By the Time I Get to Arizona: Letters to Laertes 3

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man

Hamlet Act I scene iii
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Ryan B. Clark in KCMO 1993

Dearest Laertes,

There is a cliche in our world that those who can not do, teach. Unfortunately, that is far too often true. One such fault of mine is listening. Listening is a true art. Most people that I have met, don’t. They wait for their chance to talk… and that is not the same thing. But one of the awful side effects of not truly listening, is not truly learning… and once that sets in, it is easy for a person to believe they know everything.

The more you think you know, the less you learn.

Stephen Ashbrook

We never get a chance to know our parents when they were…. young, stupid, bright, happy, new….. innocent. We only know them after, well… life. When I left for the Independence Missouri mission, I had no idea what I did not know. I had no idea what judgments I had not even had a chance to make, because I had never even known the choices existed. So the story of what happened to your dad in Kansas City… is two parts. This is the Listening Part.

Lovingly

Polonius

White Privilege. Black Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. I Can’t Breathe. Just Stand Up. Why Can’t They Just Move. I’m Not A Racist, I Have Black Friends.

Karen

I am not Black. I am from a White upper middle class family. I was in high school from 1988 to 1992. I had one teacher, Ms. Richardson – 6th Grade, Avenue B Elementary, San Manuel, Arizona, who was Black. My whole life… I had lived closely to one Black family – a single mom and her daughter, Tabitha, who stayed with my father’s family for a while, so I saw them one summer. My whole life…. I was raised in a religiously conservative home. PG-13 rated movies were not allowed, and many PG movies were still questioned. I got in trouble for two movies that I brought home or recommended for Family Home Evening:

and…

True Story. So… It really should not be surprising that the conservative, nerdy, white kid raised in San Manuel, Arizona thought that what little he did see on the news about what was happening over in LA…

… did not seem more real than any of the “Black Gangster Movies” that I was not allowed to watch.

The bottom line when it comes to White Privilege, seriously…. is that you have no idea what you don’t know. Why? Because it was your privilege not to have to. I was exactly that person. 100%. I did not think I was a racist. But it was not based in understanding or education… or frankly, even race. It was based in convenience. And convenience…. is a privilege. Not knowing what a food desert is…. is a privilege. Living in close proximity to businesses, or restaurants, or anything….. legal…… is a privilege. And those privileges, somehow got turned into merit badges in our world. Almost like people felt that they had earned an award, or done something right, or not done something wrong to earn those badges. No.

It was a privilege to even be able to think of them that way. I did not understand ANYTHING about race in America, my whole life…..

Us & Them

… until I went to Troost Ave.

I did not leave Kansas City, Mormon. I left Kansas City….. A TEACHER.

Ryan B. Clark

#KCMO

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Myers (Left) Bitton (Center) Me (Right)

It was late when I arrived in Kansas City. I was hungry, and ready to finally find where I was going to be. I was picked up at the airport by three Elders. The Elders are what male Mormon missionaries were normally referred to, female missionaries were still just Sisters. They didn’t have priesthood ranks. The three young men that met me at the airport were Elders Bitton, Myers and Hall. They were like the Wise Guys coming to meet a new recruit, to find out if he was to be a trusted Made Man, or a Rat….

“So Clark, what time do you get up in the morning?” Elder Bitton was a slimy looking guy. He had an easy swagger, a fast crooked smile, and hair gelled slick and shiny. He reminded me of Michael Corleone. He was always chewing gum, and I remember seeing him toss it from one side of his smile to the other with his tongue as we spoke through the rear view mirror. He was the AP, the Assistant to the President, the highest ranking missionary in the Independence, Missouri mission. I thought I was being tested.

“6 o Clock, Elder,” I answered from the back passenger seat where I sat next to Elder Hall and behind Elder Myers. They all started laughing, and I nervously did too. But I wasn’t sure what I was laughing about.

“Yeah, things work a little differently out here. You aren’t in the MTC anymore,” Elder Myers said, his blonde head leaning back over his shoulder to address me. “In the real mission field, you have to adapt.”

