I turn left out of Kingsbury Place, through the turn-of-the-century stone gates, and head north on Union. Soon I cross Delmar, and the change in scenery indicates the line in St. Louis's social geography that I have just crossed. There is a flatness to the streetscape, a two-dimensionality to the buildings that front Union north of Delmar, an absence of lawns, a proliferation of liquor stores and drive-thrus. There are groups of black men hovering on corners, front stoops. Several miles further north, I turn right on Natural Bridge, then left on Shreve and right on San Francisco. From the time I was born until I turned sixteen I rode this route with my mother and sister to take Lillie home. Since I have been able to drive, I have taken her home myself...
...I know this drive as well as I know anything. If we could somehow tease apart the neuronal connections that let us know what we know, the map of this drive would be found in thick relief on my brain, a part of me. In fact, the whole neighborhood around Kingsbury Place and the house where I grew up (and where my father still lives) has a history that is tangled inseparably with my own personal history: my father was an alderman of the twenty-fifth ward for four years; my mother succeeded him and held the post for eight years after that. For twelve years the battles of the old twenty-fifth were my dinnertime introduction to the adult world. It was a ward of both the best and worst urban St. Louis could offer; a unique pocket of majestic, 1904 World's Fair-era private streets, dismal boarded-up slums and tenements, a chunk of the second largest urban park in the country, a street of fledgling cafes and boutiques. A ward of subtle and not-so-subtle boundary lines between white and black, safe and dangerous, developing and forgotten. And it was a ward that experienced unparalleled growth during my parents' time in officeregentrification, rehabilitation, redevelopmentfor which both my parents, and particularly my mother, received a handsome amount of local celebrity. Into this ward, into our home, Lillie came three times a week from her home in the heart of black north St. Louis, a part of the city that otherwise I probably never would have known existed.
I first wrote those paragraphs more than seven years ago. They are the first and third paragraphs of an essay about my family and the family of Lillie Bausley, the black woman who helped raise me as housekeeper, nanny, surrogate mother (it is one of the central questions of the essaywhat exactly this woman I love has been to me). During the time covered by the essay, Lillie's son, James, a kid I worshipped, would be convicted of second-degree murder committed in the ward where my mother was alderman; James, in turn, would be murdered in prison; my mother, too, would die, after a long battle with breast cancer. But the essay is not macabre. It is an essay about the ways we connectand fail to connectacross the inescapable barriers that divide one person from another.
And it is an essay about St. Louis: about the Delmar divide between black and white, about maintaining an urban identity in a suburban social world, about my parents' liberal, idealistic struggle in an often cynical city hall. They are the places and the themes that dominate my writing to this day.
I began that essay during my first year in Tucson, Arizona, a place I'd come partly to get an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona, and partly to escape the me I'd been up until that point. I'd left a relationship of four years, and though the break wouldn't be complete for a while longer, I'd left Yale School of Medicine in the middle of third year. I felt profoundly untethered. I hated Tucson at firstthe parched and barren landscape, the heat, the strip malls, the improbably luscious fairways in the middle of the desertand I didn't expect to stay there beyond my master's degree. But there was something about that barrenness that suited me. It was a backdrop that provided little competition as I tried to make the new me visible to myself.
People naturally ask me why I left medical school. The simple answer is that I always wanted to be a writer and almost never wanted to be a doctor. (I remember the first day of class, when we were ceremoniously given our white coats and stethoscopes and all my classmates were visibly excited; I thought they were a bunch of geeks.) The more appropriate question, perhaps, is how the hell I got as far as I did in medicine. The answer, I think, is deeply psychological. It has something to do with my native talents in science and math, something to do with familial expectations and pressure, something to do with my experience with my mother's doctors during her long battle with cancer. But perhaps more than anything, it has to do with this idea of being tethered. My mother's ten-year battle with metastatic breast cancer was the dominant fact of my adolescence, and though she lived many of those years quite well, there was no way for the ten and twelve and fifteen and eighteen year-old me to escape her dismal prognosis. In the midst of this uncertainty, medicine provided a future I could believe ina tetherand I think that is a large part of the reason I latched onto it.
But what does all that psychology have to do with St. Louis? A couple of things. My mother was alderman of the 25th ward for eight years; at the time of her death, she was in her third year as executive director of Forest Park. I see her everywhere in my beloved hometown. I remember heated battles over a right turn signal on Lindell. I can't drive by the Nathan Park Bandstand in Forest Park without thinking about the fundraiser she organized for it at the Chaseit was one of her braver moments, rallying for that party when days before she'd barely gotten out of bed. And how many kids had their very own bus stop? I used to leave the west gate of Kingsbury Place and walk down Clara to catch the Bi-State Bus on Waterman. That my mother allowed me to do that at an age when most kids wouldn't be allowed to take a bus by themselves, and during a time when the neighborhood beyond Kingsbury's gates was still dangerous, says some things about her; that, as alderman, she added a bus stop at Clara so that I wouldn't have to walk any further says something else. (My father, too, is devoted to this city and has made real contributions to it, but he is still alive, so I don't have to scour local landmarks in search of him.)
Seven years ago, when fellow St. Louisan Lauren Cathcart (Clayton High School) bought the one-way plane ticket to come join me in Tucson, we'd never spent more than ten consecutive days together. And I think it was tacitly understood between us that if we survived together in the desert, we'd eventually return to St. Louis to live. Four years later, we were married in the Spanish Pavilion in Forest Park, the renovation of which was one of the first projects undertaken by Forest Park Forever, the organization my mother helped to found. I love St. Louis like I love familyI love it even when I don't like it. It pisses me off, it gets under my skin, but it's the first place I turn at the whiff of trouble. And there's no place that can make me feel so at home.
But we have carved out new lives for ourselves in Tucson. We've found a part of Tucson we love: urban, quirky, hip, western, artsy, more than a little down and out. Lauren is a Montessori school teacher and I am a writer and adjunct professor. We pay $750 a month in rent and share a '94 Civic and most of the time we are so busy enjoying our lives that we don't miss the things that the choices of our friends have afforded them. But it's a lot easier not to miss those things when we don't see them everyday. Put us in the Central West End or Clayton or Ladue or West County for too long, and we start to wonder. We have both shed previous skins. And we like our new skins better. Sometimes it's not so easy to cut and paste our new selves into the spaces we carved out before. We love St. Louis, but sometimes we don't like ourselves nearly as much when we're there.
I write now on the occasion of publishing my first book, a collection of short stories called The Middle of the Night. I feel incredibly lucky: how many people get to say in their professional lives that they are fulfilling an adolescent dream? That is exactly what I will do when I read at Left Bank Books in the heart of my favorite neighborhood in the world. The stories really are fiction, but a writer's influences are inescapable. St. Louis is everywhere in my book. So is my mother's cancer. And so is the idea of being un-tethered. But maybe tethered vs. untethered reduces it to too simple a dichotomy; maybe there's a third choice. I still love the line I wrote in that St. Louis essay seven years ago, about neuronal connectionsthe way a place literally, physically becomes part of youno matter where you go.
Dan Stolar will read from his book "The Middle of the Night," on June 6 at 7 p.m. at Left Bank Books and June 7 at 2 p.m. at Borders in Creve Coeur.