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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

The Story So Far In Kansas City: How The Last Six Months Have Changed Us

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3

We've been through a half a year of coronavirus in Kansas City. It's time to take stock of major changes and subtle shifts in lives of real people here in town, starting with the real people you hear on the radio.

Six months ago, most of us were still learning what to call the coronavirus. Back then, every "presumptive positive" warranted a news conference.

The first confirmed case in the Kansas City metro was March 7. A ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 on March 12 turned into a ban on gatherings of more than 50 on March 16. Then the limit went down to 10, at which point we were on official lockdown.

It happened in a span of days. We had to act fast, and ponder the significance of what we'd done later.

As I left the KCUR office on March 17, I thought that I'd better grab recording equipment, just in case. I haven't returned since.

The way I picture my desk, it's covered in a toppling pile of scripts. I always recycled my show scripts in one giant haul, when the pile started barricading me in. By now, that pile is a dusty monument to a life that feels like it belongs to someone else. Someone much more frazzled and high-strung. Someone who laughed more, too

For me, confronting how much has changed in the last six months will ultimately mean going back and facing that pile. I'm not brave enough yet.

So first, I'm looking at the six-month journey as lived by my fellow Kansas Citians, starting with the people who used to inhabit that office space with me, then getting beyond those walls, sharing all kinds of stories and lessons learned — maybe even yours. What were you asking yourself in March? What are you asking yourself now? What have you gotten used to, and what continues to feel utterly bizarre?

Here's The Story So Far, as told by three KCUR staffers.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Paul Nyakatura talks to thousands of people while sitting alone in this studio at KCUR.
"Being Black was tough enough before 2020." —Paul Nyakatura

Paul Nyakatura is the voice of KCUR every weekday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. He starts his shift with a trademark "what's good?" that brightens listeners' days. It's a moment of human connection for people out driving, working, or doing household chores.

But Nyakatura himself is alone in the studio. Most of his coworkers have retreated to their homes. Nyakatura is essential.

At first, he says, "being deemed 'essential' was an ego boost."

But six-hour stretches alone listening to the news, especially in 2020, can change a person. And while Nyakatura hasn't gotten used to an empty newsroom, there is something else he has grown accustomed to.

Crying. Almost daily.

"Having the news ... forced into your life for six hours a day, daily, makes me lose hope for a better world," he admits.

The crying got off to a slow start before the pandemic. It was initially a result of what Nyakatura calls "feel-good stories." The stories of human triumph over adversity that he used to scroll past in his news feed.

"I knew how it was going to make me feel," he explains. "I guess I was still trying to be macho or whatever... as cis dudes, we don't do that."

Nyakatura calls himself a "stoic crier," meaning tears flow, and that's it. No sobs, no quivers.

The practice served him well, because then came the pandemic, and then George Floyd. Now tears come more often, and Nyakatura can talk to all of Kansas City with tears in his eyes. They're silent, so no one knows.

While it's been a hard year for the world, it's been a good year for Nyakatura. This is the year he got a full-time job with benefits. After moving four times in 2019, he finally lives comfortably in a three-bedroom house with his friend and his cousin. He's in a good spot. He's crying for something bigger than himself, and that has as much to do with race as the pandemic.

"It was hard enough to be Black before 2020," he says. "The pandemic made white people see what life is like for minorities. There are special rules for us. Now you have special rules."

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Up To Date producer Mackenzie Martin gets out of her apartment by exploring her new city. Martin moved to Kansas City last October.
"I feel like I'm in a long-distance relationship with everything right now." — Mackenzie Martin

Mackenzie Martin has gotten used to seeing only one person and one cat on a regular basis. But that doesn't mean she likes it.

Martin is a gregarious 26-year-old who moved to Kansas City from the woods of Wisconsin less than a year ago. She and her boyfriend left behind a cozy house on a lake frequented by deer and turkeys. "It would have been a pretty great place to quarantine, honestly," she says.

Now, she lives in an apartment in the heart of the city without so much as a balcony.

"I wish there was a date when we knew this was ending. It’s hard not knowing," Martin says. "It reminds me of how when you’re in a long-distance relationship, it’s really smart to have a date when the long distance will end that you can look forward to. I feel like I’m in a long distance relationship with everything right now... and I don't know when it will end!"

Martin works for Up To Date, calling potential interview subjects to feel them out as possible guests on the live show. That's been her main social outlet.

"I really value being able to talk to strangers right now and connect with them as part of my job," she says. "If I didn’t have an excuse to call strangers, I would be lonelier right now."

Martin's family is still in Wisconsin, and when she moved, she assumed there would be lots of visits back and forth. Now, they make do with a weekly get-together on Zoom.

Before the pandemic, Martin was a grocery store enthusiast. She still enjoys her trips to the store, but the social part is unfulfilling.

"It is very lonely now to be at Trader Joe's and not being able to converse about, like, the cheese that I like. This actually happened the other day. A guy was like, 'Have you tried this cheese? It's really good!' And I tried yelling back over the plastic barrier and he couldn't even hear me. And then when I left, I smiled at him and he thought I said something because of the way I was looking at him. And I was like, 'No, I was just smiling!' And he still couldn't hear me. It was really sad."

Calling strangers to ask them random questions for her job, for fifteen minutes at a time, keeps her going.

As for being new to a city in a pandemic, she actually recommends it.

"I don't even feel the need to get out of town that much because there's so much of Kansas city that I haven't checked out, which is great. If you're going to be quarantined in a city, a city that you're new to is a really nice place to be."

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Grace Lotz is weathering the pandemic as a singleton. She doesn't mind. "I do pretty damn well on my own, thank you very much."
"I don't miss feeling bad about being single." —Grace Lotz

There's a lot Grace Lotz doesn't miss about life before the pandemic.

"I don’t miss busy neighborhood streets. I don’t miss crowded grocery stores on Sunday mornings. I don’t miss packed schedules or loud restaurants where I can’t hear the person sitting across the table from me. I don’t miss putting on makeup, or rushing to work," she says.

But the main thing she doesn't miss is feeling bad about being single.

"I’ve learned I do pretty damn well on my own, thank you very much."

Lotz, 28, works in audience development at KCUR, and she used to feel like she was supposed to be coupled up by now. She doesn't want kids, so she was never racing against the clock for any particular reason. But she felt the pressure nonetheless, and she suspects she's been able to make peace with her singleness because the expectation that she should be out meeting people or going on dates has vanished.

"It’s been easier not having social events where it would be more fun having a plus-one," Lotz says. "I’ve been spending a lot of time alone and I enjoy spending time with myself. It’s nice. It’s a liberating feeling. I don’t need anybody. I’m good."

Lotz hates online dating. "It’s the worst, I want nothing to do with it," she says, adding, "I’ll still do it, but it’s terrible."

Giving it all up and focusing on herself has been a revelation. "I'm a lot stronger than I realized," she says.

Lotz has dealt with anxiety for as long as she can remember, so she's spent a lot of time developing what she calls a "tool kit" for coping. That's been coming in handy.

"I feel really equipped to deal with this anxiety," she says. "I can handle myself in scary situations."

Do you want to step back and consider how the last six months have changed you? Tell us your "story so far" by answering our questionnaire, and it may end up appearing in a future installment of this series.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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