I had sentimental reasons for being there. My grandmother, who is 90 and lives in Texas, sometimes mentions Union Station when she recalls coming to Kansas City to dance with soldiers "during the war." I've never been able to pull any further details out of her, but I always pick up some memento from the gift shop to put in her Christmas package a set of Union Station playing cards, a bag of the Roasterie's Union Station blend. I don't know that she understands the significance, but I do it to feel closer to her.
Countless Kansas Citians have their own emotional attachments to Union Station. I didn't grow up in this town, but when I came here in 1990, the glorious old building was crumbling and forsaken. Back then, I wrote stories championing the efforts of one Clay Chastain. (Before his light-rail efforts, Chastain led petition drives to restore the station. His blueprints showed gondolas flying over Penn Valley Park.) Voters on both sides of the state line ponied up to restore the building, but keeping it open has become another very expensive endeavor; always looming is the threat of another tax to pay the bills.
I've gauged the station's health by spending time in a room off the east side of the Grand Hall, a space that, decades ago, housed the legendary Harvey House Restaurant. Old-timers tell us that the Harvey House was a classy and busy diner where well-dressed waitresses served travelers from all over the country until late in the night. Eventually, a crappy food court occupied the space, symbolizing station managers' inability to do anything right ("Order Up!" August 26, 2004).
This past February, the station's governing board approved plans to replace the food court with a restaurant. In the spring, I wrote a column drooling all over CEO Andi Udris' plan to include Richard Cargo, a maintenance man who makes a mean plate of fried chicken, Salisbury steak and butter-mashed potatoes.
It was like a fairy tale. Udris, who took over the station in May 2005, had discovered Cargo's ability to cook at a staff Christmas party. "I did turkeys, baked ham, ribs, and made a large peach cobbler, which is a specialty of the house," Cargo told me of his holiday spread. Udris started talking to him about helping to create a new version of the Harvey House. When I asked Udris for proof of Cargo's abilities, the station's PR machine cranked into gear, and Cargo cooked me a fabulous lunch ("Pie in the Sky," March 9).
It wasn't exactly clear what role Cargo would play in the new Harvey House, but I was willing to give Udris and Eddie Adel, who manages the station's restaurants, the benefit of the doubt.
"His big thing is about making fresh, homemade pies, and he says he has several different really good pie recipes," Adel said of Cargo. "So that's going to be on the menu. He's got three or four that he really wants to make himself."
But that never happened. By the time the Harvey House opened in August, Cargo was no longer involved.
Pitch food writer Charles Ferruzza visited the Harvey House shortly after it opened and came back dejected. "The food is less than mediocre, the servers are incompetent, and there's such a sense of chaos and disorganization about the place that Fred Harvey must be rolling in his grave," he said. I didn't want to believe it, but I made a few visits myself and always came away saddened by its long waits and overwhelming blandness.
On the way out after a recent lunch visit, I noticed a case full of pies and remembered how Adel had told me that Cargo's "fresh, homemade" pies would be on the menu. I asked the hostess who made the pies.
Golden Boy, the massive Overland Park wholesale bakery.
The spirit of Richard Cargo is entirely missing.
I've talked to Cargo, Udris and Adel, and let's just say they couldn't come to a mutually acceptable agreement on Cargo's role and who would control Cargo's prized recipes.
Last week, Udris told me that he was disappointed it didn't work out with Cargo. But at least Cargo still had a job.
To stabilize Union Station's finances this year, Udris laid off 34 full-time and 25 part-time employees; the station's volunteer corps, mostly retirees, have "really stepped up" to ease the pain, he says. He's pinning his hopes for a happy 2007 on the $20-a-head tickets to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which runs from February through May.
Next year, for the first time since the station's restoration, managers expect to actually make a little money. They estimate closing out 2007 with $968,528 on hand (as opposed to this year, when they'll end up at least a couple of million dollars short). After that, though, with no Dead Sea Scrolls, the station will go back to scrambling to pay for itself, Udris says.
At the Harvey House, Adel is adjusting the menu and fine-tuning the staff. The restaurant is often packed, and you can get out of there for less than $6 at lunch.
It wasn't as if Cargo would have run the place he didn't have restaurant experience, only great recipes. Still, I should have waited until the Harvey House opened before writing about how awesome it could be with his help.
It's just that I wanted so badly to believe that Union Station could do something great.
After all, I go there every Christmas to buy my grandmother a present.
You see, I'm one of those people who gets blue around the holidays, with all the fake sentiment, crushing consumerism and fraudulent hope. No amount of Plaza lights, peppermint mochas and Saturday Night Live first-season DVDs can ease this feeling.
Yet I keep trying. So every year, I go to Union Station to see old men and children looking at trains. I go there hoping that a teenage gospel choir will make me cry. I go there to loosen up a little of the spirit buried in my coal-filled heart.
This year, though, I learned that there's no such thing as a miracle at Union Station.