Greetings From North Oak Trafficway

North Stars 

Greetings From North Oak Trafficway

The Pitch summer road trip is now an official tradition. It started a couple of years ago when we grew restless as the city heated up and everyone else went on vacation. We took a day out of our routine and hit a street — Metcalf — in what became a revealing exploration of what we thought we knew. Last year, our adventure in randomness took us to State Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. This time, we headed north.

We ended up in a real hot spot — not because it was the most sweltering day of the year so far. North Oak Trafficway was embroiled in a bit of controversy. But more on that later.

First, the history. "People tend to think of the Northland as all new, all rich, all white, mostly suburban," says Jim Rice, the executive director of Northland Neighborhoods Inc. "But the major portion of the Northland was annexed early on, and the houses are at least 50 years old or older." As in other neighborhoods that age, he says, "the businesses of the heyday of the corridor have gone, usually to the suburbs or interstate corridors. In their place, you never get an upgrade — you always get a downgrade. Where there once was a top-line car dealership, there's now a used-car lot. Where there was a healthy mom-and-pop, now it's a payday loan or day labor or vacancies."

That's where the controversy came in. We'd chosen North Oak Trafficway for reasons that had nothing to do with the fact that the Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary wanted to sell 32 parklike acres at the corner of Vivion Road, where developers wanted tax breaks to put in a strip mall just like every other strip mall in the northern suburbs. The Kansas City Star editorial writer Yael Abouhalkah called it "one of the most questionable taxpayer-subsidized deals to advance through City Hall in 15 years." Yet it seemed to have an unusual amount of support.

"I, like everybody else, am kind of heartsick about losing green space," Rice says. "I made the judgment that the second the seminary folks made the decision to sell the property, development was inevitable. Therefore, what we should be about is getting the best development we can under those circumstances." Rice says he trusts the developers, Hunt Midwest and R.H. Johnson Company. And, he argues, the area needs help.

Maybe so. When we road-tripped on North Oak, lush green lawns were fading in the late-summer heat, giant plastic logos for big-name chain stores loomed over every hill, and new houses looked like waves of a beige ocean around Missouri Highway 152. But for every boarded-up frozen-custard stand, a flower shop's neon burned bright. There's a storefront tabernacle, a cosmetology school, a driving range and a Christian nightclub. American flags fly everywhere, and Northland Auto Sales habla Español. God bless North Oak Trafficway.

5:30 a.m. Nature's Window 6944 North Oak Trafficway

The sticker on the mailbox says ³Mr. Poopy,² but it's a boisterous 52-year-old blonde with gem-studded cat's-eye glasses who greets a morning visitor.

It's still a good half-hour before the 6 a.m. newscasts will pronounce this the hottest day of the year, but Jamie Ann Smith-Hennessy — owner of Nature's Window catering — is already sweating. Maybe that's because she meant to be here at 5 a.m. but couldn't find her glasses and didn't roll in until 5:30. Or maybe it's because she has fewer than four hours in the "office" today before she heads to Pomme de Terre Lake.

Either way, Smith-Hennessy — her black T-shirt flecked with crumbs and her pink-toed socks peeking out of her Birkenstocks — admits that her only mode of operation is full boil. "The sisters used to hang me by my suspenders in the cloakroom," she recalls of her Catholic school days. She's prone to banging on windows, dancing among the long silver tables and speaking in a word-skipping rapid fire. "I don't drink," she says. "I don't do drugs. I'm just like this."

But her manic managerial style has made this Qi-Gong-practicing woman one of the metro's most-lauded small business owners. The founder of one of the nation's top 10 caterers for corporate jets, Smith-Hennessy reluctantly pulled on a pair of pantyhose and painted on some makeup (a process that, she says, "makes me whine like a 10-year-old") to receive the Governor's Small Business Award last year.

