Monday, January 21, 2008

Life review in slow motion: Topeka, Kansas and the Liminal

Since I turned 40 last June, I've been going through some intense life-reflection; I've generally been literally sick (almost a lovesick feeling) with nostalgia and memory. I'm also gearing up for a huge life transition, that is, moving across the country, from the place that has has been my home for essentially all my adult life now.
Because of this looming move perhaps, I have been thinking about the last move I made. I grew up in Topeka, Kansas. Perhaps everyone who has moved away from their hometown, and has been gone for decades feels it holds a similar place and quality; in my mind, Topeka is mythical, existing in some kind of vortex of unreality or even hyperreality. When I (rarely) go back now, I cannot believe the buildings still stand, these places where I am in my head so often--the crosswalk to my grade school, certain intersections, signage, entrances, trees, etc. Places that I have obviously and maybe randomly internalized.

Dillons grocery store at Brookwood Shopping Plaza is my personal Platonic Form "Grocery Store." My cousin used to take me there for ice cream sandwich treats, and we would eat them on the wedge shaped cement benches under the Dillons sign. They are magical, and reside in the abyss, the ancient of days memory that cannot possibly still be touched. Yet those slabs are still there.
Obviously, Topeka holds some sense of the liminal for me. But thinking about everything recently, I'm not really sure it's all me. It's fairly enigmatic on many levels. It's at the same time place of extremes, and a place of middle. It's kind of unclassifiable. It's weird.

The beginning of the zip code is 666. That of course, has been much fodder for all kinds of legends and stories. There's a legend that says the Pope requested his plane be diverted around the area on his way to California. There are legends of 'devil's gateways' , most notably the one between Topeka and Lawrence on Highway 6, in a town called Stull. The crumbling cemetery church in Stull has long been torn down, but I have stood in the center of this supposed gateway, and can report that there was no evil presence, or weird feeling.

Topeka is the hometown of the media crazy, outrageous hate mongering, religious fanatical, Fred Phelps clan. These are the funeral-picketing, god-hates-fags, god-bless-9/11 guys. The absolute uber Tricksters of the already tricked-out Bible Belt.

Topeka was the birthplace and home of modern American mental health scene for many, many decades. The Menninger Clinic was the place for all manner of experiments, (including supposedly some of Timothy Leary's LSD research, according to a psychiatrist I knew) and it's where the elite came for in-patient treatment. There were (pre-internet, pre-easily verifiable) long standing local legends about certain celebrities and their various escapades in Topeka and at Meninnger. For a long time, it was said Judy Garland died in Topeka, and all kinds of famous people were there having crazy psychotic episodes. The one about Alan Alda sticks in my mind--he was supposed to be there foaming at the mouth or something. Completely silly and false of course.

But it really was the place everybody went for treatment. It is also the place where everybody who seemingly had no motivation stayed after their treatment. I did know one guy with a famous family that ended up staying. He was normal, but there's a lot of crazy people walking the streets. Like any town, it has its identifiable street characters. But in Topeka, there were literally probably thousands. It's not that big of a town--the number is disproportionate.

The clinic was a pretty big deal in Topeka. In high school, I remember a huge all-school assembly, in the amazing Topeka High auditorium--it must have been some anniversary of the school or something, because they had all these THS alumni present. They saved the 'best' for last--Dr. Karl Menninger himself. He looked like God, and was about 6000 years old, and hobbled out brilliantly & graciously to literally about 30 minutes of unprecendented yelling and applause, standing ovations, screaming kids and teachers. This man brought the house down.

Because of Menninger's, there were also many psychiatrists, many mental health professionals. Most of my friends parents there were psychiatrists. Strange, interesting and liberal people for sure. There are also some confederate flags flying around in the back of pick ups. Bloody Kansas continues.

I don't know how much more I can write about Topeka without having to take a pill. I may think of some more weird stuff later.

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