Kansas City is a convergence of conflicting values that seem to balance each other out. I suppose this is illustrative of the divide between Kansas City, Kansas (KCK) and Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO). KCMO is one of the most liberal areas in the Midwest, and most certainly in Missouri. KCK, on the other hand, is liberal when compared with the rest of the state – namely, it doesn’t condemn evolutionists and most of its population is made up of upper-middle class economic conservatives.
After four years away at college, I decided to move back and work for a year before starting grad school in Australia. Within days of returning, I secured myself a position as a server at semi-fine dining restaurant deep in the suburbs of KCK. I always hated waiting tables, but when you need cash fast, you go with what you know.
The restaurant I worked at, located amidst Nordstrom’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, had somehow evolved to be a haven for queer artists and writers all looking to make ends meet while waiting for their lucky break. I felt fortunate to have found this refuge while enduring a year of being the 22-year-old college graduate living at home with his parents.
The first few months of working at the restaurant flew by and I was surprised how quickly Halloween rolled around. Although it fell on Tuesday, my co-workers insisted that the holiday could not pass us by without a big celebration with plenty of booze. Of course the prospect of spending a weeknight drinking my cares away was not one I was going to pass up.
As Halloween neared, I discovered that there was going to be a live performance of “The Rocky Horror Show” the same night as the festivities. Having never seen Rocky Horror before, I thought this sounded like a lot of fun and quickly convinced a friend to dress up and venture into downtown KCMO with me.
The night of the show, I prepared my Annie Lennox-inspired costume. I bought a cheap tux at a used costume shop and altered the slacks into hot pants. Donning a white button-up shirt that I kept open, I completed my ensemble with fishnet stockings and black ankle-boots. Had it been a true imitation, I would have dyed my hair neon orange, but I hoped Annie would have been proud regardless of my auburn locks.
Held at a tiny theatre downtown that specialized in drag performances (which is, sadly, now closed), the energy of the audience was palpable. Every which way I turned I saw Frank-N-Furters and Janet Weisses, complete with newspapers, bags of rice and other props to enhance the viewing experience. And despite being a Rocky Horror virgin and not dressed in character, several people came up to admire my efforts.
The show ended relatively early and my friend and I parted ways as I headed back into KCK to meet up with my co-workers. They had settled on a sports bar down the street from our restaurant, and figuring that it was Halloween and everyone would be celebrating, I saw no reason to change before arriving.
I got out of my car and immediately discovered that fishnets are not at all effective at protecting from the crisp autumn air; one that had seemingly developed during the thirty minute drive. So to the best of my ability in three-inch heels, I ran to the bar’s entrance. As I neared the front doors, a few people passed me sporting jeans and flannel shirts and I found myself wondering, “What’s with all the lumberjack costumes?”
They weren’t costumes.
All eyes turned on me as I entered the bar. Groups of frat boys sat in booths, momentarily pulling their attention away from one of the many sports games to stare at the waifish, androgynous character standing in the entryway. My face flushed and my heart pounded as I became very much aware that I was the only one in costume. Not only was I the only one in costume, I was clearly the first person any of these people had ever seen in drag.
Before taking another breath, I turned around and walked out. Outside the doorway I paused to think, “OK Eric, don’t be afraid. Walk in, do a quick lap around the bar to find your friends and if they aren’t there, just get back in your car and leave.” And I did just that and, thanks to the grace of God, located my co-workers – none of whom were dressed up for the holiday.
“What the fuck?! Where are everyone’s costumes?!” I shrieked.
“Oh, we decided not to dress up,” my friend Chris explained.
“We were just too tired after work.”
“Thanks a lot,” I grumbled. “Someone is definitely walking me out to my car later, though.”
Playing pool with all of my gender-conforming co-workers, I thought back to only hours earlier when I was getting compliments on my legs and taking pictures with other costumed revelers. And although plenty of people shot confused glances at me, not one person noticed my carefully hemmed shorts or remarked on my exceptionally-toned calves.
I was, indeed, back in Kansas, Toto.