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.
Last fall, I also spent a lot of time in downtown Cairo, which was like living inside a human beehive. The crush of people packed into small spaces, combined with more outgoing social norms between strangers, means that every time you step outside is a trip into the unexpected. It's almost impossible not to meet people. To live in Cairo is to share in a high-density experience, one in which all the human molecules jostle together to create a kind of social friction you rarely see in Kansas City. I thought about all the times I'd walked along Roanoke Parkway without passing another person on foot.
But you don't have to travel abroad to know that the way we live in Kansas City — by ourselves, in spread-out homes, often away from our families and detached from our friends, wedged into our cars — is a historical aberration and exceptional compared with many other parts of the world. And in recent years, various media outlets have singled us out for some embarrassing stats, telling the rest of the country what we already knew about ourselves. In 2009, for example, Forbes crunched population data for America's 40 largest metropolitan areas and ranked Kansas City dead last for the number of single people. Perhaps correspondingly, KC's number of bars, restaurants and nightclubs per capita didn't rank much better.
That same year, according to U.S. Census data, more than 30 percent of American 20-somethings moved. No other age group uproots itself as frequently. We move because of new jobs or new relationships, and we arrive with few attachments. We're looking for those bars and restaurants and clubs, and the ongoing renaissance of KC's downtown offers some encouragement that life for young, urban-minded people is getting a little more vibrant.
So maybe, I thought, it was time to look for some new friends. But when I set out to do that, I found that my fellow Kansas Citians were feeling all kinds of lonely. And some weren't shy about admitting it.
At least, that's what I learned from Craigslist.
What's the deal with the picture thing?" I wrote Dave in an e-mail. "Why do people trade them?"
Dave's Craigslist ad was listed under the site's "strictly platonic" heading, which I decided to visit as an experiment. He said he was looking for a biking buddy so he could get in shape. When I responded to it, he immediately asked for my photo. With some apprehension, I passed along a Facebook snap.
"lot of weird people.... lol" he responded in his e-mail.
Then he asked me if I was gay or straight: "the reason I am asking is have a few people answer my add asking how hung am i, can I ride your cock. shit like that. I am gay but looking for a riding partner...BIKE RIDDING...lol."
"Haha I'm straight," I responded.
Dave's ad was still far less odd than most of the others I'd seen. I'd just eyed a post for two "40-something-but-fit" businessmen who were looking for young, beautiful women to go camping with them. It's totally not a sexual thing, of course, but maybe if things get sexual, we're open to that too. We're just looking for a little fun, went part of the plea.
"Yeah, it looks likes a lot of craiglisters don't know the definition of 'platonic,' " I wrote (with my own typos), already wondering whether Dave was one of them. His next e-mail landed with a thud: "ok cool I night be gay but I am very masculine ... you are cool with that?"
Well, sure, of course. But this was still the Internet, and I decided to pass. Maybe Dave was just a regular guy, but Craigslist's "strictly platonic" section is, like, 40 percent creepsters unaware that they're creepsters or creepsters who know but just don't care. The job of filtering is on the user, and it's tiring.
The other 60 percent of those posts, though, show a cross-section of all the ways you can feel lonely in recession America, where having and not having a job bring on their own kinds of isolation. Typos began to take on a poignant edge.
"Hi I'm a 33 year old man married and have 4 awesome kids..." read one post. "I was laid-off due to lack of work from the carpenter's union,,, so here I am stay at home dad.... My two oldest are in school during the day and my 8 week and 2 year old boy are stuck in the house all day.. It is hard to do anything by myself so if your in the same situation we should get together for a play date."
"Working the graveyard shift andJust looking for someone who wants to chat," said another. I imagined the vampire loneliness of having to sleep while all your friends are awake and active.
The more I looked, the more it seemed that every kind of lifestyle bred its own special social vacuum.
"Im a gwm [gay white male] in need of a ballroom dance partner. Im not effeminate and no one would ever suspect Im gay. I just want a dance partner."
