Meandered to St. Louis and Back

The last time I was in St. Louis was in June 1993.  I went with a Cincinnati friend who had an interview at St. Louis University Law School, so I came along to see my old friend John Bilgere.  We saw firsthand the Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993 during the trip, watching the Mississippi River running wild and viewing a completely flooded Laclede’s Landing from the observation deck in the Gateway Arch.

The most recent journey to St. Louis just ended.  Due to modem issues, I was unable to post contemporaneous entries, so now that I’m back at home, I can recount the highlights of the trip.  I took pictures (officially christening my new Kodak EasyShare C143), wrote diary entries, and jotted down notes throughout the entire time I was on the road.

I’ve logged literally tens of thousands of miles on Greyhound since I was a teenager, but this was my first trip anywhere on Megabus.  I have seen their brightly painted blue and yellow double-decker buses downtown and around the Ohio State campus, so I finally decided to try them for this long overdue trip–the first time I have seen John since 2001.

Megabus is not for the impatient traveler.  Besides the reduced price, I thought it would be fun to take a circuitous route to St. Louis.  I have hitchhiked there (from Marietta, in the summer of 1981), and once did a ride-share with someone going from Cincinnati to Kansas City, but otherwise have gone by Greyhound.  All involved straight shots down Interstate 70.

Not this time.  When Megabus emailed me my confirmation and my schedule, I saw that I would be going to St. Louis by way of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Chicago.  Never take a child who says “Are we there yet?” on a Megabus.

I enjoyed the trip thoroughly.  This was the first time I had ever ridden in the upper deck of a double-decker, and I was amused that I, at 5’8¾”, was almost too tall to stand up straight in the aisle.  I felt like I was being carried in a sedan chair as the bus climbed north up High St. through the Short North and the Ohio State area, just as the bars and nightclubs were starting to get busy.

Megabus passengers, at least from what I’ve seen on this little safari, are much more polite than the ones I’ve experienced in my many trips on Greyhound.  If someone had an MP3 player, the volume was low.  Cell phone conversations were in stage whispers.  I was able to doze, write, and read without interruption.  This was a far cry from my 1987 bus trip to California, when four or five guys (whom I knew by sight from O.U.) weren’t happy that the bus was quiet, and decided to serenade everyone by loudly playing the theme from The Andy Griffith Show on their kazoos.

One way Megabus keeps their prices so low is that they have no physical ticket counter and no bus stations.  I picked up the bus Saturday night at the corner of N. High St. and Nationwide Blvd., and, as dawn was breaking, our bus came to a stop on S. Canal St. in downtown Chicago, near Union Station.  It was a warm morning, but I would have had to take shelter in Union Station itself had it been cold or rainy.

There was a billboard on the garage across the street.  Advertising deals on a new condominium  in downtown Chicago, it said, It would suck to miss this!  The same could be said for Megabus, especially if you’re between buses.

The layover was not a boring one.  As I stepped off the bus, I saw a police officer putting two sawhorses across Canal St. where it intersects Jackson Blvd., and saw people standing around on the sidewalk.  I explored the inside of Union Station for awhile, which didn’t take too long, since many areas were restricted to Amtrak ticket-holders only.

Once back outside, I saw that the street was blocked because of the third annual XSport Fitness Rock-N-Roll Mini-Marathon.  After hearing for years about the health-restoring power of running, whether jogging or all-out marathon racing, I become more and more committed to walking.  I took some pictures (both still and video) during the race, and I guess running is the origin of the expression “No pain, no gain.”  I watched the videos after I downloaded them onto the laptop, and almost everyone looks like they’re in agony.

Many people seem to be westbound this weekend.  When it was time to continue the trip, Megabus had two buses at the ready.  The Megabus coach was going straight to Kansas City, without taking on or dropping off any passengers anywhere else.  They called in a charter (not a Megabus) to take passengers who were going to St. Louis, and it was a direct trip south on Interstate 55, except for a lunch break in McLean, a village just outside the Bloomington-Normal city limits

Mike Nevins met me at Union Station on Market St. in St. Louis, when my bus arrived–on time.  He spoke about the condo where he will be living this fall.  (His wife died this spring, and he is moving from their house into a condominium that would accommodate a childless widower much more practically.)  Mike also presented me with a signed copy of Night and Fear, another posthumous collection of Cornell Woolrich’s short stories, which he edited and for which he wrote the introduction.  He gave me a brief tour of the Delmar Loop, which is “One of the 10 Great Streets in America,” according to a 2007 report by the American Planning Association.  I hadn’t been to the Delmar Loop since 1993, so it looked completely different than I remembered it.  (I was relieved to see that Vintage Vinyl, where I spent plenty of money on my 1993 trip–on everything from Dave Brubeck to Pink Floyd to Bach’s Mass in B Minor–is still alive and well.)

