It was twenty years, ago– a night I’ll surely, cherish.
Standing on the lurid cobble-stones of the old, closed-down “Lemp Brewery”a car’s honk, long on the southbound old city-stretch, as the thick, loamy Missouri night was fetid with the river, running alongside. In the air, limestone and hops– wafting-along from the vats of the Busch beer company, and down on this old, brick courtyard by the rolling waters, the barge lights a-lit on the waters like a snapshot of eternal North America, as so many would know it.
Halloween. The season of harvest, solstice, pregnancy– take your pick from the whirling astrological wheel of birth-signs, the slap of a tarot card down on the bar–the constellations in the stars exerting its pull on the bawdy affairs of man, below. What was fate– or just the inevitable grind of work, and then pleasure– like a poured “spot” of local brew here in the cosmic happenstance “of ole’ sin-town”, as the river was slicked with bright lights and the fat, gibbous moon sweeping across the sky.
And this night, of nights– Halloween, as the year-round “Mardi Gras” party moved closer to “All Saints’ Day” and goblins whirled, just beyond view in the inky darkness of shrill laughter and festive sin. Surely as dirty as the old layer of industrial-soot that hung over the skyline, as “the hint of this place” never left those “who lived it, and who knew-it”.
That boisterous city flavor, “the peasantry” cut loose and spilling into the nightlife. Flush with alcohol, the royal colors of pomp and vulgar circumstance like a stained-glass palette as the hanging lamp swung faintly over the brick taverns, wreathed in smoke. Carnival colors, as think of your reds, greens, purples, and checkered designs on a puppet-stick, the scepter unto poor man’s kings and the glinting, molten parlous. There, full of drunks, bastards, vagabonds, and jesters– knocking-back frosty beer in tribute “to the ways of the world”, merry as a winery and giddy as “the seven deadly sins”, passed-out in a glut of chocolate and hot-sauce and burgers and cheese-fries.
As an old hoary Catholicism hung over the proceedings, like a dark rain-cloud of grace, deferred. The question of heaven, or after-life, or “how many angels could dance on the head of a pin” was about, as likely– as the mortal reminder of a roast fowl on the dining table”, browned in its own juices and “cuts” popped into the masticating mouths of hungry souls. Your cackling mid-wifery of life’s “scary facts”, the glint of bottles and a professional bar-keep’s shrug in the congress of vulgar appetite– on the subject of “sex” and “death” and “worms” and “darkness, eternal” as the candles flickered luridly through the darkness of our local city devils. In the sight of god, or our better angels– no higher or fragrant than a boot full of piss as your arteries filled with ice-water, “just a temporary victory” over the forces that lead to our deaths.
St. Louis had a haunted history– ghosts of German immigrant working-men swinging their lunch-pails, their handle-bar mustaches twitching unto the ancient lore of city-engineering, limestone caves and gravel quarries, and dropped wells in cool, fetid pools of cholera. Think of the imagery out of an old “Police Gazette” paper– a wraith, a destroying angel– moving through the old 19th century hallways with a moaning face, and blade of sickness “upraised”, ready to descend on the sleeping tenement-dwellers with plague. Coughing-lungs, bare-foot children toddling to charity hospitals down the hard, brick city-streets like footnotes to life, here in the Mississippi river valley of farms, the rail-roads, the caverns of Jesse James.
The region was colorful, or perhaps “just a minor stop” as our history couldn’t be described as “flashy”, but mild and brittle– like a hand, full of snapping, dry-spaghetti “and a bit of local sauce” for flavor. . . . . where folks lived and died, in the midst of the barges’ timeless traffic. Living, sweating, breeding, dying like the soft underbelly of crayfish, the fork cracking the hard shell “of that, which doesn’t change” with the landscape, the bones rotting in a pile through the dreary aggregation of history like cast-off clothes and bodies, returned to the ground unto sickly-sweet soft-rot and the faded letters on gravestones, sour as a pumpkin’s breath and rife with the skeletal hand of black trees.
