Archive for March, 2012

Southside St. Louis-River

March 17, 2012

Our new neighborhood’s brick houses stack up like square workmen: contractors and painters, electricians and roofers, standing erect because they are so close. It’s the only way to avoid touching, except when there is a ballgame and they run out of doors hooting and hollering in the streets, like St. Louis kids telling their best jokes at Halloween. Why did the skeleton not cross the road? Because he didn’t have any guts.

We see into the backyards of our neighbors, stubble of sun-bleached toys, pink and yellow, untended gardens, garages sweating away their paint and sinking chain link. A fat man sits in his truck in the alleyway, for sun. And, they see into our yard. Thomas hammering in a wood handrail for the stairs that lead to our all-seasons’ room, where I stand watching. Our black Aussie mix running like ink around a herd too small to imagine.

We miss the railroad whistles of Indiana. Don’t quite know what to make of the church bells from the Lutheran church, tender in yellow-orange afternoons. Their church marquee broadcasts Spaghetti Dinner or Fish Fry. At Valentine’s’Day the surprise of Jesus, he loves me, he loves me, there is no not.

Instead of the white river and big-mouthed bass, we wind along Kingshighway, near little Bosnia and the Hill. On the Hill lawns are as neat as red, white and green postage stamps. Shotgun houses ornamented with Mary, arms outstretched to embrace the air peppered with garlic and basil, tourists, purple and yellow pansies at her feet, Bocchi ball players, and stores packed with olives, sesame seed loaves, jars of artichoke or fungi goodness, and tins of anise cookies. It is the closest we get to my father, his olive oil skin, fondness for the old ways, and his love of coffee and conversation in the cool basement kitchen of my grandmother. If only he were standing on Marconi Street, enjoying the sunshine, rattling change in his pockets, drinking in the Italian-squawk in the air.

On the other side of the Kingshighway is the great Bevo mill, her skirts in disarray, and little Bosnia. Little Bosnia on Gravois is littered with closed shops, beauty salons, and bars. One day we stop for tea at café and gift shop, it is really a bar with tall tables and stools dusted with smoke. We surprise the group inside. When we turn to leave, they let us.

Bosna gold is one place that realizes the American dream. Valentines’ Day each table is covered with cloth and decorated with a pink or red ballon. The owner greets us at the door, all American confidence, dark hair, hands as fat as sausages. The menu boasts grilled meats, sour cream and goulashes and the spongy Bosnian bread. Even though it is before the lunch rush, the air smells like grilled onions. At night across from Hollywood Smiles, young Bosnians, like all teenagers in small towns with nothing better to do, and Little Bosnia is a small town, hang out and drink beer. One boy slouches against a girl; her skirt is too short and leather. We inhale her shrill yell and wafts of smoke through the window as we whiz by.

Those who have not faired well, men that do not speak English, fish Carondolet park Sundays and smoke cigarettes. We recognize them by their industrial features, and dark eyes. They grasp fishing polls in Carondolet Park one of the three jewels of our new city, but because it has lost funding the past couple of years, the park looks more like a ring redeemed from a pawnshop. Cigarette butts filter in the tufts of crabgrass along the playground and Loughborough. Friends of the neighborhood meet on a Saturday, comb through the bushes and shrubs for perennial Styrofoam cups, cap less bottles of booze, one accented with gold Bosnian letters, and a pink pony from a wayward child.

In the summer there is jazz from the bandstand. The fountain still retains the glory of the early days, the design of the neighborhood, Holly Hills, a Midwest mix of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The finest houses face the park along a boulevard, tended by one man, who honors them with red cannas in summer, like bouquets for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, divorced and buried long ago.

We ride Kingshighway to every port in the city, through the smoke stacks and oily factories, across the beauty of fleur de lieu bridges, where black men walk and walk, or wait for the buses. One wields a sign in stars and stripe tux, points toward a quik-cash shop. We have barely sojourned to the riches of Forest Park, the tree gladed and gated mansions, Webster Grooves and Clayton, that we, like the poor, know are there. We will enter like Lewis and Clark under the gateway, through the arch and museum marvels under the sphinx-topped Architecture. There is so much to learn in this conflicted city, beautifully bricked, rich and dirty, waiting for us.


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