Buildings with names like El Ranchero Discount Liquor, La Fe En Jesucristo, and El Pollo Guasave bracket Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. Family Dollar and Boost Mobile are here, but these days, there's hardly a Kowalcyzk's Sausage Shop or a Bobak's Europa Deli to be found. No matter: Last Saturday afternoon, the street swelled with the dizzy rattle of the Polski Day parade.
Most cities block off the streets for large ethnic parades, but Kansas City, Kansas, is, of course, not like most cities. Was this oversight just the latest example of Legends-happy Wyandotte County neglecting its historic neighborhoods? Or was it inattentive planning on the part of the event organizers? A discussion for another day. Red-clad celebrators glided southeast down Central Avenue on trucks and floats; across the yellow line, frustrated motorists leaned out their windows and squinted at the gridlock ahead. More than once, I saw children scurry out into live traffic in the pursuit of candy. The proceedings were gritty and joyous and semi-legal — a heightened version of everyday life in KCK.
My vantage point was an old chair atop a flatbed trailer affixed to a Dish Network truck: the Johnnie's float. Upon arriving in KCK, I called Chris O'Connor. He's a good guy to know in general — the man is a great connector of people — but particularly so when it comes to navigating Wyandotte County, which is home to the bar he owns, Johnnie's on 7th.
"We're at 18th and Central, and we've got an open spot on the float," he told me. "Come on down."
I ditched my car somewhere around 13th Street and boarded the float midparade. A garrulous white-haired man named Al thrust a Hamm's can and a red plastic cup at me. The trailer bed was littered with large bags of cheap candy that O'Connor had purchased at Restaurant Depot. Other marchers and vehicles were politely tossing Tootsie Rolls and suckers to the parade onlookers. The Johnnie's crowd took a more aggressive approach.
"Happy Polski Day," Al yelled, digging into a bag and firing a fistful of hard candy at an unamused westbound driver. As we neared the final turn, the surly sunburned man seated to my left chucked an entire bag — 240 pieces of candy — into the street, and five little girls collapsed on it like vultures on a Death Valley carcass.
On residential Eighth Street, the homestretch, Hispanic families waved from their yards. An elderly couple rocked back and forth on a front porch lined with green putt-putt-course carpet. Fifty red T-shirts tumbled out of a house on the corner of Eighth and Pacific.
The after festivities were held at All Saints Church, which is a useful illustration of the shifting ethnic landscape in KCK. All Saints used to be called St. Joseph's Parish; it functioned as a hub for Polish families in the community. But because of dwindling populations, it has merged with other ethnic congregations from the neighborhood, including St. Casimir's (Lithuanian), St. Benedict's (Irish) and St. Cyril's (Slavic). All Saints is now a sort of catchall church for the Catholic European immigrants who now represent a minority in KCK.
On Saturday afternoon, All Saints was also possibly the hottest, most humid, most miserable location in Kansas City. To stand in the parking lot was to get some perspective of what it might be like to be burned alive. I stood in a demoralizing food line, hungry for pierogi and povitica, and watched a polka band play. After five minutes and no movement, I gave up. In the shade, out front on Vermont, it felt about 30 degrees cooler.
"You gotta get in that food line either before the floats show up or else wait until mass at 4 o'clock," a 50-ish bald man in wire-rimmed glasses told me. His name was Ed. "Even if you get in the door to the hall, good luck finding a place to sit and eat your food. You need a SWAT team and dynamite to get those folks out of their seats once they find a spot." (He was right: I returned later in the afternoon, and there was no wait. The pierogi were delicious.) Ed seemed to know a lot of folks at Polski Day. He lives in Shawnee now but grew up "on the Hill."
"I once saw Ted Nugent destroy a vase with a guitar note at Memorial Hall," he told me. "It was sitting on top of an amplifier, and he was playing guitar and he built up to it, and when he hit the last note, the thing absolutely shattered."
A truck containing Polish Elvis, who wears a bright-red jumpsuit, wheeled by. "The guy's a drunk," Ed said, puffing on a Marlboro Light. "A couple years back on Polski Day, he was shitfaced in the afternoon and hanging all over the women."
Three Sisters of Mercy, wearing light-blue habits, walked past and stopped to talk. They'd come over from France. Where were we from? Around here. Kansas City. Johnnie's, over on Seventh Street, ever heard of it? They'd not had the pleasure. "It was nice to speak with a nun who hadn't physically beaten me," Ed said after they left.
As a family-friendly, food-oriented event, Polski Day seemed a success. As a party, the general consensus was that it's less rowdy and robust these days. Frank's Place, a tavern at the corner of Eighth and Central, used to be the drunken northern hub of the festivities, but it closed a few years back. "The party's smaller anymore," O'Connor said. He was wearing a red T-shirt with "Polska Day 2002" stamped on the left breast.
Back at Johnnie's, talk turned to the Kentucky Derby. Ed wasn't interested in the friendly, rinky-dink bets floating around the bar. He spoke of a nearby establishment where you could win some real money on the Derby. What's the place called?
"Are you going to write this in your paper?"
Off the record.
He sipped at his beer and gave me a sideways glance. He shook his head.
"I forget the name," he said.