No one knows when Rebecca Silverspoon Bourgeois first came under a geas of performing Random Acts of Kindness. Perhaps it was when her Ladies’ Book Club read that book Oprah hailed for milking anecdotes of the Inner City Poor. Or perhaps it was after a yoga class conversation about how many beggars clogged the Metro corners this time of year. Or it might have been the winter when her daughters’ Sunday School camped beneath a frozen tarp to raise money for Union Mission. But a geas it was and she could no sooner refuse it than she could refuse to empty her bladder.
As she stepped inside her Cinderella’s carriage, her sparkling white minivan without so much as a random splattered bug gut after its weekly detailing, she knew that day she would do some Good, pay it forward, bless someone.
She kept her eyes peeled all day for the opportunity she craved.
She was on her last run of the day, coming home from her salon with her platinum blonde hair elegantly coiffed without a hint of root, on her way to a soiree–though if it was in the afternoon wouldn’t it be more a tea, she wondered. Her girlfriend called, “Can you be a dear?” The girlfriend was caught in traffic coming from the office. She was supposed to bring a dessert that, would you believe it, was only available in that cheapo grocery, you know the one, would you mind dropping in and bailing me out? I’ll pay you back. Mmmm-wah!
So she pulled into the parking lot on the east side of Troost Avenue. It was right on the way.
Back in the Day, as they say, back in the day, when Kansas City was a magnet for magnates, when a generation of hucksters and entrepreneurs erected their alabaster city on the hill, gilding it with art and architecture as befit their precious Paris of the Plains on the bluff overlooking the mighty Big Muddy, back in that day they began the process of stitching together the crazy quilt of Kansas City neighborhoods designed from the beginning to separate the rabbits from the goats, the colored from the white, the working class from Quality.
Some called Kansas City a cowtown, but it also had commerce, and baseball, and jazz. At the turn of the Ragtime century it blossomed with Kessler’s City Beautiful and though the flood of Aught-three had swamped that lunatic asylum in the Bottoms they called Union Depot, a new and glorious railroad station made the tiny metro a crossroad hub of commerce for all of the US.
The 1920s were roaring with moonshine and jazz, except Boss Tom scoffed at the idea his town would be dry. Business was booming and architects of the Chicago School were in town making the city of fountains in their own image and likeness. Developers worked hand in hand with the fathers of the city to draw the zoning ordinances that would shape the face of the city for a hundred years and more. One of the features of that face was a demographic line that runs along one of the oldest roads threading the Jackson county hillsides where 19th Century planters and merchants migrated once Congress decided to let slave-holders settle Missouri.
Once upon a time a trail ran north along these hills, from a cluster of skin-draped longhouses where Ni-u-kon-ska hunters carried game and canoes along the natural dips wending between trees, between hills, past the bluffs down to the Pekitanoui, the old Muddy River. That trail ran past the Reverend Doctor Porter’s 400 acre fruit plantation. Or, we should say, Porter platted his acres to the westside of the trail.
Rev. Porter was a Methodist circuit rider who came to Little Dixie from Tennessee with a household that included 40 enslaved people. When Rebecca allows herself to think of it she is amazed so many so-called men of God in the 19th Century Anno Domini in the United States of America–for chrissakes–called themselves “owning” other human beings. The whole rest of the world had evolved past the concept of slavery by that time except only the United States and her peculiar institution which let a handful of rich planters control the destiny of a continent with fortunes built off free labor. She didn’t think about that. She didn’t think about how every aspect of US History and Society and Economics and Culture, how every drop of ink scratched into parchment in Philadelphia was purchased with the wages of white supremacist ideology, interests of which still compounded daily coming due late into the 21st Century.
As geography and chance would have it the Americans who settled in these hills improved the path, widened it, hardened it, and named it after Benoist Troost, a Dutch surgeon who pitched in to buy the Prudhomme estate that grew into Kansas City. Troost Avenue eventually stretched from south of Brush Creek nearly to the Missouri and became a border as tangible as the Kansas state line less than two miles to the west. A road runs along that border, too, with Kansas the southbound lane and Missouri the north. Along Troost since at least the turn of the last century whites lived west of Troost, non-whites lived to the east. That this demographic fault line has begun to change is less a function of civil rights and desegregation than it is of gentrification.
