Follow or Face My Wrath

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Fabled McQueeny-Lock Building

During my childhood and adolescence in Kansas City, the following exchange must have happened fifty times:

Person: "Hey, I saw your last name on that building downtown, next to I-35.  McQueeny-Lock.  Is that your dad's building?"
Me: "Yes it is."
Person: "Does your dad make locks?"
Me: "No, he sells plumbing, heating and air-conditioning.  His partner's last name is Lock."
Person: "Oh, I though maybe he owned a lock company."
Me: "Nope.  Toilets and air-conditioners."

Every day in Kansas City, thousands of commuters drive by the West Pennway exit on I-35 and 99% of them probably look at that building and assume it's a lock manufacturer.  The name of that company has forced me into dozens of conversations explaining what a "manufacturer's representative" is and what "HVAC" means.  If the eponymous Dave Lock knew this, he'd no doubt be greatly amused.  I often wonder if my dad had to similarly explain that his father didn't own a cane factory when the company was called McQueeny-Cain (they're spelled different, I know, but to a child...).
Despite the periodic labored explanations, that building has always had a special place in my heart.  I have as many formative childhood memories concerning that building as I do of the house where I grew up.  And now, after what must be (correct me if I'm wrong, dad) sixty plus years of that building bearing my surname, it has been sold.
My dad was out of that business a long time ago.  Hell, the company hasn't been called McQueeny-Lock for (again, dad, correct me of I'm wrong) more than ten years.  He sold the manufacturing rep business to his employees and partners over a decade ago.  He still owned the building, but his business is now elsewhere, manufacturing state-of-the-art HVAC equipment and selling it internationally.  Magnificent architectural achievements all over the world get their high-tech, energy-efficient heating and cooling from my dad, including buildings in Dubai, South Korea, and Brazil.
But I will never forget the times I had when the McQueeny-Lock building was still "dad's office" and a part of my daily life.

When my brothers and I were growing up, we must have spent half of our summers wandering around that building, getting into mischief.  At one point, we even had our own "office" there; a vacant office along the edge of the building that we filled with cardboard box forts, pretend desks and documents, and a TV for the all-important SNES system.  We had free rein over the entire expanse of the building.  We wandered unhindered into the offices of many of my dad's employees (no doubt making it impossible to get any work done), dug for treasures in the unoccupied storage spaces, stole candy from the honor-system vending box, made copies of our squished faces on the Xerox machine, and generally ran amok.
My littlest brother Chris used to make the most elaborate cardboard forts you can imagine.  I'm talking fifteen to twenty boxes of various sizes that he cut and taped together into huge buildings with tunnels, multiple stories, Murphy-bed-like folding desks, advanced pulley systems made from string and paper clips designed to carry objects from one end of the fort to the other... we are talking complicated here, people.  He would sit in them day after day, holding imaginary business meetings for his made-up corporation Chris Co., giving orders to me and our brother Pat, creating documents for us to fill out and errands for us to run in the building.
Eventually, my dad saw fit to put us to work.  Our initial salary was a miserly $2/hour, for which we swept, weeded and cleaned every nook and cranny of that building.  The rate increased over the years, though it never reached beyond $10/hour, and every summer until I was twenty, there was at least one or two odd jobs that I tackled in that building.

One particularly incriminating memory (sorry, dad) concerns the time my brothers and I were tasked with stripping the paint off of a newly-purchased cargo truck for one of the handful of businesses renting space in the building.  It was about the size of your garden-variety U-Haul, and our job was to scrub every brushstroke of paint off the box trailer... using Easy-Off oven cleaner.  Now I don't know If you've ever used this stuff on your oven, but I can hardly fathom how its use in the home isn't prohibited by law.  It is lethally caustic; enough to burn your eyebrows off and make all your teeth fall out.  It is probably the most dangerous chemical I have ever handled.  We sprayed wide swaths of the stuff on the side of this truck, and scrubbed in futility with ripped up t-shirts and oily rags.  We used sweat-moistened bandanas as our only protection from the fumes.  The temperature that day was in the triple digits, and the parking lot had been re-paved in a stygian black only weeks before, so every ounce of the sun's punishing radiation was reflected upon us a thousand fold.  Needless to say, it was unpleasant.  And yet I consider the experience a gift, because after that day, I have never considered any physical task too difficult or unseemly.

