Postcards from State Avenue

The Pitch staff had so much fun on last year’s road trip that we had to do it again this year. Toward the end of last summer, we grew restless. We simply had to get out of the office. So we all got in our cars, like any respectable Johnson Coun- tian would do, and drove down Metcalf Avenue. Making random stops and talking to people along the way, we rediscovered one of the city’s main arteries. (We published our findings a few weeks later in “Cruisin’ the ‘Calf, September 23, 2004.)

This year, our travels took us to State Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. We were drawn, perhaps, by how the Old West (the Lewis and Clark trail, the Wyandotte County Fair, the cornfields that still line stretches of the road) meets the New West in an explosion of NASCAR-driven commerce. Or perhaps we were lured by our certainty — confirmed by our expedition — that even on a street that’s marked by the sad-looking husk of the Indian Springs Shopping Center, there’s life in them 1960s strip malls! Or maybe we just wanted to hang out in a part of town where the Cutting Edge Hairstyling Academy advertises $5 haircuts for a limited time only, where Christ Church of the Jesus Hour meets in what looks like a former grocery store, where a brand-new Harold Pener clothing store is under construction and the Regency Inn is under new management.

We didn’t spend the night. But we had a great time. Wish you were here.

10 a.m.
Have Guns Will Rent
1313 State Avenue 11 a.m.

Jerry Vest flings an anvil in the direction of his visitor.

It’s Styrofoam, only painted to look heavy and imposing, like the 15-foot statue of Julius Caesar that stands watch over Vest’s auto-body repair garage. The Vietnam-era machine gun mounted near the ceiling, however, is real.

Vest’s repair shop pays the bills, but his real love — OK, one of many — is the theater. In a building connected to the garage, Vest and his wife, Linda, own a costume shop called Have Guns Will Rent. Its walls drip with packages of fake eyelashes, tiaras, wigs, masks, makeup, hats and props. The Vests brag that they officiate at medieval wedding ceremonies, outfit high school theater productions with swords, dress Rebel and Yankee armies for Civil War battle reenactments (and provide the pyrotechnics!), manage the grounds of the Kansas City Shakespeare Festival, and make the best damn snow cones anyone at the Renaissance Festival ever tasted.

A plaster Elvis, a UFO and a knight in armor keep watch over the street in front, luring customers in from State Avenue. Inside the store, a plaster pirate stands with one foot on a barrel, dumb to the fact that Vest’s real treasure is upstairs.

It’s an arsenal of the wiggy, rooms crammed with weaponry and books on weaponry. Dusty rifles and swords are stacked haphazardly in every corner, and the walls are mounted with guns. Vest figures he has a thousand guns or more, if you count the ones at the couple’s farm north of the river.

Vest has connections in Hollywood, and he points out weapons mounted to the wall, naming the movies they appeared in: Saving Private Ryan, Return of the Mummy, Shanghai Knights. Two bazookas — one German-made, one U.S. — are propped up near the racks. Without moving more than 3 feet in any direction, Vest can put his hands on a Viet-Cong arrow; a Persian mace; an African spear; and what he says is a 400-year-old, gold-plated, rhino-hide shield. He has one particularly heavy sword, at least 5 feet long, that he calls his “sweetie.”

Vest says he’s got weaponry from every U.S. military conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam, plus a healthy stock of the same guns “our boys” are carrying right now. But he can’t rent active guns, so he takes expensive firearms like, say, an 1897 Winchester, plugs the barrel with lead and deactivates the trigger, then rents it for $50 a pop. To his gun-nut friends, it’s sacrilege akin to using a bust of Charlton Heston for target practice. But it’s worth it; rent that baby five times and it’s paid for itself.

Beyond yet another gun rack, past a taxidermic duck and around a corner, in a locked, glass case with a sign reading “Not For Sale!” is his collection of stuff he calls “primitive”: mastodon tusks and vertebrate pulled from the Kansas River, the fossilized rib bone of a prehistoric sloth, an Australian boomerang, a woolly mammoth tooth, a shrunken head from Brazil, a gift from a friend who claims to be a descendent of Confederate soldiers who didn’t surrender but instead fled to South America to start an American settlement.