Smith-Hennessy never dreamed that she'd make a living creating spreads that, this year, won third place in a contest hosted by NetJets, the self-proclaimed "world leader in private aviation" owned by Warren Buffett. Hell, half her staff will tell you that she hates food. In fact, if her 1965 Chevy hadn't broken down for the eighth time on September 14, 1981, this Oregon native would have blown right past Kansas City on her way to Dallas.

Instead, she got stranded, got married and settled on 160 acres off Barry Road. After the birth of her now 18-year-old daughter, Smith-Hennessy's marriage went south. She dabbled in the construction industry and built a greenhouse. Then her family doctor asked her to cater his 39th birthday party. Next thing she knew, she was bartering sugar cookies with a local lawyer to secure her articles of incorporation. She opened her one-woman bakery in 1995. Until 1998, Smith-Hennessy says, she was barely making $100 a week. Now she has 16 employees who get profit sharing and health insurance.

The strategy for her award-winning business strategy is no secret. It's pinned to the pink door leading to her office: An oversized cutout in the shape of a fish reads "Choose your attitude," and fluorescent bubbles urge "Play while you work." She's the type of manager who brandishes hot-pink plastic artillery. "Better watch out," she warns. "We've all got squirt guns."

But Smith-Hennessy knows that her target customer base wears $5,000 suits. "They don't want peanut butter on saltines." Anyone can make a sandwich, she says, so she has high standards for her staff.

"If you work here, you have to do two things," she explains, wielding a tray of caramel-scented cinnamon rolls. "You have to autograph your work with excellence," she says, stopping as she struggles with a plastic lid. "And the other thing is" — her voice rises as she races out the office door to the kitchen — "you have to swear when the damn lids won't go on."

There's no lack of four-letter humor peppering the air as the crew churns out shrimp cocktail and packs up the orders. This is her family, Smith-Hennessy says, and she sees no need to censor its unrelenting banter.

Some of those $5,000 suits will make an appearance tomorrow, but the corporate crowd isn't her scene. Well-dressed execs may pay the bills, but Smith-Hennessy will be riding her bike at the lake. — Carolyn Szczepanski

10:20 a.m. I Got Your Back Chiropractic 8516 North Oak Trafficway
Seashells rest on a countertop in the lobby of I Got Your Back Chiropractic. An ocean mural, replete with lighthouse and gulls, covers a wall in the area where Michael Hudak treats his patients.

Hudak, who owns the practice, chose a nautical theme in recognition of his Matawan, New Jersey, hometown. The site of three shark attacks in 1916, Matawan belongs to a section of the Jersey shore said to have inspired Jaws.

He came to Kansas City to study at Cleveland Chiropractic College. At first, he had trouble adjusting to life in the Midwest. "It was a struggle for three years because I was way too East Coast jerk-offish," he says.

In time, Hudak, now 38, came to accept the slower pace and mysterious-tasting bagels. He opened his practice in 1999. He came up with the name I Got Your Back Chiropractic while bartering services with a painter, Alexander Austin, who is best-known for his Martin Luther King Jr. mural at Troost Avenue and Linwood Boulevard.

Austin, says the blond, bearded, shorts-clad Hudak, asked for spine adjustments in exchange for his work. Hudak agreed. "I go, 'Oh, yeah, man, I got your back. Man, I got your back for life.' Then I was, like, 'Oh, my God, that's it.' And I just freaked out and got so excited, and that's how I came up with the name."

Hudak is excited at the moment by the direction his practice has taken. Last year, he treated Chris Morant, a reserve member of the Brigade, Kansas City's Arena Football League team. Word got around, and now framed photographs of several Brigade players hang on the wall.

Hudak helps personal-injury lawyers with their cases, but no courtroom matches the thrill of working with athletes. Hudak started doing Pilates in February. He figured he needed to add strength in order to lay hands on large football players.

"It puts me in the same category, in my opinion, as they're in, as that elite," he says. "I want to stay there, and I want to keep going higher and higher."

