Yesterday I re-discovered a place — a whole neighborhood actually — just north of the river in Topeka when fellow poets Matt Porubsky and Leah Sewell invited me to meet them at Porubsky’s. Weaving down streets looking for it, only to find it was across the tracks, and I would have to find the overpass (obviously named Porubsky’s Overpass) to get there, I flashed happily back almost 30 years, when north Topeka meant visiting Ken’s grandpa with him near the Billiard airport.
My days of first getting to know and fall and in love with Ken were entwined with frequent trips to this part of the world to check on his grandfather, who not only lived near the airport, but helped start it, designed and built planes and has the distinction of having flown with Amelia Earhart. I think I needed to get extra lost so that I could drive through this neighborhood, remembering the small houses with vibrant yard and the little restaurant at the airport where I joked around with Ken’s grandpa about our opposite politics. “When I see that bumper sticker on your car, I want to shoot it off,” he told me. “When I see that bumper sticker on your front door, I want to shoot that off too.” He grinned, and we were friends for the rest of his life.
Now some decades after his death, I made my way to one of the last standing grocery store-bar-cafes in the area. There, I found fresh fruit, chips from Frito Lay (“Everything here is made locally,” Matt told me), copies of Matt’s wonderful new book of poems, Fire Mobile, by the register. A few steps more, I was in the cafe, eating a giant and tasty corned beef sandwich with a side of baked beans. I did try one of the famous hot pickles, only to find they were famously hot. I put off trying the chili for another day although it’s obviously legendary.
Even more inspiring than the food were Matt and Leah, a couple with two young children who juggle writing poetry, organizing events with other Topeka poets (there’s a slew of great ones), taking care of their children, doing graphic and design for many books of poetry (including Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems), and hold down jobs in layout and design (Leah) and on the railroad as a train switchman (Matt). These are hardworking, visionary, open-hearted and down-to-earth people, kind of other the end of the child-rearing spectrum than Ken and me, but able to create the kind of the world they believe in through their lives.
One other thing they do is film: They co-wrote Porubsky’s: Transcendent Deli, which Matt filmed after a good campaign to raise funds and engage many angles of the community on the history, traditions, impact and contribution one small mom-and-pop store made for Germans who emigrated to Russia and then to this place in Topeka called Little Russia. The film is beautifully done, and and Ken and I loved it.
It’s also the kind of story Ken’s grandfather would have loved, one about the difference a few people can make over time, big vats of chili and cold beer.