Meanwhile, Back in Wichita

There’s a lot going on in the rest of the world, what with the impeachment trial and the Israelis and the Palestinians and the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs and the deadly Chinese coronavirus all that that, but there’s also plenty to worry about right here in Wichita. We’re slightly more hopeful, though, that we’ll work things out well enough around here.
The talk of our town is mostly about the lousy weather and the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball squad and the Kansas City Chiefs football team and the massive layoffs at one of the biggest local employers and a proposal to remake a big chunk of downtown along the Arkansas River. There’s nothing to be done about the cold weather, and the young ‘Shocks are back in the top-25 and the Chiefs are in the Super Bowl with a decent chance of winning, but the layoffs at Spirit AeroSystems have everyone worried and the downtown renovation plans are being hotly debated.
Opinion is somewhat more divided about those downtown redevelopment proposals, but we’re enjoying the company of the diverse forces arrayed against it, and are hopeful it will prevail. Forgive us for summarizing the controversy so succinctly, but the gist of it is that some well-connected developers want to knock down some locally beloved buildings and replace them with something newer and uglier and more expensive. That includes the Century II building, a distinctive round and blue-domed concert and convention hall which was opened in 1970 to commemorate Wichita’s centennial and still suits its purpose, and the adjacent former main branch of the Wichita Public Library, which is currently unoccupied after the city built a new location across the Arkansas River tto alleviate the homeless problem but is also a fine example of late 20th century architecture.
So far as we can tell the only the people in favor of it are the developers and politicians who stand to benefit and the newfangled “tear it all down” sorts of conservatives. Most conservatives around here prefer to conserve the best of the city’s hard-earned architectural and cultural heritage, and the local liberals have an odd but endearing affection for the venerable old buildings, and most conservatives hate these public-private partnerships because because the public is picking up some part of the tab, while most of the liberals hate them because private interests might benefit. Which makes it easier for us to converse with all sort of Wichitans about the local news of the day, and folks tend to be polite and open doors for others and say “howdy” around here, so we’re hopeful things will work out.
The rest of the news is further away, though, and we rarely encounter the people involved in the big events, so we’re less hopeful about how all that turns out.