A wrestler in high school, Hudak likes to be near structured combat. He also works with Mike Kelly, a champion kickboxer who lives in Peculiar. Hudak is Kelly's cut man.

"When he's getting ready to fight, we'll all get together and we'll practice what we're going to do. I'll work on fake cuts and stuff like that. I am a professional cut man, which is a fun little sideline. I mean, I don't make any money off of it."

Kelly, 39, keeps himself in a condition that astounds the chiropractor.

"Guess how long this guy can hold his breath for?" Hudak asks. "Four minutes and 16 seconds. He can hold his breath underwater for 4 minutes ... that's his record right now. He's going for 5 minutes by the end of the summer."

As Hudak marvels at the size of another man's lung capacity, he is expecting a crew to replace the front door to his office. Thieves broke in a few nights ago and stole a moneybag with a check from an insurance company. Hudak was able to replace the check and is thankful that the burglars didn't smash the fish tank.

— David Martin 11:30 a.m. In-A-Tub 4000 North Oak Trafficway

If you want to know how much Northlanders love their home-grown fast-food franchise, In-A-Tub, just drive by the flagship location — the building with the curved, smoked-glass windows — during the lunch shift. The parking areas surrounding the restaurant are packed with cars and trucks (mostly trucks) well before noon. Customers are already lined up at the counter ordering the kind of fast food that the McDonald's next door doesn't sell: corn dogs, chili pies, pocket burgers, taco burgers, fried corn nuggets.

The place is best-known for its tacos, which the staff and frequent customers simply call "regs." Regs are the regular tacos (not to be confused with the meat-and-cheese versions or those with meat, beans and cheese), and it's better to order more than one. A single taco is gone in three bites, even though it isn't especially small. It's a thin fried tortilla folded around refried beans, ground beef and lettuce and dusted with powdered cheese — not Parmesan but the same neon-orange powdered cheddar that comes in macaroni-and-cheese boxed dinners.

The regulars love this culinary eccentricity, but first-timers are often jarred to see the cheese dust's electric shade. Still, it has a surprising zing to it. The regs are a little greasy but tasty. Melted American cheese covers the pillowy tamales, a guilty pleasure. Almost everything here is served in pressed-cardboard boats or checked paper boxes — presumably these are the restaurant's namesake "tubs."

Not so, says Aaron Beeman, the 37-year-old owner of this In-A-Tub site. (He controls the franchise rights, too.) "Back in 1952, when the original owners, Walt and Marion Carpenter, owned the place, it sold 50 flavors of ice cream. You know, served in a tub."

Not just any old ice cream but that 1950s frozen favorite: soft serve. The Carpenters mixed their machine-made concoction with different flavorings and ingredients to come up with 22 more varieties than Howard Johnson's, which boasted only 28. In-A-Tub sold ice cream until 1999, but after the drive-in began serving tacos in the 1970s, the entire dynamic changed. Ice cream took a backseat to hot food such as chili burgers and nacho burgers.

Debbie, the ponytailed cashier, can tell you how many times the restaurant has moved in the last 54 years. Twice, she says, and never off North Oak Trafficway. The second owner, the late Joseph Scruby, moved the business from a spot near Cascone's to its current home in 1985. This spotlessly clean "new" In-A-Tub is paneled like a 1960s rec room and still boasts a smoking section for customers who want to puff on a Parliament after a tub of fried pepper poppers. The only vegetarian items are of the deep-fried variety: cauliflower, mushrooms, zucchini or "veggie stix." And tater tots.

Aaron Beeman grew up in this neighborhood and says his older brother still remembers when In-A-Tub was the Northland's main teen hangout. Now it's a hangout for everyone. Especially the regs.

— Charles Ferruzza 12:30 p.m.

Smokes 4 Less

7601-B North Oak Trafficway
Smokes 4 Less is sandwiched between a Papa John's Pizza and a Kwik Shoppe that sells porn and Powerball tickets.

