Friday, March 04, 2005
Where Barry Commoner is a star
Yes, 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, whose bar (Blueberry Hill) was across the street, 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 the many and varied foolishnesses of the Naderites, but (despite what some preening, Pseudo-Neo-Bolshevist affective leftists have said about me over the past few years) 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 but deeply affective 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, 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.