I remember when I was desperate to leave. I remember feeling stifled by you, finding the streets too calm, the lifestyle too simple. I remember going downtown, looking out the windows of high-rises, and seeing nothing but grasslands, endless beyond the miniscule urban center. I remember navigating that very urban center (if you can even call it that) on the RideKC Streetcar, the pride and joy of downtown Kansas City.
Oh, the streetcar. The drama it took to get that thing built. Who would provide the funding? How far would the Streetcar go, and what infrastructure would be necessary for it? Would the interests of local retailers be taken into account? The list of demands from local interest groups seemed never-ending.
I remember thinking that any town that spent months deliberating the construction could not possibly be worth my time. What sort of place had nothing better to do than wage an all-out war over a two-mile streetcar? And worse yet, what sort of place had a downtown that covered a mere two miles?
I remember the day the RideKC Streetcar first operated. The streetcars were modern and sleek: blue and white, gliding across the street alongside regular cars which paled in comparison. They looked like small trains up close; caterpillars from a distance.
Everyone scrambled downtown to experience public transit for themselves, as though it were a city-wide holiday. The streetcar truly was a novelty to us. Kansas City had never experienced free, public transportation like this before. Two cars were in operation, and they were painfully crowded. Excited murmurs buzzed in the air: I wonder how long it will be before the next car arrives! Can you believe how nice these look? And they’re free! This is going to bring a lot of money to local businesses.
I remember finding all of this absolutely absurd. I wanted nothing more than to escape, to go somewhere with real public transit, not this joke of a streetcar. Perhaps the greatest joke of all was that none of this even happened in Kansas. Downtown Kansas City is in Missouri. Yes, Kansas City, Kansas is essentially the same place as Kansas City, Missouri. The states are only separated only by a road aptly named “State Line Road.” But I remember still finding it both funny and sad that Kansans had to leave their state for any form of entertainment, as their side of State Line Road simply had nothing to offer.
Last spring, on my 18th birthday, my mom woke me up with a hug, a bouquet of flowers, and a card. I opened the card and laughed at what I saw. A lion with a fuzzy mane. A tin man made of shimmering foil. Glitter littered the envelope, falling from the ruby slippers. It was a Wizard of Oz-themed card. My mom knew better than anyone how tired I was of Kansas, I thought; she must have chosen this card to frustrate me. Within seconds, however, I realized her true intention. I met her eyes and said, “This is my last birthday in Kansas. That’s why you got me this.” She smiled and nodded.
My 19th birthday would certainly not be spent in Kansas; a year from then, I would be at Yale! In Connecticut, on the East Coast! I was overjoyed. The coast was going to be heaven itself. New York City would be only two hours away, Philadelphia only four! I would no longer be landlocked. The beach would be a physical, tangible place that I could actually visit! Downtown areas would be sprawling urban centers, with real public transit! Metro systems, not just streetcars! The world awaited me. That birthday card didn’t make me feel melancholy about leaving home. If anything, it made me all the more excited.
But then I boarded my plane to New York (after driving nearly 30 minutes to the airport, because our public transit “system” doesn’t reach), drove to New Haven in my family’s rental car, and arrived here: Yale.
I saw seagulls swirling around the sky above me. I took the MetroNorth train line to New York City several times in my first semester. I visited Boston and Philadelphia, and explored downtown New Haven. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
I desperately wanted to love New York — I wanted to walk the dense city streets with confidence, know all the best parks and museums, and become a master navigator of the New York City subway. In my eyes, this city was the epitome of the East Coast. It was everything I had ever wanted, and it was so perfectly accessible from New Haven. But it was also a city that proved Dorothy right: there’s no place like home.
On a chilly October evening, I boarded the subway and headed to Central Park with two of my friends. It was our fall break, and we were beyond excited for our day trip to New York. I could not wait to make my dreams come true; this was my first step in becoming the East Coast ‘local’ I had always wanted to be. That dream started — and ended — on the subway.
