A little more than a year ago, I moved into a West Plaza apartment. It was neat and spacious, with hardwood floors for the rug I'd bought in Istanbul but never stepped on. And because it was walking distance from both the Plaza and Westport, I could mosey to a coffee shop or stagger home drunk from a bar without even glancing at my car. Best of all, it was cheap enough that I could live alone and realize one of the defining fantasies of many 20-something men: I'd be responsible for every mess I created, without fighting with a roommate for kitchen-counter space or bathroom time as if we were sharing the West Bank. This was city living as personal libertarian utopia.
Affordable rent and abundant space, after all, are what Kansas City is supposed to be about. After a rough few months in Washington, D.C. — where I hadn't liked the government achievatrons I met at parties and where an invasive landlord (who was cheating on her property taxes) had kicked me out of an egregiously expensive apartment (which was being rented illegally) — I was ready to build a better life in KC.
And a better life in KC was so easy — at first.
The Lattéland on Jefferson Street had a fine patio, so I spent a lot of time reading outside there. The Cinemark a few blocks from my apartment cost only $6 a show, so I saw every Zac Efron and Ryan Reynolds abomination that rolled through. (Because for six bucks, I'll watch anything in a theater.) These things I did alone, which was fine for a while.
Yet the warning signs of loneliness started to emerge. The apartment I'd chosen for its spaciousness began to look to me like that photo of Steve Jobs' living room, which had nothing but a rug and a lamp. The cheap movies I saw were stupid romantic comedies, and watching them alone lost its irony. And there were no co-workers to run into at the coffee shop after work because I was a freelancer with no co-workers.
One morning, I locked myself out of my apartment without my wallet or my phone. As I stood on my porch, sweaty from a morning run, I realized that I didn't know my landlord's number (or anybody else's) and that I'd somehow managed never to meet or talk to any of my neighbors.
I knocked on doors until someone I'd never seen before opened one. His hair was in dreadlocks, and the stench of weed smoke billowed from behind him when he invited me in. The first thing I saw was a huge picture of a naked woman, and — as with everything in his apartment — it made me want to know his story.
The second thing I saw was a video camera conspicuously set up on a tripod in the middle of his living room. The third thing I saw was his girlfriend, standing by the camcorder. She kept her arms folded across the front of her bathrobe, impatient for me to use the phone and leave. I averted my gaze out of politeness, and my eyes dropped to an open duffel bag with a silver-and-black handgun peeking out of it.
My neighbor handed me his phone with our landlord's number dialed in. After I called, I thanked him before leaving. "No problem, man," he said, shaking my hand. "See you around."
I never saw him again. I haven't been in a neighbor's apartment since.
Recently, I visited Beirut. I stayed with a Lebanese friend, in an apartment one floor above her parents' place. Family networks are usually much denser in Lebanon than they are in the United States, with parents and cousins and offspring often cleaved together in tight geographic and social proximity. If I had locked myself out of the apartment in Beirut, I would have knocked on the door downstairs. And it became a pleasure gossiping each morning with her mother when she came up to say hello. In the States, I was living an hour from my parents' Cass County home, and we saw one another for lunch maybe once a week.