Downtown Yuletide, the holiday season. . . . .
Never a bleaker winter, as The Arch made a friendly bow-line below the faithless clouds.
More real than a post-card (– if grayer) as the dismal afternoon of river-smells wafted over the placid open-face of the great Mississippi like a brown slick.
Your impression from the air was a vast, grid-like swathe spreading out— industrial manufacturing made run-down, sooty, defunct—as if momentum had slowed-down from the anchoring grander narrative of World War II and afterwards.
Like a spider-bite on your arm, an inner crater of necrotizing flesh best describing the downtown and inner city as there wasn’t much traction to hold people’s interest. How the population mostly cleared-out by nightfall. . . . . . towards the suburbs and even further out.
Now it seemed as if things were mostly out-of-gas.
With the narrow, one-way streets and struggle to find decent parking you wouldn’t otherwise fight your way down here unless you were seriously-motivated. It seemed an intractable problem. At least rival Chicago to the northeast had burned-down a couple of times, the opportunity to rebuild and refashion with thriving commerce. Lots of flash. . . . . constant hustle & bustle.
Unlike this urban dot of the sleepy Midwest—as the business at hand WAS public-works.
Incidentally, the single largest employer or else there wouldn’t be a city to bother with.
Woe to you, should you have business in this endless run-around of clerks’ windows that seemed to justify itself with awkward, knobular transactions. Mostly on a cash-and-carry basis and a petty strong-box like some kind of throwback to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Depression-era bank notes.
The floors were brutal and hard on the arches—the cold, cold granite exteriors “no softer”—and you found yourself thinking about Superman and “The Daily Planet” lore, if not film noir and gangster films with the judge’s gavel and civil society of courtroom justice.
Somewhere in the mix, you had bankers back east with industrial integrity of the trans-Atlantic financial system at stake, the pitiless bellow of J.P. Morgan and “great game” for the corners of the earth like “blood & iron”. The threat of the law and golden vaults of treasure that sustained order, itself.
Though today, it was duly-apportioned civil business. . . . . if not the hamstrung nature of the Federal Government., bound by equal opportunity and law. There it rose above the sea of scraggly prarie grass like a lone outpost of the national Constitution, governing more in the cowering fear of lone-nut insurrectionists and domestic terrorism as ice-water pumped through pigeon-hearts.
To buy favor “with the locals”, or maybe “just to change the subject” was the local historical society and constant run of museums young school groups visited. They would come to hear about the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the frontier, the civil war.
Kids would murmur at the apparent outmodedness of slavery and the auction block which took place outside the old courthouse, where the Dred Scott decision was argued.
Or yet, the serene open face of the Mississippi river and the trading-posts where Frenchman held court with the stately Indian, a chieftain with a feather hanging off the cropped-hair of this wolfskin-clad sage—the noble savage. The trade of beaver pelts as a chicken-hawk flew over the Cahokia mounds on the Illinois side. Ancient farming, solar calendars and flint-knap arrowheads.
The waters softly lapped against the riverbank, so slow and timeless.
There was always the floating McDonald’s lashed to the pier, firmly– where the class would board for lunch. A tour-stop with local presumption, as underwritten by the downtown development agency. The working register that endured, transaction by transaction—as the otherwise all-black help grilled burgers and shoveled fries with mercenary concerns.
The main trade was in touristy trinkets—commemorative merchandise with a substantial mark-up. Pick your poison, and all-aboard.
And how the kids stood on the deck of the old Admiral, leaning against the railing as the ship powered up and down the brackish, ailing river as the tour-guide narrated over a loud-speaker.
There, another attraction. . . . . The Annheiser-Busch brewery huddled along the riverfront a-ways down, a German-Irish staple as true to this town as anything—how limestone caves were historically used to naturally refrigerate “the haul” with the oozing smell of loam and natural process.
How the lore of paddle-wheel boats and the twirling cane of “the big spender” was turned into a floating gambler’s haven with the casinos.
Voted by controversial referendum and legalized on the promise of local jobs, tax money for the schools—more “sleight-of-hand” as the blackjack dealer tossed out the cards in a black vest, shirt-sleeves, and a bow-tie “just so”. The local schmos afforded the whimsy of chance by “the gaming commission” with the low-down undertow pulling them in. The taxis carried an ad on their roofs—a schmuck holding up a wad of bills, quick as a ninja. Your ticket to sin-town.
Especially on Christmas.
For indeed, creeping death descended on St. Louis—holiday season or not. It was open season for the sports teams and scratchy old drunks cheering in the grimy grandstands, the poisonous haze edging up and down the run-down limestone squats on the side of the major highway cutting through, sheer to the other side of Illinois across the Poplar Street bridge.
Our battered downtown.
Whatever the dubious vanilla swagger of any local hare-brained developer, the blood pumped through watery veins as toothless as the local inhabitants of the halfway house. Now it was faded Blaxploitation with fast money and jury-rigged solutions, whether payday loan or the local rent-a-center delivering a couch on the back of a rusted-out old truck.
Dregs of the city, law of the world.
All you could reply with was a vacant liberal wish, flowery and penitent for the tragedy of it—“peace on earth and good will to men” and all that stuff. Local boosterism died hard, this center by Union Station that once housed a railway depot—the lore of fast money and prostitutes as the hotel detective arrested check-forgers for wire-fraud.
This was the main event next to the all-ages “pony show” as services—subcontracted out by the city—provided rolling photograph kiosks, hot-dog stands, that sort of thing for the family-friendly stragglers.
It was always a lousy holiday season. . . . . . and there Beetlejuice had a gig working as Santa. Only “Santa” was drunk and having a rip-roaring good time.
It was a useless story, an unclean story, A ST. LOUIS STORY.
How the mighty have fallen, indeed.