Every couple of years or so, I write a love letter to St. Louis. Not like a real love letter, because that’s trite. But more like a statement, a testament to why I live here, or, more specifically, why I came back. The easy reason is that I was unhappy with a shitty marriage in Southern California, and that’s partly true. But the other reason is that even though, at one point, I couldn’t wait to leave, eventually I realized that the place I felt most at home, the place where I knew the streets and the weather and the dialect in my bones, was here. I knew it every time my plane touched down in St. Louis, every time we drove home from the airport past the total decay of North City, every time I remembered how to interpret the signals at the most convoluted South City intersections without a second thought.
I know it’s uncool to stay where you grew up. I know it’s extremely uncool to stay in the same ZIP code, but fuck you guys, it’s cheap here, and I’m home. Plus we’ve got people like Bob Reuter, one of my favorite people on 88.1, whose photos and music look and sound like St. Louis feels. If you want to come back but you can’t for some reason, watch this 11-minute documentary about Bob, Broken and Wonderful:
(The first several seconds are audio only. Soldier on, you’ll be glad you did.)
My friend Shannon (local activist, running for alderperson of the 20th Ward, all around Better Person Than I Can Ever Be) is friends with Bob. I mean, Bob is my friend on Facebook, but so is that one girl I’m not really friends with but am keeping around because I’m sure that one day I’ll get to witness her complete psychological meltdown. So, you know. I told Shannon that I occasionally see Bob around at cafés and shows and I always want to introduce myself but the lameness of the introduction stops me: “Uhm, we’re friends on Facebook and know the same people? Derrrrrp.” Then she pointed out that if I need an icebreaker, I could always tell him about the time I threatened to kick his ass for getting the pots and pans she offered for free.
Which is a good icebreaker and I’d forgotten all about it, but to be fair, whose ass haven’t I threatened to kick at one point or another?
Awhile ago, someone in this writing workshop I’m in suggested a prompt. The prompt was to describe a city. I’d been playing around with a few crappy ideas when someone suggested I revisit something I’d mentioned months before. Awhile ago, I’d said something about writing maps from my dreams. Like, you know how you have nothing else to say and you start talking about your dream, and before the other person’s face goes entirely blank, you say something like “and it was my neighborhood, but it wasn’t my neighborhood”? Okay, so if you’ve been living in the same city all your life (minus 3 years or whatever it was when you started moving all over the place), that place is imprinted on your subconscious, and no matter how well you know it in real life, the dream version is bound to get all twisted up in there.
SO when I couldn’t pin down any of my prompt ideas, I decided to write the maps instead of draw them. I got some decent feedback when I posted to the workshop. I don’t normally post this kind of stuff here (it’s here, in case you’re wondering, though I’ve got at least 3 other things to post when I stop forgetting it exists), but last night I got drunk on wine and thought it was a good idea:
When I was a kid, I could have told you how to get to the Statue of Liberty. I’d been there dozens of times. On Sundays, my grandparents and I would go to church. After the careful order of Catholic sitting, standing, and kneeling, we’d go to Shoney’s for breakfast. Then we’d drive across the bridge, and I’d peer out the back window of their mahogany-colored Olds at the Statue of Liberty. I told my mother this once and she looked at me funny.
“You’ve never seen the Statue of Liberty,” she said.
“Yes I have!” I insisted. “Lots of times!”
“No, you haven’t. The Statue of Liberty is in New York. So is Sesame Street. You’ve never been to New York.”
I couldn’t understand how the Statue of Liberty was in New York, because if I’d never been there, how could I have seen it? And I remembered seeing it. So clearly, too, down to the position of the sun in the sky and the reflection of light on the water. Obviously, my mother was lying. It wasn’t until I learned to read a year later that I found out the Statue of Liberty really was in New York, and that I hadn’t actually been there at all.
“Maybe you dreamed it,” my mother said.
When I got older, I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty for real. You can’t take a bridge over the water to get there. You have to take a boat.
I can’t tell you anymore how 3-Year-Old Me got to the Statue of Liberty in the backseat of her grandparents’ car, but I can draw you maps for a different place. You might not ever get there on your own, but I’ll draw the maps just in case. It is very dangerous to lose your way when you’re dreaming.
This is where I was born. I know this city so well when I’m awake, I know it to its brick and mortar, it lives resolute in the pulpy parts of my animal brain. My destination doesn’t present itself as a place on a map, it is the result of my own mental travelogue, my mind’s eye stretching itself over roads and through stop signs and under telephone wires strung with high top sneakers. I am comfortable enough here to lay my route down alleyways laid with brick pavers, the car tires dodging feral cats with dusty coats and stiff tails. When I move through this city, I am home.
But this is not what I see when I dream. When I dream, I know a demented, mirror version of my city. The places I can go when I’m awake have folded, multiplied, and scattered themselves across another plane. Although its nature demands that it stay inconstant, I have been there so many thousands of times that even when it changes, even when whole neighborhoods go missing and doors open to places they didn’t before, I know what is coming. I can draw you what’s there. I clutch at this other city every time I wake, sweaty and trembling from the dead runs I make in my sleep.