“Don’t worry Clark, you are gonna be alright,” Elder Bitton continued as he drove. “Hall here is a great trainer. He will show you the ropes in no time.” Elder Hall had easy to manage short brown hair and soft eyes. He smiled, and I smiled back.

“Why, what time do you get up,” I asked my new companion.

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Myers far Right

“Never before eight.”

The three Elders laughed like frat boys on their way to a party. I looked out at the most green I had ever seen in one place, even at night, as we drove through the city and out into the Overland Park, Kansas suburbs.

Every mission around the world is run by a married couple, themselves on a mission. In Mormonism, a youth mission is the one you hear about most often. Two years when you are 19 away from your family, sharing the Gospel around the world. But there is another kind of mission. Later, in their golden years, a married couple can also go on a mission. These couple missionaries are called together, as companions to each other, and they can be called to work in Temples, or actually work in the mission field. One of the most prestigious callings for a couple, is to be called as the Mission President and his wife. This esteemed couple is in charge of the entire mission, like a District Manager presiding over his section of the company.

Actually, it is exactly like that.

I never met the Mission President again after that first dinner, he was far too busy. The AP reported everything to him that he needed to know, and he communicated to his troops through him. Bitton was the guy we had to answer to.

The Mission President was a short man with white hair and a jovial expression. I remember thinking he looked like the love child of Rumpelstiltskin and Saint Nicholas. President Murray, and his wife. But, I don’t remember either of them. In my mind’s eye he is just another white haired, elderly white, conservative business man in a suit with a voice like Smeagol, and she is just another Mormon wife.

Their home was lush and beautiful, and we sat at a long ornate table in a fancy dining room. There is nothing novel about seeing the lives of the religiously powerful gilded with riches. That has always been the case, from Rome to Olsteen. But none of them see themselves as Pharisees or Sadducees. Those labels are reserved for everybody else. So I did not see the richness of the home as anything other than tithes well spent.

The table was dark wood, and lacquered to a shine. A lace table runner cut the deep richness of the wood with a swath of stark color. The silver service dishes and cutlery were placed on red cloth squares, and each diner’s service was set on a lush red place-mat. Unlit tapers graced the quarters of the table, as President Murray walked the four of us into the dining room.

“Elders, may I take your jackets?” the Stepford wife asked in a peeling bell of a voice. If the entire scene had been in the Godfather, you would have expected pasta and red wine. Cigars after dinner. But it was not a mob family dinner, it was a Mormon one, so there was casserole and Martinelli’s. Jello salad after dinner.

“So Elder Clark, were there many black people where you grew up there in Arizona?”

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I coughed up a bite of casserole, and raised my cloth napkin to my mouth to disguise it. “Excuse me, sir?”

“Where you grew up, were there many Black folks there?”

I was completely confused by the question. “Um, no sir. There were not.”

“Have you ever known any Black people?”

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Within a couple of months…. I was A Made Man

This line of questioning was quite unexpected, more-so even than the test in the car on the drive from the airport. Elders Bitton and Myers were sitting directly across from Elder Hall and I. Bitton and Myers were both looking at me with their mouths full, waiting for my response and forgetting to chew. This had to be another test. There was no way this was for real!

“My sixth grade teacher, Ms. Richardson was African American, sir, and my father had a single mother and her daughter living with him for a while in San Diego when I was a kid. They had fallen on hard times. I think the daughter’s name was Tabitha, but I don’t quite remember. But I really loved Ms. Richardson.”

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I have no pictures of Ms. Richardson, but in my mind she’s Ali A

“Elder Clark, the reason that I ask is that the Independence, Missouri Mission is quite large. It covers all of Kansas City, Missouri and down south to Independence, but the vast majority of the Mission is in the flat cornfields of Kansas. Not many Black folks out that way. But we like to see what an Elder is capable of when they first arrive here at the Independence, Missouri Mission.”

The President sat looking at me over his wire-rim glasses. His eyes were piercing to my soul with the Melchizedek power of discernment, and I knew better than to try to lie or hide my feelings.

