KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden Gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 1/3)

PART 1/3 – FROM KANSAS CITY BRUNCH TO KANSAS KNUCKLEHEAD KNOCK-OUT

I had finished my spot of retail therapy in the neatly aligned four blocks of the disconcertingly modern and clean shopping district, Central Plaza, in Kansas City.  Showing great restraint, I had managed to limit myself to just two books from Barnes & Noble and an overpriced but irresistibly cute pair of leggings covered in whales for my baby daughter (she’s a huge fan and shouts ‘Bubba! Bubba!’ at every picture of a whale).  My colleague and friend John and I had indulged in a leisurely brunch under a parasol on the terrace of the Classic Cup Cafe – it was Sunday morning, gloriously sunny, there was some quality people-watching to be done and we had a rare day off.   I was tucking into another carb-heavy meal – a treat of American pancakes covered in melting butter and maple syrup with a side of bacon.  John – a well travelled and hugely experienced humanitarian worker with a penchant for good food and lethal cocktails – was feeling smug after opting for the moderately healthier option of ‘crab benedict’; basically eggs benedict with crab cakes instead of an English muffin.  His dish had spinach on it.  It meant at least one of us had succeeded, for the first time in our two week work trip, to consume one of our ‘five-a-day’.

Our colleague and venerable team leader on this trip, Witek, had raved about a bar and music venue on the outskirts of town, that played live music on Sunday afternoons.  We were not sure what to expect but thought why not?

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Kansas City’s Union Station

As our Uber made its way past the impressive Union Station, along the cosmopolitan and eclectic River Market in the North end of Kansas City and left the business centre and dormant night spots of the Power and Light district behind, we wondered where our driver was taking us.  Heading East along the river, we gradually found ourselves with train tracks running either side of the dusty single lane road, wasteland on one side and an industrial area made up of large warehouses and the odd metal water tower on the other.  I began to wonder if I was suffering a repeat of my cab drive from hell on my visit to Kansas almost exactly a year ago or if we had distracted our Palestinian driver so much with our questions about immigrants in Trump’s America, that he had driven off the page on Google Maps.

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Road to nowhere?

The Uber came to an unexpected halt near an open parking lot full of outsized pick-ups and John and I looked at each other with a hint of alarm.  With a “We’re here”, our driver was drowned out by the sudden sound of a mile-long freight train honking its way through a level crossing a few feet away from our parking spot.  I felt like the main character Ariel in the movie Footloose, when she and her small-town friends spend their evenings playing chicken with freight trains by standing on the tracks screaming at the oncoming beast, as its driver frantically pulls the horn to get them to move.  At the last minute, Kevin Bacon’s heartthrob out-of-towner character leaps to get Ariel out of the path of the speeding train as the classic 80s Bonnie Tyler soundtrack crescendos in the background.  Clearly in my case, I wasn’t standing in front of the train, I wasn’t screaming or wearing red cowboy boots (“I wear ‘em cawz my Daddy hates ‘em”). And my friend John standing looking perplexed in his shorts, t-shirt and flip flops – absolutely lovely though he is – was no leaping life-saving Kevin Bacon.  Suffice to say it brought back memories of 80s classic movies, so many of which depicted ‘authentic’ middle America, and which for so many of us Europeans, were our earliest and sometimes only exposure to places like Kansas.

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Footloose’s honking freight train without Kevin Bacon

As noise of the freight train subsided, John and I noticed a loud throbbing beat and the sound of some serious soul being belted out nearby.  Then I noticed the squiggly neon sign – scrawled in handwritten font – across the nearest hangar: ‘Knuckleheads’.  We had arrived.

Part 2/3 next: Blending in….in Harley heaven…

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Surviving a taxi ride in Kansas

I expect a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expect cab drivers to have a vague knowledge of their local area. Maybe I’m just too demanding. Either way, yesterday I had to adjust those expectations radically. I was in Fort Leavenworth and had aspirations to get to Kansas City before nightfall. Leaving at around 3pm with about a 45 minute car journey ahead, I thought this was more than manageable. I should have known things were not going to go my way when the cab eventually turned up over an hour later, after three calls to remind the local firm that I was still waiting.

