With the Golden Ox closing on Saturday, Patty and I have been wanting to go down there, for old times’ sake, to see the old haunt one last time.
So, last night was the night. We decided to meet at the bar at 6:30 and maybe have dinner there. Visions of a charbroiled steak cooked over curling flames danced in my head.
But already I jump ahead. In the back of my mind, I also looked forward to once again seeing Kemper Arena — a venue that had quietly and unnoticeably receded into my past.
When I was a young reporter — and a single young man — in the early 1970s, Kemper Arena had been a significant part of my life. As an up-and-coming political reporter, I wrote several stories about the negotiations and maneuvering to get Kemper Arena constructed. And once it was up, I began attending events there, including basketball and hockey games, American Royal events and, of course, concerts. The best concert I ever saw — Paul McCartney & Wings — took place there on a hot August night in 1976.
I loved and hated Kemper Arena. I used to park in Lot A, which is on the west side of the arena, beneath the viaduct that peels off Cesar Chavez avenue and swings down, down, down into the lowest point of the arena grounds. Lot A is a relatively narrow hodgepodge, with pockets of parking here and there, broken up by the big concrete piers that support the curving viaduct above. As I recall, the lot was never properly paved. It was a mishmash of rocky patches, potholes and mud pools. And it was always wet down there.
But the arena, blue on the inside and with gently sloping banks of seats, offered good sight lines and was relatively comfortable. I attended many Kansas City Kings and Kansas City Scouts games there, and even though the teams were mostly bad, it was the NBA and the NHL — right there, right then — in Kansas City. For this native of Louisville, Kentucky, which had no major league franchises, it was big.
So, last night as I coursed down that viaduct and passed Lot A, I thought about the good times I had had at the arena. I did some quick calculations and figured that I had attended well over 100 events at the arena, maybe 200, maybe more than that.
And the structure itself. Oh, my! I had forgotten how impressive and distinctive it is, with those big, white, erector-set trusses that support the arena from above and at both ends. Circling the arena on the way to the Golden Ox, I kept peering at it from different angles. When I got to the Golden Ox parking lot, north of the arena, I got out of the car and stared at the arena for a while and thought, “No, this arena cannot be razed; it is too important a structure, with too much Kansas City history inside.”
The first thing I noticed at the gently curving bar of the Golden Ox was a man wearing a large, tan cowboy hat. It was like Groundhog Day for me; I cannot recall a time I have been there that I didn’t see at least one cowboy hat at the bar.
It wasn’t completely like Groundhog Day, however, because there were only about 20 people in the bar area, instead of scores of people. Also, there were no loud conversations or raucous laughter, no clouds of smoke, no guys eyeing and edging in on women seated at the bar.
A bartender — I think her name was Connie — was pouring very stiff drinks. Patty’s eyes widened as the lady held the bottle of Scotch up…and held it…as the last of the golden contents passed from the bottle into the glass that ended up in front of her.
We could see, through the bar area and off to our left, that people were seated at several tables in the dining room. It didn’t look particularly busy, and it appeared to me that we would be able to go over and get a table whenever we wanted.
Pretty soon, Patty suggested that I go arrange for a table. By this time it was a few minutes after 7. When I circled around to the reception station, I found it unmanned. One man — another prospective diner — was in front of me, and it appeared, from the bored and slightly agitated look on his face, that he might have been waiting for a few minutes already. I joined in the wait.
Two or three minutes went by. Nothing. Five minutes went by, nothing. Meanwhile, I was assessing the situation in the dining room, and it looked like people were actually eating at only one table. Always a bad sign. I looked over at the charbroiled grilling area, where, in the past, the flames danced and the steaks sizzled continuously. But now there were no steaks (that I could see), no flames, no sizzle. A lone employee — a cook, I presume, although he bore no identifying characteristics — ambled back and forth in the cooking area, but to no apparent end.
My enthusiasm for that steak that I had envisioned earlier was starting to wane. I was now anticipating poor service, a lengthy wait and, very likely, a disappointing steak.
I walked back to the bar area, told Patty that a host was nowhere to be found and gave her a one-word assessment of the dining room environment: moribund. A veteran of many restaurant “boltings,” I suggested that we consider eating someplace else. She suggested that we wait a few minutes and make another run at getting a table.
After about five minutes, I went back over to the reception area and there he was — the previously m.i.a. host, wearing black pants and a black shirt with the Golden Ox logo.
“Table for two?” I said, hopefully.
He looked at me and said, “Oh, I just seated my last table for the night. Sorry.”
By “seating” his last table, it was clear that what he meant was not that the place was full — hardly — just that he wasn’t going to seat anyone else for dinner.
I looked at my phone. It was 7:16.
“OK,” I said and retreated to the bar.
I repeated the host’s quote to Patty, who, after a few seconds’ thought, said, “OK, then, let’s go eat at Voltaire.”
Minutes later, we put on our coats, walked across the street and entered Voltaire, where the hostess met us with a smile and a gesture to an open table. Along the left-bank row of table, people were chatting and laughing. At the near end of the bar, the bartender was providing background music by playing records — vinyl LP’s, plucked from a multi-level cabinet — on an open-top turntable.
“It smells a lot better in here,” Patty said.
Just like that, we had left the past and hurtled into the present.