The subway truly was an experience. I paid for a metro card, intending to use the train multiple times that day. I walked around the rather grimy station and was unintelligibly yelled at by several strangers. I was immediately confused by the complex subway map, and could feel myself getting more frustrated by the minute: New York City simply had no patience. It was constantly moving, constantly demanding attention. There was no time to be confused by the subway map. Every missed train felt like a missed opportunity.
Back home, I was an expert at navigating public transit. The streetcar map was clear and simple: it was a straight line, with a few stops labeled along its route. The car waited for a significant amount of time at each stop, and was virtually impossible to miss. I knew each stop by heart, and precisely which restaurants, shops, and boutiques were accessible from each one. I had perfected the art of parking strategically such that a streetcar stop was always nearby, and timing my downtown visits based on the transit schedule. I could easily apply these skills to New York, right?
I was painfully wrong, and disappointed in myself. I wanted so badly to enjoy this city the way I enjoyed my own hometown, but I simply could not. It was too different, and in all the wrong ways. I wandered around the subway station like a pitiful lost puppy, glaring angrily at the subway maps and trying to will my brain to understand something, anything. The station was so boisterous, I could hardly hear my own thoughts. Every inch of it was crowded with people, locals and tourists alike. Above ground, I could hardly see grass, and here I could hardly see the concrete floor.
As I gloomily rode the subway to Central Park, it hit me: I’d rather be home. I’d rather be on the RideKC streetcar. I’d rather be looking out windows to see a small, yet mesmerizing skyline. In downtown Kansas City, you can look up and see gorgeous architecture and elegant skyscrapers, with the sun peeking through between them. Here in New York, you could barely see the sky.
The East Coast really wasn’t all I had imagined it would be. And in more ways than one: Why did people refer to hotdogs and hamburgers as “barbecue?” That stuff is not barbecue! Barbecue is a staple of Kansas City; it’s slow-cooked and heavily seasoned. It’s sacrilegious to compare it to a boiled hotdog. In my life, barbecue was always a celebration. It reminds me of neighborhood Fourth of July parties, birthday dinners with my parents, and fun weekends with my friends.
Why were Yalies going all the way to New York City for jazz clubs? Back home, world-class jazz clubs were a ten minute walk from my house. Icons like Count Basie and Charlie Parker were from my hometown, and murals of them could be found virtually everywhere. I used to play in a jazz ensemble, which opened my eyes to the rich cultural history that Kansas Citians share and cherish. Jazz surrounded me, and helped make me who I am; and I sure didn’t have to take a two-hour train ride to experience it.
Why was the traffic so absurd? Since when was trying to cross the street such an ordeal? Streets in Kansas City are so calm and easy to navigate. Even if you’re jaywalking, people will slow down, smile, and wave you across the street. And it’s not just human pedestrians that drivers are courteous towards. I remember once being part of a traffic jam at a green light, waiting for a mother duck and her gaggle of small, fuzzy children to cross the street — even though it was rush hour, and we were all commuting to work. No one honked, and no one dared move until every single duck was safely across the street. I heard my co-workers talking about the incident later that day: Those ducks were precious! Did you see how they all walked in a line?
Why did I have to pay to use the New York City subway system? The RideKC Streetcar was free. And it was always clean, well-lit, and filled with friendly people. I imagine that the RideKC streetcar would stop to let baby ducks cross the road. Oh, the streetcar. I missed it.
Within a few weeks of coming to Yale, it hit me all at once that I’d left home. I’d succeeded in escaping you, Kansas. And I wanted nothing more than to go right back.
I remember my flight home from New Haven — as the plane descended into Kansas City, I looked out the window and could see only grasslands for miles and miles. Cows and horses were peacefully grazing, and the sunshine was comforting and inviting.
I came home to find barbecue from my favorite restaurant waiting on the table. It was miraculous: it wasn’t a mere hotdog or hamburger. It was smoked turkey with real barbecue sauce. Perfectly sweet and spicy, simultaneously. Complete with melted cheese and fried onion. Each bite tasted like home, like the Fourth of July, like a family birthday.
