The Downtown Train to Wichita: The Road to Drew’s Wedding and the real Mayor of El Dorado, KS

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Weddings. Call me an old sap, but I do so enjoy weddings. Of course, in my younger days, I was actually “in” 13 weddings. I was a best man three times, a groomsman in several others and I don’t know how many times I was an usher. I shouldn’t even count the times I was an usher, it’s a bit of a menial role, like a bar back. Some of the weddings I was in, I was just sort of available. It was like my buddies said, “Well, my fiancé has more friends than I do, we need an extra body. Hey, Ken is fun, lets plug him in there somewhere.” And to be frank, in my early days I was usually idle and had nothing better to do. Why not rent a tux and stand up for a friend. Especially if there was an open bar.

For some strange reason, most of my good friends graduated from college and went to work for a large, Fortune 500 company for a year or two and then quit. Some went back to school at that point, some got jobs at smaller firms. Some of us stop cutting our hair and went to Europe. I chose the latter. Rod Stewart as a youth was sent by his father to Europe “to find himself” and it helped him write the classic tune “Every Picture Tells a Story.” It wasn’t as productive a trip for me, but I did have a good time, but those records are sealed until 25 years after I’ve died. State secrets, people.

I had recently quit my job and started the aforementioned “hair growing” when I got a call from a dear old friend from Wichita, Kansas, Drew. Drew was one of my roommates in college and has been referenced in BourbonAndVinyl many times, my record store friend. We’d always go shopping for music together. I remember skipping class to go down to the record store the day Springsteen’s “Live 1975 to 1985” came out. We went back to the apartment and crowded around Drew’s turntable, amazed at what we were hearing. Drew had recently quit his job and was pursuing a graduate degree down in Wichita, his hometown.

I was sitting around, doing next to nothing as a newly unemployed person, when Drew called. He was getting married. I was honored that he asked me to be a groomsman. It was his goal to have all 5 of us who had lived together in his wedding party. We had dispersed pretty widely by this time. I was in KC during the “moving back-in with my parents” phase of life. We had one roommate who lived in Hannibal, Mo named Denny. One of the others, Pringle, had moved to Louisville. The final roomie, Stretch was still in school at KSU so he’d be easy to find. I quickly agreed. All I had to do was go and get my measurements taken for the tux and off we’d go. I was an old pro by this time, as I’d already been in four weddings by this time, typically of people I barely knew.

Logistics being what they are, it was decided that everyone would convene at my parent’s house and we’d pile into my car to drive to Wichita. Wichita is literally, in the middle of nowhere. Pringle and Stretch flew and drove in from Louisville and Manhattan respectively. After spending an evening toasting our newly departed friend, we piled into my car and weaved down to Union Station to meet the train. Denny, who lived in Hannibal, merely a state away, decided to take the Amtrak over to KC. I think he spent most the time in the bar car, but who could blame him. The guy knows how to live.

We spent the evening in Westport, the local bar district, speculating on what the bride might be like. Drew had not been a big lady’s man in college and we all wondered what this was going to be like. Stretch, Pringle and I were all single so we were hopeful that she had friends with loose moral fiber. I always did well at weddings, but it was probably the fact I was always in a tuxedo vs anything I ever did. Despite what my mother thinks, I do not resemble Richard Gere.

We awoke at my parent’s home hungover and ready for the road. At the time, for reasons inexplicable, I was driving a Chevy Beretta. Every single one of us is over 6 feet tall. We had over 24 feet of hungover groomsmen and we were going to cram into my Chevy Beretta for a 3 hour drive through cow country to get to Wichita. This could have perhaps been planned better. Stretch drove a dilapidated pickup truck that we couldn’t all fit in and everybody else had either flown or ridden the train.