Years ago, one night in October, Vest says he was working late, experimenting with a new brand of makeup he’d ordered. While he was working, someone tried to break into the costume shop. The robber obviously didn’t know about Vest’s upstairs armory and the hundreds of ways that Vest could slice him, impale him or fill him with holes. At a later trial, Vest testified as to what he was wearing the night of the robbery. He points out a picture of himself tacked to the wall; in the photo, his face has been manipulated, his chin elongated, his eyebrows arched and evil, his face painted red. “I had to tell the judge that I chased him away dressed as the devil,” he cackles. — Nadia Pflaum

11 a.m.
U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station
7510 State Avenue

Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Spruill was an artilleryman. On the gun line, Spruill trained soldiers in the ways of combat. He traveled to distant places and married a woman he met in Germany. It was typical Army life.

That was before the U.S. Army selected him for a much different job. The station commander of a recruiting office is more like a civilian sales manager. Spruill and a staff of three prospect a territory that includes ten high schools and two community colleges. The schools provide the names and numbers of their students. Volumes titled “Wyandotte 2006” and “Schlagle 2005” line the shelves in the office, which is decorated with posters of young soldiers looking steely and wearing cool gear. The radio is tuned to KPRS 103.3.

Spruill, 34, was studying physical education at North Carolina A&T State University at the time he decided to enlist. He says he wanted to serve his country and pay respects to the people who had gone before him, like his grandfather, who fought in the Pacific during World War II.

He became a recruiter a month before the invasion of Iraq. Spruill says the war has made parents of potential soldiers “very skeptical.” News reports indicate that the Army will likely miss its goal of sending 80,000 enlistees to boot camp this year.

To soothe fears of combat, Spruill points out that simply being young in Kansas City, Kansas, has dangers of its own. He also stresses the variety of duties that soldiers perform. “For instance, if you’re a mechanic, you’re not going to be on the front line, in harm’s way,” he says.

Money is another recruiting tool: Signing bonuses run up to $20,000. The station enlists between five and eight privates a month.

Spruill and his underlings frequently visit the schools, as well as malls and other places where young men and women ages 17 to 21 — the target market — gather. “You gotta think, where there’s cars, there’s people,” Spruill says. “That’s my motto: Where there’s cars, there’s people. Wherever I see cars, I stop.”

When he encounters people who oppose the war and become hostile at the sight of a recruiter, Spruill says he usually asks them if they voted. “If they didn’t, why should they be saying something?”

In four years, Spruill will be eligible to retire with a pension and health benefits. He’d like to move to Colorado (he was stationed for a time in Fort Collins) and pursue a career in sports management.

In the meantime, there are boot camps to fill. Spruill had scheduled a noon office visit with a high school senior-to-be. But at 12:15, there is no sight of the young man. Spruill places a call to the home and gets no answer. — David Martin

12:30 p.m.
Maxima’z Restaurant
1801 State Avenue

“Don’t ask me to tell you his last name. He’s from Jerusalem,” says waitress Cathy Murphy, who reigns at the whitewashed bungalow when the actual ruler is away. Four months ago, 24-year-old Max bought the former Westheight Coffee Shop and turned it into a tidy little diner that serves giant hamburgers, gyros, fresh-squeezed juices, and four kinds of Philly steak sandwiches.

“He called the place Maxima’z because, you know, it’s the name of a king,” says the ruddy-cheeked Murphy. “And he’s definitely the king of Philly steak sandwiches in Wyandotte County.”

Murphy’s been a professional waitress for years. “I did my training at Waid’s. I was a Waid’s waitress, then worked for a while at Perkins. But I started out as a carpenter, that’s how I raised my children.” She’s been head waitress here, in this tiny venue — six tables in the main dining room, five stools at a counter near the kitchen — for the last seven years.