"Single black woman looking to meet friendly guys outside of my race. Not looking for any relationship just someone to hang out with every now and then. If you are of the same race as myself please do not reply. Looking to try something different for a change."
"Want to hit the dating Scene [with a wingman]. Looking for someone who has had more experiences than myself."
"Gay boy here in KC looking for a woman to go shopping with ... I'm learning to crossdress so looking for all those sexy women clothes and need help."
I chatted with a divorced businessman who wanted a lunch-break buddy, and with a perfectly normal-sounding guy who wanted somebody to go with him to a nudist camp. And I met up with a friendly bouncer and UMKC student named George, who hung out with his buddies regularly but had trouble convincing any of them to come smoke shisha. We went to Jaskki's, in the West Bottoms, and puffed on a hookah.
Then I met up with a woman, an introvert named Audrey, whose ad said she'd moved to Kansas City around a year ago but couldn't remember the last time she'd gone out socially with anyone. We hung out for a while in the fiction section of Barnes & Noble and talked about our favorite writers.
But I saw neither George nor Audrey again. Maybe because of the way we'd arranged our meetings, the energy in them was too low to demand follow-up. Or maybe because I hadn't been serious enough about doing it. Making friends cold turkey turns out to be oddly like dating — sometimes you're more into somebody than that person is into you, and the doubt and anxiety that come with that imbalance don't feel good. And sometimes a response I sent to an interesting Craigslist ad was met with silence, as though we'd already broken up.
Months later, one ad still stands out to me: "Married soldier here in need of friends, I came back from overseas and everything is different nothing is the same at home and with friends," the post read. "Lots of my friends wont talk to me anymore, due to their views of my job and why i had to go. My best friend hates my guts, my wife cant stand me sometimes I just need some one to chat on here or meet for lunch once in a while."
I messaged him. He never wrote back.
Most Kansas Citians — most people everywhere — don't make friends on Craigslist. So why were some people slumming it?
Here I'm thinking about a 21-year-old named Taryn, who posted a request "to fucking pet a cat." It oozed hipster aloofness. She probably already knew somebody with a cat — because, come on — so I asked her why she'd posted.
"I think the more important question is why NOT craigslist?" she replied. "It's the mecca of all things weird and awesome/creepy. In short, craigslist is like the online version of Walmart."
She's not wrong. On the Internet, as in Walmart, you can get most of what's on your list for relatively little trouble, and you bump into a lot of human randomness as you fill your cart.
The Web has changed the way we can meet strangers, whether through Craigslist or via online dating or on Facebook, in a way that removes the old filters of family or work, and channels our preferences through personality-profile algorithms and shared likes and detours into niche subcategories. It took the Internet, for example, to give us a name for the male fans of My Little Pony whom we now know as "bronies."
Social media makes it more likely that we'll connect with people similar to us, in other places, rather than with the townies who live next door and may be a little more dissimilar. Instead of living vertically, in one city, we can live horizontally, across many cities. I have friends in New York, for example, and so the fire hose of my Facebook and Google news feeds sometimes means that I'm more aware of what's happening in Brooklyn than what's going on in Brookside. That's a great way to keep up with faraway friends but a problem when you're heading for drinks in Westport and not the East Village.
And getting a grip on the social ladder in Kansas City requires a more old-school approach. If, for instance, you've moved here for work, networking is probably a priority — and you've probably discovered that Kansas City isn't the easiest place for people to plug into.
"If you don't have somebody to show you around, it's an intimidating city," says Jessica Best, 30, who grew up in Independence and landed back in the city about five years ago. "Where are you supposed to go? Where's the nightlife? There's sort of this strip downtown instead of this central location where people go. Instead, you say you're going out to Westport or to Café Trio on the Plaza, or 'I'm gonna go to P&L' or, hell, the Crossroads. If you're not from here, how would you know that? How would you know what you're missing or what's going on?"