An older man comes through the glass door to drop $86 on three cartons of Marlboro Lights.

"Joe is retired," explains the cashier, Connie Brock, after he leaves. Brock has shoulder-length, smoke-colored hair and wears a Flintstones T-shirt over pedal-pusher jeans and white Keds. Her face is deeply lined from a combination of smoking and laughing. "He goes to the boats. We have a lot of retired people come in. And people who come in to hear the joke of the day."

The joke of the day happens only when another regular, Tom, arrives to tell it. "Sometimes just looking at him is the joke," says the other cashier, Bernie Campbell. She wears a black shirt with a skull on it, and her curly hair is dyed blood-red.

Antique cigarette signs hang on the walls, along with a display devoted to smokeless tobacco products such as dip and snuff, cigarette snuffers shaped like Republican elephants and Democratic donkeys, and hanging corncob pipes. The walls shout numbers like a NASDAQ ticker: Basic, $24.49 carton; Marlboro 3-pack, $8.92. Behind the humidor's sliding glass door are $8 Rocky Patel cigars. The owners of Smokes 4 Less, who live in Trenton, Missouri, once visited Rocky Patel's plantation in Honduras.

People who walk into Smokes 4 Less more than once are liable to earn themselves a nickname.

The Cadillac Kid is 20. He wears blue jeans and a dusty, plain white T-shirt. He launches into a monologue about the not-so-plain shirts he recently bought at Target. "There was one from that one level of Super Mario Brothers, and a Monty Python one ... I'd say for every pack of cigarettes you got, they got a T-shirt. I spent $200, I swear. I blew all my money on T-shirts. Plus, I lost my last 10 bucks at poker last night."

Brock crows, "Now you gotta bum a cigarette."

She and the Cadillac Kid light honey-flavored blunts. The Kid is a family friend of Campbell's — her husband is a mechanic and has been teaching the Kid about cars.

The customer they call Howya Doin' is named for his tendency to come in all "howya doin', howya doin'" but not wait for an answer. There's the Witch Man. There's Rest Stop Peggy, who comes in every second Tuesday to sit and smoke. For a while, Thong Girl was a regular.

"That's my kind of customer," the Kid says.

Brock started smoking when she was 14. "Back when it was cool," she says. "Thirty-nine years I been smoking." She exhales with gusto from the honey blunt and smacks her lips with joy. "Addiction is all in your mind. I went to a hypnotist once. I remember everything about it, and it was neat, but I wasn't ready. I'm still not. If the doctor told me to, I'd probably quit."

She pauses. "I'm afraid I'll get fat and grumpy, and that's just not me."

Brock has worked at Smokes 4 Less for six years. She's seen customers come and go.

"If someone doesn't come in for a while, we wonder where they are," Brock says. "We have regulars, so you notice when they're not coming in. I love our customers. We're like a big ol' family. A lot of times, we'll hear from a relative of a customer that they've passed away. But a couple ladies have come in to tell us they quit — they look great — and they drop in just to say hi because they know we wonder about 'em."

— Nadia Pflaum

2:30 p.m. Worth Harley-Davidson 6609 North Oak Trafficway

Hundreds of motorcycles shine in the sunlight outside Worth Harley-Davidson. New Harleys gleam inside, and salesmen in orange-and-black work shirts prowl the floor.

Jason Williamson, the thick and hairy-forearmed sales manager, scribbles the third Harley sale of the day on his dry-erase board just after lunch. Williamson estimates sales of 160 to 170 Harleys a month throughout the summer.

"Harley-Davidson is almost like a cult," Williamson says. "It's a way of life. It's not just a motorcycle."

But the stereotype of a Harley rider no longer applies, adds Jack Twibell, the store's Internet manager. Anyone who doubts that just has to take a look past the bikes, past the black T-shirts, toward the racks of children's clothes, pink motorcycle helmets and stuffed animals ($26 for a road hog).