— Bud Norman

A Mid-Winter Weekend in Wichita

The past weekend was full of national and international news well worth pondering, what with the latest developments in the impeachment trial and the mostly bad reviews of the big trade agreement with China and all the rest of it, but local events proved more preoccupying. There was another earthquake that awoke us from our post-church nap on Sunday, both bitter losses and a huge win for the local sports teams, heartbreaking news that a dear old friend of ours from the local music scene had died, and another glorious celebration of the city’s very vibrant subculture at Kirby’s Beer Store’s annual Meat Fest.
The earthquake was unsettling, as they always are, but we looked around and saw no apparent damage was done and quickly resumed our nap. They’ve been happening less often since the Okies started regulating all the fracking they’re doing for oil and gas, and the price of oil and gas is still low around here, so we regarded it as no big deal and made our way to the Meat Fest.
Our beloved Wichita State University basketball team had a horrible week, losing to a lesser Temple University Owls squad on the road and then suffering a Saturday home loss to a University of Houston Cougars team that we have to admit is probably better, and they’re likely to fall several spots in the rankings. They’re still an ahead-of-schedule freshman-laden team with a fairly promising half-a-season left and a very promising season awaiting next year, however, and after Sunday’s American Conference Championship game the Kansas City Chiefs are heading to their first Super Bowl in 50 years. As much as Wichitans resent Kansas City’s condescending big city attitude, pretty much everybody around here roots for the Chiefs, and even at Kirby’s Beer Store, even during Meat Fest, the win was carefully watched and wildly celebrated.
If you should ever find yourself in Wichita we urge you to enjoy the many fine restaurants and the surprisingly fine collection at the Wichita Art Museum, or the unexpectedly excellent offerings of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Wichita Musical Theater, and to drive through the picturesque College Hill and Riverside neighbors and take in the Keeper of the Plains as the beautiful sunsets fall over the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers, and take in all the other impeccably old fashioned and classy charms of the city, but we also recommend Kirby’s Beer Store. It’s a tiny and dingy dive in the heart of the ghetto and just across the street from the WSU president’s residence and next door to a currently defunct laundromat, but enjoys a national and international reputation as a delightfully eccentric joint with a delightfully eccentric clientele.
The mostly older and university-employed afternoon regulars make for formidable competition in the ritualistic daily watchings of Jeopardy!, and provide plenty of the interesting conversation that is so hard to come by these days, but after dark the bar is usually full of subcultural twenty-somethings hypnotically swaying to the weirdly wide range of music that Kirby’s nightly offers. Some of it is cacophonous awfulness to our aged and highly educated ears, but you’d be surprised how much of it is fresh and fun and very well done. At the this point we’d put the local music scene, which begins at Kirby’s Beer Store one leads up to the concert hall at Century II, up against most of those condescending big cities.
Kirby’s has been around since ’72, and for the past quarter century or so has hosted an annual Meat Fest at mid-winter, which involves the regulars grilling all sorts of meat for one another anyone else shows up on the frigid patio during an opening-to-closing and well-attended four-day music festival. For the most part they book the best acts of the past year, and for the most part it’s an impressive showcase. This year’s lineup didn’t include The Haymakers or Sunshine Trucking or anything with Nathan Williams, among several other excellent Wichita musicians, and there were a couple of bands we found cacophonously awful, but there was a lot to like.
If you like your rock ‘n’ roll hard and fast and full of catchy pop hooks False Flag ICT delivered it’s usual solid set, and our pal Jesse Howes once again demonstrated that the saxophone is a punk rock instrument with The Giant Thrillers, and those Dios Mofos also sounded pretty good. If you prefer something more acoustic, there’s a long-haired and bearded guitar-and-mandolin and bass trio called Pretend Friend that we highly recommend, and a more pinkish long-haired and bearded banjo-and-guitar-and-bass trio called The Calamity Cubes that we quite like.
Petitions were passed around to save the iconic Century II building and its perfectly fine concert theaters from greedy developers, which is a matter of local concern to all sorts of culture vultures, and a good time was had by all. For many of us there was a certain pall cast over the affair, however, by the death on Saturday of Tom West.
West had his first beer at Kirby’s on the first day it opened back in ’72 as a replacement to A Blackout, the notorious hippie bar the cops had recently shut down a few blocks away, and he was well liked by everyone he met there. If you’ve seen “The Big Lebowski” you might imagine him as a more countrified and overall-wearing version of “the Dude,” with the same sublime counter-cultural insouciance, but that wouldn’t quite get it. “Fats” — as he didn’t mind being called — was sui generis. He spent his last days in the south-of-Haysville town of Peck, and if you’ve seen “Green Acres” you can quite accurately imagine it as “Hooterville,” but he was a knowledgeable and resourceful fellow and his even more countrified-looking wife can dazzle you with her knowledge of history and current events, as well as her quilting.
He was also a top-notch guitar picker and a mainstay of the local music scene for a long while. He was the formative leader of such locally influential groups as The Cornfed Rubes and The Bluegrass Spiders, any always welcome guest at the Winfield Festival and other jam sessions, and arguably the inventor of the hipster-meets-hayseed style that makes Wichita music so cool. He’d drop into Kirby’s every year around Christmas time and bring candy that he and his wife had made, and on other occasions he’d come in and pass around peculiar-looking cigarettes, and everything was always mellow with Tom West, which came in handy on a cold winter day in Wichita.
The Meat Fest bacchanal always winds down on Sunday with biscuits and gravy and sausage and mostly acoustic and folky sets, and West would have been pleased. There was a fine set by the beguilingly emotive Kaitlyn Meyer, who West had praised last year, and the Meat Fest also introduced to the Wichita barroom stage the remarkable talent of a local 15-year-old girl named Evann McIntosh. You can see for yourself that she’s quite good, and she wowed a crowd of afternoon regulars and her family and friends during her set, was utterly charming in a brief conversation, and she didn’t even get the three free Old Milwaukees that Kirby’s performers are usually paid.
All in all, it gives us hope that he earthquakes will dissipate and spring will come, that the ‘Shockers will be in the tourney and the Chiefs will be Super Bowl champions, and that the best of Wichita will persist. We wish as much for the rest of the world.

