Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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

I must have that look I often have, like a lost guy trying to figure out where he's supposed to be.

"Can I help you, sir? Are you waiting for someone?" the friendly bartender inquires.

I confess my mission, and she confirms that everybody at the pub works long hours for several days during Mardi Gras and that all the customers appear to get drunk.

"And you can't find parking," she says. "I drove around here for two hours looking for a spot last year."

I remember what half-soused George told me: He wouldn't want to live here at Mardi Gras.

As I walk up beautiful Eighth Street with its 19th-century row houses, I try to imagine hundreds of thousands of people marching through my neighborhood in Maplewood. It wouldn't go over well, but the yards here in Soulard are generally small, and I've read that the cleanup after Mardi Gras is done quickly and well.

Still, I look at the small plots of grass and remember something I read in an old Web edition of the Soulard Renaissance newspaper: "Considering that most Mardi Gras patrons wouldn't consider urinating on their own front lawns, don't do it on ours. We live here and don't want to wade through a river of your urine on Sunday morning." Not a pleasant picture, but difficult to argue with.

Consummating the Date
Mardi Gras is doubtless the busiest time of year for Soulard businesses, a suspicion each employee I speak with confirms. And thingscan get more than a little crazy, according to one young man who regales me with stories of things even Bill Clinton probably hasn't thought of.

But for most of the year, Soulard is a fairly quiet place to visit, and maybe you would want to live here.

Walking up Eighth Street, I find myself looking straight ahead at the Soulard Farmers Market.

It is time to consummate my date with Soulard.
I walk into the market for the first time and face a pair of butcher shops. The selection of meats is paradigmatically different from what I saw at Shop 'n Save this morning. These are the extra parts, the soup parts, the sort of stuff that Native Americans thought of when they were trying to make use of every last bit of the sacred buffalo.

I snake through a few more shops and end up at the door of a spice shop. One whiff and I'm hooked.

"Can I help you, sir?" The middle-aged woman behind the counter senses a sale to a yuppie.

I reveal that I am a spice-shop novice, stunned by the avalanche of fragrances.

"Until about a month ago," she says, "I was working at a restaurant and would come home every night not being able to stand the way I smelled like grease. But now when I come home, I smell great."

On the way out, I sniff again, and I believe her.
Another shop offers hot dogs and chips, but it seems almost sacrilegious in this temple of freshness, so I hurry along to the produce row.

I imagine a huge place such as Farmers Market in Los Angeles is more impressive than the Soulard Farmers Market, but I don't care. I know immediately that I am walking in on an ancient tradition that, here in St. Louis, has miraculously survived the supermarkets and warehouse food barns and 24-hour get-whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want food palaces. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the food palaces, but now, here in Soulard, I stand in produce paradise.

I'm the hunter-gatherer, the primary grocery shopper in our family, so I know my produce prices. Ten navel oranges for a buck? Sheesh, it cost twice that much at the supermarket. Good-looking bananas at 25 cents a pound? Just as cheap as Aldi, and riper to boot. And here lies a huge tray of plums for only $3. So this is what cousin Cindy has been up to! I mentally begin to flagellate myself for taking so long to arrive in the treasure trove wherein I stand.

Looking at the leathery, lined faces of many of the merchants, I bring to bear on myself that wondrous ability to feel guilty. I can't enjoy this without paying for it. I have to buy something.continued on next page continued from previous page

I snag 10 oranges for a George Washington. Down the next row I get a pound of green seedless grapes for 95 cents. They were $1.69 at the grocery store.

A content-looking merchant catches my eye. Behind a variety of fruits and vegetables stands 43-year-old Tony, a 30-year veteran of the market.

Tony says that he gets a lot of his produce from the wholesale market on the near North Side. But you can only buy by the case at the North Side market. Tony also gets some of his produce from local farmers he knows.

"A lot of customers like to buy stuff that is homegrown," Tony says.
But there are fewer customers these days.
"This place isn't as busy as it used to be," Tony says. "I remember when you'd come in here on a Saturday morning at 6 and there would hardly be room to walk. We'd be sold out by noon and out of here by 1 or 2. Nowadays, we might not sell out until 4 or 5 on a Saturday."

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