Gary Hearn, 60, buys a couple of T-shirts and a hat. Hearn resembles a rugged Kenny Rogers, with a thin salt-and-pepper beard and a gray pompadour. He bought his first motorcycle when he was 16, despite his mother's threats. She warned him: Buy a bike and you'll be living someplace else. Hearn bought an old Indian Motorcycle (a Harley rival at the time) and found a new place to live. (He was "not too smart" back then, he says.)

Today he rolls in his Cadillac Northstar. He owns three motorcycles. His favorite is an '89 Softail custom. He's a veteran of the annual biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, having missed only the last three because of his wife's health problems. Hearn has promised the '89 to his 10-year-old grandson — when Pa-Pa kicks the bucket.

Tim Murphy searches for a sale in the sun-pounded parking lot. Murphy, a casualty of the massive 2003 Sprint layoff, found a second career as a Harley salesman. He worked 20 years for Sprint and helped build the call center in Lawrence, which the company has since closed. Murphy says he's finally "selling a product with value."

"Women love a Harley," he adds. "More and more women are switching from the backseat to the front seat."

Monica Chwojdak is one of them. A military deployment moved her and her husband, Brian Chwojdak, to the area a few weeks ago. Brian works in military intelligence and is now training soldiers in Leavenworth.

The Chwojdaks are looking to trade in Monica's 2005 Sportster for a used Dyna Low Rider, like the one she bought Brian as a surprise gift.

"I was wife of the year," Monica says.

"To all of the guys," Brian says. "All the other wives hated her."

They're looking at a used Low Rider with a $15,000 sticker. Even though she's had the Sporty for just a year, she's worried that she won't get much trade value for her old bike. She bought the Sporty as an anniversary gift to herself while Brian was stationed in Afghanistan. While he was away fighting, she was learning to ride. Now that they're back together, they want to ride together.

"I like riding behind him," Monica says, "but I think he'd rather have me beside him." — Justin Kendall

Almost anytime

The Kellog Property

11521 North Oak Trafficway
Past a city water tower, beyond a sleepy Conoco station and nearly to the farthest northern end of North Oak Trafficway, Randy Stewart aims a hose at the grass around a pair of plastic pink flamingos. "That building right there," he says, pointing the nozzle at a run-down white stucco building, "that used to be the Bank of Nashua. Jesse James robbed it. Right here. Can you believe it? Jesse James."

Stewart, 45, turns his hose toward dwarf rose bushes as he details the history of the rural neighborhood. When the railroad went through in the mid-1800s, the city was called Nashua. A small downtown surrounded the tracks, which are long gone. Kansas City's sprawl absorbed the town, but the place still feels like farm country. Out back, by the weeds and vines that grow where the tracks used to run, crickets emit a constant screech.

As for the Jesse James story, it's unlikely. The bank opened in 1896, and James died in 1882, according to archives at the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library.

But Stewart has stories about other buildings. "This house used to be the Nashua boarding house," he says, pointing to the two-story colonial next to him. "Behind it, there's an old barn where they'd unload the cattle from the trains."

Stewart talks up the neighborhood. "This is a real community. People watch out for each other." That's evident in the fact that Stewart is watering the lawn of longtime family friend, 76-year-old Ruth Kellog. She owns the former bank, the white colonial house and 5 acres of land.

Kellog stands nearby, supervising the watering. She bought the place 40 years ago. "Right there, that's where they used to have the city well," she says, pointing to a spot in front of her garage. The old bank became a recording studio for gospel and blues bands. A plumbing-supply company rented it for a while, and a construction company uses a piece of it for storage. But it's mostly empty now. "Used to be a real town," Kellog says. "That was before my day."

