How long have I been gone? It's hard to say. Sometimes it seems like centuries. I sit on the banks of this Muddy Water and wonder if you can ever step into the same river twice. Can I smell the beer brewing if I try hard enough? Can I hear that blue voice singing from under the Arch if I listen with all my might? I doubt it.
Take a deep breath and in come wafts of chicory coffee and too much liquor. Open my ears and brass bands full of sounds so loud and earnest fill my head. When I strain my eyes 'til they weep I still see nothing but rotten shotguns overgrown with vines. Where are the bricks and cobblestones? Far and wide I look for my friends; for myself as well, I must admit. I find friendly faces full of southern drawls, but it's not the same. I drink the water from the Mississippi everyday, but it does not refresh my roaming spirit.
The things I yearn for are nearly 700 miles upriver. Yet when I follow that lonesome highway back home, it's not the same. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's that crumbling city that's changing. It's probably both. I'm sometimes comforted in the fact that I live in a city shaped like a crescent. It reminds me of the Arch. The slow curves bending to the river that connects my two homes.
I have dreams of returning. I am idealistic at best. I long for Soulard Market and fresh Missouri produce. A Creole tomato has no idea of the flavor it is missing. I came to New Orleans for the food, but I crave midwestern comfort. (Trust me, the irony is not lost.) Crawfish are overrated. What I need is Gooey-Butter Cake. Someone told me Lake Forest Bakery has closed. I refuse to believe it; I can't or else my heart will break.
I've been to both coasts and many places in between, eloped in the Florida Keys, spent St. Patrick's Day in Dublin and seen great beauty all over the map. Nothing compares to the Missouri Ozarks and the Black River running so pristinely through rock and forest.
St. Louis has the most ardent of supporters living side by side with the worst kind of city haters. I know of no other metropolis where so many extremes can survive within a few shattered blocks of brick and mortar. I have friends who talk of leaving; I try to tell them to stay. I encourage them to inventory all the wonderful things they have at home. I want them to know how lucky they are. They don't believe me. You must have to leave first to understand.
Why don't I come back? Good question. Don't they say, "You can never go home?" Show Me!
I paper my walls with remembrances. The music, food, friends, BBQs, fried brains, Redbirds, concretes, the Zoo, Smile, Schlafly, Uncle Bill's, "Shaw's" Gardens, KDHX. Somehow the live oaks overshadow it all. I'm reaching, too. I'll grab onto something soon and put my roots down.
Vistas change. Down here, 15 feet below sea level, ain't nothing like standing atop the Grand Watertower. But I can see home from both places. And that's a start.
Christy Augustin (nee Maberry) studied psychology at SLU before embarking on a career as a pastry chef; she lives in New Orleans and works at Bayona.