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Feb 2001 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

St. Louis, September 1993
By Robert Powers

To-Do List:

  1. Sell records.
  2. Sell Vespa.
  3. Sell everything else.
  4. Wrap up relationships into neat little packages.
  5. Fly away to San Francisco.
  6. Start new life.

It really did seem that simple. Twenty-seven, band split up, girlfriend split. Except for a school year in England and a depressing post-college stint in Indiana, I'd lived in St. Louis my whole life. What am I going to do? Get a real job, settle down, and finally become an adult in St. Louis? Or bolt, to chase down my waning post-adolescence and put that cheeky monkey in a chokehold? I bolted. And, yes, for a while I thought I was living out those tired metaphors I had scribbled down in my notebook. I shed my skin; I peeled away the layers of the onion to the core.

I wanted that Kerouac life, and for a time I thought I'd found it. San Francisco for me was a jittery mix of caffeine and experimental theater and making documentaries in southern Mexico. I climbed mountains, got pierced, had epiphanies and hot tub parties. Rumors abounded back home. One close friend fretted, "I can't believe it, he's gone to San Francisco and become a Deadhead!" Another, after seeing me on a visit home with an ill-advised Clooney cut, exclaimed, "he's finally come out of the closet!"

Maddie and her daddy Four years passed, and then a dose of reality precipitated a move south to the central coast of California, near San Luis Obispo. Last month that little dose of reality turned three, and as I write this she's poking me on the knee. "Daddy, I gotta go peepee." And now having this little family of my own in California has brought me back full circle to my big family in St. Louis. I miss them these days in a way that I hadn't before, or rather, hadn't realized, and I wish that my daughter was growing up among them.

When I think of St. Louis now, what comes to me isn't the more recent post-college years, when I embraced the St. Louis slacker aesthetic, which consisted primarily of living in the Loop, working at Blueberry Hill, playing music and drinking at Cicero's Basement, and not a whole lot more. No, there's something about St. Louis that feels more central to me, something rooted in my earliest memories that's hard to put my finger on.

As a child I believed that St. Louis possessed some quality of centrality, not entirely due to geography, that went beyond the-whole-world-revolves-around-me ego-trip of adolescence. That somehow, for resident and non-resident alike, all roads led there. To tell you the truth, I've never really been able to shake that feeling. It's like when I mention St. Louis to someone (as opposed to San Luis, a clarification I constantly have to make around here, enunciating Sain-T), I always imagine that they have as intimate a knowledge of the town as I do, as if it's Everytown, even if they've never been there. And, upon reflection, I attribute this feeling to watching television as a child. Here's why, direct from my psyche:

I'm four or five years old, riding in the back-back of the station wagon down Skinker, from Delmar up to Clayton Road. It's overcast, Brookings Hall mid-winter. The seat faces backward, and I'm looking at where we'd just been. I see the diagonal jut of the Talayna's sign, Brookings Hall like some back lot Camelot up on the hill at Wash U., a glimpse of the top of the Chase Park Plaza to the east, and then the high-rise apartments overlooking Forest Park. From there it's just a mile or so down McCausland, past the giant Standard sign, to where my sprawling Irish-Catholic family lived in a big white frame house.

But it's those apartment buildings by the park that hold for me some strange familiarity, though I've never known anyone who's lived there. They look just like TV to me, like the ones overlooking Central Park in New York where the rich people lived in cop shows, or maybe like where Bob Newhart lived. And in my young mind that stretch of Skinker, and, by extension, St. Louis, blurs into the same world I see on TV. And since it was on TV, the real reality, St. Louis, it seems to me, would be recognizable and even familiar to anyone.

Obscure, I know, but hard to shake nonetheless.

Today is the last day of January and I'm talking to my mom on the phone about an ice storm forecast for St. Louis. Outside my little house the sky is bright, cloudless; it's barely sweater weather. winter in the Loop The windows are open and there are purple flowers in bloom beneath my windowsill. California is all about deceiving the unsuspecting midwesterner into thinking that it's always springtime; you better get something done, start something new. I miss the moratorium of winter, when you can hunker down and ruminate in the solidity of the cold freeze. It's comforting when the weather outside mirrors your inner climate, and it ain't always sunny in there.

Once a sweet, whimsical young woman from Berkeley who worked at a coffee shop asked me if Charles Lindbergh was the patron saint of St. Louis. Well, I guess, technically, Saint Louis would have to be the patron saint of St. Louis, if you think about it, but the fearless flyer seems a pretty good second choice. And I mention this only because it's a memory that has surfaced out of the blue recently, and seems appropriate for my present state of mind. I've finally released my youth from that arm lock I'd wrestled it to the ground with, and let it slouch off with perhaps a single shred of dignity intact. And, if circumstances were different, I think I'd like to fly back to St. Louis, unwrap those neat little packages, and start a new life.

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