An ode to the real humans of Kansas City
For the last two years, the real humans of Kansas City have given us strength. They've helped us realize that when the outlook appears grim, daring to imagine a way forward isn't fanciful or naïve.
Like so many of the people I've written about (and probably some of you reading as well), the pandemic turned my reality into a bizarre funhouse mirror version of itself.
I started out with a tightly-scheduled existence, filled with non-negotiable tasks that had to be completed no matter what, and separate spaces for each responsibility — the office, for example, was not also where I made pancakes.
And then I suddenly had no office, no real boss, no job description, no help with child care, and most significantly? No idea what was happening, and when or if it would end.
But that's not the story I want to tell you here. I want to tell you what happened next.
My emergency mindset kicked in. It's different for everyone, but I tend to feel like a conduit of energy. I just do things, without deliberate planning and decision making. I don't actually know where the energy comes from, and I wish I could summon this version of myself at my own volition — except that's not how it works.
I began writing this weekly column. I didn't call people for specific expertise, I just asked how they were doing.
I asked even more questions in the hope of detecting some kind of north star in their answers, something useful or relatable that I could pass along to the friends, neighbors and strangers who might read. I wrote fast, because PBS Kids shows don't last very long.
This project evolved, of course. It became deliberate. It became a podcast. I opened myself up to the wisdom and bravery these Kansas Citians shared with me, week in and week out. I marveled at the sheer gorgeousness they exhibited, charting paths of beauty out of bewilderment and chaos. I did my best to emulate that.
Through these Kansas Citians, I found defiance in the face of injustice, and located power in a moment of powerlessness.
For the last two years, the Real Humans in these stories have given me strength. They've helped me realize that when the outlook appears grim, daring to imagine a way forward isn't fanciful or naïve.
It doesn't mean that people don't get how things work; in fact, the bravest acts of reinvention come with full awareness of the challenges ahead. They're often driven by necessity, without guarantee.
When I leave KCUR this week — and Kansas City later this summer — these are some of the lessons that will stick with me. These are the people I will think of when I need a reminder of what's possible.
In the early 2000s, Beth Barden opened what was then a greasy-spoon brunch spot in the City Market, before the area was considered prime real estate. "I started with a place that I basically opened for the price of a used car and a $25 electric plug-in home stove," Barden once told me.
Succotash now lives on Holmes Street, with an actual kitchen. That's the restaurant Barden had to close to dine-in customers when the pandemic hit in March 2020.
For many months, food industry folks feared for their lives and livelihoods. Several Kansas City restaurants made the decision, in that moment of crisis, to upend their business models to prioritize feeding people in need — despite their own looming financial uncertainty.
Succotash was one of them. The Rieger, Black Sheep Market, Poi-O, Waldo Thai and others rallied for the community, too.
Obviously, they couldn't sustain that indefinitely. But for a long time, local restaurant owners remained in the unenviable position between what was best for the wellbeing of their communities, and what was best for their own survival.
That Barden and others prioritized public health was crazy, and beautiful, and heartbreaking. They demonstrated what true leadership looks like, even as so many of our actual leaders failed us.
Wesley Hamilton came to my attention by way of the Netflix docuseries Queer Eye. In 2019, the show's hosts came to Kansas City and helped Hamilton reconfigure his living space and develop new personal care routines after a spinal cord injury.
In 2020, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake, who suffered an injury similar to Hamilton's as a result. At that time, Hamilton was thinking about more than police reform: He wanted to know about Jacob Blake, the person.
Hamilton imagined how Blake felt when he woke up in a hospital bed and heard the word "paralyzed."
"This man has to live," he proclaimed when we spoke.
I hear that as a poignant reminder that when a news story raises huge implications for society, at its heart is still a person who has to keep going.
When insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Erica Townsend of Lee's Summit shared with me techniques for staying in the here and now through traumatizing news events.
Townsend likes to go outside barefoot first in the morning and put her feet directly on solid ground. It's better than starting the day with a news feed, she says.
"We can’t thrive in a state of hyper-vigilance. It helps to remember that, as a Black woman, me thriving is rebellious in and of itself. It’s the biggest middle finger to the people who would not like to see that," Townsend told me.
"Every time I do little things like go to bed early or make sure that I’m hydrated, I’m taking some power back."
Losing access to brick-and-mortar schooling in the pandemic made Jenay Manley's approach to juggling parenthood and low-wage jobs untenable. So she decided the best thing she could do for her kids was to become an activist, fighting on behalf of families like theirs.
I interviewed Manley about how motherhood factored into her fight for tenants' rights, and asked what a Mother's Day celebration that truly honored her work would look like. She paused and began to cry.
"That's really hard," she said, "because everything about motherhood that is celebrated is our sacrifice. And like, I get that, but also, motherhood shouldn't just be what we give up."
Nobody's value resides strictly in their sacrifice. My joy has value. So does Manley's. And yours does, too.
Lesley Reyes and Irma Hernandez
When you do something differently, there will be people who assume that you don't know what you're doing. Ignore them.
When Lesley Reyes opened her fantasy coffee shop, Ollama, the one thing she knew she would serve was traditional-style café de olla. Some of her customers offered "notes." They thought the drink should be less sweet.
Reyes knows how this drink is supposed to taste, though. And that matters more to her than conforming. "They don't believe you," she says. "But then they try it and they're like, 'Oh s–––. They do have café de olla.'"
Ollama just celebrated one year in business, and café de olla is still the house specialty. When people come to the shop looking for the bus to Mexico that used to depart from Ollama's storefront, Reyes offers them real café de olla.
As for her mom, Irma Hernandez, who now owns the building where she used to rent a desk for her burgeoning businesses? Let's just say: She's living proof that things sometimes turn out far better than we can imagine.
"I had been working so much that I didn't realize what I had," Hernandez told me. "I really didn't."
For several years in a row, Mark Hein raced in a 340-mile boat race on the Missouri River. He paddled alone in what one competitor called the boat version of Pee Wee Herman's bike. One year, his wife thought he'd be eaten alive by possums while lying immobilized on a river bank.
The best Hein ever managed in this race was to finish last. He finished, though, and here's why it was worth it:
"The average person is fairly limited on what true adventures are available," Hein told me. "If you're filthy rich, you can go into space. If you have a lot of money, you can, you know, I don't want to, but you can climb Mount Everest."
But Hein saw, in the Missouri River, an unknown he could in fact explore — win or lose: "You're still out there on your own doing something that isn't scripted, if that makes any sense."
Let me offer just one cautionary note: The lesson is only part of the point.
When I asked author Adib Khorram what books he wished he could put in the hands of Kansas City teens, this was an idea that he eagerly embraced. As he told me about one of his favorites, How To Be Remy Cameron, Khrram expressed particular excitement for the fullness of the main character: a queer Black teen whose story amounts to so much more than what's contained in those descriptors.
"When we try to look at people as lessons, we lose sight of the fact that they are humans," Khorram explained.
Your story doesn't need a moral to matter. Because it's not really about what anyone else gets from it — your story belongs to you.
What you do to feel like yourself in times of transition. What you say at someone's bedside to connect. How you feel when your trash starts piling up and you're worried about the environment. Whether you know what to do about it or not.
This is true even when chaos doesn't feel beautiful, when reinvention doesn't feel possible, and when you can't imagine the way out. That part is hard. But denying it makes it harder.
As it turns out, asking questions doesn't reveal a north star. It is the north star.
I think it's admirable to admit that we're still searching — whether that confession comes in the form of a podcast, or over coffee with a friend, or as a stray thought left unspoken while you're making dinner or pulling weeds.
I'm still searching, too.