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.
Actually, it was only after I became desensitized to the inner city in general that I started to appreciate Soulard. Working as a counselor with troubled inner-city youth, I would occasionally find myself driving through Soulard and thinking: Why, this is rather quaint.
And then there was the Lutheran in me that started to think Soulard might be OK. My parents had grown up in South St. Louis,down by Lutheran Hospital, and they were thickly part of what I like to call the German-Lutheran Mafia. I call them the German-Lutheran Mafia only because there was a certain strain of South St. Louis German-Lutherans who seemed destined to be clergy or part of a clergy family. My family was right in among 'em. Mom's great-grandfather, grandfather, father, stepfather and brother were all Lutheran pastors. And, following in the German-Lutheran Mafia footsteps of her older sisters, Mom married a Lutheran pastor. Lutheran pastors abounded among the cousins and in-laws, and they all seemed to grow out of this South St. Louis neighborhood. These were the good people. The family. The Lutherans.
Thus it was to my great comfort and reassurance that I learned that Soulard had the oldest Lutheran church in town, Trinity Lutheran Church, at Eighth and Soulard. And just next door was the oldest Lutheran school in town. I couldn't believe it. My doubts about Soulard began to fade. Lutherans in Soulard? An ancient Lutheran church? A longtime Lutheran school? Maybe there was hope. I mean, in this neighborhood, there was family. Maybe I wouldn't get beat up.
Growing Up in Soulard
When I realized I'd be writing about Soulard for this issue, I began to bone up on the topic.
It was in the local libraries that I found a diamond in the rough: Growing Up in Soulard, by Betty Pavlige.continued on page 12continued from page 7
In 1980, Pavlige, who owned a beauty shop, compiled a series of vignettes about her life in Soulard through the Depression years and afterward. Pavlige's simple storytelling has an honesty of experience and expression that gave me a vivid sense of what it was like to live in her neighborhood. It was a hard life, but she knew her neighbors.
If you want to hear some voices from old Soulard, check this book out.
Prepping for Mardi Gras
A few years ago, I was driving through Soulard on a summer afternoon. As in many city neighborhoods, the streets and sidewalks were littered with action. Standing by the side of a car, doing whatever guys do when it looks like they're doing nothing, was an acquaintance I knew through my wife's job. The man was a white-collar professional, but here in Soulard he looked totally in place, as if he should be unshaven, holding a longneck bottle of beer in one hand and wiping his brow with the other.
Too bad Mardi Gras isn't in the summer.
On the late-January afternoon that I go to hang out in Soulard, the streets and sidewalks are empty of pedestrians. Getting stories out of the locals won't be so easy.
Let's take a crack at it anyway, I think. The people will be in the bars. Or, at least, it's a good excuse to check out the bars.
At my first stop, over at Molly's, at 816 Geyer, I order a longneck Busch and leave the narrow front bar to look the joint over. Outside, in the back, I mosey around an expansive brick patio with vines and wrought-iron fence and bells that jingle in the wind. There's benches and a birdbath, and lots of wet, yellow leaves are on the ground. An oversized half-barrel barbecue grill stands near the fence.
Jutting into the air is the naked, curvy butt of a large stone statue of part of a woman lying on her belly. The statue's bare breasts dig into the dirt. This place could do New Orleans proud.
I probably look suspicious, and someone who looks like a Molly's employee appears silently on the scene. Good man. Doing his job.
"You work here?" I ask.
He nods, and I get the OK to keep snooping around.
Graffiti-covered doors and ceiling highlight the second-floor pool room. Lots of room here for people to get drunk, I think. On one door it says: "Harry got naked here. So did Lisa."
I come back downstairs and ask the bartender: What's Mardi Gras like around here? "It's a big cluster-fuck," she laughs, and several of the bar regulars nod their heads in agreement. Cluster-fuck. Hmmm. I haven't heard this one before, but I can imagine what she means.
"It's not every day you can put eight bars in one establishment and work three straight 15-hour days," she croons. Sounds like my house, without the booze.
I shell a few peanuts at the bar and spend 10 minutes listening to 59-year-old George, who seems to be half-soused. George is liberal with his advice: "You wouldn't want to live here when Mardi Gras is going on." I decide to soldier on.
Next door at Norton's Cafe, I conclude that if I have a beer at each stop, I will be pretty useless. The bartender serves up a Coke, and I try to soak in the atmosphere at the bar.
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."
But it still gets busy in the summer, Tony says.
