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Mar 2002 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Out Here
By Susan Perabo

I guess most kids probably think of the city they grow up in as the center of the universe. I mean, at eight, wherever you are must be the center, right? Growing up in St. Louis, I probably suffered from this delusion more than most.

Susan Perabo For one, there's the geographical center-ness of our city; I don't recall where the exact spot is, but I remember hearing that the official middle of the country is no more than a couple hours away by car. I was also deluded by the fact that for many years nearly everyone I knew in St. Louis had lived there forever — my mother and grandmother, almost all our family friends — or if they'd moved away (as my father had, briefly) they'd returned and put down deep roots. Until I was 11 or 12, I thought that St. Louis and New York City — the only other major metropolitan area I had any real knowledge of — were more or less equals. I knew, of course, that New York was bigger (they had two baseball teams) and drew more tourists (I attributed this mainly to Radio City Music Hall and FAO Schwarz), but even so I lived with the proud assumption that nearly every child in America had ridden the pod up the leg of the Arch and eaten a Big Mac at the riverfront McDonalds.

Alas. It wasn't until I moved to Central Pennsylvania that I discovered the awful truth: nobody out here in the rest of the country knows squat about St. Louis. The old cliché is true: to most people who live their whole lives in the East, the entire Midwest (not just Kansas or Nebraska, but us, too!) is something to be looked at from cloud level en route to California.

Okay, yes, I recognize that local childhood treasures such as the National Museum of Transport and Grant's Farm do not rank among the top national attractions, but I'm talking about really basic stuff. Stan Musial. Who? The Mississippi. Does that run through there? The World's Fair. You mean the state fair, right?

I did a little survey last week in one of my English classes. The students in this class are juniors and seniors in college, well-read, decent writers, a fairly intelligent lot all told. Most of them grew up in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. First I asked them if they considered St. Louis a Midwestern, Southern, or Western city. Only a few said Western; the others split the vote between Midwest and Southern. Frankly I expected as much; upon hearing I'm from St. Louis, people sometimes express surprise that I don't have an accent. When I ask what type of accent they were anticipating, most people say — albeit a little sheepishly — "I don't know, like a twang?" Others have wondered how I'm holding up in the cold weather, or if I'm used to driving in snow. Turns out people east of Ohio think everything south of Chicago is Southern, and that the Midwest is Michigan and Minnesota, places I always called The North.

I also asked my students to write down as many things as they could think of that they associate with St. Louis. Here are the results of my informal poll, beginning with the top vote getter:

  1. I can't think of anything.
  2. I can't think of anything except Professor Perabo.
  3. The Rams. (This is so strange to me, as I moved from St. Louis before the Rams arrived. The thing my students most associate with my city is something I myself have no connection to.)
  4. The Arch.
  5. Nelly. (I didn't know what Nelly was. I had to write one of my students and ask; he wrote a sweet note back, telling me about some of Nelly's songs. Written clearly between the lines of this email were the words "you are so old, you are so old.")
  6. Corn/Farms/Farmers.
  7. Mardi Gras. (Two votes.)
  8. The Cardinals. (One vote.)

I think this data pretty much speaks for itself: more of my students think St. Louis is New Orleans than the home of the Cardinals.

I guess what it comes down to is the difference between the center of the universe and the center of your universe. And I guess I understand it more now than I did twenty years ago — or at least I'm more realistic about the status of St. Louis in the big scheme of things. Status schmatus, I say.

But still. Mardi Gras?

Susan Perabo, a Webster University alumna, teaches at Dickinson College. She is the author of the short-story collection "How I Was Supposed to Be," and the novel "The Broken Places."

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