Roger McBride, of Kansas City's Historic Northeast neighborhood, wears a yellow hard hat with the name Roger Ramjet -- a nickname his friends gave him -- scrawled in red magic marker. He's been using it for safety as he builds his house with his own two hands, welding and doing all sorts of other manly things on the home front. He's defending that old-fashioned, pioneering American spirit against new enemies: identical housing developments and the undemocratic price tag on homeownership. With a chin not unlike the cartoon superhero's, he looks determined, focused and ... dusty. But dusty can be heroic, right?
Although the interior of the shingled, two-story carriage house that already stands on his plot of land is relatively neat and tidy -- a television sits on a classy-looking sculpted-steel coffee table, which rests on a fashionable tiled floor -- the dust is inescapable. It coats the TV screen, which is the only modern appliance to have entered the structure thus far.
For McBride, a TV is enough, and a little dust is more than tolerable. "If you're going to do this," he instructs, "you've got to learn that you just can't stay clean."
He's an outdoorsman anyway, and he wants everything he owns to be able to fit in a sailboat -- "to visit the world," he explains. This plan is one step closer to fulfillment now that workers have installed a dock along the Missouri River on the other side of Independence Avenue. As far as McBride is concerned, the city, along with the Missouri Department of Conservation, built this dock for his sailboat. "This is the dock they built me," he says, showing it off.
McBride takes great pride in his house, but when he offers to give you a tour, you will be looking at one of three things: a blueprint rolled up inside a triangular steel shelving unit, a hole in the lawn where a foundation will go or a pile of rubble hidden behind a skillfully built wooden fence.
Where you see a pile of windows and glass doors, McBride sees a greenhouse and a glass-enclosed courtyard. Where you see a mass of old pipes, he sees future plumbing lines. Where you see stones and red bricks and pillars, he sees mantelpieces, fountains and stone benches. Your wrought-iron mess is his privacy fence. This house of his will be no schlepper's pad. A week from now, there will be walls and a roof. By the end of the summer, one small house will be complete. Next spring, he plans to add another, identical house, and the two will be connected by that glassed-in courtyard.
The hole for the first foundation looks small. And it is, but not as small as it appears. "You're used to looking at a walled world," he explains.
Everything will be made of recycled material. The wood he's using to make concrete forms for his foundation, for example, came from the Fahrenheit Gallery. McBride is a self-employed construction worker, welder and hauler of recyclables; he traded gallery owner Peregrine Honig his labor, rehabbing her building in exchange for the materials he ripped out of it. Some of the wood for the house comes from fallen tree limbs he collected after 2002's big ice storm. He was a one-man cleanup crew.
He'll gladly take your plywood if you have any lying around. Just swing on by. He lives off Seventh Street and Gladstone, and you can't miss his house. It's the one that doesn't exist yet. It's the one with a rock garden cradling neatly carved Chinese characters representing earth, fire, water, air and metal sitting out front. Yes, he made those, too.
He just mowed the lawn yesterday, but with all the rain we've been getting, it's already grown back, with several patches of dandelions mixed in. Unamused, he looks around, puts his hands on his hips and announces that he needs a goat. Then he wonders aloud if that would be legal in the city. He sometimes seems to forget he lives in the urban core; to him, his carriage house is actually a barn. He came to the Northeast two years ago because, he says, it still felt like "a vestige of the wild, wild West." With hookers nearby.
It's not like that so much anymore. Living within a one-block radius of his land, he says, are Chinese, Mexicans and Yuppies Who Can't Afford Brookside. This last contingent is sizable enough to be considered an ethnic group. And it's one he understands, because he used to be a member of something like it, back in Connecticut.
"I was your classic Alex P. Keaton," he says, referring to Michael J. Fox's teenage Reagan devotee on the '80s sitcom Family Ties. "I was a rebel, but because I had hippie parents, that meant wearing a tie." He was in the Navy, headed for a more conventional, corporate life until he went to a Rainbow Gathering at his mother's request.
While doing peyote, he fell out of a tree and onto a couple of Kansas City artists.
It wasn't long before they were teaching McBride -- who had restored furniture and pursued other artistic endeavors recreationally -- to weld. "They introduced me to the world of fire," he says. "I've never been the same since." These are the same men who sometimes now lend him a hand on his big house-building adventure.
Not all of his new neighbors have enjoyed the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race ethos of McBride's project, though. Early on, he showed permits to more than one visiting firefighter who'd been sent over by frustrated onlookers. Now that his rubble is behind a nice fence and the carriage house stands as a promise of more progress to come, they seem to be warming up to him. Some have even installed their own rock gardens, which he takes as a compliment. But he wouldn't blame them if they were still a little peeved. He'd love to move more quickly, but he's doing this debt-free on an income that doesn't even merit a checking account. The cost is time and sweat.
"I wish I had thirty people working on my shit, but this is what you're in for if you want to come pioneering. I don't have any money," he says. "I just don't have it. I don't make squat. It came down to what I could do myself. But when this is all built, it'll be mine. I can always come back to it. It's my retirement plan."
In front of the carriage house is a tall, steel, beamed sculpture that looks partly like a bird feeder and partly like abstract art. Most people would have to cough up loads of cash for something like that in an entryway. But McBride used fire, metal and a little creativity.
Now if he can just get a shower installed, he'll be living like a goddamn king.