“Have you ever spent any time in a real Inner City, Elder Clark?”

“You make relationships with these kids, you can get anything you want.” Ask my past students if they are surprised…..

I didn’t even really know what an Inner City was. I reached out for my half empty glass of Martinelli’s and drained the glass slowly; buying myself some time. I had heard about the Rodney King riots in LA, that was about as much of an Inner City story that I had ever heard. And that was just a bunch of pissed off Black people taking advantage of chaos and looting. I listened to Post Punk, and New Wave music from Europe, with nothing but a feeling of contempt and disdain for Rap and Hip Hop. I was incredibly small minded back then. The veil had not yet been lifted. The trials of Blacks in America seemed nothing more to me than selections of reading from a text book. Frederick Douglas. Martin Luther King, Jr. Huckleberry Finn. Nothing seemed more real about that struggle than any other story on a movie screen to me. My world had been tiny, and protected. Insulated.

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Like the Romneys

I must have been silent for a very long time, and President Murray continued. “You are going to be teamed up with Elder Hall here. He is one of the best trainers we have, and you will not be the first white missionary who has never really talked to a Black person that he has broken in. You will be just fine; just follow the rules, and there is really nothing to be worried about. You have been called here for a reason, and God will protect and fortify you.”

I was terrified. “Can you please pass the Martinelli’s, please,” I asked Elder Hall. My voice scratched over my dry throat. I was scared out of my mind.

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“And it is those rules that we need to talk about today, first and foremost Elder Clark. What time do you get up in the morning?”

I shot a side glance at Elder Hall, but he was Mona Lisa. Biton and Myers were no help either. Did I give the correct answer, the MTC answer? Or did I give the Hall answer, that he had just told me in the car driving over? What if I got him in trouble? But the Mission President can see with the Power of Discernment into my soul, so lying was pointless anyway! I completed pouring a second glass of cider, and took a drink to coat the nerves out of my voice. “6 o clock sir. A missionary rises at 6 o clock.”

“Quite right, very good. And what time do you leave the apartment to begin work for the day?”

“8 o clock, sir.”

“Quite right, quite right, and how many Black folk down in the projects are going to be answering their doors at 8 o clock in the morning?”

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I lowered my still laden forkful of casserole back to my plate, dumbfounded. “I have no idea, sir.”

“That is why Elder Hall is one of the best trainers we have in the Independence, Missouri mission. He will show you the ins and outs and explain the rules that need to be bent to achieve success with the Inner City Black Folk.”

I was having a very hard time understanding whether or not President Murray liked African American People. Are you supposed to call them Black Folk? I had no idea, because I had never even really talked to any.

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My first apartment

“Because, Elder Clark, what is the reason that we are here?”

“To spread the one true Gospel of Jesus Christ, sir.”

“To whom?”

“To everyone, sir.”

“That’s right, Elder Clark, to everyone. Especially to the Black Folk down in the Projects, and they don’t get up that early.”

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Elders Bitton, Myers, and Hall all burst into rolling laughter, as did the President and his wife. Slowly, I joined in, nervously at first, but laughter is contagious. “A toast then”, Elder Bitton said, and raised his glass, “To Elder Clark, the Projects, and Baptisms.”

“Hear, Hear!” we all called out, and drank our bubbling apple juice. Like Masters of the Universe.

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Troost

“The Po Po, the Po Po!” and the kids scattered from the street like desert bugs and snakes when you lift up on old piece of wood. There are everywhere, in vibrant color and action, and then – poof – gone, and the street is empty. I had never seen anything like it, before coming to Kansas City, but I was used to it now. We were not required to wear suit jackets in the summer. We were drenched enough as it was, almost all of the time. Sweaty white boys dressed in white shirts and ties. And the people who lived down on Troost Avenue knew we were bound to be one of three things:

  • FBI
  • HUD
  • The Police
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Missionary boys was usually not on their list. So they either ran from us and the badges they thought we had, or they ran at us, demanding we keep our promises and fix the Projects.

