When people ask why I moved to Lawrence, I say: "Because I got a parking ticket."
It's true. It happened on April 4, 2006, near the corner of Seventh and Massachusetts streets.
By way of background, I grew up in the southwest corner of the state and briefly called Lawrence home while at Kansas University. I left town in 1968 and headed for Chicago. After 15 years there, and a brief sojourn in Jerusalem, I ended up for the next two decades in Rockville, Md. Though I regularly came back to Kansas to see my parents, I never once, during the 38 intervening years, drove through Lawrence.
So there were plenty of surprises waiting for me when I drove into town last April. Sidewalk cafes, art galleries, bookstores, boutiques, coffee houses, antique shops, bakeries, and yes, some old-time stalwarts: Weaver's Department Store and Ernst & Son Hardware.
I was here to have lunch at the Eldridge Hotel with a table full of total strangers - soon to become my friends. I found an empty spot on Seventh Street in front of a bookstore with a curious name, The Raven. I was in town to meet some "fans," as a certain professor from KU described them. I had written a novel, "Buffalo Spirits," that drew on my experiences growing up in western Kansas, and this professor, whom I'd never met, e-mailed and said that if I ever came through town, he would arrange for me to meet some of my readers. So after a book appearance in the central part of the state, I headed to Lawrence, which was only slightly off my route back to the Kansas City airport.
I fed two quarters into the meter - enough to get me through a long lunch. And then a series of events caused me to totally forget about my rental car sitting at an expired meter.
At lunch, I met people who told me what they loved about Lawrence. When I mentioned that I'd begun collecting buffalos, someone told me I must visit the Merc and pick up their T-shirt - the one with the friendly buffalo on the front reminding you to eat your greens and the menacing message on the back saying, "Cooperate and no one gets hurt."
On the way back to my car, I stopped at The Raven to browse. When I showed my book, hoping the store would order it, the clerk looked at the cover and said, "Oh, that's a Stan Herd buffalo." Surprised, I asked how he could so quickly identify the artist used for the cover, and he told me Herd lived in Lawrence. I knew the artist only through e-mail - I'd requested to use his sketch of a buffalo I'd seen on a Web site. Now I was being told that a gallery on Massachusetts Street was displaying several of his paintings. So I headed over and asked the gallery for Herd's phone number, and was told to look in the phone book. "Everyone in Lawrence lists in the phone book."
Sure enough, he was in the book. Herd informed me he was one block away, so we met for coffee. After finding out about all of Herd's exciting projects and securing his permission to use his "Running Buffalo #9" for the book's paperback cover, I moved down the street, browsing.
And that's how the afternoon continued to unfold, one interesting chance discovery after another. Wonderful places. Wonderful people.
I decided to get over to KU in time to hear the carillon bells. That's when I headed back to the car and discovered the parking ticket. I let out a series of (quiet) expletives, as I always do when I pluck a parking ticket off of my car windshield.
"Two dollars!" I may have actually shouted it. "Two dollars!" I was so delighted, I had to report it to someone. When I pointed it out to some random passerby, saying, "I can't believe this parking ticket," he answered. "Yeah, everybody's pretty upset about those. It used to be one dollar." (A ticket in D.C. can cost $85 or more.)
I didn't drop my $2 parking fine in one of the yellow boxes on Massachusetts Street. I took it home. Nobody was going to believe this back in D.C. unless I showed proof.
Eventually, sometime in May, I stuffed $2 into the yellow envelope and mailed it to Lawrence City Hall, enclosing a scribbled note saying that because of this ticket I was going to move to Lawrence. If anybody saw it, they probably dismissed it as sarcasm.
By August, I had rented an 1860s-era stone house a few miles outside of town and began moving my books and papers to Lawrence. By now, my move is complete. It wasn't easy extricating myself from an overly complicated life on the East Coast. But now, every morning, whether I wake up to the sound of songbirds or howling wind in the trees, I breathe a sigh of relief. I look out my windows across the valley at an exquisite view of the university, and I thank God and the City of Lawrence for that parking ticket.