*Squeezebox Show-Me Showdown Essay Contest Winner, 2015*
At 6:45 a.m. I am out the door of our South Plaza townhouse, dog on the leash, heel-stepping down 49th Street to Wornall then Brush Creek and into the Plaza. The two-year-old Lab-mix, Louie, pulls, and if I let him, he’ll take us straight to Westport. Maybe it’s the smell of the dueling hamburger joints on Pennsylvania. Maybe it’s the potluck of scattered debris not yet swept up after a Thursday night. I’m usually happy to follow. The hill up Broadway is a good workout, and I like Westport in the morning. It reminds me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, especially with Charlie Parker soloing through the outdoor speakers of Harry’s. But today I turn us east, past the soaring fountain jets of the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain then over to Southmoreland to view the construction of a plywood castle where soon King Lear will offer his seminar on how not to estate plan. Louie leaps up on the great rock wall and prances while I snap a picture. It’s a beautiful old space, cut into the surrounding hill, made festive now with its tents and flags. Next, if we want, there is the wide badminton field of the Nelson, or the terraces of Theis Park. Beautiful urban green-space is one of the things that most impresses my wife and me about Kansas City.
We named our dog after St. Louis, where he was born, and from where we moved two years ago. “Ah, St. Louis,” so many Kansas Citians have said, “big city, cosmopolitan, lots of traffic. Kansas City’s more laid back, more . . . Western.” The comments echo the popular notion that St. Louis is the western-most Eastern town—Kansas City, the eastern-most Western town. If it’s true that we define by comparison, then that’s as good a sketch as you’re likely to hear. It accounts for the prep-schools and parochial neighborhoods of St. Louis, both with their returning generations. It accounts for the great, ghostly stockyards of West Bottoms, the legacy of The Santa Fe trail, and also a certain, less-circumscribed sense of mobility in Kansas City—including a more intrepid and lively embrace of its downtown.
But the West of my childhood is the machine-gun rattle of logging trucks engine-breaking down mountain highways; it looks like the clear-running streams of Gold Rush country and the dry crackle of grasshoppers in khaki fields. Kansas City is green and humid, with fireflies, cicadas and bats. It has improvised its own sound and crowned its own royalty. Something tells me that Kansas City—my Kansas City, anyway—won’t be found on points of a compass. I’m coming to think it has much to do with its boulevards and parks.
I imagine the ghosts of city planners J.C. Nichols and George Kessler smiling at this accidental discovery. History records the role that their statuesque boulevards, parks, courtyards, esplanades and fountains played at the advent of the 20th Century, mapping Kansas City’s transformation from a sprawling, muddy frontier town into a flowing metropolis with a European accent and a penchant for open spaces. Among the most beautiful of these spaces are the grounds of the former golf course that gave Country Club Plaza its name and which were, even earlier, the site of a great Civil War battle.
Louie and I used to turn this way, south up Wornall, following Union General Blunt’s charge across what is now 51st Street and into Loose Park. There, under cover of pre-dawn skies, we’d march to the low valley in the middle, glance over shoulders, and promptly break the law. Ordinance 14-33 to be exact, which prohibits dogs off leash. Here is a version of what typically followed: from over the hills, though the trees and out of fog and darkness the dogs appear—Ginny, Teddy, Tuesday and Squirt, Bear and Benji, Sparky, Lucas, Dougal, Calvin and Ringo, Georgia and Lola, Yogi, Lainy, and, of course, Honey. Most are rescues with a Dr. Seussian mix of furs and features, about which, we, like all dog people, never tire of speculating: They said Lab-Shepherd, but I see some Pitbull or is it Doberman? Yeah, but the ears and that brindle—might be some Rottweiller. Whatever the breed, a strict pecking order rules, taught by nip and growl. The burly Lainy and wily Tuesday hold sway; Teddy and Bear are free agents, neither bossy nor bossed; the rest jockey harmlessly for what status remains to be had.
Behind the dogs, in hats (or bed-head hair), un-premeditated outfits and rubber footwear (to slick the dew), their owners hail in familiar voices: “Good morning,” “Hey there.” Our rag-tag regiment together, we patrol the center of the park, owners shepherding a lazy oval that the dogs know by heart: down the heights of the tennis court, past the pines, through the low strand of trees, up the east-side hill and the drooping crab apple tree, and way, way left of the pond and its tempting waters, liquid or frozen. One of the more awkward panics of my life came when Louie trotted confidently out on the ice last year and, naturally, broke through. Worst case scenarios battled for an ignominious upper-hand in my mind as I ran: A call to KCFD and all its attendant jangle and flash? A frigid swim of my own? Just how deep is it? To my great relief, Louie pulledout and gingerly made his way to shore earning the applause of passers-by, drawn by my high-pitched pleading. The more experienced dogs already know this lesson, or at least listen better. Some have been coming for six years. But that’s nothing compared to the people.