— Bud Norman

How to Begin a Stormy Monday

Although the rest of the world seemed to continue right along on its downward trajectory, judging by the snippets of news we found time to peruse, at least the rest of the weekend here on the prairie provided some much needed distractions.
Our retreat from reality began Friday evening, when we noticed that Netflix had at long last come through with a fourth season of “Orange is the New Black,” its very popular and oh-so-critically acclaimed women-in-prison saga. Despite our usual aversion to anything popular or acclaimed by the current batch of critics we’ve always been suckers for a women-in-prison saga, so we devoted an embarrassing amount of the next 24 hours to binge-watching that. To avoid the risk of any plot spoilers we’ll just say we found it pleasantly distracting, despite a disappointing paucity of the nude shower scenes and lesbian frisson that makes the women-in-prison genre so compelling, and we’re pleased that this previously very feminist take on the genre seemed very sympathetic to some of the male characters, and it even takes the side of the flawed but mostly idealistic warden over his obnoxious girlfriend, even if it blames that on her corporate job at a for-profit prison company, and we’ll eagerly be awaiting for who knows how many months to find out how the season-ending and racially-charged cliff-hanging prison riot turns out. Oops, sorry for that plot spoiler.
Saturday involved a funeral for the very fine and most interesting fellow who always sat just one pew in front of us at church, and an overdue haircut with our neighborhood barber, who is so good at his job and charges such reasonable prices that you have to book an appointment a week in advance, and in between these choirs and throughout the evening there were the thunderstorms that often pop up around this time of year. The recent torrential rains have made the grass throw thick and tall, but provided us with an excuse for not cutting it, and for finishing an entire season of a women-in-prison saga, and on the whole they were another pleasant and slightly cooling distraction.
Sunday was Father’s Day, and our Mom and Pop have moved back to town from Back East after a few decades so following church we had a pleasant lunch with the both of them, with the conversation only slightly touching on the news as we all agreed it’s too unpleasant to talk about on such a nice sunny day. Of course Father’s Day always comes during the final round of the United States Open Golf Championship, and our Pop was an avid golfer who once hit a much-bragged about hole-in-one, so there was some talk about that, as well as ancient horse racing history, due to some movies they’d recently watched, as well as the evening’s deciding seventh game in the National Basketball Association’s championship. Our Mom’s a rather astute sports fan as well, and was able to correct our Pop that the NBA finals were indeed that night, but we wound up not missing it all while at the Wichita Music Theater’s production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at downtown’s Century II building.
As former theater critics for the local newspaper, back when it had the money and staffing to review local theater, we can tell you it was such as great show that we didn’t mind missing the games at all. A guy we always liked named Dustin Johnson won his first major championship at the U.S. Open, the Cleveland Cavaliers won that city its first major professional championship in 52 years, upsetting the defending Golden State Warriors and depriving San Francisco of yet another trophy, and we had Gershwin music happily in our eyes as we read the results. We took a peek at the rest of it, and will get around to that during a dreary week that includes dentistry and other unhappy chores, but for now we’re savoring the respite from reality.