With its cotton window curtains and fruity decorative touches (like the artificial banana and grapes hanging from a beam near the counter), Maxima’z could easily pass as somebody’s grandmother’s kitchen. The fruit motif was inspired by the fresh fruit drinks that are advertised, in vivid colors, on a giant poster near the cash register. This is no ordinary diner but a healthy juice bar, too. Instead of fattening milkshakes, Maxima’z pushes Mango Tangos and Strangos. You know, strawberry juice with mango juice — a Strango!

“I used to come here with my folks way back in 1951, when it was a place called the Westheight Café. It’s been a lot of things. It was a barbecue pit for a while and, in the 1960s, it was one of those shops that sold tie-dyed T-shirts and, you know, paraphernalia.”

A customer looks up from his one-pound Big Max Burger and asks, “A head shop?”

“That’s it,” Murphy laughs. “I knew it wasn’t a pot shop. Anyway, it’s been a little bit of everything.”

A brawny construction worker in a blue T-shirt razzes Murphy. She snaps back. “He tells me I remind him of his ex-wife,” Murphy announces to everyone in the joint. “That made me feel good.”

A lady with short-cropped hair snubs out her cigarette and asks Murphy if she’ll ever retire. “I wish I could retire,” Murphy snorts, “but I can’t find anyone to support me.”

The queen of Wyandotte County waitresses rules alone. — Charles Ferruzza

1 p.m.
Wyandotte County Fair Grounds
There’s a king on State Avenue and his name is Max.

In a big metal barn lined with bleachers and stalls, Wyandotte County teenagers practice showing their pigs in front of a judge.

At the slightest provocation, the pig-raising adolescents flirtatiously turn their sticks on one another, giggling and swatting.

The fairgrounds are quiet, because it’s the middle of the day on a Wednesday, and most of the games, rides, shows and exhibition booths won’t be open until about 4. The next pig races aren’t until 5:30, and the big yellow Scientology tent — offering stress tests and insisting that “something can be done about it” — is closed. Even the Republican Party registration table sits unmanned. For now, the hoofed and feathered far outnumber the human.

The chickens are presided over by young kids: 8, 9 and 10 years old. One of the chickens has been disqualified for having the wrong number of toes. “Must have five toes on each foot,” his scorecard reads. “Poultry,” his water dish says.

Near the cattle stalls, 17-year-old Kurtis Schweinfurth is making friends with two girls his age — one is here to sell angel food cakes, and the other to cheer on her brother’s steer. Schweinfurth is showing a cow for his fifth year in a row. When asked if his cow has a name, he shakes his head. “He’s gonna die on Friday or Saturday night,” he says. “Why get attached? You keep these cows from February or March until now. Saturday night, they’re not yours any more.”

The carnival area is abandoned. Later, it will become a red-light district of balloon-popping games, with game-pimps calling out to naïve passers-by, promising stuffed-animal prizes. Kids will hop on the Fun Slide, which — with its rainbow-colored sign and pink triangle lights — is the gayest slide on Earth. They will wander through a psychedelic funhouse that beckons, “Enter here, dudes.” They will spin around in a circular room, sticking to the wall when the floor drops out. They will get air-brushed phat-toos.

Maybe they will see Thumbelina, the midget horse attraction advertised with signs that read, “Could this be the WORLD’S SMALLEST HORSE?” The booth next door, operated by the same family, showcases a zebra-donkey hybrid known as a zony, a zorse or a z-donk. His name is Safari. Safari’s roommate is “the weirdest hairless dog in the world, a remarkable canine wonder! Naked dog from South America.”

Tyler Rinehart, an 18-year-old whose pop runs these sideshows, is setting up shop. He explains that Thumbelina is, in fact, a real horse, that she’s small just like a human midget is small. We mention that, 16 years ago, we saw the world’s smallest horse in Sedalia, at the Missouri State Fair. Is Thumbelina smaller than that horse was?

“We book it as, ‘Could this be the world’s smallest horse?'” he says. And with a coy smile, he adds, “It could be.” — Gina Kaufmann

1:23 p.m.
Robert J. Dole U.S. Courthouse
500 State Avenue

Looking uncertain, an older couple slip into the modern-looking courtroom. “Is this the Wittig trial?” the woman asks.

