obert Wert (aka Dutch) used to come into the Classic Bean coffee shop where I worked downtown. He was a jittery sort of fellow, perhaps a little paranoid, and the gallons of coffee he drank every day probably didn’t help his demeanor. He firmly believed that the Bean was a “leftist” haven and that he had been appointed the leftist guardian of the place. He scowled at those who he perceived as “right-wing bastards,” and mustered up a venomous look to ward them off from the shop’s entrance. This was how Dutch spent his days. He sat in one of the plastic lawn chairs on the bricked sidewalk of Kansas Avenue, guarding, chain smoking and telling fantastic off-the-wall stories.
I was privileged enough to be on Dutch’s good side, and so on my lunch break each day I got to hear detailed tales about the Cold War, the Chicago mafia, lost loves and politically-driven covert operatives. By night, Dutch stayed at a halfway house near 12th Street and Clay. When Dutch died back in 2004, it was as if Kansas Avenue had lost a fixture. His rumbling voice no longer followed state workers and service staff as they passed by the Bean on the well-traveled path of daily life.
But there are others who haunt the Avenue in his place.
There’s Pablo, the Mexican immigrant who plays beautiful Spanish guitar while propped against the cold brick of a storefront. Pablo can’t find work as a musician (a thing that long ago became an archetype) unless he chooses to don a sombrero and gold-embroidered costume of a mariachi band member, playing to Topekans in a local Mexican restaurant. That day has yet to come. For now you can spot him walking down the Avenue, a bit ragged, always carrying his guitar strapped over his shoulder. He’s trying to save up to buy a nice amplifier so he can join a blues band.
There’s the saintly, angelic-eyed young Potawatomi man who perpetually smiles and talks to himself as he rushes down Kansas Avenue, going nowhere in particular. My fellow baristas at the Classic Bean believed that the young man saw a horrific murder as a child and it scarred him forever.
There’s Annie, a wiry-framed black woman in her forties or fifties who frequented Tucker’s before it shut its doors, where she danced and danced all night, and, damn, does that woman have rhythm. She walks Kansas Avenue day and night, scowling, laughing and arguing with ghosts.
Something about downtown calls to these people. And it’s hardly surprising, since, at times, the Avenue looks empty and lonely, neglected and forgotten. By day it’s the site for business’ bustle. But after five o’ clock, cars stream away, leaving the capitol building to watch over the quiet streets through its portal-like eyes.
In this issue of the ARGO, Amber Bonnett is drawn downtown to find out what it is about the place that makes a certain kind of people go there, pull up a barstool and hang out beneath the stamped tin ceilings of its old buildings. There is life downtown beyond the haunters who are as commonplace as the street lamps.