I smiled, so did Hall, and we sauntered down the street towards the front door to the low income apartment complex. It was definitely more of a swagger, in hindsight, I mean we were 19 and 20 year olds, who inspired fear when we walked down the street. We were young and naive. I thought about the cassette tape I had made for my mother the night before on the handheld tape recorder she had sent me. I liked to sit out on the roof of our second story apartment. You could just step right through the window onto the shingles that overlooked the front door. Periodically there was the far sound of rapid gunfire. I had gotten used to it in the seven or eight weeks that I had been in Kansas City off of Troost Avenue. It was the largest city I had ever lived in, and the closest thing to a real Inner City that I had ever seen. “Hey Mom, everything is fine.” distant pop, pop pop, pop. “I am just doing God’s work down here in the war-zone!” I tried to play it up, like I was some sort of war correspondent.

We knocked on our first address. It was just past ten in the morning, we had been awake for about an hour and a half. The large Black woman who answered the door looked like she had just gotten up. “Whatchu want? Are you hear about that complaint about my walls?”

“No, Ma’am,” Elder Hall began as we stood in the long skinny non descript hall, “we are not from Housing and Urban Development.”

“Well, damn, whad I answer the door then fo?”

I glanced up and down the skinny hallway as first one door, then another, then about four more opened, just a crack, just enough to listen. Brown eyes and dark faces through cracks and behind lock chains. “Well, probably because you wanted to talk about Jesus, right? We always open the door for Jesus.” Hall was a silver tongued shoe salesman when it came to reeling them in.

The round woman paused for a moment, skeptical, before her wide shining face burst into a jovial smile that seemed to spread light on the dim hallway. “You missionaries? Shit! Why didn’t you just say so? You know I can’t say no to no missionaries!” And she turned and made her way into the house, leaving the door open and the way clear. Hall and I walked into the apartment, and I closed the door behind us, noticing as I did so the click of closing doors up and down the hallway. I turned back into the apartment to follow Hall to the small living room off to the left of the entry.

There were huge round holes in two of the walls. About the size around of a globe, with tiny circular edges. The one in the living room wall behind the old television was even larger, and the round holes were more spread out and isolated. As I was taking in the radius of the holes like an amateur gum shoe, Hall was moving to sit down on the sagging couch against the far wall across from the TV. And our host, who was just turning to lower herself into a huge Lazy Boy recliner, bolted across the room with the booming charge of a rhino. “Do not sit down on that couch!”

Hall leaped away from the couch like it had just turned into a writhing snake den, as I stood dumbfounded looking from the holes in the walls to the suddenly dangerous couch. The woman reached under the middle cushion and pulled out a short, sawed off double barreled shot gun. “There you go, now you just go right ahead. We all good now.” She lumbered back across the room and sat the gun down across her ample lap as she sat and contemplated us, sitting like clay pigeons on a condemned couch. “You those guys who play basketball over on the Midway? I think I saws yous over there the other day playing with JB?”

Elder Hall was a great shot. I could block out on the inside. Kansas City was the city of fountains. We got a lot of baptisms that way.

And I realized… I had become a gangster.

This epiphany, would not immediately lead to my transfer out of the Inner City, but, when I did land in Shawnee, Kansas… just across Stateline on the white side…. I was not the same missionary that had landed in Kansas City. Then I was the kid that remembered this guy getting impeached my freshman year.

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Arizona Governor Evan Mecham

Now…. I understood a WHOLE. LOT. MORE.

By the time I returned to my home state….. Nobody knew who I was…. but a fighter had been born. An articulate, educated, warrior…. for the People.

That is why, Ali A & the Agency….. I freaking GET IT.

Seriously…. nobody should be surprised

Join me next week….. when the Mormon Fighter…. gets moved to the Suburbs.

And if you missed the beginning…. remedy that.

Until Then…..

Continue The Story

Fishers of Men : Letters to Laertes 2

The Apostate : Letters to Laertes 4

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Keep the Greasy Side Down.