Home Sweet Missouri, Journey

To Fear, Standing Up, and the Indomitable Ms. A

The thing I remember most about my 11th grade English class was Joseph McCarthy.

My high school English teacher died last week. It wasn’t a quiet death, no it was sudden and violent. She was ripped out of the world and those that remain still haven’t come to grips with her departure.

Ms. A was a domestic violence survivor, but I didn’t know that when I sat in her English class my junior year of high school. I learned that recently, nearly fifteen years after she had me in class. She’d begun to write her own story, to give voice to her own experience. Her words, like her voice in the classroom, were a force to behold, simultaneously piercing and cataclysmic. And yet, it seemed that they gave her a sense of peace. Her death, then, was tragically perverse.

I, like many of my classmates and community members, am having a difficult time grappling with the reality of her passing. I keep thinking back to the lessons Ms. A taught me. They’ve echoed and reverberated through my lifetime; I learn and relearn them the older I get. This makes me smile, because isn’t that what every great teacher wants? Their lessons to just keep on educating, year after year?

Way to go, Ms. A.

I don’t really remember anything that I read in high school. I vividly remember all my favorite books from ages 4-14. And I have strong ties to many stories and poems and essays from my years in college and graduate school and beyond. But the four years of high school are a literary black hole in my life. I could psychoanalyze that but I think the easiest explanation is that I was preoccupied with a million other things. Read: I was an adolescent.

So, when I think of Ms. A, I struggle to remember what we read. What I remember was Joseph McCarthy. We studied the literature of the 1950’s and what I remember from that unit was an in-depth examination of McCarthyism and its implications. We read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I remember the comparison of the Salem witch trials to McCarthy’s quest to rid the U.S. of communists (and homosexuals and artists and civil rights activists), and evaluating how Miller’s play served as a vehicle to express his views on the subject; to take a stand.

Ms. A also gave us the Harlem Renaissance. She gave me Langston Hughes’ poetry, James Baldwin’s stories, and Lorraine Hansberry’s The Raisin in the Sun, which was undoubtedly another of Ms. A’s lessons at work—here, a story providing a platform to highlight inequity and racism. Again, I don’t remember the story very well, but I remember the history and the implications of the writing on the world clearly.

These are some of the best examples of the power of words to shift perception, to stand up for something, to advocate through literature. In that regard, they rocked my world.

I was scared of Ms. A. She was sharp, took no shit and wasn’t afraid to stand up to the snarkiest of bullies. She was, in a word, fierce. I was scared of her, but oh, I admired her, I wanted to be just like her. Her actions and her demeanor showed me how to take a stand.

I kept in touch with Ms. A. She followed my writing, as well as my personal journey of travel and exploration. We had conversations about writing and social justice. The more I found courage to publicly take a stand in my own work, the more she encouraged me. Even in my mid (okay, late?) thirties, I can tell you, that still matters.

When I was a teenager I thought she was a fearless woman. Now, I know better. She wasn’t unafraid. She let her fear stand beside her as she stood strong, told her story, let her words empower her. She was an example of a woman who had plenty to be afraid of and was, but she stood up anyway. This lesson is her legacy and I will hold it close.

Home Sweet Missouri, St. Louis

Home Not So Sweet

I think about place a lot. I write about it a lot. I studied it a bit in my sociology grad program. Specifically the idea of the third place, or a place that people find comfort  and connection that is not home or work. See, we know that humans are really attached to their environment, it’s a very particular need. And it is one of those things that is so subject to socio-economic class, it’s so ultimately out of our control from the get-go and that conflict between the importance and utter lack of control is fascinating. north city church

We don’t get to pick what or where we are born into. And yet it is so critical in how we develop as people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the only thing, but it’s big. Place impacts how we acclimate to climate, what we are exposed to politically, culturally and socially, what sports teams we root for. Would I be a Seahawks fan if I hadn’t moved to Seattle? Highly unlikely. And sometimes this can be a cause of real pain.

