The Ship Has Sailed
The idea of having "a place" is fed to us through our steady and lifelong pop culture diet. Friends has Central Perk. How I Met Your Mother has MacLaren's and most conspicuously, Cheers has Cheers. When I was 18, I thought often about finding "the place" where my friends and I would hang out when I got older. It wasn't until four years later, when I found myself out of college and living in Kansas City that I found "the" place of my own. The Ship.
Built in the 1930s, there were times in its history that it operated more as a speakeasy, open irregularly and only to those who knew where to look. Though today it operates on the right side of the law, it is obscured in Kansas City's industrial West Bottoms. Were it not for the flashing neon purple sign (which can still be missed from a bad angle) acting as a welcoming beacon, it might be impossible to find.
The buildings surrounding it are abandoned, save for the few that come alive around Halloween like an Edgar Allen Poe-themed haunted house. "DIE!" yells a seasonal hand-painted sign on the side of its brick facade. If you bike or run through the area in the daytime, junkyard dogs are notoriously close and might chase you. So I have heard. I – like most people I'm sure – have never seen The Ship in the light of day.
Each time I ordered an uber to deliver myself to the bar, the driver had never heard of it. "The WHAT?" Every driver would repeat back to me. Followed by "Now where is it?" and usually some anecdote about how they were born and raised in Kansas City, too, and it still escaped their radar. The GPS, even in 2016 and 2017 would fail, guiding you to an intersection that railroad tracks ran through. "You have arrived," the robotic voice would say, but this was only ever the beginning, a prompt for you to hand-direct your driver to its actual location.
The Ship has uneven floorboards, rotgut liquor in its $4 vodka cranberries (that's 24/7 pricing, not happy hour), a shelf of cigarettes lined up for sale behind the bar, and for those who know to ask, a strong supply of frozen painkillers in the back. Everyone congregates on the patio, which has a glowing orange aura, a mixture of heat lamps and the burning ends of everyone's cigarettes. Some people might be social smokers, but there, you're a Ship Smoker, even if you never touch tobacco in any other setting. There's no median patron age, and nothing about it makes much sense other than people are there to have a good time for good time's sake.
When I lived in Kansas City, a trio of us went every week. Sometimes twice. To me, The Ship is a lot of things. It's my early twenties. It's my life in Kansas City for the year and nine months that I lived there. I went there for the last time on New Year's Eve, when 2017 became 2018. And in a way, it is where, and in that auld lang syne moment, I said goodbye to that phase of my life forever. I have yet to go back.
After I moved to New York at age 24, going to The Ship when I returned home was still exciting, three and four months out. And then, one time on one trip, it all felt different. Oftentimes when you visit somewhere as a child (a relative's home or a museum) you remember it being enormous and exciting. When you visit it when you're older, it is always a letdown. "This is it?" You ask yourself. But the place hasn't changed, just your perspective.
Of the trio of us, I live in New York, another lives in Denver and the other stayed in Kansas City. Now we're all in different phases of our lives and the chances of all three of us being in KC at the same time again are slim. Even if we were, who is to say we would go to The Ship? After all, who are our 26-year-old selves to go back and try to be our 22-year-old selves? The Ship and our Ship Days are better off a ship in a bottle, preserved, corked, and left on a shelf – best admired from a distance, stories to be told another day.
And that's just the thing about finding your place, if and when you finally do. Places are just the spaces that help us find our own place in the world, a tangible structure that carries our memories for us, representing a phase in our lives. After all, even Frasier Crane left Boston, trading beers at Cheers for cappuccinos at Café Nervosa. You grow up and grow out of one thing and into another and before you know it you've left your own Cheers days behind. And you'll be okay with it, because as we move through life, there will always be a new "place," shared in different company, in different cities.