They’re in the right place. This is the corporate fraud retrial of former Westar Energy execs David Wittig and Douglas Lake. The couple take seats in the back row, set down a crossword puzzle and a book, and start whispering — there’s David Wittig, there’s federal prosecutor Rich Hathaway, there’s Beth Wittig. They’re like annoying movie watchers, always asking “Who’s that?” when a new character enters the scene or “What’s going on?” with every new plot point. The plot isn’t particularly thrilling today unless you’re interested in the testimony of the defense’s first witness, former Westar attorney Richard Terrill. The couple apparently could care less how much money Westar gave Wittig in relocation costs or how much of his insurance policy Wittig cashed out. After a while, the man nods off, head down, eyes closed, arms crossed, legs outstretched. His wife watches intently even if there’s no grilling. No fireworks from Judge Julie Robinson, who has scolded attorneys from both sides during Wittig’s and Lake’s two trials (the first ended in a mistrial).

Meanwhile, David Wittig snaps metal binder clips like mousetraps. Click! Click! Click! The courtroom is thick with attorneys but not many spectators; few seem to notice how bored the 49-year-old former president, CEO and chairman of Westar looks. Wittig fidgets with the clips, methodically lining them in rows on the table. He turns his attention back to the trial — his trial — in which he’s accused of trying to rip off the company by not fully informing its board of directors about the details of his extra-loaded compensation package.

Wittig chomps on pens and pencils, pulls papers from a tote bag, and scribbles and passes notes to one of his attorneys, whose less-than-perfect poker face reveals too much as he shakes his head, as if to say “yes” and “no.”

During a 25-minute recess, the woman opens up (although she refuses to give her name or her husband’s). They’re retirees from Topeka. They happened to be in the city on business, so they thought they’d pop in and watch Kansas’ “own little Enron.” Besides, she claims, they were neighbors of ex-Westar Chairman John Hayes. That is, until Hayes bolted “in the dead of night.” They were sad to see him go, especially since he never threw a going-away party.

The woman points out Wittig’s wife, Beth, and observes that Beth has been “sitting on the edge of her seat,” listening “intensely.” She demonstrates, jerking to the edge of the bench, arching her back and staring forward.

Court resumes.

Wittig jots down more notes on legal pads, carefully folds the yellow pieces of paper and pitches them in the trash. — Justin Kendall

2 p.m.
Big 11 Lake
State Avenue between 10th and 11th streets

The stone walls encircling Big 11 Lake sag and crumble in places. Trash bobs in the green water.

But a dozen or so new trees are growing, braced by steel poles, and the grass is well-trimmed. The Kansas State Wildlife and Parks Department stocks the lake once a month with a variety of catfish, bass and other fish. And 24-hour “No Parking” signs keep away the drug dealers who once lurked on 11th Street.

Big 11 Lake may never have looked better, says 76-year-old Milton Cole, who fishes its waters almost every day.

Cole explains that the lake is at the center of the city’s black community and has been since Cole moved to Kansas City, Kansas, in 1939.

“Back in that time, they didn’t give too much of a damn about cutting the grass, because it was a black neighborhood,” Cole says. “First Street to 18th Street … wasn’t too many Negroes living on the other side of 18th Street.”

In the 1930s, WPA workers encased the pond’s shore in concrete and stone and built the octagonal bandstand peninsula. But the park soon fell to neglect, and the bandstand didn’t get much use until relatively recently.

“They just started having these concerts down here in the last 20 years,” Cole says. “They had one on Saturday, mostly young kids. What they call it? Rap?”

It’s mid-afternoon, and Cole is done fishing for the day. He loads his bucket and bundle of short fishing poles in the trunk of his new Lincoln, puts his arms inside his Key Imperial overalls, and rocks on the heals of his white K-Swiss sneakers.

If you want to know anything about the history of Kansas City, particularly this part, he’s the one to ask.

