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Meet me in St. Louis


No, I didn’t shave the beard.  I drove down to St. Louis yesterday to meet Nick for dinner, and I was way too tired to blog last night.  So I decided to edit and re-post this old thing from March 2005, when I visited Nick in St. Louis for the first time.  Those of you who read this essay last time around and who think this blog should post new material once in a while will just have to wait until tomorrow—if, that is, I can get it together to write something for tomorrow after I get home.


March 3, 2005

I know my eyebags are terrible.  When I said I was exhausted, folks, I really meant it:  over the past nine weeks I’ve written four book chapters as well as one essay on the 2004 election and a paper on “Shame by Association,” and during my recent travels I also read twenty-something applications for fellowships and six essays for a special issue I’m supposed to be editing.  Oh yeah, and I took a day and a half to go over the copyedited version of an essay that’s forthcoming in PMLA.  And, of course, I’ve had all this computer and blog trouble in the past two weeks.  So I’m sorry I look so haggard and dissipated, really I am.

But this is not about me, so get off my case.  This is about Barry Commoner, who has a sidewalk star in University City at the outskirts of St. Louis, and it’s about St. Louis itself.  And the story goes like this.

I met Nick for dinner last Sunday night.  He told me about an Ethiopian restaurant he’d been to a few times (this is a good sign, I thought—my kid the college student is recommending local Ethiopian restaurants to me), so I picked him up at his dorm at 6, conducted the traditional father-son knife-fight, and took him to the Red Sea.  After dinner we walked around a bit, and he said something about not realizing how many amazing people had been associated with St. Louis over the years—not just Scott Joplin, Miles Davis or Chuck Berry, but even people like T. S. Eliot.  “Oh, jeez, don’t get me started,” I said, thinking (at the time) that I knew a thing or two about famous people from St. Louis.  “I love to tweak the Eliot fans by referring to their guy as the best poet ever to come out of Missouri, when of course he spent his whole life pretending he’d been born and raised in the Norcesterwich district of Cheltenhamfordshire.” We walked up and down the avenue, with Nick providing glosses on the local establishments—the Thai pizza place and the nightclub where Modest Mouse played before they became alt.darlings—and me providing glosses on the people enshrined in St. Louis’s “Walk of Fame.” “T. S. Eliot is the least of it,” I said. “I want to see if they have a star for William S. Burroughs, who—this is something you should know, son—was the heir of the Burroughs fortune, a fortune made in the ‘calculators’ of the early twentieth century, back when the amazing mechanical ‘adding machine’ was the iPod of the day.  Now, that would rock.” But before I could go on about William S. Burroughs, I was brought up short by Dick Gregory’s star. Dick Gregory!  Mother of Moloch, I wasn’t surprised by Redd Foxx’s star—on the contrary, I told Nick about Foxx’s brief appearance in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and mentioned casually that most people don’t know how black a city St. Louis is and how important it is to African-American history, whereupon Nick said, “oh, tell me about it” and proceeded to narrate the story of the days last fall he spent canvassing for Kerry up and down St. Louis in precincts where, as he put it, “the only white guy I saw all day was me”—but I was strangely struck by Dick Gregory’s star.  “Nick, my son,” I said (no, I didn’t really say “Nick, my son,” any more than I said “this is something you should know, son”), “let me tell you who Dick Gregory is, apart from the bio on this plaque.  He’s somewhere on the long black comedy train between Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, and he ran for President in 1968—” at which point I realized that the plaque actually mentioned his Presidential bid—“and my parents, your grandparents, voted for him.”

Now, I should explain that Nick and I have had a good number of conversations over the past five years about third-, fourth-, and eighth-party voting, but (despite what some people like to believe about me) I’ve never once pretended that the left wing of the Democratic Party represents the left wing of the possible.  How could I?  In November 1968 there seemed no way for a conscientious progressive to vote for Humphrey, so my parents, being conscientious progressives, cast their ultimately meaningless votes for Dick Gregory.  Who, of course, has since become a wingnut with a special nutritional/ weight-loss program, and when Nick asked about his transformation (as opposed to that of David Horowitz, say), I had to admit that I had no idea what in the world had happened to poor Mr. Gregory in the intervening years, but that one of my college friends once proposed that the CIA had approached Gregory in the mid-1970s and offered him a choice between (a) becoming a bizarre right-wing hawker of health and diet foods and (b) being mysteriously shot outside a motel.

We turned and walked east along Delmar Boulevard, passing the stars of Josephine Baker, Dred and Harriet Scott, Agnes Moorehead, and Lou Brock, among many others.  Gradually, step by step, we were Discovering the St. Louis Network.

