The burden of Frankie Stone

For a number of years when I picked up the phone, the conversation started off like this: “Hello?”

“Bruce … Frank.”

“Yeah, Frank.”

No matter what day, what season of the year, or what time, that’s how it began: Frank’s baritone, dead-serious voice and my more tenor, sidekick-like response tumbling through the copper wire when we connected. No matter the topic that followed — be it the nurturing of creativity or the reality of loss — the salutation remained consistent in its brevity and tongue-in-check ominous tone. If the phones had been tapped and our personalities unknown, the authorities could have tied the greeting to two guys’ beginning a conversation about solving a mysterious disappearance or uncovering bribery and deceit in the workplace. It had that kind of film noir touch, something that hangs over Frank easily.

In the winter, Frank, a big guy, likes to dress in an overcoat and fedora. It isn’t hard to imagine Frank standing in the shadows of a streetlight in the early morning hours, outside an apartment building, waiting for the guy or gal he’s been tailing all night to leave. Even his name, “Frank Stone,” could have “P.I.,” as in private investigator, imprinted next to it. But Frank worries about the flip side of that image.

Frank (or Frankie) Stone isn’t his real name. The “Frank” part is, but the WASP-like last name is a big stretch when taking into account his heritage. Frank’s physical appearance and how he sometimes dresses — but definitely his real last name — can make people think he is “connected.” Throw in the fact his grandfather was born in a town outside of Palermo in Sicily, passing down to Frank a very Sicilian last name, and that Frank grew up in Kansas City’s “North End,” the northeast neighborhood that is the city’s traditional Italian enclave, and people sometimes assume Frank is capable of smashing in your face as casually as he would twirl pasta around a fork. Frank is far from relishing such an image, but it took awhile for him to feel burdened by it.

The North End, like most ethic communities, kept the outside world at bay. But congregating with those who shared a common background also brought comfort and security. As a kid, Frank’s immediate neighborhood was around St. John and Belmont, where the former Montgomery Ward’s department store and catalog center operated. The building’s still there, most recently turned into a giant flea market. But back in the 1950s and early 1960s, most everyone in Kansas City knew the huge retail structure as “Monkee Wards.” The retail chain is now called by the very unimaginative name of “Wards.”

Shoppers from outside the North End didn’t venture much into that community once they got their goods from Monkee Wards. Kansas City seemed to be more territorial then. The suburbs were still a minor factor in dispersing close-knit city groups. The North End community was so self-identifying that Frank remembers the term “the Italians and the white-guy section” of town.

“The Northeast was different from everybody outside (of it). They thought we had weird food and they couldn’t pronounce our names. Clique-wise, up in the northeast, it was the Italians and everybody else,” he says.

Such factional thinking also kept the black community invisible. So much so that when Frank’s mother first heard the word “honky,” she thought it referred to Hungarians. “That’s what they were called when she was a kid,” says Frank, whose mother has an Irish/ English lineage.

Like a lot of kids growing up in homogeneity, Frank had an urge to leave the neighborhood, and that feeling got stronger as he got older. And like a lot of kids, he escaped through music. “It was that guitar thing, that sound,” says Frank. “I started (playing) when I was 7 or 8 but didn’t learn good until 11 or 12.”

With Lee and Alan — two friends who were neither Italian nor white but Japanese, on their mother’s side — Frank founded the band Pagan Square. “In those days in the northeast, you were either a soul band or psychedelic,” Frank says. “I had dreams of being a big star. And why not?” Did those hopes indulge the usual dreams of money and girls? “If you had money, you didn’t have to worry about girls,” says Frank. “But it was a way out of the northeast and, by extension, out of Kansas City.”

By 1978, and a few bands after Pagan Square, Frank was playing bass for an Elvis impersonator in a band called Bobby Love and the Love Machine. There were some trying moments.

“Everywhere we went, there would always be somebody, somewhere in the crowd who would shout, ‘He doesn’t look like Elvis!'” remembers Frank. “And it would always be (like) the same voice. It got to be a running joke.” Bobby Love’s real name, says Frank, was Louie Meyers.

But it was Bobby who gave Frank the “Frankie Stone” name. To better promote the band, Bobby would introduce the Kansas City-based band to the crowd as being made up of out-of-town musicians at the close of the band’s gig. Frank was introduced as “Frankie Stone on bass, from Newport News, Virginia.” Frank remembers playing in a small Kansas town and having a woman from the audience come up to him after the band played and ask him questions about Newport News. Frank just agreed with everything she had to say about her hometown, a place he had never been to.

After Bobby Love, there was a succession of other bands — The Remains, The Slammers, Blue Reign, The Nightcrawlers. By 1991, Frank had had it with the music business. But he kept a liking for the Frankie Stone name, though there didn’t seem a need to use it much. Frank feels differently now.

He hasn’t quite escaped the North End stereotype of being connected to criminal activity. Even though Frank’s father, Carl, kept Frank away from people who might lead him astray, Carl knew many men who lived what is called “the life.”

Carl was bartender all his life, at one time owning a place called the 3929 Club on Truman Road. But mostly he worked for others. Carl’s point of view about those who draw the attention of law enforcement was that they were “businessmen,” says Frank. Yet, “I didn’t have a clue. My dad made sure I didn’t get to hang around them.”

That’s not to say Carl would let things slide if offended. Once, says Frank, when Carl was robbed by a guy at a Mexican restaurant on Southwest Boulevard, he went back to the neighborhood, “got a couple of guys with sawed-off shotguns, and re-robbed the guy who robbed him.”

Carl presumably had to do it that way because, Frank says, he stopped carrying his .38 at the request of Frank’s mom.

Carl is gone now, but Frank’s uncle, and particularly Frank’s cousin, don’t seem as distanced from that element Carl kept Frank away from. The problem is, Frank’s cousin — except for his middle initial — has the same name as Frank. And that Frank, says Frankie Stone, “has left a trail of bad finances” plus some other notorieties. Over the years, Frank has had problems getting his utilities turned on, dealt with bad-debt collectors convinced they have the “right” Frank, and been accused of owing back taxes. Once, when Frank was in college, his cousin was charged with arson and made the newspaper. Frank walked into class one day and was asked, “Was that you who burned down that building?”

Frank is a little bitter about what he’s had to deal with through the years. It goes beyond just his cousin. Italians, says Frank, are thought of by many people as being hoods, where the “only job they are fit for is squeezing tomatoes and shooting people.”

But there’s an immediate worry for Frank these days. “I seriously worry,” he says, “about what if he (his cousin) gets into trouble — with the wrong people — and they send a couple of torpedoes (to my house). It has seriously made me think about changing my name, and maybe not to Frankie Stone, either.”

Contact Bruce Rodgers at 816-218-6776 or bruce.rodgers@pitch.com.Frank Stone has got a problem, and he isn’t “connected.”

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