© Jack Cashill - 1999
"Dang, dang, dang," said George Blackwood out loud as the lights flickered in the City Council chambers and then failed.
"George, I told you this was a stupid idea," Councilwoman Aggie Stackhouse rasped across the table. "You had to know leap year was gonna confuse those damn computer chips again. Now, we got some 26 flights of stairs to stumble down to get out of this joint."
Aggie and her fellow council members shuffled out in disgust. Mayor Blackwood remained behind in the gathering darkness and ruminated.
Just a year ago, almost to the day, George had sipped the sweet champagne of victory in the Kansas City mayoral primary. His two most formidable opponents, Kay Waldo Barnes and Janis Ellis, had gotten into a catfight so vicious that Geraldo had offered to moderate. As in '91--oops, make that 1991, no more two digit references--the two frontrunners had thoroughly sliced and diced each other, allowing two non-combattants, in this case Blackwood and Ed Moody, to pick up the pieces .
George had cakewalked to victory in the general election: 58% of the finally
tally. His lead issue--the infrastructure. His political edge--experience.
All Moody wanted to talk about was the year 2000 computer problem, and
everyone figured he was nuts--even started calling him "Gomer" again. Hah!
Now, the friggin elevators didn't even run at City Hall. Talk about
The first few months of his mayoralty had been pretty cool. Blackwood was
Kansas City's first "strong" mayor of the modern age. He even looked the part with his world-weary gaze and executive hair. True, when Hearne Christopher revealed in his Star gossip column that George taped the council sessions on Channel 2 and watched the replays in slo-mo it was something of a bummer, but all in all, he was having a good old time. Snipping ribbons and shaking hands and slamming that gavel. Ooo boy!
The first trouble signs came on July 1 when the state's fiscal year 2000
kicked in. The AFDC data bases worked fine. Only problem was that the
state's check-cutting systems still had some unresolved date issues. The
result: no checks.
Within 24 hours, thousands of single moms, babes in arms, stormed the state office building as though it were the mother-loving Bastille. In his first
intuitive stroke of genius as mayor, George ordred a drive-in size TV screen
set up across from the state offices and tuned it in to--what else?--the new
24 hour Jerry Springer station, "All Springer All The Time." This worked
wonders to calm the crowds save for those odd, pitched moments when the chant of "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry" rattled the windows at City Hall two blocks away and made normal council biz impossible. Jerry Springer had once been mayor of Cincinnatti. In his quiet moments, George Blackwood dreamed of where his own starring role as mayor might take him.
Wasted away again in Gloverville
Springer or no, the delayed checks made folks restless in the July heat.
Always "pro-active" (his word), George Blackwood instructed his staff to set up a vast, centrally-located relief center. One site recommended itself above all others: the God-forsaken ground-zero of Linwood and Maine. George mischievously referred to this emerging tent city as "Gloverville." As George expected, a Star reporter ignored his request for discretion, and the name stuck. Ex-councilman Jim Glover was not amused.
Gloverville grew. It attracted bag ladies, squeegee men, shopping cart
schleppers, checkless welfarites, and sundry hobos from all over the metro,
nay the midwest. When the Federal fiscal year 2000 kicked in on October 1, the Social Security check-cutting technology also fritzed. The Feds had cut a year's worth of checks in advance, but a lot of forlorn seniors fell through the proverbial cracks. Gloverville swelled again, passing Mission Hills in population, if not in altitude or per capita income. More to keep folks in than to keep'em out, the city installed a chain link fence around Gloverville. Misery not having dulled their sense of humor, the residents took to calling their ramshackle, largely cardboard village a "gated community." "Locked Lloyd."
President Sam Nunn decided to act. Citing an existing executive order, he
dispatched the now armed deputies of FEMA--an agency itself created by
executive order--to assume control of and restore order in America's large
urban areas. Johnson County resisted. Kansas City did not. Throughout the
late 90's a single federal judge had run by fiat the city's housing authority
and schools, its county jails and foster care. In early 1999, that same judge
seized control of the Kansas City Zoo, Crown Center, and Sanderson's Lunch.
Having long since lost their democratic instincts, Kansas Citians gladly
kissed FEMA's ring. Now George knew how one-time school super Hank Williams must have felt when the feds were yanking his chain: all the guff, none of the glory.
Auld Lang Syne
On New Year's Eve, 1999, Mayor Blackwood presided bravely over a gala ball-dropping ceremony at Barney Allis Plaza. 10,000 invitations had gone out. 19 people showed up, most of them in uniform. The crowd's one great wish for the New Year was that when the ball descended, the lights would stay on. When they did, the crowd rejoiced as if it were V-J day.
But not for long. At 12:08 the lights suddenly dimmed, then died. A
cascading power outage that started in Chicago had rolled across the midwest grid and took metro KC down with it. Chicago officials swore they had replaced all the date-sensitive embedded processors in their main power plant. Apparently, they missed a few.
As Mayor Blackwood drove home, screams pierced the air, flames shot from buildings everywhere, and looters pillaged the shops on Main Street, grabbing rubber stamps, rental tuxes, rolling papers, adding machines, sexual prostheses, pizzas, legal pads, Big Macs, futons, hemp dresses--whatever they could gather from the remaining shops on this over-renewed street.
The sound and fury subisded when Blackwood reached the Country Club Plaza. He wasn't surprised. FEMA had commandeered the Ritz-Carlton for its headquarters. He could hear the tipsy swell of laughter from the FEMA skating party on Brush Creek even over the chugging of the Diesel generators that kept the gala lit.
Brookside had stayed pretty calm. Blackwood could see its grim-faced
residents manning roadblocks constructed mostly, it seemed, out of old floats from St. Patrick's days gone by. As he neared the Waldo area, a reddish glow brightened the streets. This was not a good sign on a powerless night. He turned a sharp right on Gregory and headed for the state line. The heck with this mayor stuff. He had a good friend who lived in Hallbrook. He'd be safe there, ensconced, protected.
A Kansas state policeman emerged from the flashing strobes on State Line Road and greeted Blackwood.
"You're from Kansas?" the trooper asked ironically.
"No," George answered innocently.
"Turn around. You're heading home."
"But I'm the Mayor of Kansas City."
"I don't care if you're the King of Siam."
"I have friends in Hallbrook," the mayor pleaded.
"Everyone does." So saying, the trooper unholstered his gun. George got the message. He turned and headed back into the void.
Two months later, Mayor Blackwood sat in the gathering darkness of the City Council chambers, cursing the fates and KCPL and his damnable ambition, when the lights flickered back on at City Hall.
"Maybe it is better to rule in hell," he sighed, looking out as the lights
came twinkling on all over this smoldering remains of Kansas City, "than to
serve in Hallbrook."
He headed for the elevators. Just another day at the office in the
unforgettable Year 2000.
© Jack Cashill - 1999
Who is Jack Cashill?