And as we talked, I remembered all the reasons I’m so fond of St. Louis, and why I’m glad Nick is going to college there, and even more glad that he’s not staying on the carefully manicured lawns of Wash. U., but actually getting out and canvassing the city—not just for John Kerry (or Chuck Berry), but as part of his architecture program, one course of which required him to propose and design an urban-renewal project for a section of the urb that needs serious renewing.  These days, though, my fondness for St. Louis is tinged by pity, and pity is among the cheapest and most insulting of emotions.  May’s Department Stores, the third largest public company in town, is folding its tent; American Airlines, having ingested the sorry remains of TWA, has cut its St. Louis flights by fifty percent, leaving behind a giant sucking sound at Lambert International Airport; and the historic downtown area—which has, alas, fallen prey to the kind of fools who think you can revive a downtown area by building more stadiums and parking lots, and who don’t realize that after the Blues and Rams games let out, everyone heads straight to their cars because there isn’t a single index of ordinary life (like grocery stores) within ten miles—is a study in depression, economic and affective.

And yet St. Louis is so rich, historically richer than many larger American cities and certainly most midwestern cities of any size.  It’s vastly older than Chicago or parvenus like Minneapolis or Denver; its blues history links it to New Orleans, Memphis, and Kansas City, while its frontier history—the justification for that ethereal arch—links it all the way back to the frigging Louisiana Purchase.  St. Louis is one of the most extraordinary urban palimpsests I’ve ever seen: it’s a sleepy, depressed-or-devastated Midwestern town covering a formerly hopping rhythm-and-blues town (Tina Turner gets a star, too, not far from Chuck Berry’s) covering an old, segregated Southern town (the Blues must be the only hockey team to be named after a W. C. Handy song) covering an early-nineteenth-century river town and inland installation of what Paul Gilroy famously called the “Black Atlantic.” And, of course, it’s still the best baseball town in the country [hey!  congrats to those Cards for winning 11 games in the playoffs, giving them 94 wins on the year!  --ed.], dating all the way back to the days when it represented the westernmost reach of the major leagues.  There’s old money in St. Louis that was already old and decrepit when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started that fire in Chicago in 1871—and I say this fully aware that upstart Chicago has since become vastly more dense and more interesting:  I lived for twelve years in Champaign, Illinois, and while I knew hundreds of faculty and students who routinely made the two-and-a-half hour trip to Chicago, I knew almost no one who made the two-and-three-quarters-hour trip to poor old St. Louis.  In fact, I knew almost no one who was aware that St. Louis has an entire district—“the Hill”—dotted with great (and, yeah, a couple less-than-great) Italian restaurants in the middle of a modest residential neighborhood.  But think back a hundred years, when St. Louis was still a world city—the kind of city that could host the 1904 Olympics (though some Chicagoans prefer to say “steal” rather than “host"), the kind of city about which you could exhort your friend Louis to meet you at the World’s Fair.  And then think about the reasons that some cities become “world cities” while others sink slowly into the swamp. 

St. Louis is also, for those of you keeping score at home, the city in which modernism finally died in 1972.  Don’t take my word for it—it was Robert Venturi’s call thirty years ago, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was demolished, we all began Learning from Las Vegas instead, and postmodernism was born.  But even still, you can experience late modernism by going to the Arch and being shuttled to the apex of the structure in little white spherical pods that (in this inevitably neo- era) will surely make you think of Austin Powers, which in turn will make you think of that Eero Saarinen mid-sixties era in which people apparently believed that the 1960s would look just like the 1950s, only Even More Modern (think Jetsons, early James Bond, JFK International—also designed by Saarinen—or the first hour of Catch Me if You Can).  And you can still experience the failures of postmodernism, too, by visiting the site of Pruitt-Igoe and realizing to your horror that the city has left the area to fall into decay and desuetude for over thirty years.

So Nick and I were thinking about all these things and more when we suddenly came across Barry Commoner’s star.  “Holy,” I said, far too loudly, “shit.” Barry Effing Commoner!  As if we hadn’t just conducted a postprandial discussion of futile fifth-party voting twenty minutes earlier à propos of Dick Gregory!  “Blessed Brother of Ba’al,” I said to my firstborn, “this Delmar Boulevard is like a goddamn Cavalcade of Alterity.  First we run across my parents’ eff-you, rock-throwing vote in ‘68, then we run across my eff-you, rock-throwing vote in ‘80, the very first vote I ever cast.  Bless St. Louis for enshrining Barry Commoner this way.  And bless St. Louis also for giving a star to William S. Burroughs, even if his plaque did call Naked Lunch ‘The Naked Lunch’ and give an erroneous publication date for it.  This is among the coolest minor things I have seen in all my travels across this dessicated and doomed planet, and I humbly request that you take a digital picture of me kneeling before Barry Commoner’s star, which I am not worthy to approach, what with my sallow complexion and my sorry eyebags and all.”

