Guess who's back in Kansas City
I have returned to Kansas City after a vacation in my home state – California – and in just two short weeks I’d forgotten what it felt like to breathe air the consistency of warm tapioca.
(Actually, it wasn’t at all humid when I arrived at the World’s Most Convenient Airport — Kansas City International — so of course we’re tearing it down and replacing it, because apparently we want all our airports attached to shopping malls, but I thought of the warm tapioca joke before I arrived and wouldn’t want to waste it.)
All of which reminds me of yet another story.
I had just arrived to start living in Kansas City and my best friend was going to med school here, but lived in Gladstone just North of KC and we decided to drive into the Big City and the Missouri River was on our right and the railroad yards were on our left and off in the distance was a Ralston Purina plant that turned out Soylent Green for pets.
(OK, I’ll admit I’m guessing on that last fact, but I really like the image of a canine version of Charlton Heston – which I believe would be Edward G. Robinson – yelling: “Soylent Green is dogs!”)
I still don’t know the source of the semi-sulfurous odor – the Missouri River or railroad yards or Soylent Green plant – and when I asked my friend about it, he answered in an imitation tour guide voice, complete with sweeping arm gesture:
“Missouri! Land of Many Smells!”
(And if they put that on the state license plates, my friend deserves a cut.)
So if I think Missouri stinks (it doesn’t, unless you’re downwind from that Soylent Green plant) and the air is too humid (it definitely is in the summer) and it’s way too cold in the winter (unused to the Miracle of Midwest Weather, not long after arriving I naively asked how I could walk around the block and have the wind in my face on all four sides) and after it snows, the snow gets packed down and turns to ice and a trip down your driveway to get what’s left of the morning paper requires an ice pick, crampons and a guide rope (wait…I have to decide if I’m done complaining…OK, I think that’s it) why do I live here?
The following three stories will help explain.
Story 1: Why don’t we live here?
So we take the kids out to California for the first time to meet my side of the family so my children have a better idea of the genetic limitations they’re working with and understand where those odd impulses to start a meth lab or steal a car originate and in the Let’s Learn About California Tour we traveled to San Francisco, Monterey and Yosemite and my son Michael was standing in Lake Tahoe up to his knees when he turned around, looked at me and asked:
“Why don’t we live here?”
To which I answered:
“Do you see any big newspapers around?”
At that time only the biggest newspapers employed political cartoonists and jobs were hard to find and once you found one you stayed there until you died at your desk and someone noticed they hadn’t received a cartoon in three days and by the way, what’s that funny smell coming from Lee’s office?
So it’s kinda like the famous bank robber Willie Sutton who was once asked why he robbed banks and he said:
“Because that’s where the money is.”
(BTW: Willie denied saying this, but did say if someone had actually asked him that question, that was the answer he would have given.)
Political cartoonists worked in big towns because that’s where the money was and you kept those Big City Jobs…unless you got a better offer.
(Which we’ll get to shortly.)
Story 2: Traffic that Moves
So I’m in New York for the very first time and back then Kansas City was suffering from penis envy (not enough dicks living downtown) and wanted to be just like New York and have downtown nightlife because after 7 PM in KC you could run a herd of rabid buffalo equipped with flame throwers down Main Street and not endanger anybody because all the people left to go home to the suburbs.
As the plane came in for a landing I was reading a New York guidebook and it said on the island of Manhattan each block was home to over 1,000 people.
Which is why the buildings are so tall because they stacked those people on top of each other like lab rats and I realized Kansas City was kidding itself because the reason New York had such fabulous nightlife was the people lived like cockroaches in tiny apartments and they had to get out and do something at night before they blew their brains out.
We jumped in a cab to head to our hotel located across the street from Madison Square Garden and the cabbie asked where we were from and we said Kansas City and he started out by saying:
“Kansas City? You don’t have shit there.”
He then proceeded to start naming all the fabulous things they have in New York like the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway and the Museum of Modern Art and (the list went on for a while) and I’m looking at the back of this cabbie’s head and thinking:
“Yeah, I’m sure you go to the Metropolitan Opera all the time.”
So we hit a traffic jam (the Big East Tournament was taking place at Madison Square Garden) and I can see our hotel a block away, but we’re not getting any closer and the meter is running and just sitting there listening to this guy insult Kansas City was costing me money, so I said we’ll walk from here and paid the cabbie, but before I go I leaned in his window and said:
“You know what we got in Kansas City? Traffic that moves.”
