by Susie Bright
You may remember last year, I wrote about visiting St. Louis for a Romance Novel convention. I talked about the Romancers, but not about the city of St. Louis, which was actually the more interesting story.
All the conventioneers like myself were put up in hotels downtown, close to the famous Arch. But aside from these few hotels, there are no businesses operating. You can’t go to a convenience store, a bar, a shop— this classicly beautiful downtown is a ghost-town when there isn’t a ballgame.
On Saturday I decided to walk a couple miles to one of the most famous and historic spots in St. Louis, Crown Candy Kitchen, a little north of downtown. When I told the hotel concierge my intention, she looked at me like I was crazy. I told her I wanted to see the city, and asked her to steer me to the “busiest” streets so I could enjoy my tour. —Uh, Okay. She looked worried.
I walked for an hour. I saw FIVE people. Five. It was the middle of Saturday. I passed hundreds and hundreds of empty burned-out, 18th and early-19th century buildings with nobody inside them. The handful of adults and children I encountered stared bug-eyed at me. I thought, in quick succession:
1. They’re staring at me because I’m dressed so colorfully.
2. No, They’re staring at me because I’m white and all the white folks left here years ago.
3. No! They’re staring at me because EVERYONE left years ago, and I’m a Martian!
It. was. spooky.
When I got to Crown, it was the proverbial oasis. Cars and noise materialized in the tiny block surrounding the diner. The place was PACKED with black and white customers, most of whom had driven in from the suburbs to show their kids the place where they, their parents, and grandparents had grown up drinking the best chocolate shakes in town.
I threw the door open like Lawrence of Arabia emerging from the sand, and announced, “I just walked here from Market and 4th!” I had the satisfaction of watching everyone’s mouth drop. I was invited to sit at various people’s tables, and was given a tour of the whole joint by the hospitable young Joe Eisenbraun, rocknroller at large.
I couldn’t stop thinking about my walk through the city’s abandoned landscape. It’s not the first one I’ve seen… my old home in Detroit is in the same situation… but it was the worst. My friend Shar, whose family is from East St. Louis, tells me that what I saw was nothing compared to the scorched earth across the river.
People talk a lot about the death of American cities, but this is what it looks like. How does anyone manage to talk about anything else?
At one block, there was a gigantic billboard, one of the few that had something on it. It posted one word: JESUS, in giant Helvetica, white letters against a solid black mass. It looked like a warning. I turned away, and heard a lone municipal bus heading my direction. When I turned to see where it was going, I couldn’t see the Route Sign. Instead, it had a LED light blinking, “God Bless America.”
I carried a local paper in my purse that sported headlines from local politicians railing about the perils of evolution theory, abortion, pornography, and gay marriage. I’ve read those speeches a million times before, but I was never as struck dumb with shame. What the hell does “pornography” have to do with a dying city? Would you rather rant against gay marriage, or would you rather have a sandwich… or a job? Or a house with running water? How long can people keep alive on better-than-thou piety? I double-dare any Congressman to come to North Central St. Louis and make a speech about Grand Theft Auto. That has got to be the biggest “fuck you” to working Americans I’ve heard yet. Save it for the Billionaire’s Bible Club.
The day I flew out, it was a Sunday. My cab driver was apoplectic when he found out I didn’t got to church. He pleaded with me to get with God and find a pastor. I was trying to be companionable, so I finally said, “Well, I do like Glide Church in San Francisco; have you heard of them? They feed the homeless and meal-needy every day, and they have the most kick ass rock ‘n’ roll choir; people go there just to sing.”
“What is their program? What is their mission?” he asked.
“Uh… I don’t quite know what you mean… their mission is to help people, and to end prejudice, and have compassion.. you know, all those things.”
“That is not a program. What is their program?” He was getting angry, and I had no idea what he was talking about.
As he carried forth, I began to see he meant “rules,” and what will keep you out of the Kingdom of Heaven. All the things you mustn’t do, mustn’t think, mustn’t fantasize about. It’s what your picture of the Devil is.
He drove me all around town, blaring his favorite pastor, while he tried to find more airport customers to put in the car. Yes, that was his little surprise. He acted like I would be okay getting into a cab and then cruising around town trying to get another fare. I was biting my nails looking at my watch, and I said, “I know you need the income today, but—”
He cut me off. “How about you buy some gas?” Just like that. He went from hellfire and brimstone to jacking me up for gas. Seamless.
I had twenty more minutes before I missed my appointment with Homeland Security. “Uh, yeah, let’s do it.” The way he looked at me, I was like a piggy bank he wanted to bust open. And then hogtie me and take me to church because I deserved no less.
If you are ever in St. Louis, I recommend Crown Candy, the completely absorbing Left Bank Books, and the original St. Louis toasted ravioli at Carmine’s Steak House. I also recommend investment, care, and feeding. And tell Joe I sent you.