My friend John has changed significantly since I last saw him in 2001.  We met at a Unitarian youth conference, OPIK ’79, in August 1979 in Delton, Mich.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky, the states where most of the attendees lived.  The reason the 1979 conference took place in Michigan is a long story I will not go into here.)  I was 16 years old and full of piss and vinegar, and grateful to be away from my father, stepmother, and stepsisters, and meeting entirely new (to me) people.  John and I picked each other, almost by default, in a workshop where you were supposed to pair off with someone you didn’t know previously.  And we’ve been friends since.

John developed multiple sclerosis last year, and initially it was the relapsing and remitting variety, but now it seems to be more degenerative.  He is in a wheelchair, and is living in a skilled care facility a few blocks south of the Delmar Loop.  We caught up on our lives in the last decade, although we have filled the gaps by phone calls and correspondence–both by U.S. Mail and email–throughout.  I knew about his deteriorating physical condition, and he knew about the end of my marriage and my new life as a single father.  The place where he lives is more hospital than apartment, and he is grateful for chances to go out to physical therapy, doctor appointments, and visits with his family.  It was a far cry from the spring of 1982, when he came to visit me in Marietta and spoke of wanting to see Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.  He had learned in school that Martha, thanks to the art of taxidermy, was at the Smithsonian Institution.

“Why don’t we go see her?” I asked.  I made a blizzard of phone calls, beginning with  friends at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington Office, and found some generous friends of friends² who let us sleep in the living room of their D St. NE rowhouse.  The next morning, we marched out to U.S. 50 on the outskirts of Parkersburg and put out our thumbs.  That night, John saw the Capitol dome for the first time.

Our last road trip was the last time I saw him, in November 2001.  He, Rich, and I went down to Hodgenville, Kentucky and saw the site where Abraham Lincoln was born at Sinking Spring Farm.  (John is like me: Both of us have been to where Lincoln was born, and where he was assassinated and the room where he died–he for the first time on our 1982 hitchhiking trip–but not to Springfield, where Lincoln is buried.)

I restrained myself and did not buy anything at Vintage Vinyl, mainly because I wasn’t sure how I’d transport LPs.  As much as I love them, they are clumsy and would not fit in my backpack.  I filled a few pages in my notebook with titles of albums that struck my fancy, and explored the Loop until I walked down to Skinker Blvd. and walked to the MetroLink stop there.  (The MetroLink, St. Louis’ light-rail system, was not there during my previous visit.)  I rode the train to Union Station, and found I had several hours to kill before the 1:15 a.m. departure of my Megabus to Columbus (again via Chicago).  I decided to walk toward the Gateway Arch.

Even as I walked easterly toward the Arch, I was wondering how foolhardy this was.  I was worried that downtown St. Louis would be deserted on a Sunday night, even a warm summer Sunday night, and walking alone with a knapsack would broadcast “out of towner” to any potential thief.  For a block or so down Market St., I felt like a big red neon arrow was following me, but it turned out downtown was anything but deserted.  I knew the Arch would not be open, and I have made two or three trips inside on its tram to the observation deck, but I wanted to see it at night and get a few pictures.

The second of Taylor Swift’s two Scottrade Center concerts was last night, and I had to thread my way through the blocks-long crowd of concertgoers who were leaving.  Most of them were teenage girls, and younger, accompanied by their parents or other adults.  I felt a lot better than I did during my 1992 trip, when I ran into the crowds leaving a Danzig concert at the American Theater.  I saw quite a few kids ask their friends or parents to photograph them by Taylor Swift’s trucks, which were all decorated with the artwork from her current album, Speak Now.

A very small portion of the post-Taylor Swift crowd as they left the Scottrade Center.  Many were behind me when I took this picture, and the crowd (and the cars) stretched far beyond my range of vision.

The Taylor Swift crowd was much better behaved than the crowd leaving Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Colorado Rockies.  I’m glad there was enough down time between the two that the groups did not cross paths.

I slept most of the way northward on I-55 on the return trip.  I had seen the terrain during the trip the day before, and it was dark out, so there wasn’t much to see.  During my Chicago layover, I was amused by the juxtaposition between all the white- and blue-collar people pouring out of buses and Union Station to head to their jobs, and the excruciating, though comparatively carefree, hurrying and rushing of the runners on Sunday morning.

Once the bus was southbound on Interstate 65 toward Indianapolis, the driver got on the speaker and told us that we’d be heading straight to Columbus after Indianapolis, which meant a straight shot east on I-70.  I was pleased, because I knew that meant we’d pass through Henry County, where my stepmother’s parents lived after their retirement.  (During our visit in 1978, I decided to hike from their house in Spiceland to New Castle, nearly eight miles north on Indiana State Road 3.  I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic; I just wanted to get the hell away from everyone.)