Kellog rents the apartment over the old bank to 43-year-old Jimmy Sizemore, a golf-course greenskeeper. While Stewart turns his hose on Kellog's planter boxes, Sizemore waters the potted tomato and cucumber plants he keeps on the wood balcony off the back of the two-story building. Bare-chested, he's wearing a pair of gym shorts as he inspects tomatoes that look like green pearls. He says the end of North Oak reminds him of Kirksville, Missouri, where his mom taught him how to grow vegetables in a backyard garden. "Nothing really happens up here. It's quiet," he says. "People call it God's country."

Down the porch stairs, a circle of mismatched lawn chairs surrounds a serious barbecue setup, with a charcoal grill, a smoker and a wood-fired barbecue pit the size of a loveseat. "Oh, yeah, man, we get together for barbecue," Sizemore says, laughing. "We'll go knock on the doors and say, 'Hey, we got a barbecue going.' Everybody comes by. So stop on by sometime."— Eric Barton

10 p.m.

Waterworks Park

3500 North Oak Trafficway
Rachel Rittman, 16, and two 17-year-old friends, Ruthie Fenger and Aubrey Key, are sitting on the grass at a lookout point inside Waterworks Park. To the south is a cinematic view of downtown: rows of tiny streetlights, blinking towers and bank buildings.

Then headlights sweep past the Port-A-Potties, through the tree line and down the road toward them.

"Is this the cops?"

When it's about 100 yards away, the car pulls off the road and kills its lights. It's obviously not the cops.

The girls return to concentrating on the view. Coldplay blasts through the open windows of their black two-door sports car.

Ruthie and Aubrey are seniors at Park Hill South High School. Rachel is a junior. While Aubrey was away at a Missouri Fine Arts Academy camp all summer, her two friends grew closer. Both will be co-presidents of the drama club next year. Rachel introduced Ruthie to this hidden vista a few months ago. Tonight they brought Aubrey to their secret hangout.

Loitering after dark at Waterworks has been a rite of passage for Northland high schoolers for years. The park was built in the 1930s by workers from the North Kansas City water-treatment plant, which is rimmed by barbed-wire fencing at the bottom of the bluff below the lookout point. The 58-acre park became a high-ground refuge for people whose homes were swamped by the 1951 flood. Decades later, it was the focus of city cleanup efforts to drive off squatters. A Frisbee golf course now brings in day-trippers. But last summer, the city added a security camera to deter nightly trespassers.

Rachel points out the tree with the camera. It's supposed to be motion-sensitive, snapping a photo and issuing a warning when activated. She says everyone totally freaked out when it was installed last summer, but now it doesn't seem to be operating at all.

They tell stories about this spot: the times they've seen SUVs park and then start, you know, bouncing, or when one of them met some boys up here pumping cool music, but the guys were all just lying around, spaced out, not talking.

Then they recall Alicia Fowler, a classmate who recently died while riding shotgun in a car that crashed on Interstate 29. The driver, another former classmate, was seriously injured.

Rachel: "It's because they were driving reckless."

Ruthie: "Well, it sounds like they were reckless."

Aubrey: "It's still sad, though, because they went to our school."

Ruthie: "I personally won't go to the movie theater without buckling up."

Rachel: "But it was the first person ever to die from Park Hill South, ever."

Aubrey: "What about that one guy from gym class that had asthma?"

Then it's on to other girl talk. Does being in drama leave enough time for anything else in your life? What happens when you get a call from a boy saying he likes you but you barely know him? Should you get a tattoo? If so, where, and before or after marriage? And how did Rachel convince her parents to give her a 1 a.m. curfew — later than both of the older girls?

"My stepdad's rule is to ask forgiveness, not permission," Rachel explains, proudly.

Rachel clambers onto the roof of her car, dangles her legs over the side and looks up at the clear sky. Aubrey lounges on the hood. Ruthie leans against the car.

Then Rachel leaps off the roof and runs to the center of the parking lot, where she points up at the Big Dipper. "Found it!"— Ben Paynter


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