Thus, on Monday night, Nick snapped the picture you now see heading this post.  He’s a good kid, that Nick, and a regular tazmanian devil in a father-son knife fight.  Then after he took this pic outside the Tivoli, we went to see Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Bad Education, so that we could have the experience of watching lots of consensual and non-consensual gay sex in multiple, overlapping narrative frames that ultimately call into question the very parameters of what we normally understand as “acting” and “directing.” We think American fathers and sons ought to have more of these formative bonding experiences, so that they can discuss Almodóvar’s oeuvre and his sympathetic representations of women (who are almost completely absent from this film, oddly enough) and the implications of violating traditional narrative frameworks of representation while (don’t read this if you don’t like spoilers) depicting priests who assault young boys and thereby lead them to become transvestites and heroin addicts, then strike up an affair with the boy’s younger brother and eventually plot with him to kill the older brother.  And we think American fathers and sons should do all this in the dense historical palimpsest that is St. Louis, in the Tivoli, just a few yards north of Barry Commoner’s star in the Walk of Fame. 

Posted by on 10/30 at 06:03 AM
  1. One of the most dangerous professors in the most dangerous city.... coincidence?


    Posted by  on  10/30  at  10:03 AM
  2. With the front page of the Kansas City Star blaring that St. Louis has been declared the most dangerous city in the US, we now know one of the things that a professor of dangeral studies does: Comments on the walk of fame in the most dangerous city in the US.

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  10:21 AM
  3. I saw Dick Gregory while I was an undergrad at Penn State in the 70s (I usually affect a geezer voice when relaying this story to my present undergrads—I wonder if this will earn me the wrath of Kahn Proyect?), and he gave me a great line I use to this day:

    “Columbus ‘discovered’ America, did he? How ‘bout if me and my homies ‘discover’ your living room some night?”

    Posted by John Protevi  on  10/30  at  10:44 AM
  4. I treasure the memory of a Village Voice writer--was it Joe Flaherty?--who said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Gregory in ‘68 because he didn’t like the idea of Mark Lane being a heartbeat away from the White House.

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  11:41 AM
  5. You forgot the St. Louis Hegelians again.

    There’s a French-speaking town called Old Mines in Missourin. “Old + Mines + French + Missouri” is well worth a Google.

    Missouri creole music

    Posted by John Emerson  on  10/30  at  03:25 PM
  6. You picked a fine time to be in St. Louis, what with the whole baseball world championship and all.

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  03:51 PM
  7. I am now picturing Chris Clarke dancing in nothing but his underwear and a monocle, beneath a guilded bust of L.Ron Hubbard. - I wrote this comment a last week. Good times.

    Posted by Central Content Publisher  on  10/30  at  04:49 PM
  8. I, for one, can’t possibly imagine that St Louis, MO is more dangerous than East ST Louis, IL.  Of course a careful reading of the report reveals that Illinois’s crime stats were not available to ascertain the status of those on the east side of the river.  Both were sides of the river were a mecca for organized crime syndicates, from KKK aligned folks who needed to control Cairo, to various Irish-German boys, to the still quite prevalent today Italians.  They need to put up a star walk of infamy, honoring two centuries of hostile takeovers, protection rackets, resource manipulation, gambling, etc.  For the first such star, i nominate the Corps of Discovery as the first gangland style purveyors of organized crime.

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  05:02 PM
  9. The Mississippi/Ohio River towns were certainly quite prominent back in the day, as they were 4 of the 12 largest US cities in 1860 [see table below]. (The surprising 13th was Albany.) Cincinnati was actually prominent somewhat earlier than St. Louis. (Pitsburgh was a comparative latecomer, really coming into prominence only in 1880-1910.) and to me Baltimore is the “St. Louis” of the East Coast (especially after they stole the Browns)

    dating all the way back to the days when it represented the westernmost reach of the major leagues
    And southernmost - to illustrate the truly limited geographical extent of the game until the West Coast moves of the ‘50s.

    St. Louis was also an early hot spot for soccer in the US - the 1950 team that beat England was composed of nearly half St. Louisians.

