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The Commonspace

Nov 2004 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Misty, Watercolor Memories
By Amanda E. Doyle and Brian H. Marston

The insistent banging at the door got our attention immediately: with newspaper still covering all the plate-glass windows while we prepared for our grand opening inside, we couldn't see who was out there, but thought it might be one of the many city inspectors new businesses have to please prior to legally opening. Imagine our surprise, then, when the door swung open and admitted a tall, lanky black man with dreads and round, John Lennon sunglasses, who took two steps and burst out, "Damn, man, where you been? I been waiting for you!"

anticipation: newspapered windows That was Romeo Love, resident of the apartment building above The Commonspace's physical location at 615 N. Grand, and, as it turned out, the perfect introduction to the crazy serendipity that was the hallmark of our time there. Romeo Love had, in fact, been waiting for something like The Commonspace to come along: he just knew it would be a success beyond his wildest dreams. He had, he confided, "14 ideas to make a million dollars," and if we were pursuing our dreams, it might just give him the confidence to follow one of his. And his girlfriend was a poet, and might need somewhere to read her stuff. He left as quickly as he'd arrived, leaving us open-mouthed and yet giddy that no matter what "The Commonspace" turned out to be, it would never be boring.

Here, then, a subjective collection of some of our favorite/most memorable (they aren't always the same!) moments in the public living room:

  • During a concert (also featuring Corey Saathoff and the Brain Regiment, along with Melody Den) in February 2003, visiting California singer-songwriter Anamude couldn't stop staring out the window at the fat, fluffy snowflakes that started falling — out of nowhere — during her set, and continued fast and furious until the street and sidewalk were blanketed in a few short hours. It was, after all, her first snowfall.

  • Another cold night was one of our first events ever, serving as a warming station/hangout/Twister parlor during the First Night celebrations in Grand Center at the beginning of 2003. We were the proud owners of precisely five chairs, a newly hung art show (also our first, and a bit of a chaotic disaster at the opening owing to a free-for-all at the Globe Drug boxed-wine table), an electric teakettle and a lot of hot chocolate. Angi Mayes baked her little heart out and donated thousands of Italian cookies for us to sell, and between those and our low, low cocoa prices, we couldn't keep up with demand. We were brewing hot water as fast as we could, and people were still waiting 15-20 minutes for a cup. (The cookies were almost Biblical in their seeming to multiply to feed the masses...)

  • We did more than a bit of social work at The Commonspace — we learned quickly that when you open your doors to "the public," you never know what will walk in. We encountered a lot of alcohol/chemical addicts, even more panhandling (some folks came in and made the rounds!), mental illness, domestic violence and more. When we could help, we did, passing out the number of a local crisis line, giving rides and talking people down. When we couldn't help, we tried to dispense at least kindness and counted our blessings for the road we've traveled.

  • But some of those folks really stand out! Jerome showed up one evening with a hot-pink stuffed tiger and a lead pipe, sauntered in the door and parked himself in a rattan chair. He opened his mouth and it didn't shut until hours later (when we dropped him at the front door of his mother's house, where he was staying): he was a nonstop, one-man, verbal tidal wave. His free-association chatter led from disco music to his views on homosexuality to health one sentence. He seemed most concerned with the happiness of his stuffed animal, whom he petted and treated like "a good kitty" while he talked. He paid us several more visits, and the last we heard, he was still looking for a little woman to be his help-mate.

  • One of our favorite neighborhood characters, Shine, was an amiable shoe-shine man (with the given name of Rick) who would snap and buff his way to a gleaming pair of kicks while regaling his customers and anyone else who would listen with his tales of enjoying the nightlife with R. Kelly (they share a bond of growing up in Chicago) and his plans to set up a permanent stand of his own or buy a house in St. Louis, just as soon as his next big settlement check from having one of his eyes shot out years ago came through. As long as we knew him, the check never came, but he knew exactly how he'd budget it when it did.

  • If two visits can make someone a regular...there was Brent the biker, who made his first stop at The Commonspace on his way with a friend driving from Maine to Arizona, a freewheeling cross-country trip fueled by youth and curiosity. He wrote in the journal at People's Coffee about how much he liked our vibe and our non-commercial atmosphere. Brent stopped back in on a Sunday evening months later, when he was riding a clunky, black bike back across the country, home to Maine. We remembered him from his journal entry (it obviously made a huge impression!) and chatted for a while; we invited him to crash on our couch at home if he needed a place to stay. The next afternoon, we got a call from Brent, and shortly thereafter he was nested in our living room, telling stories about his trip. He headed out the next day, provisioned with an avocado and some other fruit and a chipper confidence that he could find his way across the Mississippi River just fine.

  • We have a newfound respect for anyone who plans an event...because we certainly had a few flops that we'd rather forget. They were more than compensated for, though, by the completely unexpected wild successes. Our "World Wide Wednesday" event focusing on Iran and Persian culture tested the limits of our fire code capacity (to say nothing of our available seating!), when much to our surprise, people just kept packing in the door to hear the music of Farshid Etniko, see the artwork of Julia Thornburg and hear from St. Louis Iranians about their homeland and culture. (Later we realized that internationally renowned sitar master Imrat Khan had been in the audience, and then we were really wowed!) Likewise, our first collaboration with OXCA (Open Xpression Through Community Arts) was a pair of productions of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf," and our communications with the performers were, shall we say, sporadic. We weren't sure it was actually happening, and we weren't sure if they'd been promoting it — imagine our surprise when the audience spilled over onto cushions on the floor, and the second night, when we had to post a "sold out" sign on the door. Finally, our collaboration with a photography class at St. Louis Community College led to a door-busting art opening of the work of 16 students (note to event planners: more participants means more friends and family to attend and buy art!). There were a few moments when the crush of people was actually frightening, and we wondered if people could scramble up walls to exit.

  • Sundays and evenings were usually the peaceful (and often slow) times, but the quiet moments had their own place, too. And we're eternally grateful to the individuals and groups, from the Go players to the avid St. Louis BookCrossers, who kept meeting and showing up regularly from the beginning, when it was a wing, a prayer and a Mr. Coffee. Contrast that with the crazy juxtaposition of later Saturday mornings, especially the one time each month when the Urban Knitters and the fleet-footed breakdancers got all up in each other's mix! We had to laugh when one of the b-boys taunted the knitters, demanding to know if they were "sewing up something for me"; Julia Smillie, quick as a whip, said she'd try to knit him some decent moves. You got served! By a knitter!

  • Boy, were we excited when People's Coffee moved in! During their build-out, the anticipation was building, too, behind a thick plastic sheet that divided the room. We partnered with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for a concert and after-party with the musicians: the room was packed, and we all milled around in our best symphony-going clothing, peeking behind the curtain and speculating about when we'd drink our first cappuccino on North Grand. It was just a few short weeks later.

  • Whose idea was it, exactly, that we had to have new carpet? Well, a trip to Becky's Superstore and a few desperate pleas for volunteers later, there we were, on hands and knees, installing more than 400 squares of carpet and learning the intricacies of cove base, all during Christmas vacation. We're pretty sure we were high on glue fumes when the one square whose pattern went against the grain got placed: it drove Brian crazy, but stalwart board member Jason McClelland refused to undo work to go back to it. From then on, it was our little secret square of whimsy.

Ah, the way we were. It was a great, scary, enlightening, educational, frustrating and inspiring two years, thanks to all who walked through our door. And as much as we sometimes miss running the show since closing the doors of the physical location at the end of September, we've had the chance to go out and participate in other people's events and remember what it's like to be a part of the community in that way...and it's been nice to be home, in our own actual living room.

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