookshop bunny. Ashanti and I introduce ourselves. A few minutes in her company, or maybe it’s an hour, I forget why I came in in the first place. It must have been to find her. Ashanti, a running coach and champion sprinter, becomes my personal trainer.
I step into the bookstore, ready for another marathon chat. There’s already one going on with Lexi. I don’t formally meet her; it’s more that the conversation opens to include me, as though I’d always been part of it. There’s a lot of laughing.
They mention their podcast Allegory. When I’m home, I tune in. There’s a lot of laughing. Lexi’s a photographer. She takes my most recent author headshots. There’s a lot of laughing. One of the shots is blurry from me wildly getting to a punchline. We happen to attend the same author event. She stands to ask a question then beams at me three rows over. “Hi, Ms. Dawn.”
I open Zoom for the BLK+BRWN Feminist Book Club meeting. This is how I meet Usha, residing in one of the squares. Usha has me over for dinner and then to a party. After the party, we’re like tweens; we immediatly text about having so much fun, which blossoms into lunch next Saturday, for lots of Saturdays, followed by chummy emails full of inside jokes. Usha and I are hanging out.
On Allegory, they interview the owner of Ruby Jean’s Juicery, Chris Goode. He reveals, sadly I thought, that very few people the age of his parents come in. I’m the age of his parents. I like juice.
In honor of Chris knowing Cori and Lexi, I go to his shop to represent my generation. He’s not here, but I order my first-ever kale smoothie. I have to admit, even though I’m kale’s biggest fan, I’m hesitant. But, whoa, it’s delicious. I’ll be back to try another smoothie — maybe Green Dream. I want to shake Chris’s hand. I’ll wish him good luck. I’ll say, “We have friends in common.” That’s what people do when they fit in.