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But what about that classic neon sign outside, which always reads "No Vacancy" when we drive by? "You haven't driven by much after 9/11," he snorts. Well, it's not just 9/11 that's slowed business down, he adds. It's also the 32 hotels in Overland Park -- mainly clustered around Interstate 435 and Metcalf, all of them newer and not nostalgic. White Haven's rates range from $47 for a single to $86 for a suite with three beds, but fancy-schmancy hotel amenities obviously count for more nowadays. -- Jen Chen
Andy Klein Pontiac GMC Inc.
The view of the economy is clear on the fake-wood patio, where three men in green shirts and khaki pants watch cars go by. One of them sighs and leans his belly against the rail. Another glances at his fingernails, each picked clean hours ago, then gazes back at the traffic. The third, John Neal, lights his seventh or eighth cigarette of the day.
September is more than a week old, and Neal has sold just one car. This is usually one of the best months of the year, when the new models come out and the newspaper is full of splashy ads. Before the dot-com bust and the September 11 attacks, more than a dozen shoppers would have been on the used-car lot at Andy Klein Pontiac GMC on a weekday in September. Neal recently sold a car to a Sprint middle manager who kept recalculating her payment schedule to make sure she'd be able to cover it with whatever severance package she might receive.
Lately Neal and his colleagues work entire days without talking to a single customer. Cars roll by on Metcalf, oblivious of their need to be traded in and resold.
A woman's voice comes over the loudspeaker. Neal has a call on line 67. It's Lucia Jones -- a Russian woman, Neal believes -- who test-drove a black 2001 Jimmy the night before. She told him she'd found a better deal at the lot across the street. Neal picked apart the competition's deal, explaining the intricacies of sales-tax costs and unfavorable interest terms. He handed her his card, expecting that he'd never see her again. But here she is on the other end of the line, saying in her exotic accent that she wants to buy the truck.
Neal gathers the paperwork and returns to the porch to wait. A few cigarettes later, Jones pulls up in a weathered silver import. She has her mother with her. Turns out they're from Uruguay. Jones is the daughter of Roberto Jones, Uruguay's most famous movie star. Her mother, Teresa Herrera, is a journalist who spent much of her career at El Pais, Uruguay's paper of record. She came north to be near her new granddaughter but also because Uruguay isn't what it used to be. The middle class has all but disappeared, she says. Even famous-actor ex-husbands are poor. Now Herrera works at Wal-Mart while her daughter attends college, angling for American prosperity. The new, used ride, with its $240-a-month payments, is a show of faith. -- Joe Miller
Metcalf Avenue finally comes to a close just on the south side of 335th Street, at the Louisburg-Middle Creek State Fishing Lake. Toss some gravel from the road leading to that site and you'll reach the equally unpaved parking lot of Rutlader Outpost, a strip of shops built to resemble an 1830s Old West border town. The stable-and-saloon-style construction sells this effect to some degree, though the computerized cash registers and neon "open" signs break the spell. One of the most peculiar habits of far-flung suburbia is the tendency to re-create what sprawl erased.