So Rebecca was much more comfortable turning into a parking lot on the east side of Troost as her mother might have been 50 years before. She wouldn’t drive very far to the east, but right off the highway was fine.
She knew only one cashier was ever on duty at this particular grocer, though if lines backed up into aisles and there was a stocker or watchman available they would open a second. She didn’t know, because this stop was not part of her routine, that today was the day government benefits of one kind and another appeared in EDTs and families and seniors across the neighborhood ventured out to fill their coffers for another month.
She got in line behind a mother with her young son and a basket stacked with meat and produce. A cute little black couple whose shopping cart seemed to double as a walker and looked like nothing so much as a pair of desiccated mummies reanimated and sent to town for groceries got in line behind her. She wondered how often they made the trip. The rail-thin old man’s movements reminded her of the variety show comic who made his reputation on a parodied dotard.
Rebecca flashed her straight and pearly whites at the cute couple and exchanged pleasantries about the weather and the Chiefs and the Royals; though, honestly, this year the Royals were nothing to write home about, and wasn’t that a quaint expression, anymore, considering everyone has their texts and emails.
She had a casual air about her like some French lesser duchess in the days before Bastille, an anachronistic ante-Bellum Princess of the sort Faulkner and Williams peppered their pages, a woman whose life story you might learn, if the grocery line were long enough, the sort who would extract your biography from you, if you’d let her, though Miss Ada was like pulling teeth, having never had no good come from no overdressed white lady, regardless where it was she met them.
Still, Rebecca learned Miss Ada Reynolds had haunted these neighborhoods for ninety-two summers. Her husband, Bertrand, had been here ninety-five. Bertrand was a teenager when Bird jammed with Basse, but he wasn’t the Bird, yet, not by a stretch. They had lived here on the east side of Troost their whole lives. They were born into homes where what their daddies could do to earn bread were mostly low-skill labor jobs and mostly those white folk wouldn’t do, though Miss Ada would never be so im-polite or -politic to say so. Back then the Irish ran things on the west side of the street and you knew where you could and couldn’t be when the sun went down. Everyone was poor back then, but some folks even more so, and even after Roosevelt rescued white America from the Banks gains lagged behind for men of color. If you don’t mind my saying so.
Miss Ada chatted more than her husband, though both were hard of hearing and conversations with them was an adventure.
Rebecca leaned in sotto voce to tell the cashier, “Let me know what their bill is. I’ll take care of it.”
“Excuse me?” He rang up the couples’ groceries, placing each item in a cart.
“I want to pay their bill.”
“Oh. Okay.” His brow furrowed.
“I am committed to performing random acts of kindness,” she confided.
“It’s the least I can do. To give back as I have been so freely given.”
“Yes, ma’am.” It was obvious the young man didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
Miss Ada was busy troubling Bertrand for the reusable grocery bags they had brought from home and Bertrand was retrieving them from their cart and handing them over to Miss Ada with all the speed of that legendary comic of old and Miss Ada was flustered with exasperation though they did this once a month for more years than either of them could recall.
“How much do I owe?” Miss Aida asked the cashier.
“Nothing,” he told her.
“What?” Miss Ada insisted.
The cashier pointed at the ghosting Rebecca as she crossed the short space to the automatic exit with strides as long as her high heels allowed her. “She wanted to do a kindness,” he said.
“What?” Miss Aida repeated.
“What?” echoed Bertrand, who hadn’t heard a solitary thing that had happened.
“She did a kind thing,” the cashier repeated as Rebecca stepped into her sparkling white chariot sitting crosswise between two parking spots in the lot and drove to her home in a mansion in a neighborhood that flirted with the Kansas-Missouri state line.
“That was quite a Blessing,” said a stranger behind the couple.
“Yessir, it was a blessing,” Bertrand answered.
Later that evening Rebecca could impress her cocktail and canape compadres with humble-brag stories of her single-hand efforts to alleviate the world’s suffering while never disturbing the infrastructure that causes it.