We were young and largely unemployed. Well, Stretch was in college and I was unemployed. Denny and Pringle both had good jobs. We were dressed in “colorful” concert t-shirts. Denny had a pink polo on. Pringle was dressed in a nice beer-themed golf shirt. This was not an impressive rabble. We’d left early because my mother was hovering around and that made Denny nervous. “Kenny, I think your mom wants us out of here…” Actually, she just wanted me out of there, but that’s another blog. In those days, we had convinced ourselves that it was a Kansas state law that you were required to carry a six-pack for every person in the car. In this particular instance that meant a case of beer. I never condone drinking and driving but we were nursing hangovers. And frankly, I wasn’t drinking, I was driving. So, don’t drink and drive, kids.

We were just outside of El Dorado, Kansas when Denny said, “Hey dudes, we’re awfully early, we have two hours to kill. Let’s stop in El Dorado at this bar I know.” Denny sold farm chemicals and used to know every backwater town’s bar in the tri-state area.

I was reluctant. I’ve never been a rural guy. I grew up in the suburbs, for God’s sake. I was thinking it’d be better to get to Wichita, close to where the rehearsal was and then find a bar. But Denny was adamant and El Dorado is only a short drive from Wichita, what could this hurt…

When I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the cinder block “building” that Denny assured me was a “great, little bar” I began to feel the familiar fear rising. The only thing this place was missing was a kid sitting on the roof with a banjo strumming to “Dueling Banjos”. I’d lived in Arkansas for three years prior to this and I knew we were only a few smart-ass comments away from being beaten with axe handles.

We walked into the front door like a conquering motor cycle gang only to find the place was packed with factory workers who had just come off duty. This was a union, oil-processing plant bar. These guys were filthy from work. I glanced at our group quickly, we were all in shorts and tennis-shoes. The locals were in cowboy boots. We looked like a gay dance troupe. The whole place fell silent. An “old whiskey” standing by the pool table, smiled and said to Denny, who was completely at home in this place, “Are you guys some kinda traveling basketball team?” I realized we were taller than just about everyone in the bar, and thought that’ll be a small comfort as they are beating us with tire irons.

Denny just smiled at the “old whiskey” and said, “We’re the New York Knicks…” which for reasons I’m still not clear about, got a loud, unanimous laugh. I turned quickly to Stretch and said, “We are gonna die…” but he was off and headed to the bar. I, for one, was in full panic mode.

We were standing there at the bar, Pringle, Stretch and I, when the locals began to circle around us. One said, “Where’d you get that fancy Van Halen shirt?” This was quickly getting out of hand. I was trying to think of a really macho response when I heard the song start… Denny had wandered to the very back of the bar to the juke box. He was going to “play some tunes for the crowd”. I heard the first strains of piano and I knew our fate was sealed. Suddenly, over the loud speakers I heard…

“Outside, another yellow moon has punched a hole in the nighttime, yes…”

Holy shit, Denny was playing “Downtown Train” and not the Tom Waits’ original version, this was Rod Stewart’s version. Now, I’ll admit I’ve always been a huge Rod Stewart fan, but not in El Dorado, Kansas. I almost screamed to Denny at the back of the bar, “My God man, you’ve killed us, run!” but instead I just stood frozen, catatonic with fear. I did glance, wide-eyed at Denny and he was standing with a hand on the juke box, singing along with a huge smile. I thought, “this is a nice, last image to see in my life… my friend Denny happily crooning to “Downtown Train” by Rod.”

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, Pringle stepped up on the bar foot rail. He was oblivious to the musical catastrophe we were experiencing. “This is a great bar! Everybody is drinking my brand, Budweiser, and not that pussy Bud Lite… Bartender, I’d like to buy a round for everyone in the house. Budweiser for everyone!”

I had never seen the mood of a bar change more quickly. There was a loud cheer from the working-stiff cowboys. The “old whiskey” said, “Buddy you could get elected mayor of El Dorado, if you’re not careful” while chuckling though his missing front teeth.

As the beers were being delivered, suddenly, inexplicably, I heard the entire bar, all the voices, singing, “will I see you tonight, on a downtown traaaaain” and I realized, slowly, that we were going to live.

The Mayor El Dorado had saved us. All it took was a round of Bud reds. So if you’re ever in El Dorado during a shift change… Budweiser and Rod Stewart will get you home.

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