DIY DNA

Unreal learns some CSI-style tricks. And then: a tale of whiskey and venereal disease.

Don'cha find it so empowering, the DIY movement? You know, doin' your own perm, or your very own steakhouse-style bloomin' onion?

Well, dear self-starting friends of Unreal, we are delighted to announce that you will soon be able to DIY your DNA.

That's right, on May 12, Don Brown Chevrolet will hand out hundreds, maybe even thousands, of the one-and-only DNA LifePrint Kit. Endorsed by the renowned John Walsh, child advocate and citizen crime fighter, and devised by Joseph Matthews, a former Florida homicide cop who now solves cold cases for Walsh's America's Most Wanted, the kit contains a DIY DNA-sampling tool.

Alas, it's not yet available at your local Walgreens. Read on to find out why.

Unreal: I'm not sure I get the concept. If a missing kid turns up five years after being abducted, wouldn't his parents recognize him without DNA?

Joseph Matthews: In every case I ever worked, you have 100 leads the first night. Maybe one of those is the real lead. Let's say it's a suspect vehicle or an apartment somebody thought the kid was in. You find a pacifier or a baseball cap the child might have left. You can extract the DNA from that, and have something to compare it to in order to determine whether the child was in this car or not.

What happened to going down to the school gymnasium and having fingerprints taken?

You can't get a fingerprint off a pacifier or a soda can. And 80 percent of all children's fingerprints are not legible for identification purposes.

Well, could I clip my kid's fingernails and save them in an envelope? Or cut off a clump of his hair?

No, no, no. There's no DNA in a fingernail or in hair unless you have the root. You have to have cells from saliva, skin or sweat — any body fluid.

Urine?

Yeah.

Should the sample be stored in a safe place, like under the mattress?

Well [laughs], I don't think under the mattress. But maybe save it if they urinate in bed. If there's any bacteria anywhere, though, that messes with the sample. You're taking a chance.

Have you tried to get dollar stores to sell this kit?

We do it all through corporate sponsors, police departments, nonprofits. They use it as fundraisers. I really don't know how many people would actually see it in a store and say, "Oh, I gotta buy a home DNA kit." You know what I mean?

You're coming to St. Louis the day before Mother's Day, though. This might make a fine gift!

We do a lot of events around Mother's Day, and it's always such a — I'm telling you, as a parent myself, when I took my own children's DNA — [trails off, speechless].



Enough to Drive You to DrinkJoseph J. Mersman, whiskey seller and amateur diarist, moved to St. Louis from Cincinnati in 1849. From the get-go he had a hard time of it. His "dreaded condition" (syphilis) was a constant worry, and when that wasn't nagging the dysentery was. Writes Mersman in his diary: "Early yesterday morning I had to rise and visit the privy. I felt immediately that I had the dysentery, during the course of the forenoon I was compelled to repeat my visit six times...."

The Whiskey Merchant's Diary: An Urban Life in the Emerging Midwest (Ohio University Press) presents for the first time the antebellum diary of Mersman, an everyman capitalist who operated a whiskey- and tobacco-wholesaling business in the riverfront warehouse district now home to the Arch. Compiled and annotated by the late Linda A. Fisher, the book offers a glimpse of what it was like living in the disease-infested stinkhole that was early St. Louis.

Mersman lived through some shit, and documents it. "Business during this week was very dull," he writes on Sunday, May 13, 1849. "The great Plague of the Year Cholera is driving every country [person] and merchants from surrounding cities away. The city looks like a desert compared to its usual animated appearance." At its peak the plague killed 200 people a week. "Business is suspended," he writes, "except what appertains to sickness and Death." The summers are hot and nasty, the winters cold and "disagreeably dull."

The budding St. Louis was not without its charms. Mersman gambles at euchre ("I lost the liquor," he complains after one game), gambles on dominos, smokes his share of cigars, procures whiskey at cost (eighteen cents a bottle) and brews basement port wine out of cider, raisins, whiskey, brandy and "tincture of Rhatany."

Despite his disease, Mersman occasionally finds time to visit "accommodation houses" for dalliances with "strumpets." He gets drunk at a joint called Bach's Beerhouse. At one point the whiskey man is nearly forced into a duel with "a low character who lives the Lord knows how," who has accused our hero of cheating during a game of dominos. "Should he challenge me, I think it my solemn duty to refuse fighting a duel. [But h]e may attempt and succeed in destroying me in a way even more dishonorable."

Mersman vanquishes the syphilis (for a while) with tonics and sarsaparillas and settles down with his new wife, Claudine — which is when the real Hell begins. Though "[s]he appears and pretends to love me dearly," she's "extraordinarily jealous" and evidences "peculiar ways" — though not too peculiar to prevent him from impregnating her eight times.

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