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Four years as an apartment dweller in the area between Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza and the Westport bar district taught me many valuable life lessons. I learned, for instance, that slicing my Missouri license plate tags with a razor blade would often dissuade someone from stealing them. I learned that giving spare change to the panhandler in front of the Plaza Barnes & Noble was preferable to him screaming expletives at me all the way down the street. I learned that the enchanting women who frequented Nichols Lunch around one in the morning were, more often than not, cross-dressers from the nearby Missy B’s dance club.

One Friday night in March 1996, I learned a little something about trespassing on personal property, as well as the fear and helplessness some Kansas suburbanites feel when they cross into that vast heart of darkness known as The Missouri Side.

I was out that night with a girl I was seeing at the time. She was one of those hipster Midtown types: she lived in a crumbling, century-old house, wore dark, slinky outfits, smoked incessantly and spent every Thursday night heckling the Irish folk singer at Harling’s. In my 26-year-old mind, she was the epitome of urban cool, and I spent the better part of four months thinking of little else but her. Francine was her name.

We rode through the Plaza in Francine’s black Mazda MX-6, on our way to channel some spirits with a ouija board in a friend’s darkened Hyde Park mansion. Her best friend, Ruth, was in the back seat with Francine’s dog, a poodle/terrier mix named Trauma. The dog was ugly, but in an endearing way. Kind of like Walter Matthau.

“You know what would go well with some old spirits?” Francine asked as she pulled into the parking lot of Westport Liquors. “Some spirits.”

Ruth and I laughed. This was the kind of cool quip we all thought was hilarious in the mid-1990s.

Francine and Ruth strolled into the store to buy a bottle of white zin and some smokes. I agreed to keep the dog company in the car. After ten minutes or so, I was getting restless. So was Trauma. She climbed all over the car and me, getting hair and slobber on my new black jeans.

I clicked on Trauma’s leash and took her out to get some air. The dog instantly escaped my grasp and rushed into the liquor store as a customer was exiting. I spent the next several minutes chasing Trauma through the aisles with a squeaky toy until I finally cornered her in the malt liquor section. Francine and Ruth had bumped into a friend and were busy talking about an upcoming Urge Overkill show in Lawrence. They were trying hard not to notice me scampering after Francine’s dog.

Feeling ignored and put upon, I trudged back to the car with Trauma in my arms and plopped into the passenger seat. The dog seemed to relax as I cradled her in my lap and rubbed her neck. I even cracked the door open so we could take in some cool spring air. She really was a sweet dog. I didn’t mind the hair and slobber so much anymore.

I watched a 40ish couple leave the store with a bottle of wine. Even from a distance, they had suburban Johnson County, Kansas, written all over them. The woman was dressed in a dark fur coat, and the man donned a turtle neck under an expensive-looking black leather jacket. Both wore expressions like they expected to be jumped by a gang of knife-wielding lunatics at any moment.

The couple walked into the breach between Francine’s car and a Subaru two spaces away, and froze in their tracks. The woman put a leather-gloved hand over her mouth, and the man clutched his wine bottle as if to brain someone with it.

“Oh God!” the woman said. “There’s man inside our car!”

I turned around to see what the commotion was about but only saw some old guy pushing a shopping cart down Westport Road. The Johnson County couple swung open my passenger door and stared at me and Trauma with open-mouthed horror.

“And he’s got a dog with him!” the woman cried.

“What do you want?” the man asked, pointing his bottle in my direction.

I gulped hard before responding in a civil tone.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This car belongs to my friend, Francine. She’ll be out of the store in a moment.”

“Are you out of your freaking mind?” the woman said. “This is our car.”

I glanced around and noticed a photo on the console of a toddler wearing a University of Kansas sweatshirt. There was a baby seat in back and a silver Nissan logo on the dash. It began to dawn on me that perhaps this wasn’t Francine’s car.

“Officer!” the woman shouted, waving down a police car that was pulling through the parking lot. “Help!”

“Oh boy,” I said under my breath.

“You stay right here,” the man ordered.

The policeman walked up to the car with a weary look of too many late-night shifts in Midtown Kansas City.

“Can I help you folks?”

“We came out of the store and found this… vagrant sleeping in our car,” the woman said, “with his filthy dog.”

Trauma snarled at this remark. Not now, girl, I thought.

The officer peered into the car, blinding me with his flashlight.

“He doesn’t look much like a vagrant, ma’am.”

“I think I can explain,” I said. “I thought this was my friend’s car because, well, it’s black, kind of sporty-looking and is, uh, a Japanese import, like my friend’s car…”

The policeman and the couple stared blankly.

“What’s going on here?” a familiar voice asked.

It was Francine and Ruth, just in time. They apparently decided to skip the white zin, going instead with two six-packs of Amstel Light.

“Stephen, what are you doing in these nice people’s car?” Ruth asked.

“I don’t know,” I said in all truthfulness.

Francine folded her arms and slowly shook her head, as if this was the latest in a long string of embarrassments I’d caused her.

“You’ll have to excuse my baby brother,” she said. “He’s a little slow.”

Taking my hand, she led me and Trauma three spaces down to where the black MX-6 sat. I mouthed, “I’m sorry,” to the couple, who watched us pull out of the parking lot, Trauma barking fiercely through an open window.

Francine and Ruth, being true friends, never let me live this down. But the incident taught me a couple of lessons that, like knowing how to parallel park, served me well in the city. One lesson was that suburbanites are easily spooked, and will use any available force to protect what is theirs. Another was that people should always lock their cars when visiting an inner city liquor store at night.

Finally, I learned that the design differences between the 1994 Mazda MX-6 and the Nissan 240SX of the same era, while subtle, are worth remembering.

Photo courtesy of www.joedaly.net.