— Bud Norman

Kansas Comes Through

All in all, it was a delightful day in Kansas on Saturday. We had to be up at the ungodly early hour of 7:30 a.m., and after a long drive back from the funeral of a much-loved family member at that, but the weather was about as perfect as early March ever provides around here, and we got to boo to Donald J. Trump in person and shake the hand of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and by the end of the day the quadrennial Kansas presidential caucuses and the democratic process itself had once again proved great fun.
The festivities began at 8 a.m., which we attribute to the Kansas Republican Party’s still lingering farmer tendencies, as well as the necessity of wrapping things up before the University of Kansas Jayhawks and Wichita State University Wheatshockers played their conference tournament basketball games, and we made the miscalculation that sleeping through the time it would take to brew our requisite two cups of coffee would compensate for their stimulative effects, but we somehow safely somnambulated ourselves out of Riverside and over to the fortunately nearby Century II building downtown. Some old New Journalism instinct told us to be there early, so after we wasted some time waiting in a line that turned out to be for a Trump rally in one of the circular building’s other pie-shaped segments we we soon found our way to the entrance to the caucus’ much larger pie-shaped segment, which was shared with the local youth symphony practice going on in an adjacent pie-shaped segment, so all sorts of fresh-faced kids with cello cases and trombone-shaped luggage were in the same long line with a bunch of grizzled farmer-looking Republicans, but it turned out to be well worth the short wait to receive the yellow sticker that would allow us to cast a ballot. Kansas has all those photo identification requirements that the Democrats are always squawking about, and our Secretary of State is the nation’s most infamous advocate of these outlandish measures, but it was all computerized and quite cheerily transacted by the friendly people in the “volunteer” t-shirts, and we have been duly registered as Republicans since our long-ago eighteenth birthday, so we were quite quickly and efficiently welcomed into the comforting embrace of Kansas Republicanism at its most cornily old-fashioned best.
On our way in we encountered a very fine fellow who’s an old fraternity brother of one our actual brothers and is now chairman of the county’s Republican party, and we were quite circumspect about sharing our preferences in the race, which turned out to be the same. Then we ran into a woman who was campaigning for a candidate in a local statehouse race, and although her candidate was in a district more unfashionably west-side than our own she had an elongated and skinny off-beat beauty that reminded us of Shelley Duvall, and she rightly pointed out that at least we know some people in that unfashionably west-side district, so we stopped to chat with her as well. We also ran into the most delightful fellow who books the speakers for the local Pachyderm Club, who cajoled us into accepting another invitation to address that august meeting of downtown Wichita Republicans, and one of our old friends and favorite penny-pinching County Commissioners, who laughingly noted that we’re not in his district but are represented the only guy in town who makes him look like a squishy RINO establishment guy, which doesn’t bother us a bit. By the time we took our seats in the pie-shaped Republican segment of circular Century II in the third century of the American age, we felt quite at home.
There was a video by the mayor, who is officially non-partisan but generally understood around here to be a Republican, and then our County Commissioner friend filled some time with a Kansas political quiz, which we did well with, and the Lieutenant Governor weighed in via video, and our delightful friend from the Pachyderm Club made a pitch for his monthly meetings, and the head of the Black Republicans in town gave a rousing oration and a kid with skinny jeans and a modern architecture haircut spoke well on behalf of the local College Republicans, and there was a pitch on behalf of Republican Women by another friend of ours who’s the ex-wife of a even better friend of ours. Then some local high school Marine junior-ROTC kids right out of a Norman Rockwell painting presented the colors, our local don’t-dare-you-doubt-his-Republicanism congressman led the assembled electorate in a Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer from a local pastor, and that was followed by a memorable rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The two-male, two-female quartet from a local church knocked the familiar tune out of the park and had the crowd singing along through the familiar “and the land of the free and home of the brave” ending, which brought the expected roar, but they kept singing through that second verse that is so unfamiliar no one could sing along, and it got another big roar when it ended with the same closing lines.
This was followed by a long and soporific delay due to the long lines still waiting to get past such a friendly and efficient and computerized process, filled with some mostly godawful contemporary country and western music, but we eventually got around to the good part about the candidates.
Our local don’t-dare-you-doubt-his-Republicanism congressman, whose Republicanism we do not doubt, had the burden of speaking on behalf of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who had made a touch-and-go appearance in town the day before, which did not fare well at all with the anti-establishment crowd. We’ve met our congressman on a few occasions and found him a most genial fellow, and have only the minor and admittedly arguable quibbles with his voting record, and given the easily accessible chumminess of Kansas Republican politics we must plead guilty to being part of some ill-defined “establishment,” and we’ll take Rubio over some options, but even we weren’t buying the pitch.