"This time of year you can come in early on a Saturday and not worry about the crowds. But when summer comes, the best time to shop is on a Friday."
I begin to walk away, tucking that piece of information into my memory. Then guilt, compassion or whatever it is raises its persistent head, and I turn back to Tony and say: "How about a couple of grapefruit?"
For 50 cents I buy a pair of ruby-reds and a good feeling.
Around the corner I groan aloud when I see that the Golden Delicious apples are 50 cents a pound, nearly 20 cents less than I paid this morning at the supermarket.
The young woman behind the stand scolds: "Why did you do that if you were going to come to Soulard?" I didn't know I was going to do this, I answer. It won't happen again, I think.
I survive the brief shaming and emerge from the market quite proud of myself. For $2.45, I carry away a bulging bag of Vitamin C and a clear conscience.
This trip to the Soulard Farmers Market has been sacred and sensual. I'll be back.
A block from the market sits Trinity Lutheran Church. I think that it's a good time to call on the German-Lutheran Mafia to fill me in on the beat of the street.
Carrying around a bag of fruit, I imagine that I look like one of the street people to which the good church folk minister. I stand at the door and knock. No answer.
But then a woman pulling out of the alley in her car cautiously rolls down her window. "Can I help you?" It strikes me that this is the third time I have heard that phrase this afternoon in Soulard. First at Norton's, then in the spice shop -- places where you would expect customer service -- but now the church secretary is offering her service.
The pastor won't be back for another hour, she says, but the outreach director might be back in 15 minutes or so. He can probably help you.
Fine, I think. I'll stroll around this block, see who else offers to help me, then return to the Lutherans.
A sports bar around the corner seems fun but busy. Probably too loud for the sort of conversation I'm seeking. Aha! A flower shop. Perfect. I walk in to the greeting of a fine old cat stretching itself across a carpeted step, but the clerk is busy with a customer, and I decide to head around the next corner and check out the Catholics.
The Catholic parish of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Lutheran church secretary in the car told me, has a partnership with Trinity Lutheran. The Catholics have the shelter, the Lutherans have the soup kitchen. Maybe all the local governments around here will someday learn to cooperate this well, I fantasize. Nobody seeking the limelight here, just good people taking care of society's needy. But I can't find an unlocked door at the Catholic church, either, and, for some reason -- most likely ignorance -- I have since childhood been a little intimidated by Catholic clergymen, so I decide not to press my luck. I head back to the familiarity of the Lutherans.
On the other hand, I probably appear intimidating to the Lutheran schoolteacher who warily eyes me as I come close to her charges, who are filing out to recess. Still, she offers to help. No, the outreach director isn't here yet.
The outreach director must have unfinished business, I think. He's probably helping a needy person.
Michelle and Staying Cool
Not desiring to appear overly needy myself, I decide to head back to the tavern scene. Across the street at Hennessey's Irish Public House, I go for one last taste of Soulard neighborhood flavor.
I ask Michelle, the bartender at Hennessey's, whether it gets insane around here during Mardi Gras.
"Not just the customers, but us, too," she says of the working staff. Remembering the days when I used to have a drink while tending bar at the Ramada Inn in St. Joe, I ask Michelle whether she imbibes while working during Mardi Gras.
"Sure," she grins, "but you're so busy you don't have time to drink enough to get drunk."
But one guy at Hennessey's this afternoon who's just got paid has had time to get drunk, and he loudly announces that he's buying a round for the house. I stick to orange juice. Michelle looks at me and says under her breath: "You look sane. Do you remember how long ago I called a cab for this guy?" Five or 10 minutes ago, I say.
Michelle deftly deals with the overblown actions of the man with the money. When he overtips her and begins to make a deal over how big a tip it is, she offers to give it back to him. I imagine she could use the extra money, but she plays it cool. Big bucks leaves the bar, and I follow a minute later.
Outside, looking over this neighborhood on a quiet Friday afternoon in January, I think about how crazy it is bound to get in a few weeks. I think about how Michelle kept her cool with the loudmouth.
That's the way to play it in Soulard, I think. Play it cool. There's cool bars and cool houses. A really cool market. And the people are cool -- behind the bar and in the businesses and at the churches.
If I head down here again at Mardi Gras time, I expect it will be a hot time, but I'm hoping everybody, at some level, stays cool.
You see, I don't have mixed feelings about Soulard anymore. I love the place, and I'm feeling a little protective. Have a good time at Mardi Gras, everybody -- but remember to use the Porta-Potties.
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