And there, the taverns and punk-clubs had vomited-out its clientele, as waves of curiosity-seekers made their way down to the legendary riverfront. It was a mass undulation of walking feet, as you were caught-up “in the current”, the inevitability– and how “the lean” of events “digested you”, made you part of a shared-experience the pull into the future.
A huge line snaked around the courtyard, clinging close to the old brick walls that inevitably fed its way to the entrance where they tore your ticket and waved you, through. It was put-together by “a theatrical troupe”, a throwback to French river history as stray actors walked-by, dressed in musketeer hats, ruffled pantaloons, and whiskers. For all the diamonds and rust, not all that glitters, is gold– but count on only, to fork over the cold, hard cash as a sign hung there, reading “no refunds” in case customers “got foot-shy” and wanted to back-out. . . . . trekking home.
And there, I saw him– the rock n’ roll king, the Tim Burton prince of the dead– “Beetlejuice”, himself as an actor “worked the crowd” in the mascot’s striped-suit unto all things foul, moving up and down the line– much like the country neighbor that would drive into the city, to pick up a free, busted-down air conditioner. And he was amusing, to be sure– walking up to the broadly-grinning line-goers and “acting suspiciously”, the effrontery of a question– a mime’s cocked-ear, asking “if you wanted to be a hot t.v.”. . . . . and then moving along like the Jefferson County resident “from hell”.
It was a place where punk rock and “Rocky Horror” theatricality met the redneck “outer-bounds” of all time & space, like someone who would drive winter’s salt-trucks in a parka and clear your streets. Somewhere, the lore of river-men and flat-boats, piles of old scrap-junk and barking hound-dogs like the ring of unincorporated land, circling the city that ultimately made-us “a part of cow-town”. . . . . nothing else between Chicago and Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the young “alternative-crowd”– with streaked, dyed hair, cargo shorts, and a skater’s off-hand air stood in circles, and laughed. To see, and “be seen” as a line of stunted, stripped, and ruined trees rose from brick circlets in the parking-lot, by the concession stands– smoking, laughing, or fingering a cigarette behind their ear. Sometimes they recognized each other and slyly, “five’ed– all the youthful vigor of the concert scene “and just hanging-time” down at the Halloween carnival..
The commonality, that united us was for rock n’ roll culture. And how “our elders” were as much a part of the conversation, with some distant, collective memory of 1950’s “Wonder Bread” commercials and parochial education looming over the mass– so many taverns and coffee-house and “moonlighting” jobs– as everyone seemed to be “a craft-artist, for hire” over the crowds of doughy-faced skin. . . . . . nighttime figures our contemporary Midwestern “gothic” revival. . . . . as no one “wanted to settle, down” unless they could help it as most, inevitably-did like a rock n’ roll family circus gathered around the lore of “the classics” as KSHE radio never changed its format, a pig with sunglasses, headphones, and a joint beckoning you into drive-time traffic.
Even as statues of “The Virgin Mary” held-out a hand in beneficence– like the region’s greetings, and all those restaurants and attractions that only hard-bitten city residents, would be “aware-of” as information was “locked-out”, and only the longest-living residents would be incorporated into its “institutional secrets”, as others “were locked-out” by the shrugging causality of “who you knew”. It went back, practically “to where you went to high school”, the ruts and grooves threaded into murky, uneventful lives like the pea-soup of a static aquarium, fish bumping into the glass like torpid misfits of local ecology.
It took “a shameless grit” of attention-getting, “to get anywhere” on the street-level, much like our friend, Beetlejuice. For bat-wings and the dank gas of old-fashioned heating, as the area beckoned– like a Medieval portrait of hell, full of tormented souls and gibing devils and pike-men pouring on the pitch, like the members of the rock band, “Kiss” dressed up like leering gargoyles over the loamy soil and ultimate hole of heaped dirt and beer cans as tractors knocked the dirt, in and you were handed a bag of popcorn.
You would know it, only if you saw-it. To know it, is to love-it. . . . . St. Louis stories.