    1 New York city, NY ................813,669
    2 Philadelphia city, PA ............  565,529
    3 Brooklyn city, NY ................  266,661
    4 Baltimore city, MD.................  212,418
    5 Boston city, MA ..................  177,840
    6 New Orleans city, LA .............  168,675
    7 Cincinnati city, OH................  161,044
    8 St. Louis city, MO.................  160,773
    9 Chicago city, IL...................  112,172
    10 Buffalo city, NY...................  81,129
    11 Newark city, NJ....................  71,941
    12 Louisville city, KY................  68,033

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  05:15 PM
  10. From St. Louis back to State College, PA, the second safest metropolitan area out of the 344 to be ranked. 

    I assume that it slips in the rankings once Michael returns to assume his classroom dangerousing.

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  06:36 PM
  11. I got in two hours ago, and State College is already back in the top 101.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/30  at  07:04 PM
  12. Excellent MC job at Cary Nelson-fest, Michael. Stole the roast show, I’d say.

    Posted by dhawhee  on  10/30  at  08:58 PM
  13. Why, thanks!  That was great fun.  But, of course, if we couldn’t roast Cary good—what with all the grade-A material he’s given us over the years—we should all have stayed home.

    Captcha:  language, as in “Cary’s roast was structured like a.”

    Posted by Michael  on  10/30  at  09:50 PM
  14. I loved this piece! You did a lot of good cultural work here! Glad you re-posted it. It’s inspiring.

    Posted by Hattie  on  10/30  at  10:35 PM
  15. OT: I plan to file the following report from the CCST’s first phase to the Nihilist Language Association.

    I hope Coleridge’ ghost is not going to catch me before the GNF.

    The Chris-(Clarke)-fable

    Part 1

    ‘Tis mid of the night by the atomic clock
    and the guards have awakened the barking dog;
    wou-wou woof-woof
    and hark, again! the barking dog,
    the prison has a leaky roof.

    Sir Michael B, the party’s chair,
    he hath a lecture to prepare;
    whence Oaktown Girl, presiding judge,
    not ever one to merely fudge,
    takes boldly on the pris’nors trial
    a traitor’s case, and deeply vile;
    it’s Clarke, called Chris, a Comrade first,
    yet now accused of too much thirst.

    Is the night chilly and dark?
    The night is chilly, but not dark.
    The cell door opens, creaking pain,
    in strides the torturer, Dr. JA’n
    merde! he exclaims, post-modern scum!
    this trial will play to a diff’rent drum!
    Now get thee gone, through the courtroom’s door,
    where prosecution waits, - what’s more
    at the end, you will say “J’adore”.

    The prosecutor, Foucault by name,
    thunders: Clarke, hope you got game!
    But wait, what is it in his speech,
    sounds hip and hop, the jurors screech:
    the prosecutor lost his balls,
    his consciousness, it sounds all false!
    Some exlax, deeply drawn from yonder,
    will help the prosecution ponder.

    Out stride more of the accusers,
    use classic form to turn the tide:
    CC, he’s one of the abusers,
    of comics stolen far and wide!
    And worst, he may not really have
    close to his heart - the GNF.

    Chris Clarke, he sprung up suddenly,
    the famous scribe to break the spell -
    he droaned as near, as near can be,
    but what he said, we cannot tell.
    On the other side he seems to be,
    with the non-nihilist G-party!

    The night is chill; the courtroom bare
    the croud has left, the bench is bleak,
    adjournment, so decrees the chair,
    the comrades, they are out for blood,
    they cannot take from CC cheek,
    his name, it must become but mud.
    In two weeks time, so it is told,
    when not but Herman will be old,
    this trial show, it will resume,
    the story then, on Fox with Hume.

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  11:14 PM
  16. Arrgh. Typo. “droned” not “droaned”.

    captcha: “good” as in ”good proofreading pays off”

    Posted by  on  10/30  at  11:17 PM
  17. Eh...I’m glad we could finally get together, Screwy.

    Posted by  on  10/31  at  12:55 AM
  18. I was about 3/4 of the way through (re)reading this post when a crisis call came in from St.Louis. When I told the man on the phone that I was just now in the middle of reading an article about St. Louis, he said, “Oh, you mean that we’re the crime capital?” And I said, “No, about the rich cultural history of St. Louis”. He was so shocked it rendered him speechless. So I hung up the phone.  (Just kidding).

    chiristian h –

    Brilliant, as always!  But I certainly hope you will not have blown your entire creative load before the CCST even begins.  (Premature prosecution is such a sad thing.)

    Now I know many of you are really anxious to begin, but we must all be patient and endure while comrade Chris Clarke is at the WAAGNFN’s Re-education camp.  We don’t know exactly how long it will take. But rest assured, we have the very finest experts tending to Mr. Clarke so that at his trial, after all the evidence is presented and weighed, he will be in the correct frame of mind to sign his Statement of Guilt, accept his punishment, and then ultimately be welcomed back into the loving fold of the WAAGNFN Party.

