Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

An outsider gets to know -- and love -- Soulard

For years, I had mixed feelings about Soulard.
When someone would say "Soulard," I would first think of the Soulard Farmers Market.

Good, honest American agriculture and free enterprise.
This was what the Midwest was supposed to be like. When I worked as a reporter at the small Great Bend Daily Tribune in central Kansas, I once was sent to cover an arts-and-crafts fair at the town square in the neighboring county seat of Lyons. More than anything else, the fair was a social event. It demonstrated community.

And although St. Louis is no Kansas -- I knew Kansas; Kansas was a friend of mine -- I imagined that the market in Soulard would feel something like that town-square fair.

Honest, hardworking people would come to market to see what other honest, hardworking people had brought to sell. Families on welfare and the working poor would be looking for bargains; gourmet cooks would be on the prowl for a great buy on top-notch homegrown produce; middle-class wives would drag their husbands along for the start of a long day of shopping; young lovers on a date would loiter over the fresh vegetables.

A trip to Soulard would be educational, humbling, sensual.
Although I'd lived in St. Louis for nearly 15 years, I had never gone to Soulard Market.

How Soulard Made Me Feel Guilty
The Soulard Farmers Market always made me feel vaguely guilty.
Cindy is my cousin's wife, and she is a middle-class lover of gourmet cooking. Whenever my wife, Deb, and the kids and I would have dinner with Cindy, Paul and their boys, I would hear of the great stuff they had bought early on Saturday morning at Soulard.

Fresh green beans at a great price. Corn on the cob. And maybe something from one of the meat shops. It sounded so honest, so smart, so righteous. So guilt-producing.

Not one to get up early on a Saturday if at all possible, I knew that if I weren't so slothful and lazy, I, too, would be heading to Soulard to buy healthful food at great prices. Such early rising would probably help me get to bed earlier, too, and I would be healthy, wealthy and wise.

So, whenever I would hear someone say "Soulard," it reminded me of my inability to measure up to such expectations.

Soulard, then, was to be admired for its humble, agricultural nobility, feared for its ability to produce guilt.

Further, Soulard was more than just the market. In my mind, Soulard was also a dangerous place.

Not immune to generalizing, I needed no further proof of Soulard's high rate of crime than the story that Cindy had told me of a terrifying bicycle ride. She and Paul, once again displaying wise and healthy habits that had eluded me, had cycled through Soulard and were returning from the area by way of Tucker Boulevard. Just on the fringe of the Darst-Webbe housing complex, Cindy was knocked off her bike by some neighborhood thugs. She survived but was shaken up.

City violence, I thought. Surely Soulard could not be a safe place.

Puberty, Prejudice and Pretty Girls
I was making judgments without making a visit.
When I thought of Soulard, I thought of an old, dark, mysterious neighborhood. It loomed in my imagination.

The old brick buildings and sidewalks reminded me of the bad parts of town in St. Joseph, the old northwest Missouri river town where I had grown up. It seemed that the parties and dances in junior high school were always in one of those old, mysterious brick neighborhoods, in the winter, with the bare trees and cold nights and 13-year-old girls with developing breasts scaring me shitless.

My image of Soulard tapped into my remembrances of those junior-high dances that I was afraid to go to. Would I get beat up? I had been raised in a home where violence was forsworn, and I was utterly useless in fisticuffs, a fairly common activity among certain bullies who frequented such social events. Hell, remembering how Cindy had been mugged on her bike near Soulard, I again wondered of Soulard: Would I get beat up?

And was Soulard only something for people more mature than me, who had their lives together enough that they could schedule themselves to be up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, bustling through crowds of other mature people in the Soulard market? Once again, my memory was flooded with junior-high anxieties: Those other guys were more mature. The hair on their 13-year-old faces and legs and armpits had to be impressing the 13-year-old girls with developing breasts. Let's face it, I'd always been behind the curve on this maturity thing.

Granted, not visiting Soulard wasn't in the same league as being tongue-tied by the sight of fully developed 13-year-old Marcie Smith, but as an adult, I could still tap into those adolescent feelings of self-doubt.

A sure sign of maturity -- or good fortune, at least -- would have been a date with Marcie Smith.

Now, to demonstrate my maturity, I needed a date with Soulard.

The German-Lutheran Mafia
At first, Soulard and I merely got acquainted.
The first contacts were more along the lines of passing through by chance and realizing that evil men with guns and knives did not lurk around every street corner.

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