Because the cabbie pissed me off with his snotty attitude I was defending Kansas City which came as such a surprise to me and everybody else because when I got back home and told someone at the newspaper the story, they put it in the paper:
“Local cartoonist says we don’t suck nearly as much as we think!”
(OK, that wasn’t the actual headline, but it’s what the headline would have said if it had been completely accurate.)
Story number 3: A Better Offer
Not long after arriving in Kansas City I won a national award and had to go to Chicago to pick it up and at the award banquet I was sitting with people like Christie Hefner and Mike Royko and an editor of the Chicago Sun-Times asked if I’d be interested in working for them because Bill Mauldin had just retired.
So I’m thinking I’m moving up to the Big Leagues and I’ll go to work for the Sun-Times and win a Pulitzer and me and Bill Murray will go to Cubs games together.
Timeout for a Pulitzer Prize confession
Every political cartoonist wants to win a Pulitzer Prize whether they’ll admit it or not and we get jealous of the people who actually win and find reasons to think we’re getting screwed, but to be honest, for most of my career if they gave the Pulitzer to Pat Oliphant in even years and Jeff MacNelly in odd years and in a Leap Year gave it to some deserving cartoonist who had done a career of good stuff like Dwane Powell, that would have been more fair than the system they’re currently using.
When people ask me about not winning a Pulitzer Prize (OK, one person asked me one time and I really appreciate mom doing that) my general feeling mirrors what Clint Hurdle said about his baseball playing career after appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and being labeled “This Year’s Phenom”:
“Maybe I just wasn’t that good.”
(Clint eventually won Manager of the Year, so he did OK for himself.)
Looking back, I feel lucky that I made a living drawing funny pictures and if someone gives me a free Ice Cream Sundae I’m not going to complain about not getting a cherry on top.
But back then I wanted to win a Pulitzer and figured I’d win one if I worked for the Sun-Times and that reminds me that when Ben Sargent won his Pulitzer, my publisher Jim Hale (one of my favorite people ever) liked to put people on the spot so he yelled out across the newsroom so everybody could hear (and you’ve got to imagine this in a West Texas accent because it’s even funnier):
“I hear that Sargent boy won him a Poo-litzer. When am I gonna have me a cartoonist who wins him a Poo-Litzer?”
I yelled back:
“When I get me a publisher with some pull.”
Mr. Hale started laughing and gave me the finger. (How do you not love a boss like that?)
Time back in
So after the Sun-Times editor asked if I’d like to work there, Sugar Plum Fairies were dancing in my head and I figured I’d go on to be a Windy City Celebrity (or at least hang around with real celebrities which is the most a cartoonist can hope for) but early the next morning we were headed to the airport and I saw a commuter train coming into Chicago, chock full of people hanging from straps and it dawned on me that I didn’t see a shitload of affordable houses in downtown Chicago.
Even if I got the job (and I never heard from that Sun-Times editor again, so I guess she wasn’t all that excited about the possibility) I’d be living in a suburb and driving to a train station, then commuting into the city, then finding a bus to take me to the newspaper and maybe spend a few hours a day commuting.
Back in KC it took me 18 minutes to get from my house to the newspaper.
So then I started thinking about how livable Kansas City was: affordable housing, relatively easy commutes, a couple sports teams to follow and all the big entertainers eventually came through town and would say “It’s great to be in Kansas!” and we’d all yell back “Missouri!” so we had that going for us.
Also, I once went to a bar in Cambridge and the band was playing so loud that my ears bled and some pretentious dipshit was sitting at the bar reading Nietzsche like this is where you’d go to absorb dense German philosophy (and the Nazis used it to justify what they were doing, so German philosophy doesn’t get much denser).
When I got back to Kansas City the first bar I went into featured a bunch of un-pretentious drunks dancing in a conga line and my first thought was:
“Now these are my kinda people.”
Eventually I realized that to go to a bigger city like Chicago or New York or LA and take a step up in my profession, I’d have to take a step down in lifestyle. Think about it that way and don’t get caught up in the prestige (which is what they offer you when they don’t want to give you actual money) and it really wasn’t a better offer.
So that’s why I still live in Kansas City.
But damn…California is awfully nice.