    Posted by Oaktown Girl  on  10/31  at  06:28 AM
  19. Hey Mike, Great Blog.

    Channel 4 news in Britain reported last night that St Louis was recently identified as the most dangerous American city in which to live.  So who says Postmodernism doesn’t have a sharp socio-political edge, huh?

    Posted by  on  10/31  at  09:17 AM
  20. “I love to tweak the Eliot fans by referring to their guy as the best poet ever to come out of Missouri, when of course he spent his whole life pretending he’d been born and raised in the Norcesterwich district of Cheltenhamfordshire.”

    Well of course you do, who wouldn’t?

    But the rock-throwing fuck you vote isn’t meaningless, she said sullenly. It’s not meaningless because of all those Dems who are convinced there is no cost to moving right - the ones who say about the left ‘where are they going to go?’ You know this.

    Posted by Ophelia Benson  on  10/31  at  04:21 PM
  21. OK, OK, Ophelia, I’ll vote for Barry Commoner again.  Hell, I almost voted for him in 2000, but was prevented from doing so by the reminder that Voldemort Cheney stood a chance of running the country.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/31  at  05:38 PM
  22. Risking nomination for The Jacques Albert Memorial Koufax Award for Pathetically Prolonging a Thread - a couple of elaborations on my earlier comment:

    1) The 1860 list is pretty much a final snapshot before the railroads (and heavy industry) came to dominate city growth. And the railroads were the main engine that catapaulted Chicago into its dominance - it benefited originally from the Lake (and canal) as an enabler of transport and then later as an impediment - as rail traffic all had to be funnelled arond the southern end of the long Lake Michigan. [Atlanta occupies a similar position vis-a-vis the Appalachians - the first easy end-around to the South.] And Kansas City picked up much of what might have rightfully been St. Louis’s railroad mojo - not really sure why.

    2) Baltimore “stealing” the Browns referred to the baseball Browns -> Orioles, but after I wrote it, it occurred to me that Baltimore subsequently completed an unlikely repeat of an eastward pro sports franchise capture of a “Browns” franchise, and even that established a linkage with St. Louis - as they both now have Cleveland-originating football franchises (Rams: Cleve ->LA [ca.1950] ->StL.) Sadly, Cleveland no longer has professional football.

    Posted by  on  10/31  at  05:48 PM
  23. Oh, I’m not demanding that you vote for him (she said kindly). Just disputing the meaningless bit.

    Half of my roots are in St Louis. I feel all puffed up about it now.

    Posted by Ophelia Benson  on  10/31  at  05:55 PM
  24. And don’t forget Roger Baldwin.  Good to see you again.  Please give my regards to your family.

    Posted by  on  11/01  at  08:40 AM
  25. "Bad Education” has been out for over two years.

    Posted by  on  11/01  at  03:05 PM
  26. Quite true!  But it was new back when this post was new, long long ago.

    Posted by  on  11/01  at  06:07 PM
  27. And I didn’t think that anything could make me nostalgic for the time I lived in St. Louis…

    BTW, you neglect to mention that most of what you describe is not, in fact, in St. Louis, but in U. City (Didja take a picture of the sign over the entrance of the City Hall of the City of University City? That’s way to many instances of ‘city’ for any one sign to have.)… I always found it ironic that one of the 3 or 4 ‘hip’ neighborhoods of St. Louis wasn’t actually within city limits.

    Posted by protected static  on  11/02  at  07:24 PM
  28. Amazing written, great job Michael!

    Posted by billig  on  03/09  at  09:13 AM
  29. 8.I, for one, can’t possibly imagine that St Louis, MO is more dangerous than East ST Louis, IL.  Of course a careful reading of the report reveals that Illinois’s crime stats were not available to ascertain the status of those on the east side of the river.  Both were sides of the river were a mecca for organized crime syndicates, from KKK aligned folks who needed to control Cairo, to various Irish-German boys, to the still quite prevalent today Italians.  They need to put up efmtvjisx dg dprzhlqab hb ezheole fg babuli
    a star walk of infamy, honoring two centuries of hostile takeovers, protection rackets, resource manipulation, gambling, etc.  For the first such star, i nominate the Corps of Discovery as the first gangland style purveyors of organized crime.

    Posted by  on  02/07  at  10:13 PM
  30. 23.Oh, I’m not demanding that you vote for him (she said kindly).pneumonia contagious jrt types of pneumonia
    Just disputing the meaningless bit.

    Posted by  on  02/07  at  10:14 PM





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