The only diversion in the small town was watching teenage boys trying to puncture Spiceland’s water tower with their BB guns.  I guess we all need a Sisyphean task to make life truly worthwhile.  One time I actually heard a BB make contact with the water tower, and we all waited to hear the sound of water trickling.  (The BB bounced against the metal and flew off, of course, but what did we know of ballistics?)

I told John this story at another Unitarian youth conference, this one in Western Pennsylvania.  Years later, when he came to visit me in Columbus, he said he had a surprise for me.  It was a picture of the Spiceland water tower that he had taken on a previous journey on I-70!

Cost-Saving Day

Today was one of the “cost-saving days” dictated by our contract.  (I get to choose six of them, whereas four of them–the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Eve–were chosen for me.)  I slept late both yesterday and today, so returning to the work routine come Monday morning won’t be easy.  Open-ended waking-up times are very easy to get used to.

We had a pretty low-key Thanksgiving fête, just Steph, Susie, and me.  It featured turkey, potatoes, carrots, wine (for Steph), water (for Susie), and apple juice (for me).  It was hardly a Norman Rockwell setting.  As we ate, we watched a Two and a Half Men stored on the DVR, and I enjoyed some of the many episodes of Law and Order that TNT broadcast.  I was too wiped out, both emotionally and physically, to write either here in the blog or in my diary, and I was in bed well on this side of midnight.
Even though the temperature hasn’t been above 30º F. today, I’ve been outdoors quite a bit today.  Yesterday, Thanksgiving, it was dark most of the day, with a constant cold rain.  The only time I was outdoors was to run turkey parts straight out to the trash can in the back yard, so David, our tabby, wouldn’t get into the trash.  (He feasted on giblets from the turkey, so he ate as well as we did.)  This morning, I took Susie to the Short North post office branch to buy a $.10 stamp, so she could mail a letter to her pen pal in Ireland.  (I had given her two $.44 stamps already.)
Steph and I walked, mostly along E. and W. 5th Ave., in the afternoon after the noon meal.  She took my camera and shot some pictures of different scenes and buildings along the way–Godman Guild, the New Life United Methodist Church, shops near the corner of High and 5th, etc.  We walked as far west as the Thompson Recreation Center, and then turned around and headed eastward.  Our goal was to be in the light of the sun as much as possible, and the sun darted in and out from behind clouds the entire time.
As maudlin as it sounds, I have been searching the junk stores and thrift shops for a decent copy of Eric Enstrom’s “Grace,” a painting taken from a photograph of peddler Charles Wilden.  I’ve seen the pictures in church social halls, friends’ dining rooms, and even some hole-in-the-wall restaurants here and there.  Since it was so ubiquitous, I thought that it had crossed the line into kitsch, but lately I’ve rethought that.
What I like about this picture is that the old man in the picture is genuinely thankful and glad for the food that is set before him.  And it’s quite a simple meal, just some bread and gruel.  The Lord’s Prayer says “give us this day our daily bread,” meaning give us the food to sustain us, no more, no less, no deprivation, but no excess, either.
I realized that I had some rethinking to do in this area sometime last year.  I was walking through the kitchen at night, and the lights were off.  I nearly fell when I stepped onto a scatter of cans on the kitchen floor and nearly fell.  After I regained my balance, I was cursing that our pantry was so overloaded cans weren’t staying on the shelves.
I caught myself a moment later.  So easily did I forget the days when I was between jobs and rolling pennies so I could buy a cheeseburger.  I had forgotten the days when I would buy two hot dogs for a dollar at United Dairy Farmers and savor them as though I were eating a thick rare steak at the finest restaurant in town.  And here I was griping about having so much food my pantry runneth over!
I have my earbuds in right now while I’m typing.  In today’s mail, I received an MP3 disk of the “Top 95” countdown of WXIL-FM, my all-time favorite radio station during my early adolescence.  This program was recorded New Year’s Eve 1977, counting back the top 95 hits of 1977.  (WXIL’s place on the FM dial was 95.1.)  Currently, Chicago’s “Baby, What a Big Surprise” is playing, and I remember that song fondly.  (In eighth grade, I saved my lunch money so I could buy Chicago XI at Hart’s.)  I’m enjoying hearing commercials that I had forgotten, for companies like Auto Sound and Security and Powell’s Honda.  Earlier, I heard Stillwater’s song “Mindbender,” which I had completely forgotten.  (Never mind that I used to sit by the radio for hours with my tape recorder, waiting for that to come on.)  I was glad to get that disk in today’s mail.  The year 1977 was not a particularly happy one for me, but the radio was a constant companion during my many hours of self-imposed exile in my bedroom.