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

Pedestrian Times
By Sara Jenkins

I lived in St. Louis twice, both times by default. People who grow up in the South, as I did, may be eager to leave, but few, I suspect, are inherently attracted to the Midwest. However, life has a way of challenging such biases, and when I had to choose among job opportunities in West Virginia, Waco, and St. Louis, the latter emerged as attractive indeed.

Sara Jenkins For three years I lived on Southwood and taught Art History at UMSL. I was in my mid-twenties, and some of my students became my friends. Susan Littlefield, now Cable Regulatory Administrator for the City, managed much of the business in the little office I shared with Jean Tucker. Jay Brandt was in one of my classes, and somebody later told me that Vince Schoemehl was, too. Years after he'd been mayor, I was waiting by the counter at Paper & More when it dawned on me that the man waiting nearby, who looked vaguely familiar, was in fact Vince. I asked if he'd been in my class and apologized for not remembering him. Alas, I've forgotten his reply, but it was the essence of politician politesse: I think he didn't remember me either, yet whatever he said left me with the impression that he was smart, witty, interesting and likeable.

I did not own a car until I was forty, a distinction that in this country surely deserves some sort of recognition. Before I moved to St. Louis, my brother had offered me an old Volvo that he wouldn't be needing while in the Peace Corps. My father advised against it, persuading me with a page of figures that it would be more expensive to maintain a car than to use public transportation, even including frequent cab rides. Being numerically challenged, I don't know if his figures made sense. However, I come from a long line of people who are barely able to master the rudiments of driving, and, believing that my father had my best interests at heart, I declined my brother's offer and set off into the world car-less.

I chose to live in the DeMun neighborhood because I could catch the City Limits bus on Skinker. The route meandered an hour and fifteen minutes out through Wellston to UMSL. Each afternoon before I left my office, I selected slides for the next day's lectures. That night at home I would organize the slides, and on the bus the next morning I would look through them, figuring out what I would say in class. I also looked out the window and at my fellow passengers, and I read and sometimes dozed. Once there was an earthquake when I was riding the bus home, but I didn't know about it until I heard it on the news. I'd noticed the bus shaking, but assumed the driver had let the clutch out too fast, since similar jerking motions were not uncommon on the rare occasions when I drove. I always felt safe on buses—certainly safer than with myself behind the wheel.

One summer I was back in the East for more graduate work, and suddenly I didn't want to go back to teaching or to the Midwest. I spent most of the 1970s in Baltimore and Washington D.C., still blessedly car-free. I walked, biked, rode buses and, in Washington, the newly opened Metro, and otherwise took cabs, which were inexpensive and readily available at a big hotel near where I lived.

In the quirky way of fate, after almost a decade I ended up in St. Louis a second time. The love of the first half of my life, as I like to call him, had taken a position at Washington University Medical School, and in my drifting-then-settling sort of way, I visited him and stayed on.

We lived together in Eureka. He had two cars, one of which was a modest Fiat sedan, designated as "mine" for the purpose of upgrading my driving skills. Usually, though, we rode together into the city in his Alfa Romeo, and he gave me tips on shifting and passing and general safety. I taught a course at UMSL on the history of modern architecture, and on days when I had classes, I dropped him at the Med School and took the car. Was it fun to drive an Alfa Romeo out St. Charles Rock Road and through Bel-Nor by the golf course? Yeah, sort of. Was it more fun than riding the Wellston bus? Not really. The most fun I had was on days when he kept the car. Then I walked and took buses and cabs. I loved living in the country, but I also loved moving through the city without having to drive, seeing alleys and buildings and parks and people and this and that, the luxury of looking long and deep, lingering over the little bits of life that engaged my curiosity, seeing things that might be seen by no one else.

When my friend took his Alfa Romeo and his Fiat and moved away, I moved into Hampden Hall, at the corner of Newstead and McPherson, happy to return to the challenges and rewards of public transportation. It never seemed to me that not having a car kept me from doing what I wanted to do. For example, when I read about a show of botanical illustration at the Garden, I plotted how to get there from where I lived in the Central West End: Lindell bus, Sarah bus, Tower Grove bus. Because it was the last day the show would be up, I dashed out even though a snowstorm had begun. By the time I got to the Garden, the streets were practically empty. I found my way to the library in the Lehmann Building where the show was hung. Except that it wasn't. When I told a woman at a desk that I'd come to see the botanical illustrations, she stared at me, her mouth open, for an uncomfortable moment. "I'll let you speak to the librarian," she finally said. After a few minutes Jim Reed appeared and explained that because of the snowstorm, they'd assumed no one would be coming to see the show on that final day and had taken it down early. He was very apologetic and asked if there was some way he could make it up to me. "Yes," I said. "You could show me the equivalent treasures here in your own collection." He did. I fell in love with the rare book room, and years later had the privilege of working there as illustrations editor for Volume 1 of The Flora of North America.