He points to the park across 10th where the Boys and Girls Club building now stands — the only park where black children were allowed to play. He remembers the horse stables that were south of Kansas Avenue and the second pond that was drained for a baseball diamond.

He can tell you about the plane that crashed in the 1950s, only a couple of blocks east. The tail landed in his front yard at 828 Nebraska. The front part slammed into the house across the street and killed the two teachers who lived there.

He can recount details of the 1951 flood that inundated the West Bottoms and temporarily shut down the Cudahay meat packing plant where he and his father worked.

And he can offer a firsthand account of the city’s struggles with integration. In 1960, he was among the first blacks to move into Parkwood, a neighborhood of elegant houses north of Parallel Parkway. It had been an enclave for the affluent whites of Kansas City, Kansas, with guard shacks at both entrances. As a boy, he had delivered papers there, and his mother had cleaned houses. But, he says, “A Negro wasn’t allowed out there after six o’clock in the evening.”

When he moved in, there were only two black families in Parkwood, he says. “Within two years’ time, it was all Negroes.”

Cole says he weathered the civil rights struggles comfortably. He never had problems with anyone, white or black.

“I got mother will,” he explains — a healthy dose of common sense and an ability to deal with people. “You can have all the education in the world, but you ain’t got mother will, you ain’t going nowhere.”

Cole says he cooks the catfish he catches for his wife, but never eats them himself. “My zodiac sign is a Pisces. Pisces is a fish.”

But Mrs. Cole will go hungry today. As foretold by the “Wright’s Fish Calendar” he clipped from the Farmer’s Almanac and keeps in his wallet, it was a poor day to fish. Cole’s bucket is empty. — Kendrick Blackwood

4:30 p.m.
Dad’s Hole in the Wall
50th Street and State Avenue

A pretty blonde named Shellie puckers up to Larry “Pops” Barry, smacking a kiss on his cheek as the old man puffs a thin Misty 120. The 70-year-old smiles, his face shaded by a baby-blue hat with the words “One Cool Dad.” He’s wearing all blue, down to his slippers. Pops says he lives at the top of the hill, and hardly a day passes when he doesn’t drop by Dad’s Hole in the Wall.

“This is the place to come to when your wife is going to divorce you,” Pops says. The old man says he’s been coming for years.

Pouring fresh glasses of Budweiser from the tap is Barbie Washburn, co-owner of the bar she helped open three years ago. She’s a little tired today. One of her regulars woke her up early in the morning, still drunk from the night before. “Open the bar!” he slurred over the phone. “Can I get a cold goddamn beer?”

Washburn unlocked the bar for him at 10:30 a.m., half an hour before she normally opens.

Her bar is tiny — only nine stools — but it has character.

It’s a bar for bikers, fishermen, the working class and nonworking class, Washburn says. The house shot is a Funky Monkey, a neon-green mix of vodka, rum and flavorings. It’s 25 cents all day, every day, though her regulars are sipping beers as they talk about trucks, sports and landscaping.

Her idea to call the bar “Dad’s” was well-thought-out, Washburn says. “Would your old lady question you if you say you’re going to Dad’s? It was either that or ‘The Pharmacy.'”

On the far wall is a magazine rack with recent issues of Playboy. She says the regulars get angry if she doesn’t hang the latest centerfold in the bathroom. Miss August is pinned above the toilet, between two chalkboards where viewers grade her looks according to a crude rating system: three penises ejaculating in her direction.

But the bathroom is off-limits when Washburn hits the switch that sets a blue police light spinning over the bar. When the light flashes, draws are only 25 cents and longnecks $1. The Blue Light Special ends when the first person at the bar has to use the bathroom. She says she enjoys the ruckus that always breaks out when someone finally gets up to go pee. “We’ve had people tackling other people,” Washburn says.

As usual this afternoon, Pops is getting all the attention from the women. Even so, he says he’s no player. “They shoot me down real quick,” he says. “When you’re the oldest goddamn person in the place, they know they’re safe.”