Best is a member of GenKC, a young-professionals networking group that coordinates with the various "young friends of" groups across the city, with the help of the Kansas City Area Development Council and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. She says the struggle of establishing yourself in Kansas City centers on knowing where the doors are, then figuring out which of them are open. Many Kansas Citians bond in sponsored networks: those "young friends of" as well as entities such as the Centurions Leadership Program.
Locals still join the Kansas City Club, an older-skewing site for local hobnobbery since 1882. But there are now even tinier social groups that court outright snobbery.
One such guild is the O.E. Ellis Society of Greater Kansas City, whose website announces: "The best way to be invited is: Don't ask to be invited." The site features a lot of photos of white guys wearing suits. "Nominees often must be 'Rushed' more than once in order to demonstrate their commitment, mettle, and that they are a good 'personality-fit,' " the site continues, as the scents of bourbon and leather seem to waft from the screen.
Are Kansas City women allowed in this club? It doesn't look like it, but perhaps that doesn't matter. After all, the club obviously benefits any woman lucky enough to have a man who joins. The site's unattributed "New Members" section advises: "The wives ('the O. "She" Ellis' underground) have curiously strong bonds with one another as well. And this author can honestly say that the O.E. Ellis wives and girlfriends are some of the absolute best quality women in the city."
Like the lonely Craiglist soldier back from war and cut off from his friends, O.E. Ellis didn't respond to me. (I asked for a comment for this story, not an invitation.) But that's fine. O.E. Ellis' members and I would probably agree that I'm not the kind of guy they're looking for. And not all clubs are worth joining.
So there's the obvious end to this story, and it's the way things go in every community you ever call home: It gets better. Not always a lot but always at least a little. Eventually everybody meets people, even if they're not the friends you intended to have.
Chel, 34, moved here from New York, an experience she says was like jumping from one genus of loneliness to another, each with its own quirks and mutations.
"We were all lost and alone," she says of being young in New York. "We were all lost and alone together. Every stranger was a potential friend. Every evening conversation could turn into a late-night conversation. I'm not talking about dating. I'm talking about finding your place, finding your people.
"In KC," she continues, "everyone is friendly to a fault, deeply kind. But the cutoff is: Everyone goes home to their families all the time. Kansas Citians will welcome you to their table — unless it's family night. And it's family night quite frequently."
But now she's at home here. She says that's because she made an effort to feel that way and "because I networked the shit out of this place."
I never did learn my neighbors' names, but I know the baristas at that Lattéland. I'm Facebook friends with more locals now, like that guy I met one night at a bar. He was drunk and he probably friended me so he could also friend the woman I was with, a college friend (visiting from London), whom he hit on when he met me. Still, I started to see him everywhere I went, and it was both a little nice and a lot like a sign: Person by person, my social life began to accrete human mass and then to exert its own gravitational pull. That's the kind of thing that keeps a person in one place, and every time I left town to work on an assignment or visit a friend, the social snowball brought me back.
But the less obvious ending — or the most obvious ending of all — is that I'm now moving out, leaving Kansas City. I couldn't say no to that great new job in Los Angeles, and by the time you read this, I'll be in California.
The pattern of solitude is going to repeat itself there. KC's unwalkability and traffic and sprawl? You can multiply those complaints by a significant factor in L.A., where once more I barely know anybody and barely know about the city. The job is also going to be my social life for a little while. That's the cycle young professionals have agreed to, and it goes round and round.
One day when I was packing up my big, cheap, gorgeous West Plaza apartment, I bumped into one of my neighbors as I went out for a run, one of my last in this city. He's a chef, a little bit older, and I'd seen him out walking his dogs now and then, in the afternoon or late at night. We'd last exchanged words a couple of months ago, and I told him I was moving to Los Angeles.
"I lived there for a year when I was 19," he said. And, yeah, he remembered being a little lonely, but he told me he didn't think much about that now. "You know, I used to spend a lot of time feeling victimized by everything, but it's just bullshit," he said. "You just make the best of it."
We shook hands. "It's Matt, right?" he said, surprising me that he'd remembered my name from that brief conversation before.
He said his name was Carl, and then we said goodbye.