I got in my car and drove around the streets I knew better than I knew myself. They were silent, even though it was a Saturday night. Within five minutes, I was through the suburbs. Within ten, I was downtown. No traffic. No chaos. Just a quaint, clean downtown and a single small streetcar inching along Main Street like a caterpillar.
I parked my car (for free, in the heart of downtown — truly an unknown phenomenon where I’d just come from), walked to the nearest streetcar station, and waited for the familiar ding and intercom announcement declaring its arrival: “You are riding the RideKC Streetcar. Next stop: River Market.”
Downtown whizzed by my window as the streetcar made its glorious two-mile commute. Nearly instantly, we had already reached the end of the line and crossed the entirety of downtown. We had passed the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District; the modern, striking architecture of the performing arts center had flown by alongside the grand, Gothic-style downtown library. Small local restaurants, gourmet coffee shops, and local clothing boutiques were behind us. And now the caterpillar was reversing its path, and inching along Main Street all over again.
I reached my car once again, and drove back to my side of State Line Road. I’d seen virtually the entire city in the span of an evening — and did it again and again and again over the next three weeks. Oh, the streetcar. What a beautiful thing it is that so much can be seen and experienced on a mere two-mile line. Where else can an entire world unfold before your eyes in just two miles? Where else can you transition seamlessly from a vibrant downtown atmosphere to a peaceful, comforting suburb in the span of a ten-minute drive? Where else can you find such rich culture and history packed into this small of a physical space?
Kansas, you were no longer stifling. You were freeing. You were exciting. You were home.
The day before leaving for Yale, I had carefully arranged a Harry Potter sticker, a Beatles sticker, and a feminist sticker on my laptop. Things that were important and meaningful to me circled the edges of my laptop case, but I had intentionally left a large gap in the center. I told myself, once you get to Yale, you’ll find a really special sticker to put right there in the middle. A school club, perhaps. My residential college. Something new and exciting that would be worthy of that central spot.
This semester, I at last placed a sticker in that coveted spot. I had decided what really meant something to me — something new and exciting, something that I simply could not have discovered before arriving at Yale. Something I had to come all this way to find. Home.
I remember the day my Kansas sticker arrived in the mail. I remember looking at it, and loving it even more than the digital image I’d seen online: it was yellow (my favorite color), and it was shaped like a graham cracker with a small bite taken out of the top right corner. Shaped like home! I remember excitedly tearing the package open, and nervously centering it on my laptop to ensure it wasn’t crooked. I remember running to my best friends’ suite, and showing all of them my laptop’s newest addition.
I remember sending a picture of it to my parents, and laughing at their reply: “Remember when you hated Kansas six months ago?”
Kansas, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I found you utterly miserable. I’m sorry that I spent 18 years never realizing how lucky I was. But I will forever be grateful that I left you. I had to leave to finally appreciate all that I was leaving behind: the grass, the open expanse of sky, the ducks and geese and chipmunks peacefully crossing the not-too-busy roads.
I had to see the world that I thought you were holding me back from, in order to realize that you already had everything I ever wanted. I had to see the exhilarating blue sky replaced with towers of steel and glass. I had to become accustomed to nearly silent sidewalk commutes, instead of gleefully waving to strangers on the street and asking them about their day. I had to see cars speeding past squirrels and birds on the road without regard. I had to go months without real barbecue and real jazz to be reminded of how much I truly loved Kansas City culture.
Kansas, thank you for forcing me out into the world. Thank you for remaining peacefully, beautifully constant while my life whirled and changed. Thank you for making my first goodbye easy, but all subsequent ones anything but.
Ad astra per aspera,
One of the only things Iman loves more than Kansas City is her large orange tabby cat, Diego. She hopes you’ll follow his Instagram (@live.laugh.diego) and revel in his beauty as much as she does. Want to discuss this piece, your favorite Beatles album, or feminist philosophy? Email her anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’d love to grab some tea with you.