Shellie crushes out a Winston and sidles up to the old man again. She tells him the water pump on her lawnmower broke the other day, and as she mowed her acre of grass, she had to refill it with water every ten minutes. She says she mowed the lawn in her bikini, so onlookers were pleased with her inconvenience. So is Pops, who’s now smiling again. After Shellie says goodbye, he quickly disappears into the bathroom. — Bryan Noonan

6 p.m.
3209 State Avenue

Hid-N-Cornerz is anything but hidden.

An American flag decorates the old brick stand-alone storefront, its picture windows filled with junk. A homemade sign above the door boasts, “I have any size bed you need clean ‘n’ cheap.” Inside, two narrow pathways wind through upright rows of mattresses that vie for space with refrigerators, high chairs and baby walkers. Random items like a Beefeater Gin mirror, a framed Princess Diana commemorative poster and an old-school typewriter add to the jumble.

Owner Monte Roden, 51, has carved out a space for his desk (topped by two stacked TVs — both tuned to different stations) at the entrance to one pathway. A quiet man sporting an Old Navy American flag shirt and jean shorts, he grew up nearby but moved across the state line to Missouri (where he still lives). He despairs of the changes around his store in the five years he’s been back on this corner of State Avenue.

“The drug traffic’s gotten really, really, really bad within the last year,” he says. “Right there.” He points to the gas station across the street. “If I set up a camera, I can videotape 30 drug deals in a week.” During the day, he says, four or five guys hang out in the gas-station parking lot (which boasts its own homemade sign: “We now have Slurpee”) or on 32nd Street for hours at a time. Cars pull up. One guy walks to the passenger side, where money is exchanged. Sometimes, the pay phones in the station lot are used to facilitate the transaction. “They’ve got it down like clockwork,” he says.

“I see people from all walks of life, from Johnson County to north of the river. And everybody is coming here to get their drugs and go back to their nice, quiet suburban homes. I’ve learned to live with it.”

Roden has no plans to leave the area, due in part to how expensive it would be to relocate. He says business is all right, and that he’s managing to pay his rent. “It’s a pretty good location for my type of business,” he says. “I serve a need for the community — or at least I feel like I do.” He claims to be streetwise; he keeps his distance from trouble, from those who’ve taken a different path in life.

“It’s unfortunate,” he says. “The cops don’t care nothin’ about it.”

But do they know about all the activity?

“They know,” he says. “They know.” — Jen Chen

8 p.m.
Jalisco’s Restaurant and Bar
5000 State Avenue

Jalisco’s is quiet, save the animated conversation at a booth near the front window. The couple adding life to the place are Susan Estes, a marketing manager at an Overland Park consulting firm, and Michael Crosby, an architect.

In the spring of 2004, Estes and Crosby made the difficult decision to head west, leaving behind their beloved apartment in midtown Kansas City for the unknown frontier known to them only as “Wyandotte County.”

They quickly found a home. “We just kind of stumbled upon the area and found a great house at a good price,” Crosby says. “We love it.”

It’s their first time at Jalisco’s. “We usually go to places on Central Avenue, but so far, so good,” Estes says. “I’m really enjoying the décor here.” She nods toward the walls decked out in upholstered, raised-pattern ’70s-style wallpaper in fetching shades of rust, orange and brown. She also notices the hanging lights that could easily pass as props in a medieval play — fake cast-iron chandeliers with red ribbon threaded through them.

“I’m thinking a neo-dungeon look. You know, a lot of the restaurants around here are second- and third-generation. … I’ll bet this place is one of them.”

The friendly waitress comes over for drink orders and confirms that the same family has owned Jalisco’s for 30 years. She points out the appealing all-you-can-eat-for-$4.95 buffet table simmering toward the back of the restaurant and returns with cans of Miller Light.

“We definitely like it over here” says Crosby. “It’s a very diverse neighborhood — we’ve met Croatians, Poles, Irish- Catholics, Mexicans.”

