Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Moodie, My Dad, Allen Ginsberg, and Me: Reflections on Wichita and "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Moodie, My Dad, Allen Ginsberg, and Me: Reflections on Wichita and "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

Article excerpt

I GREW UP in the 1960s (fortunately) in Wichita, Kansas (unfortunately). I imagine my adolescence now as a black-and-white movie, like the opening frame of The Wizard of Oz. Like most teenagers, I was eager to leave my hometown as soon as I reached my majority. Too boring, too staid, too conventional, too "establishment." My father was a fire inspector, and he earned a decent living, but he hated his boss, the chief fire inspector, with whom he often quarreled. Then again, he always followed orders.

I knew Moodie Connell mostly at a distance. I went to elementary school with Moodie's daughter Linda, and I remember Moodie coming to our elementary school one day in 1961 with ice-cream bars to celebrate her birthday with all the kids in Linda's class. On most birthdays, parents brought cookies or popcorn or candy for us--Moodie won me over with ice cream. I didn't realize until years later that he was an ice-cream wholesaler, so his cost was little more than most parents spent on store-bought cookies, not that it would have mattered. I never forgot.

Late in 1962 Moodie opened the Skidrow Beanery on east Douglas in decaying downtown Wichita. So long as he only served beans to the "bums and hoboes" for twenty-nine cents a bowl, he was tolerated by the city fathers (all of whom, by the way, were men). So long as he simply provided cheap meals to the indigents of the city, he came to no harm. But then he made a terrible mistake. Sometime in the winter of 1964 he began to invite local high school and college kids to come to the Beanery to read their poetry. He sponsored "hootenannies." He built a rickety stage at one end of the Beanery for performances. And he began to sell books of poetry, including the City Lights chapbook edition of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. By late March 1964, the Wichita police had targeted the Beanery for closure. "Their surveillance is so close," as a reporter for the Wichita Beacon noted, "officers told proprietor Moodie Connell to take down an 'arty' picture and to beware of selling volumes of poetry officers have labeled 'obscene trash.' Included in the implied ban are works by Wichita poet Charles Plymell and such writers as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg." Connell offered to "have a policeman [at the Beanery] all the time," if it would "make the police happy," and he insisted that his business was "not a speakeasy." He sold neither beer, wine, nor any other alcohol. But Lt. Col. J. H. Reeves, head of the police investigations division, told the local media that he believed "the Beanery's environment is bad for young people--especially in view of the 'obscene' poetry being read and the 'questionable' works hung on the walls. Asked it he has read any of the poetry or seen the picture ordered down, Reeves said no" (Husar, "Skidrow").

A few days later, the Beacon reported that "an army of inspectors" had been keeping tabs on Moodie's place. "I've been here for two years and passed every inspection they could throw at me," he told the press. "Now if they come out with an order to close me, you know darned well it's a frame-up." Carl Jones, the assistant chief fire inspector and my dad's immediate superior, told the newspaper that his men had been "keeping a watch on that place." He was concerned, he said, about "possible overcrowding if too many people get into the Beanery to hear poetry readings." He also wanted to check Moodie's "housekeeping conditions" for fire hazards. "They want to close me up," Moodie told reporters. "I hope they don't. But I don't know it I'm strong enough to fight all of them" (Husar, "Inspections"). "They don't make no bones about it," he told a reporter a couple of days later. "They told me, 'We'll teach you to go spoutin' off in the newspaper" ("Skidrow"). More than Larry Flynt, Moodie Connell championed the First Amendment--and he did so without much publicity. He never got rich, and no one made a movie about him, either. He is the unsung hero of this sad story. …

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