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Dec 2002 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

They Shoot Outsiders Here, Don't They?
By Jim Nesbitt

Let's run the numbers. Since arriving in St. Louis to take the editor's post at the Riverfront Times, I've been called a carpetbagger, an obscenity-obsessed editor bent on destroying the integrity of a beloved alternative newspaper and an outlander who will never be able to call this place his hometown.

And those were just my friends talking to me.

Jim Nesbitt The kindest words came from a poker buddy — former St. Louis alderman Dan McGuire, who keeps calling me Perry White at our weekly prayer meetings. You remember Perry White as Lois Lane's editor, the man who couldn't quite figure out that Clark Kent was Superman.

A good sign, that, if not exactly a tribute to some questionable card skills.

Others of a not-so-friendly bent have suggested I take my six-shooter style and jam it up my black cowboy hat. And there have been some who have expressed outrage that a man of my station would expropriate the black raiment of Johnny Cash, exploit the spirituality of my 81-year-old mother and flaunt my status as a lapsed Baptist.

In the wake of the Rams' Super Bowl loss to the dog-ass New England Patriots, the RFT ran a cartoon cover with a three-word punch line — Jesus Gets Even — lampooning the ceaseless proselytizing of known Christ-fondlers like Kurt Warner. Angry reader after angry reader called in, damning the paper for denigrating God and our local gridiron heroes. Damn if anybody can figure out what angered them more — the picture of Kurt Warner prostrate before a rampant Ram or the mention of Jesus without an accompanying editorial genuflection. Damned if they knew either.

A key lesson was learned here — in this conservatively Catholic and sports-crazed town, don't mess with God and don't toy with the local sports idols, no matter how much they cause offense by tastelessly dragging God into the ball yard. It's just not nice and it's just not done. Not in St. Louis, anyway. Far better to hold your tongue about an obvious gaffe than to tell the truth.

Another key lesson: although this isn't a dynamic city that welcomes newcomers and their newfangled ways, there's a network of expatriated Outlanders, people from other places who uniformly hate St. Louis' small-minded ways, even though they might like its neighborhoods and revel in its corner pubs and toasted ravioli. There's just enough of these folks rooting about to keep you sane and remind you that there's a big old goofy world out there beyond The Arch and far from the corner where Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons.

There's also a passel of very cool folk — some born and raised here, others who have staked a claim on this flawed city as a damn fine place to take a stand and make a difference. They're artists and lawyers and loft dwellers and South City homeowners — folks like Matt Ghio, a Memphis boy who has a law shingle and an abiding appreciation for the things that make a downtown thrive; Margie Newman, a documentary film producer and hyper-energetic activist who is descended from a former mayor of this city and, one day, Lord willing and the creek don't rise, might could be persuaded to storm Room 200 herself; Dave Drebes, the guy who puts out the best tout sheet in town, the Arch City Chronicle; and Katy Fischer, a young and omni-present artist who lights up just about every goat roping, gallery opening and film fest in town.

These are people who are passionate about this city and wear that heartbeat on their sleeves. They know what's screwed up about the town and its politics, but they're very committed to forcing the changes necessary to make this place better than it is right now. Fact is, they love St. Louis — and walk the walk that proves it — more than many who were born here.

One thing is abundantly clear — the past is still present in St. Louis, a city that seems trapped in a time warp, rooted to unresolved conflicts over race, unwilling to untie itself from an archaic and overpopulated political system that places a primacy on tradition and narrow-minded parochial interests instead of the overall needs of the whole town on issues like schools and jobs and redevelopment. It is the major difference between St. Louis and other so-called "cities of neighborhoods," such as Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Newcomers will tell you St. Louis is a Southern city. Superficially, this is true, particularly its African-American community, many of them émigrés from the Deep South. You can hear the blues here, fresh from the Delta. This was also a Jim Crow city that saw slaves auctioned off on the steps of the Old Courthouse. But in the ways that count, St. Louis looks East and has a distinctly cold and forbidding edge lurking just underneath its sunny exterior.

Other lessons are harder to cipher.

By virtue of some scientific wild-ass guessing, I'd say I'm in the middle of a St. Louis head slap, that brick wall every newcomer encounters shortly after grasping the hand of a smiling townie and failing to correctly answer three crucial questions — are you from St. Louis, what high school did you go to, what parish are you in?

In this town of ultimate clannishness and insularity, failure to answer these questions in a satisfactory fashion earn you an instant cold shoulder. The newcomer is never sure why their phone no longer rings and why that smile suddenly goes cold, but it does and it never thaws.

St. Louis is the ultimate insiders' town. If you're from here, you never really leave, no matter how far away you move. And if you marry a St. Louisan, you're a lifetime member of their tribe. But heed this warning — they speak their own iconoclastic language here, a superficially polite code, but the truth is not in them. An outsider can have a field day just calling it as seen — just as long as he or she doesn't expect to get a choice guest gig on a local gathering of talking heads.

For that, you need to be tight with Richard Callow, the cardinal arbitrator of who's in and who's not at the Post-Dispatch and other venues. As long as he's the gatekeeper for Berger-bits and City Hall Hoover items that pass for independent editorial thinking, then he's the essence of the game as it's played in this town. Don't bother asking about ethics — those get checked at the city line.

This is not to say that the gig I have isn't a blast. It is. I've learned a lot in ten months of sitting in the Big Chair — how to gun down a bad story idea, how to politely tell an ad rep to get the hell out of my office before getting shot, how to deal with angry Italian restaurateurs, how to keep one step ahead of a deadline that never quits.

I've also learned that the RFT occupies an important niche in this community — we're the only honest game in town, the city's truest "other voice" and a counterbalance to the pap turned out by the Post. If you really want to find out what's going on behind the scene on the stadium deal, read us. Or this fine gathering of like-minded writers, or that excellent newsletter cranked out by Dave Drebes, the Arch City Chronicle — an honest-to-God tout sheet that really lets you know what's going on in neighborhoods like Soulard or South City.

But if you prefer the party line, by all means, pick up the Post.

I've had a lot of help along the way — from the encouragement of old Posties like John McGuire and Bill McClellan to the learned counsel of the RFT's ace political writer, D.J. Wilson, a consummate pro who manages to maintain a skeptical outsider's tone while fishing in the waters of all the City Hall insiders.

But I've also learned this city's veteran scribes are a pretty humorless lot, challenged by ossified funny bones and an over-inflated sense of self-importance. Take Bernie Miklasz — Lord knows The Boss won't have him. He was stung by a recent parody in our new column, The Worm, that had him quitting his lucrative column and radio gig to shill for Bruce Springsteen.

When asked to come up with a reasonable rejoinder to our japery, the best Bernie could come up with was a sniffling quibble about us making it look like he thought St. Louis might be a town full of losers. C'mon Bernie — we were only quoting The Boss. Think Thunder Road, baby — "it's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win." But Bernie is a big-time fish in this town and he has to make nice to the locals, defending them whether they need it or not.

Losers — such an ugly word. Beats carpetbagger every time, though.

Jim Nesbitt is the Speedloader and reigns supreme at the Riverfront Times.

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