“It’s a very tight-knit community,” Estes adds. “We live in the St. Peters district, over off of Central Avenue, and when we moved in, we had four different neighbors come over and greet us. We just discovered Polsky Day, this crazy festival and parade that happens every year, on Central Avenue.”

Central Avenue is livelier than State Avenue, she says. Susan scrunches her forehead a bit as she tells of Polsky Day. “There’s a lot more going on there, more bars and restaurants and just people walking around. One of the most insane things I’ve seen happened on Central Avenue not too long ago. Some evangelical group was at 18th Street — which isn’t even near a church — with a guy suspended from a 12-foot cross, covered in fake blood, just writhing around in fake agony. Next to him was a woman with a bullhorn screaming ‘I love you!’ and next to her was a guy dressed as a demon-devil-type thing dragging a stick on the ground screaming ‘I hate you!’

“Naturally, I drove around the block shrieking and then went back for a better look. I’ll never forget seeing that.” — Lorna Perry

8:15 p.m.
T-Bones stadium
State Avenue and 110th Street

Two outs, bottom of the fourth. Captain Morgan is eating a hot dog six rows behind home plate.

Wearing his signature red pirate’s hat and polka-dot bandanna over locks of jet-black hair, he sits next to his handler, Tom Kelly, who works for Standard Beverage, a Kansas liquor wholesaler. Tonight’s the last game of the T-Bones’ series against the Lincoln Saltdogs. Kelly is here to make sure the Captain stays on message. Two beers sit in front of them, but Kelly says he’s double-fisting because Cap can’t drink on shift.

So the Captain lounges, boots up on the chair in front of him. His painted eyebrows jut upward like sharp arrows while he watches players dash across the spotless field in front of 5,319 fans. The sun is setting above him, casting shadows across the ballpark, the NASCAR track, and the massive shopping mecca, with its Cabela’s and its Nebraska Furniture Mart, anchoring this stretch of State Avenue, has expanded to four lanes and is lighted like a landing strip.

The Captain’s feeling good now. He’d already thrown the first pitch, shouted his requisite raspy greetings and posed for a snapshot with some excitable underage girls, hoisting a leg into one of their arms and spreading his own arms broadly across their shoulders. He made the Jumbotron during the Mascot race by tackling the T-Bones’ Sizzle the Bull and then juking past a giant ice cream cone and an oversized pizza to win convincingly.”

The Captain, aka Jason Purinton, 32, lives in Lawrence and works a day job in small-town Ozawkie, Kansas, making false teeth as a dental ceramist. He says he stumbled into this swashbuckling role a few years ago, when an acquaintance in a pinch offered him the costume and some cash to hit a Halloween party.

“I fit the profile,” Purinton says, flashing a gleaming smile. “You had to be at least 6 feet and you had to be good looking, so I fit both.”

Now he’s the regional Captain Morgan. He spends summers piloting a 40-foot rumrunner in the Ozarks’ Party Cove, winters in sports bars across the metro and at Mardi Gras in St. Louis.

So has he gotten any booty? With Kelly at his elbow, he refuses to divulge his wildest in-costume story, offering instead a tame anecdote about people jumping off boats for free T-shirts.

This season, the Captain added six T-Bones ballgames to his touring circuit; judging by the majority of parents carrying half-full plastic cups, the stadium is an excellent place to build brand loyalty. Meanwhile, he’s learned some tricks to keep his own spirits up.

Glue-on facial hair is hot and itchy and slippery when wet, so he grew his own iconic scruff — a mustache and vertical chin strip. To avoid overheating while getting dressed, he puts on his makeup first, then adds the costume and puts on the headgear last. He’s also learned his history, explaining that Captain Morgan was a real pirate who pillaged the East Indies in the 17th century and was later hired by the British as a buccaneer. He became the governor of Jamaica in 1665 and invented his own rum a few decades later, just before he kicked.

“Actually, I’m 350 years old,” Purinton says. “It’s really fun and, you know, I’m the life of the party.” He glances over at his handler.

“Unless I’m at a ballgame with a bunch of kids,” he adds. “They think I’m Captain Hook.” — Ben Paynter

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