Most of my memories of that building are much more pleasant.  For what must have been seven or eight years, my brother and I (who share the same birthday, two years apart) were each allowed to invite three friends for a slumber party in the building.  The selection process was always grueling, but we always ended up with a great group.  We would cook out in the courtyard, usually to the soothing sounds of Steppenwolf or Jimi Hendrix, and then my dad would turn us loose in the building.
The first year we played a game of my dad's devising, which he called "Running the Gauntlet": one team would take up position in the windows of the third floor overlooking the courtyard, armed to the teeth with water balloons.  The other team would then attempt to run the length of the courtyard (a good forty yards, filed with landscaping, obstacles, and fountains) while dodging the merciless salvos from above.
In following years, the water balloons found a new purpose.  We acquired a large rubber slingshot made for firing water balloons long distance, and affixed the ends to the railing of the stairway at the back of the courtyard.  The gunner would place a balloon in the sling, drag it down the fifteen or twenty steps to the landing (stretching the rubber of the slingshot to the upper limits of its endurance) and let a balloon fly.  With good enough aim, you could hit a large billboard that stood alongside I-35.  Naturally, being mischievous little devils, we eventually got the bright idea to fill the water balloons with ketchup, mustard and all manner of other things.  One year, someone flung a soup can at the billboard, knocking out all its lights, and my dad promptly put a stop to the escalating vandalism.
Another favorite pastime on these sleepovers was the noble game of German Spotlight.  For those of you who don't know, German Spotlight is essentially a cross between flashlight tag and hide-and-seek.  One person (sometimes two) would be appointed the "spotlight" and would carry a flashlight around the playing field, looking for the remaining players.  The remaining players could run or hide in any way they wanted.  To capture a player, the spotlight must hit them with the beam of the flashlight, count to three and call their name ("One, two, three, Pete!").  If the name was called wrong, or the player managed to break away before their name was called, the player could run away.  If captured, the player must accompany the spotlight back to "jail".  Any remaining free players could perform a "jailbreak" by touching the jail, counting to ten at the top of their lungs and screaming jailbreak, thereby setting all of the prisoners free.  The object of the game is either to have all the players in jail, giving the spotlight the victory, or forcing the spotlight to give up and call the "olly-olly-oxen-free".
THIS GAME IS SERIOUSLY FUN.  I would not be the least bit ashamed to play a round now, as a portly, avuncular thirty-year-old.  Seriously, give me a time and place.
Being the geniuses that my friends and I are, we had the stupendous idea to make the freight elevator our jail, and after each capture, the spotlight would then move the jail up or down one floor.  This had two effects: it added another layer of difficulty for the hiding players, and the loud noise of the elevator announced every capture to the entire building.
The McQueeny-Lock building consists of four main floors: a basement, which was used for storage and cluttered like a hoarder's home; a large warehouse where contractor's orders were fulfilled, lined with shelves up to the twenty-five-foot ceiling (one could climb on many of them, and we did); the second floor, occupied by the McQueeny-Lock sales office (lots of rooms and cubicles); and a third floor that was split between offices and a large unfinished space (it was variously occupied and unoccupied over the years).  Additionally, there was the courtyard, and the north warehouse, connected to the main building by a narrow office belonging to a computer repair company.  In our latter-day games, all unlocked areas were in play (hence the need for two spotlights).  It was a big space, and the games we played there were epic indeed.
One year, I broke the curve by sneaking my way onto the top of the freight elevator.  It was made of a thick wooden floor and a wire-cage on top, so I was easily visible to any who looked up.  I concealed myself with silence and hoped that neither of the spotters would think to look for me there.  Whenever they would leave long enough for me to feel safe, I would immediately jailbreak all of my teammates, much to the frustration of the spotters.  When they finally gave up and everyone had gathered around the elevator, I casually dropped in from the hole in the roof.  After that, it was forbidden as a hiding place.
In later years, as we advanced into our teens, German Spotlight gave way to vodka and hookah, smuggled in by itinerant friends.  Offices were disturbed, things went missing, and eventually the jig was up.  We just made it a little too hard for my dad to forgive our activities, and we had to take our birthday celebrations elsewhere.

I must have known nearly every employee who worked in that building for more than a year.  If I didn't bother them at their desk, I worked alongside them during my teens.
I remember one young guy named Mike who I helped around the warehouse, filling orders, packing trucks and doing odd jobs.  I had just been caught smoking pot at school that year, and the dedicated young man spent the entire summer trying to convince me to stay away from drugs.
There was Jeff Fisher, a jovial, kind-hearted gentleman who oversaw my activities, and eventually issued me a paycheck or two.
There was the receptionist Roxanne, our often-times de-facto babysitter who doubtless complained passionately of the extracurricular duties our presence thrust upon her.
There was my uncle Jerry, a forceful, yet brotherly man, with a stentorian voice and a knuckle-crushing handshake.  His office moved over the years, but was always easily found by the cornucopia of KU paraphernalia spilling from the door.
There was Jerry Kimmel, a pallid, impassive man that had been a friend of my mother in college, and with whom my dad, brothers and I shared a pair of adventure-filled trips to Colorado (a tale for another time).
There was Mark (whose surname I forget) who ran the computer repair company in the office linking to the north warehouse.  He never seemed to shave, yet never seemed to have a beard and he always reeked of a cocktail of sweat and cheap beer.
There were even a few mythical characters that inhabited the building before my time.  Whitey and the Mole-People were a group of IT workers who rented an extremely stoic office space in the basement.  For many years, descriptions of Whitey led me to believe that he was Santa Claus, and the IT company was the kindly old elf's off-season job.
Another character, whose name escapes me, was well-known for buying a new suit and wearing it until it fell apart; never showering, and apparently never sleeping either.  Years later, I assume this man had a drug and/or alcohol problem, but at the time I heard his story, I just thought he was a freak.  All the offices on the second floor had windows that looked into the main area of the office, and this shabby gentleman would stalk down the rows casting a menacing glare into each.
The people I witnessed coming and going were as multifaceted and colorful as any one might find in a storybook.