The battered saloon car coughed up to the porch and a large very sweaty looking middle-aged woman chewing gum noisily – in that way that suggests it’s a necessity rather than enjoyable – turned around from the driver’s seat as I slid across the back bench with my bag, looking at me as if I’d got into the wrong car. There was a meter and a taxi light attached to the roof of the car so I was pretty sure I hadn’t just hijacked an unfortunate local out for a drive to the local Walmart. I checked and she was indeed my designated cab driver. What an odd manner given her career choice in the service industry. As it would turn out she was just terrified of driving and in entirely the wrong profession.

We set off through Leavenworth town and all seemed well. I should have picked up when she asked for the third time where I was going that she was perhaps not as experienced as her age and the battered old 2-way radio suggested. She talked about the difficulty of following “the blue blob that is my car you know” as she unconvincingly juggled the Google Map screen on her phone with the steering wheel. She then started talking. To begin with I thought she was being friendly – like so many of the locals who invariably gave us a warm welcome when we came to Fort Leavenworth. Then I realised she was just talking, talking to herself continuously; a sort of mantra to calm herself down. Occasionally the odd comment was directed at me and it was clear a soothing response was expected. When at first I didn’t pick up on this, my driver’s control of the car faltered and she showed a propensity to swerve across lanes into truck-like vehicles – much larger and sturdier than our saloon car – to avoid imaginary threats. So I dutifully chipped in with “it’s ok, keep going straight on” and “don’t worry about the other drivers”, as the gum chewing behind the wheel grew louder and the smell of nervous sweat reached my nostrils.

As we approached the city, brake lights lined up ahead, unsurprisingly given that it was now rush hour on a Friday evening. The chewer in the front muttered quietly in a voice of shocked desperation: “oh my lord, there’s traffic”. There was a 2 second high point when the traffic cleared, but it was short-lived. As the skyscrapers of the city loomed over the freeway ahead of us, she said “oh my lord, Kansas City is so big”. Seconds later I saw my life flash before me as my sweaty friend dropped her phone into the foot well of the passenger seat, panicked that she was meant to be coming off the freeway, reached down into the foot well bringing the steering wheel violently round with her and ploughed us through the hashed area towards a large metal bollarded area in between the freeway and the ‘off ramp’. We cleared the bollards. Just. At this point, I took over. I held her shoulders from the back seat, brought up the route on my own phone, and ordered her to look straight ahead with a “do as I say” and “just drive”. I was hijacking a Leavenworth local after all.  She said “thank you, thank you” and “I don’t like to let my customers down”. I wasn’t sure how she felt about turning her customers into messy roadkill.

It took us another 45 minutes of missing turn offs because she “wasn’t quite ready’, or was “scared because of that big red truck”, or “was concentrating because I’ve been told to keep both hands on the wheel”, but we made it eventually. We pulled up outside the hotel and I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt like the driving instructor whose least favourite student had just made it to the end of the test – had failed but had at least got instructor and student to destination without killing anyone.

Suddenly, the large sweat patches on her oversized red top dried out and the frantic gum masticating subsided. My incompetent driver announced loudly: “that’ll be 58 dollars now darlin”. I almost laughed out loud: she HAD to be kidding. But I did pay up – albeit while fulfilling my British stereotype.  I handed over the notes politely but muttered under my breath at the outrage: I expected a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expected a taxi driver to a vague idea of their local area…

Maybe it was the relief to have finally made it to my destination in one piece or maybe I just couldn’t face arguing or spending another minute with her. Or maybe I could afford to be generous: I was about to sip a cocktail while taking in the view of Kansas City from the rooftop bar of my hotel. My sweaty friend was about to embark on a nightmare return trip to Leavenworth. Through rush hour traffic. Searching in vain for the blue blob “that was her car you know”, on Google Maps. Sweating profusely and masticating loudly.  And – now – on her own.