For over 25 years (pre-dating the construction of fenced dog-runs in the city) a rotating cast of characters, call it the Loose Park Dog Society, has convened in this exact way—yes, to let dogs romp, but also to meet up with friends, take in the morning air, watch the sun rise over the rose garden—and to talk. Movies, bands, travel, work, family, politics—family politics. The current members are nearly as diverse as the dog pack: men and women, gay and straight, native and transplant; educators, doctors, artists, lawyers, home makers, land-scapers; one-percenters, zen-masters and astro-travelers. And we meet a good deal more along the way as blanketed sleepers wake to curious wet noses, as cross-country skiers glide through, and guests from the Intercontinental Hotel wander past. Those we’ve missed just hours ago leave a trail of stray keys, blankets, fried chicken boxes, and large caches of beer bottles, which we do our best to clean up. “You can tell the high school by the brand of beer,” swears Brian on a morning with Corona bottles—“Rockhurst.”
Like the drum sessions on Monday evening and the busy children’s playground, these meetings of the Dog Society and the random interactions they occasion are Loose Park at its most urban and democratic. Alongside music, perhaps nothing brings disparate people together easier than dogs. They involve us in each other’s lives. Shortly after moving to Kansas City, I was invited to Loose Park by my new neighbor, Leib. He and Bear (his ultra-calm, long-haired, therapy dog) stopped to greet Louie and me, and he told me about the park and the group. I’ll admit to being a little nervous walking into the park that first time, without Leib or introduction. In the pre-sunrise fog the park looked like some forlorn Scottish Moor. Then, from out of the shroud galloped a golden brown hound (Honey, as it would turn out), and the chase and tumble was on, and went on at a frenzied pace until both Louie and Honey lay panting—wet with dew, flecked with grass. By then I’d introduced myself to Liz, and by her been introduced to Michael, Katrina, Brian and others. Just like that. No credentials, no questions, and with an implied invitation to come again.
I became a regular, setting my alarm, stashing scoop bags and treats in coat pockets, buying the necessary rubber shoes and umbrella in spring. Unless it’s tornado-like, we show up, rain or shine. The dogs little heed dark clouds forming to the west, and most don’t mind a good shower as they remind us of the soft pleasure of puddles, the toe-thrilling squish of mud. I don’t know what’s more motivating on a dark, rumbling and otherwise foreboding morning: the dog’s prancing impatience for the park or the non-binding, but real expectation that you’ll be missed if you don’t come with your canine playmates as well as your advice and stories. Anyone talk with Michael? It’s not like him to miss two days in a row. Think he’s in Columbia through Wednesday. Oh, that’s right.
In winter, I bought heavy boots for the frigid Kansas City mornings when the place is usually ours alone. Even in January, the park has its compensations, especially after a snowfall: the evergreens with their crystalline flakes and the layered hills with their smooth cover of frosting all becoming illuminated by the late sunrise. Loose Park then is a blank, white canvas, and when we’re finished you can read the story of a hundred chases and games of fetch. You can also read the human footsteps: singular paths from all directions on the ways in and out—a great congress of tracks all around the middle.
Of course democracies are not utopias. And all dogs are not like Honey and Bear. Louie and I are presently on a voluntary break from the group while we work on Louie’s, call it, social-skill set. He’s gotten in a few serious scuffles when spirits have run high and when he spots new dogs with their owners jogging the perimeter sidewalk, he listens as selectively as an old man with a hearing aid. My command “come” becomes so faint, then, as to resemble “go!” Though most joggers are good-natured about it, the sight of a beady eyed, flare-tailed missile shooting over the hill, straight toward them is, at best, an interruption.
We do our utmost to prevent this kind of interaction. We know why ordinances are made, and we respect the rights of others using the park. But we prefer to police ourselves. You might say, these early mornings, we’re improvisers in the best Paris-of-the-Plains tradition, exercising a certain, laissez faire governance in the larger effort to harmonize. If the shared language that brought so many itinerant jazz players together at 18th and Vine was the blues, then we have our common language, too, in the sounds and sign-language of our dogs, in the age-old camaraderie of people caring for animals. Our particular brand of camaraderie—this particular cultural institution—has become for me as meaningful a signifier of Kansas City that I have found: the keys to the city, or at least its dog door.
I keep abreast of the gang, meeting for lunch now and then in regular (and by comparison dressy) civilian garb. And I plan to return to Loose Park—once Louie and I have refined our chops. Meanwhile, I’m happy to know they go on meeting, reviewing the world’s twists and turns, and finding new members at these rolling crossroads. This morning, Louie and I have wound our way through Theis Park to the nature walk of the Kauffman Foundation Center with its tall grasses. We may yet meet some pedestrians in the park or set fly the scattering geese along Brush Creek before we make our way back up the 49th Street hill for breakfast.