Speaking on behalf of the anti-establishment terror Cruz was the man himself, and as much as we hate to resort to cliches we can’t think of anything to say but that he electrified the crowd. He took all of his allowed ten minutes and at least a couple more to go point by point over the things that have infuriated the sorts of Republicans who get up at 7:30 a.m. and probably even earlier than that to be there for the extended “Star Spangled Banner” at a Republican caucus even on the best sort of March day you can expect, and there was a rhetorical flavor to it that we’ll call “evangelical,” and suffice to say that we were not the only ones on our feet at its conclusion. By our estimation at least two-thirds of the crowd were waving “Choose Cruz” signs, and sporting the same sticky slogan on their clothes and chanting his name, and at that point we didn’t need to await the exit polling.
Up next on our local hinterlands stage was none other than Donald J. Trump, the self=described billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-joint-and-professional-wrestling-and-realty-television-and-scam-university mogul, the man who has been unavoidable in the news for the past year or so, and he seemed rather puny. Perhaps he’d been lured to our hick town by the couple of crazy polls that showed him leading here, and the fact that Kansas’ electoral Republicanism entitles it to more delegates than similarly-sized states in more benighted regions, but by the time he hit the stage in downtown Wichita he seemed realize he was facing a hostile crowd. The boos were far louder than the cheers, and the candidate’s bluster was far less than usual. He did boast about the big crowd he’d drawn earlier, few of whom had made their way into the area where the race was going on, and he talked the usual bit about how he was going to hire the best people and do great things, but his heart didn’t seem in it, and the towering media figure looked rather small on that stage, and with hometown pride we can report that he left to more boos than cheers.
There were other candidates on the ballot, but none had bothered to schedule a speaker, so those of us who’d gotten in early were quickly able to cast our ballots and get out. While Trump was speaking we ran into a good friend from the church where we worship, and he showed us the digital pictures of himself and his lovely daughter and handsome son-in-law shaking hands with Cruz, and he told us how he got the candidate’s attention by shouting that his wife, a most delightful woman who had the good fortune to escape from Baghdad to America, had come all the way from Iraq to vote, and how Cruz had seemed genuinely humble when meeting her. As we wandered by the blocks-long line of voters who didn’t get in on all the fun we passed by Cruz, and joined the scrum of voters to shake his hand and wish him well, and we walked away feeling that no matter what awful consequences the American political process might provide at least we were part of it.
On the way back to our car, which was parked due to our early arrival in a spot that would be coveted when the rest of the Republicans and all the Democrats and the folks going to the Home and Garden Show and the youth symphony kids made downtown more crowded than usual, we passed by a couple of homeless guys who were wondering about the blocks-long line of people over on Douglas. We explained that the Kansas caucuses were going on, and added that we’d had a chance to boo Donald J. Trump in person, and one of the homeless guys insisted on giving us a fist-bump over that, which made us feel a part of an even broader American experience. After a frequently phone call-interrupted nap we headed out to Kirby’s Beer Store, a favorite ghetto dive of ours, where all our hipster friends were celebrating Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ anti-establishment victory on the also well-attended Democratic side of the race.
Cruz’ already-called victory in the Kansas Republican caucus had not at all surprised us, given the anti-establishment mood of such established Republicans as ourselves, and the fact that the same caucus which routinely chooses the most conspicuously Christian candidate is not likely to choose a thrice-married and boastfully adulterous gambling-and-strip-joint mogul who mocks the handicapped and blames his perennial tax-audit problems on his being such a strong Christian, and neither were we surprised with Sander’s victory here. The state’s minority of Democrats have all the crazy ideas associated with their party, but they’re heirs to that Prairie Populist tradition that had such crazy ideas way back in the days when the railroads and the Sears Roebuck Company were the Koch Brothers and Wal-Mart of the time, and they have an anti-establishment streak of their own that we can’t help but respect. We had a friendly beer and a nice conversation with an extravagantly homosexual friend of ours who has a knack for rational political discussion, and he shared our concern that Hillary Clinton is at least as awful as Trump on a personal integrity level and that he’s on the other side of a racial divide in his party, and despite all jibes about the “Choose Cruz” sticker on our jacket we enjoyed the beer.
The Kansas results only contributed to a split decision on the day, with Cruz winning also Maine but Trump more narrowly winning in Kentucky and with a lot of help from early voting in Louisiana. Trump still has a delegate lead, although not overwhelmingly, and the voting in all the states seems to have narrowed it down to a two-man with Cruz, whose numbers have been outperforming expectations lately while Trump’s have seemingly stalled, but the upcoming states are very different from the prairie and the outliers still hanging around the race figure to be a factor, and we don’t know what to expect from the rest of the country. Kansas came through, at least, and so did our Okie cousins, and for now the process at least affords some fun.

— Bud Norman