The house of my dreams has no locks. Anyone can get in, and I can get out by simply touching my hand to the door. Nearby there is a viaduct yawning beneath a railroad bridge, the tracks themselves rusting through weeds and broken glass that blinks like tiny lighthouses in the wreckage. If you follow the tracks, there is a road. Where the road forks, there is a factory where everything is gray as cement mixer and covered in dust.
Beyond the factory, there is a hill with apartment houses full of people who have never wanted me to live there. If I leave my car there and walk north, I will try to reach the park but find myself lost in the streets named for states. There are a number of blocks here populated by giant red-brick factories, smokestacks rising like Towers of Babel along the road and dwarfing the buildings where the windows have been replaced by nailed sheets of plywood. Somewhere down one of these streets is a market where they sell Italian sandwiches and live chickens for voodoo.
When I finally reach the park, I’ll follow the meandering bike path until I come to the boulevard. The boulevard is where the rich people live in stately gray tombs. If I turn north, there are fancy restaurants and skyscraper hospitals. If I turn south (and I always turn south), there are vintage shops and a candy store where everything is so expensive that by the time I finally decide to buy something, I realize I can’t afford it. So many times, I have left this shop embarrassed and wandered into the haunted house next door, only to be trapped for hours in its endless parlors and sub-basements.
Turning east, I stop at the river. Along the waterfront there are rowdy bars and tattoo parlors where smoke like opium curls out of open windows and cracked doorways. Here is where a man on a rumbling motorcycle gives me a ride. He has to meet someone, so we stop at a ziggurat-shaped building where tough kids do ollies on skateboards in the parking lot and old crumbly people beg for payphone change. It takes the man forever to come out of the building, so I stop waiting and walk west.
After passing the white house with the bell tower where I spent afternoons playing card games with the boys in my class, I am lost in a parallel grid of houses I recognize but cannot enter. I run down these blocks and jump chainlink fences; it takes me forever to get out of this neighborhood. There is nothing particularly dangerous here, but no one I know lives in these buildings anymore. And if I can go further, I will find myself on the tree-lined streets where there is a church. I have been looking for this church for years.
The church was built with wood and granite from the Old World and it still gleams in the shade. It is in the middle of the block and sits between houses, which makes it so hard to find. I search block after block after block trying to remember where someone’s hidden it. I have wandered into other churches and disturbed Orthodox masses while looking for it. I’ve forgotten his name and why I need to find him, but there is a priest at this church and he is waiting for me to get there. I am crying every time I have to give up the search.
At least I am not in the other cities. There were places where I lived for awhile but never stayed. When I return to them in my dreams, they are nothing but highways. Brutal and embattled interstates bolted to the earth, they are designed for speed, blind curves, and brake failures. I am constantly missing my exit in these places and I am never allowed to slow down. If I stop, there are floods and earthquakes and guns, and if I defy the dream physics and reach my destination, it’s a place I definitely don’t want to see anymore. In my own city, I’m ready for the risks. I helped build them.
When I start home, I am back in the neighborhood of my youth. A few blocks from my mother’s house, there is a square block of green grass and a cluster of naked sapling trees. An abandoned clapboard house sits just outside of the northeastern corner, a rusting car hulking in the yard. Angry children yelp from that direction and I vaguely recall something about men with black grease under their fingernails, so I turn the other way. I am not going back to my apartment anymore.
In this place, my best friend lives on a street at the end of the world. I knock on her door but she’s not home, so I walk to the end of her block, where the houses give way to cafés that are always empty. They’re beautiful on the inside and all the cars outside cost a fortune, so I assume they’re too expensive for me to stay. Above my head, Tibetan prayer flags flutter from lampposts. If I continue past the café with the chalkboard sign on the sidewalk and the other one with the steel railings, I find myself in the crowd at the mouth of an alleyway.
On the right side of the alleyway is a long line of antebellum-style houses, first- and second-floor porches stretching the width of each house, and huge wilting ferns hanging from the roofs. If the bordello is open, the porch rails are strung with twinkle lights. In their glow I can see malnourished-looking women slouching in the humid air before they have to go inside again. The rooms behind them are covered in velvet.
The crowds yells and surges and some people wave tickets for whatever it is they’ve bought.
I can’t be the only one who has seen this place. My city has birthed artists. William S. Burroughs once prowled the whorehouse district, where fleabag hotels beckoned perfumed and diseased down on Market Street. Scott Joplin banged away for years at an invented sort of the blues born of a city that still stinks of mud and old French vice. T.S. Eliot wrote epic poems about the churn of the Mississippi, the river that carried Mark Twain as a highwayman, just blocks away from where Tennessee Williams got drunk over a typewriter and Miles Davis first raised his fist to a woman.
It’s possible that the city I see in my dreams is a place where they have been, as well. It’s possible that my subconscious digs deep with iron mined from the fillings in my teeth, claws down into the loam and the clay of the river valley. Our collective dark thoughts hide in underground limestone caves, which for centuries have been used for storing beer, running liquor, sheltering the forgettable, and keeping screams quiet.
Or probably I’m getting ahead of myself, because dreamers aren’t always artists and I always wake up to realize that the place I go when I’m asleep is never real. But someday, I will come back to this city I know in my dreams and I will not be able to leave. I will stand on a second-story porch in the summer night with my back to a crimson and gold room, smoking and staring hollow-eyed at the backs of houses and beyond those, a street lined with cafes where no one can afford to eat.