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Jan 2001 / expatriates 1 - 2 :: email this story to a friend

You Can Take the Girl Out of St. Louis ...
By Julia Smillie and Stefene Russell

Stefene's Take on the Gateway City:

Seven years ago, I picked up a porcelain Cardinal in a thrift store. Stamped on the base, in gold leaf, is St. Louis, MO. I don't know if it's a bonsai planter, an ashtray, or a paper-clip holder (it's hollow) but it's the one object that I can't seem to lose, no matter how many times I move. St. Louis, MO didn't mean much to me for a while, even though I'm descended from the Houxes of Missouri. There were many times I could have gone to St. Louis for family reunions, but there was something about the way my dad said "Missoura" that bothered me. I just assumed that the Midwest was populated with lots of farmers and cowboys, and being a self-conscious hick from Utah, I wanted nothing to do with it.

But not that long ago, I found myself engaged to a Cajun guy who was in grad school out there. He sent me a Christmas package full of St. Louis photos. "They call it the little New Orleans," he wrote on the back of one. "No one ever wants to move from New Orleans, but if they do, they come here." He sent me photos of the Japanese pond at the botanical gardens, ducks walking across the backs of millions of Koi to steal the alfalfa pellets people throw to the fish, and the art museum ("You can't see it here," he wrote, "but across the front of the entryway, it says "DEDICATED TO ART AND FREE TO ALL.'") At that point, the phrase St. Louis, MO started to take on an entirely new meaning for me.

So I went to see the city for myself. Salt Lake smells like L.A. in the winter, because the smog gets trapped by lake-effect inversion. The air is dirty and dry and greenish and just breathing can make you feel like you're smoking a pack a day. The winter air in St. Louis is humid, and if I could name its color, I think it would be orangey pink. When I stepped outside of the airport, I just stood on the curb and breathed. We drove through the city in my fiancé's truck, and I rolled down the window to feel the air. We passed Tums building, the guys on the front steps in their hair nets and paper shoe covers, smoking; streets on the edge of the city, full of crumbly old apartments covered with ivy, with trees growing up inside of them; the Scientology building, lit up like a Hollywood set; Dionysian barbecue joints, with hand-painted signs and outdoor grills, Soulard, with its church and tiny brick houses, and those amazing rivers. I wanted to take a shovel, and make a big crack a parking lot, dig a hole there, and push my arms down into the dirt, and hold on to avoid being swept back to Utah.

He wanted me to move, and I did. But it wasn't because I wanted to be with him. I moved because when I thought about not being in St. Louis, I felt gray and bent out of shape —overwhelmed by a horrible sense of loss that I couldn't explain. Oddly enough, moving for the city instead of the guy eventually meant leaving the city against my will and not coming back. Moving to be with someone you don't love is stupid of course. But when it's someone with good aim, who personally owns firearms, and tends to pop you in the eye or tear your coat to shreds with their bare hands when they lose their temper, that's on beyond stupid.

I miss St. Louis. I exorcize my longing by playing goodwill ambassador for my old city. A friend who grew up there and hated Utah Street it, says he remembers it having "a freshly bombed look." After a couple of weeks of my pro-St. Louis rhetoric, even he changed his mind. And I still have that cardinal. It's sitting in my windowsill. It makes me feel better, and even gives me some hope that my grouchy ex-fiancé will keep his word and move to India to become a monk. It gives me hope that one day I'll be living on Utah Street, instead of Utah.

« [Julia on St. Louis]

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