For a period of years, my mother operated an art gallery on the third floor of the building.  Knowing as I now do that it was a joint venture by my parents with the aim of breathing new life into their then-dysfunctional marriage, the memories of that place all have a bluish tint, but there is one that bursts forth with a lively rainbow of emotions.
The very first opening of Zografia (it means "fine art" in Greek) concentrated on the work of a young visual artist and designer by the name of John Dawbarn.  This man's work is burned into my mind with the tenacity that only comes from images whose true depth is not immediately apparent. The man had a fixation on rabbits and the number 2, and his work is littered with references, both oblique and unmistakable.  All of it has a sort of Lewis Carrol-esque manic tone to it.  His opening at Zografia was a fashion show centered on his girlfriend, lead model and muse.  The design book from the show is a possession I would treasure if it was ever returned to me.  The elaborate costumes donned by the models contained all sorts of sanitarium/carnival contrivances, including one large, striped maternity dress, complete with a window into the belly, where a cutout of a rabbit in a fetal ball spun slowly to strobe lights.  Dresses and skirts made of Necco wafers; unwearable rabbit costumes that would look garish even at a London rave; brightly colored, revealing outfits adorned by mechanical jewelry and candy accessories... it was like the Mad Hatter dropped acid and puked on Andy Warhol and then they went strutting down a runway together dressed in drag.  It was beautifully insane, and I will not deny that the event influences my taste in art to this day.

I tried my first sip of beer sitting on dad's knee as a little boy, and I don't think a single molecule made it past my tongue.  But I had my first beer at the rehearsal dinner for my dad's remarriage (interestingly, he met my step mom when she worked in the McQueeny-Lock building, and no it wasn't the tawdry office romance you think it was.  She hadn't worked there for nearly a decade by the time they got together).  I recall I was driving a shoddy little Mazda quarter-ton pickup at the time, and my dad loaded all the leftover beer into the bed and told me and my friend Brian to get rid of it.  So we did.
For years I printed my somewhat successful zine Fightscene at my dad's office.  I'm sure the employees were always wondering why the Xerox machine ran out of toner so damn fast, because by the end of the zine's run I was distributing 2000+ copies nationwide.  Not bad for a free punker zine, I say.
I filmed a project for my sophomore English class there, where we were supposed to do a video or a skit that made use of a handful of vocabulary words.  My friends and I overdid the hell out of it, recruiting the help of half a dozen kids who weren't even in the class, some of whom didn't even go to the same school as me.  Through a connection my friend had, we even edited the damn thing at the local news station, using their collection of stock music as a soundtrack.  The graffiti on my dad's roof, along with the view of the somewhat dilapidated Kansas City skyline made the perfect backdrop for our apocalyptic tale concerning the adventures of Yellow Man, and his righteous struggle against the barbarian hordes of post-civilized America.
I'm pretty sure I even had sex at the McQueeny-Lock building once.  On the table in the conference room.  The memory is fuzzy, and possibly apocryphal, but I did have a girlfriend that lived nearby at one point, and I did have a key to the building for several years.  Sorry, dad. (I think we're way past the statute of limitations on that one)

In short, pretty much everything that can happen to a pre- and post-adolescent boy happened to me in that building.  Knowing that it is gone is as emotional for me as if my mother were to sell the house I grew up in.  I still have dreams that take place in the McQueeny-Lock building, even though I haven't set foot in it for the better part of a decade.  The stories and memories I've recounted here barely crack the surface of all the things that happened to me in that building, and mine is but one story of hundreds who walked its halls over the time it belonged to my family.
Someone else owns it now.  The sign will no doubt be torn down, and maybe the building too, eventually.  Nothing in this world lasts, this I have learned.  This day was always destined, and now it has come. I'm not sad, and I know that the sale of the building is a great boon to my dad, step mom and little half brother and sister.  But if I ever find myself on I-35 northbound heading into downtown Kansas City, my heart will skip a beat when I pass by the West Pennway offramp.  I will always remember the McQueeny-Lock building, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I will always think of it as mine.