I was brought up in a rural community in the middle of Missouri. It was small, pretty white, agricultural, conservative. My parents were liberal artists (though my dad would balk at that term–he’d say craftsperson) from St. Louis. They raised me in a very liberal home, made diversity (race, culture and otherwise) a priority to teach. My hometown’s second religion was football, high school and college. My parents could give two shits about the MU Tigers or how the team fared.

I acclimated. I grew up a pretty well-adjusted kid. I didn’t cause too much trouble (read: I didn’t get pregnant or thrown in rehab before I was of age. Or ever, actually.). I am an arguably well-adjusted adult. But I would say that the conflict between how my parents raised me and how my town raised me was challenging at best. As a result, I both have warm, comforting memories of my hometown and often a visceral negative reaction to it.

When my dad got diagnosed with cancer, I’d just moved back to the area from the West Coast to help out. He’d been through a round of radiation, a round of chemo, two surgeries and was on his second round of chemo when I dragged my mom out for the evening for a drink. We went to a historic hotel in town and had a glass of wine. We knew almost everyone in the bar. My boss from the video store AND the copy shop I worked at in high school were both there. And they remembered me, more than ten years (and several pounds and hairstyles) later. I was overwhelmed by the kind words, and that was just one night.

A few years ago, my dad’s best friend passed away. It was tragic and unexpected. It wrecked my parents, but my dad especially. Just finally recovered from a brutal illness, everyone worried the news of Marty’s death would quite literally take him out at the knees. The way the community took care of each other, like family–it chokes me up a little even now.

And I remember going to a party in high school at an older kid’s house. It was a drunken pool party. Country music blaring, lots of booze. Probably not a lot of clothes (I don’t remember). This kid was a pretty good kid–football player, honor roll, you know the type. Posted to the fence was a sign scrawled: “No drugs, no whores, no niggers.” Everyone thought it was hilarious.

At thirty-five I have made peace with the fact that those memories can exist in the same place and not necessarily be entirely contradictory. I’m getting more comfortable with the dichotomy and the fact that it isn’t resolvable. It just is. But damn, it is hard. And it doesn’t get easier the older I get and the more I see the consequences of both sides of those memories.

I just read this incredible article about St. Louis written by a successful black man who grew up there. He has written extensively about Ferguson and it’s impact on the national stage, but has been less inclined to write about his own experience growing up there. I totally understand.

Ultimately, I think McKissack writes really honestly and vulnerably (which is arguably more challenging) about place and our human connection to place. His depiction of St. Louis is incredibly visual and I can picture this kid running around Union Market or listening to his folks talk about the Cards football (yes, football) team. And I can imagine what it would be like to hear your parents crying about a neighbor kid getting soaked in urine by a bunch of white rednecks (this really broke my heart).

I don’t necessarily think this is a grand political statement–he isn’t saying anything groundbreaking here or anything we haven’t heard a hundred times from various pundits, writers, protesters, etc. I put myself in this guy’s shoes–a successful, black writer from St. Louis, MO. Everyone’s asking you to write about Ferguson and what’s happening with race relations around the country. And so you write your story…I can only imagine this might be one of the hardest things for him to write.

Please read it. It’s important writing, it’s real and authentic. It’s important in the context of the racial issues permeating urban centers across the country. But it’s also echoes so many of our own experiences–and isn’t that what makes writing and art so incredibly important? Because it strikes a chord and links us.

Home Sweet Missouri, St. Louis

I Heart St. Louis: Nostalgia

I grew up in mid-Missouri, exactly halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City on Interstate 70. I am at heart, though, a St. Louis girl. I’m a Cards fan, I prefer Schlafly to Boulevard, Forest Park to Loose Park. Both sides of my family are from St. Louis, my dad’s from the far north ‘burbs (you know, up there by the infamous Ferguson?), my mother from the south. So many of my childhood memories are of St. Louis. I went to college there, became an adult there. It’s so deep in my DNA that I often feel more connected to it than I do to my own hometown.

