After twenty years of study and travel I came home. Nine months later, I am reborn. I stumble over the threshold and peer down the length of the birth canal—uh, I mean the bar. Jackie, owner and nursemaid, welcomes me with a cold one.
Before I had looked down on my Wyandotte County neighborhood; it’s old and broken like one of the prostitutes who wander the Avenue. It’s littered and condemned. Worse—it’s dangerous. Drug dealers and gangs cruise the narrow streets packing. In fact, I was afraid of this place my ancestors settled.
But in the neighborhood joint on the corner—Dotlanders—I found a harmony of intertwined lives. Here the people seem to have overcome the common prejudices of color, class, gender and age.
Young tattooed Hispanics compete with old white guys to answer Jeopardy questions. “Get a job,” Rob advises when a suit beats him. “Pull up your pants,” replies his nemesis. They knuckle bump.
OJ, a black man and former college linebacker, buys a round for a table of red necks. Though that forbidden word is sometimes uttered here, OJ’s friend, Donny, a giant German immigrant insists: “I’m not a racist. It’s a stereotype.” OJ nods; he knows this truth.
Fourth generation Croatians—those “dumb hunkies” who settled Strawberry Hill–drink with Serbians fresh from the old country. A member of one of the oldest families on the Hill, Leo Chop pats my back like he’s burping me, telling me about Fridays at The Old Mufaleenie’s when my dad pulled up to the bar in his new car, suits fresh from the laundry hanging in the back. “You come from good stock, Kid,” he tells me again and again in the forgetfulness of “a wing and a fast back” (a shot and a chaser).“Let’s dance with the devil,” he says to the Serb, and they throw back a shot.
The lesbians at the third table share a moist kiss over their draw beer. “Get a room,” says the bartender; she’s single and jealous.
Knute Knuteson ambles in on his 86-year-old bowlegs. A composition of old school and contemporary, he won’t wear his hat inside, yet his ears are pierced with diamond studs.
Before, he built bridges “over town.” Since he couldn’t wear his wedding ring, he remade the stones into earrings. Deep creases in his earlobes testify; he has never removed them. On Sundays he visits her grave. Afterward, he sips draws and shots of Cutty, propping his wallet open, so he can see his beloved of 54 years. He kisses the picture. “Hi, Mama,” he says. He tries to tell me he’s been to visit, but his throat thickens and tears struggle down his cheeks and mine.
On a poster in the bathroom, Marilyn Monroe’s skirt forever flaps. Beneath her stilettos, a quote from my favorite poet, John Keats, reads:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness…
When my five siblings and I argued as children, our mother said to the air, “Why can’t we all get along?” The answer—this thing of beauty—must be that we can.
We are born; we live in a blink of the eye and we die. Only through the personal relationships that define our lives can we overcome division and hatred, so we must seek out those who are foreign and nurture those friendships like our children. When we all are responsible humanitarians, the loveliness increases.