I managed without a car for a while, but eventually bought a tiny Honda for $600 from a man named Frank whom I met at a party. We agreed on a sort of service contract: Frank had a tow truck, and when the car broke down, I'd go to the nearest phone and call him. "Frank, the car is on the south side of Delmar near Jackson. I don't know what's wrong. There was this weird noise, and it just quit." I'd get home by cab or bus or foot; Frank would tow the car to his place, fix it, deliver it to me, and I'd drive him back home. An excellent arrangement, in my opinion.

I knew having the car would mean the end of something I had deeply relished, being on intimate terms with certain aspects of city life. It also would mean spending far more time on highways and in parking lots than any sensible person would wish. And perhaps having a car was a factor in my moving to what I suppose is technically a suburb, U. City.

From where I lived on Stanford Avenue, I walked and rode my bike to do errands in the neighborhood. To get to an office where I worked then, and later to pick up editorial work when I freelanced, I walked to Wash. U. and caught the shuttle to the Med School neighborhood. Days would pass without my getting into my car. I walked for fun as well. My walking partner Claudia Spener and I would head down toward the Loop, then through Ames Place and Parkview and back. We walked the same route for more than ten years, enjoying not only the shaded streets but the buckling, brick-paved alleys with weeds growing between the cracks and a delightful variety of backyards, one of which featured a forest of bamboo. At night I sometimes walked alone in University Park and University Hills and University Heights; I loved the warm glow of interior spaces and the glimpses into people's lives.

I also rode Metrolink, even though it couldn't take me most places I wanted to go. It was like a toy version of the grand, dignified Washington Metro, with its barrel-vaulted ceilings modeled on ancient Roman architecture. My friend and former colleague at UMSL, Jean Tucker, sponsored a program at the Metropolitan Studies Center on art at Metrolink stations, and participants were given little cardboard insert-tab-A-in-slot-B models of a Metrolink car. I still have mine. In later years, as debate heated up about the new line to Clayton, many of my U. City friends opposed the above-ground plan. I don't share their views. I am not offended by the sight of a rapid transit line in a city, nor did I ever experience Metrolink as noisy. Rapid transit seems to me a quintessential and altogether desirable part of urban life. My position is unequivocal: I like public transportation wherever and however.

Edison Brothers Warehouse Of course, it was fun to zip around in my little car. Going places I could not get to on the bus, like Gumbo. Going to Soulard Market and buying more produce than I could carry plus a watermelon. Flying along highway 40 past the Edison building painted in Richard Haas's trompe l'oeil architectural detail with the timeless shadow of a passing eagle—each time wondering how long I could afford to take my eyes off the road and look at the painting, look for the eagle shape, vowing that next time I would exit and find my way to study the building up close. I never did, but I never ceased to enjoy the thrill of those sidelong glances at 60 mph.

Now and then I'd have a moment of misgiving about what having a car was doing to my life. Racing down Forest Park Expressway before dawn to get to my very first all-day Zen meditation, spilling hot tea on the dashboard, anxious about being late and hating being up so early, breaking the speed limit in a frantic rush . . . to sit still for eight hours. When I arrived, no one else was there. I turned on the car radio and learned that clocks had been turned back from daylight savings to standard time, so I got to sit in my car for a whole hour and reflect on the subject of rushing.

I enjoyed my life in St. Louis, although it never felt like home. There were some years when I actively longed to be elsewhere. After I had a car—never before—I would be assailed by thoughts that life in the Midwest was too pedestrian. It occurred to me that I was not going to be able to leave St. Louis until I got over wishing to be somewhere else.

While I lived in St. Louis, I wrote a book about events that took place elsewhere (This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist). Now I live in a little cottage in the Smokies, and I'm writing a book about my years in St. Louis. It's set in the Central West End, where my tenth-floor apartment in Hampden Hall looked down onto the Cathedral dome, and where I walked to work at an office on Forest Park and gardened in a backyard on Laclede with a friend who restored the Milles sculpture in the fountain in front of Union Station. I couldn't remember the name of the fountain, and dug out a wonderful book I'd used in the History of Modern Architecture course, George McCue's The Building Art in St. Louis. The fountain, of course, is "The Meeting of the Waters."

The book brought back to me how much fun that course was, and how much fun the city was. To fill the considerable gaps in my knowledge, I'd had students in the class lead field trips to local buildings that represented various architectural styles. No doubt those field trips were made in cars. But the way I remember the city is the way you'd see it on foot.

The book I'm writing now I'm thinking of calling Pedestrian Times: A Memoir of Work and Love. It's about sinking deep into the timelessness of repetition, of intimacy, of close attention to what is at hand; about how living in a city and not having a car allows a depth and breadth of experience that I miss; how, even though I wasn't aware of it at the time, those years in St. Louis when I knew the city up close were in fact among the richest of my life.

Sarah Jenkins lives in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, where she writes and freelance edits, mostly nonfiction work. She has been a Zen student for 15 years, a topic she explores in her most recent book, This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist.

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