"New" Busch Stadium

“New” Busch Stadium

There are things that are so quintessentially St. Louis that stick in my memories: the particular smell of the tar used on the roads in my grandparent’s cul-de-sac, the sound of Jack Buck’s voice on KMOX on my grandpa’s radio while he tinkered away on some car or another, the curvy neon signs that lined the roads advertising motels or car dealerships. My mom’s parents lived a few blocks away from the stables where the Clydesdales resided, I loved peeking though the back fence and watching those mammoth animals graze. (Incidentally, my hometown is now where the babies grow up.)

My grandpa's fave, Donut Drive-In.  http://hellostl.com/?p=228

My grandpa’s fave, Donut Drive-In.

My grandma worked as an admin for years (I don’t knowhow many, but my entire life until she retired) for Anheuser-Busch. I remember this because A) there was AB shit all over their house (notepads, notebooks, beer cozies, beach towels, jackets, t-shirts, glasses, playing cards, stuffed Spuds McKenzie’s and they crown jewel was this Clydesdale lamp thing that I loved) and B) their refrigerator was always chock-full of beer. Every time we visited they sent us home with some until my dad finally admitted that he didn’t like Busch or Budweiser or Michelob.

Actually, now that I think about it, I can count at least half a dozen family members that worked at AB in some capacity—brewers, janitors, electricians, chemists, IT guys.

I started writing reviews of undiscovered places to get cheap drinks in St. Louis when I was in my twenties.

Me, Red Bones, Allison. Red Bones Den. circa 2006 Code Red Blog Days

Me, Red Bones, Allison. Red Bones Den. circa 2006 Code Red Blog Days

I went into a lot of dive bars. These are not the dive bars that hipster Seattleites talk about, these dive bars were not cultivated by a restaurateur or guitarist-cum-bartender. These were authentic, hole in the wall places that did not cultivate anything except intoxication. Most of them served beer in a can (and you would be glared out of the bar if you asked for a Miller), liquor straight, allowed smoking anywhere on the premises and would sell you a pickled egg for a buck. And I swear I saw that Clydesdale lamp EVERYWHERE.

It was a sad day for St. Louis when InBev bought AB. It was like losing a piece of the city’s heritage. I didn’t live in St. Louis anymore when this occurred but I remember a lot of worry about layoffs, etc. For good reason.

My mom told me a story over the holidays about a cousin who’d worked at AB for forty years as a chemist. One day recently an executive showed up and escorted their entire department out. That was it, after forty years. You show up for work and you’re done.

I just heard that AB/InBev bought the Elysian Brewing Company in Seattle, a long-standing microbrewery that’s been around for nearly 20 years. Twenty years! Twenty years ago no one knew what microbrews were. And now they’re selling to the behemoth that is slowly gutting a St. Louis institution.

Let me be clear. I am not particularly attached to Anheuser Busch. I don’t necessarily feel nostalgic or warm fuzzies when I think about the brewery or the memorabilia. It’s like anything else you grow up with—you just know it’s going to be there, you don’t miss it or even notice it, it’s just a constant.lemp brewery

I never really drank their beer—for many reasons, but mainly because I don’t like it. More recently, I refused because it felt traitorous.

I am not a business analyst; I do not profess to give a shit how much money anyone makes on any particular acquisition. If it hadn’t been InBev, Elysian would have sold to someone else and I probably would have shaken my head and forgotten it.

This is an emotional reaction. It’s like that feeling you get when you catch your parent or teacher doing something shitty—that profound, foundation-rocking disappointment and disillusionment. You knew Mr. Sanders could be an asshole, sometimes he could fly off the handle, but this—it was beyond comprehension. Suddenly you question everything you remember…

That’s a bit dramatic. But you know what I mean? When an institution suddenly crumbles, it shakes things up.

Emotionally, I refuse to drink anything InBev produces because they are assholes. Not that the brewers of Pabst or Miller or Rainier are any better. But this feels personal.

They better not fuck with my Clydesdales.