Coming Home

Apologies to Mr. Wolfe, but you can come home again. You just have to rebuild your tolerance for provel cheese.
By Kevin M. Mitchell

Ronnie Brasher was so L.A. Gym-trimmed, shock-red hair, decidedly non-sensible shoes, and attitude worn like her makeup: a little too much for some, mostly entertaining to others. Born and bred in the San Fernando Valley, her entire travels in the continental U.S. consisted of Vegas and New York City.

It was fall of 1992. I was becoming either a comedian, writer, or rock star, depending on how my clothes fit that week. I had left St. Louis in 1982, lived in KC; a closet in Tulsa, playing in a punk band; another closet in San Francisco (it had more leg room); KC again; and then LA from ‘92 to well, until this past fall. But back to Ronnie.

We shared a cubical, me a data-processing stooge, she the part of the sexy push-up bra’d receptionist. We had become unlikely friends, so in true LA fashion of sharing too much, she dished out intimate details of her and her husband’s current nightmare, particularly in trying to buy this small three bedroom, one bath, no yard house for $300,000.

“Wow,” I said breathlessly. “You know, back in St. Louis, you could buy pretty much a mansion, five bedrooms, big yard, great neighborhood for that kind of money.” Only the artist Edvard Munch could have done justice to the ghastly, horrified face of Ronnie as she spewed:

“But then you’d have to live there.”

* * *

There’s no easy answer to those in St. Louis who ask why I moved back after a 20-year absence, so I simply say: “Because the statute of limitations ran out.” Most get my little joke and leave it at that—or worse, descend into quizzing me to embarrassment on sports questions (you’d have to work pretty hard to find someone more apathetic about sports this side of the heterosexual line than moi).

My answer to my LA friends was easier: Because I could. Everyone in LA talks about leaving there, but few do. I was pleased with my small victories, but wasn’t making the kind of Steven Spielberg-esque salary to have a decent home. “You should see the house I bought in St. Louis,” I’d say proudly to my LA friends, staring at me with a bizarre mixture of pity and envy. “It’s got four bedrooms, in a great neighborhood called Webster Groves, and cost me, like, $2!”

(Of course, I wasn’t proud enough to tell my agent I moved–I kept my LA number that forwards to my second line here. So keep that ruse under your hat…)

So now I’m back, with wife Lauren, and a child on the way. Twenty years is a long time, although not for St. Louis—something akin to the reverse of dog years, I suppose. Getting to know the city once again has been a pleasant surprise, yet not without disappointments.

Hey! They finally finished working on Manchester and after 20 years it’s now… oh wait, never mind.

But there was no metro line when I left, only talk. That’s a pretty big improvement as long as civic leaders continue to understand how important good public transportation is to St. Louis’s health. That and heavy, unethical investment into Dominican Republic kids under 16 for the future Cardinals roster.

When I left, the Post-Dispatch was a first-rate newspaper, and now it’s a shadow of its former self. I wonder if former editor William Woo would have, say, let that earth-shattering story about—horrors of horrors—popcorn in movie theaters being actually more expensive than what you can buy at 7-11 on the front page. Yes, I too, ran screaming at the tough piece of investigative journalism, but that kind of occasional lapse in judgment isn’t even what is most embarrassing about the once-great paper’s demise. Lauren nightly plays “how many typos are there?” which keeps her quite busy. Her favorite is displayed on our refrigerator. The word “Taliban” was misspelled “Tailban.” In a headline. I think the other day they published a correction that regretted showing a picture of Arafat with a caption implying he was Rodney Dangerfield.

But to be fair, the Post is merely following a national trend. The Globe-Democrat isn’t around to keep it honest (and more progressive), and there’s continually less advertising dollars available, so it’s going down the path of most single-city papers with declining readership; still, I wish it had the backbone it once did and left the soft news to newscasters.

Speaking of which, when I left Patrick Emery had just gotten on-board a little fly-by-night cable station called CNN. Must have created some sort of vortex sucking out all broadcaster’s common sense, as now we get that whole “Something-in-your-house-is-killing-you-as-I-read-from-this-TelePrompTer. But first, let’s go to Bob live in Queenie Park, where he’s spotted some darling duckies!” side-show. But again, this is a trend started in LA, where if Melissa Rivers changes nail polish, it beats out that story on that pesky whole India/Pakistan/nuclear war thing.

I was a product of a public school system in a state that was in the bottom five in the nation. Woefully unprepared for college, I could however, throw a mean frisbee and knew the locations of all two Imo’s in addition to being able to make a strobe-lighted water bong out of a sack of White Castle belly-bombers.

While important life skills, I was left struggling. But here was the good news: gambling was going to save the schools! Harriet Woods lost the governor’s chair in 1984 to a guy named Ashcroft (whatever happened to him, anyway?) in small part because the liberal Woods was skeptical of the easy answer. So now we’ve got even gambling out the wazzoo, but the schools still have high student-teacher ratios and the pay for teachers is sorely below the national average. I think my 17-year-old nephew knows how to air-brush it, but he doesn’t know how to actually steal the hubcap, like I was learned.

* * *

Arts-wise, it’s been wonderful rediscovering the city. When I left, I’d crawl into the back seat of Larry O’Neal’s Nova and make the “long” drive from South County to the Tivoli’s one screen to see “art films.” Today, the Tivoli has expanded into many screens, and we have the Hi-Pointe and the Plaza Frontenac offering plenty of independent movies that play for longer than a week, just like in a real city. And get this: I’ve seen two foreign-language films at Ronnie’s on Lindbergh! When I left it was a drive-in playing “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” all summer.

When I left, the Fox was a boarded-up fire trap; today, it’s wonderful, showing a good mix of progressive and pedestrian shows. Similarly, there was certainly nothing like the wonderful Jazz at the Bistro, a first-class restaurant offering a “listening room environment” (that means keep your piehole shut while the band is playing—this ain’t no lounge act… it’s classy, people).

Finally, if the alternative rock scene had been as vital, if there had been as many places for the over and under 21 crowd to listen and perform, I might not have left town with my ’68 Gibson guitar in the first place. One recent event at the Galaxy had a great program with almost a dozen acts for five bucks; a few weeks earlier, the Riverfront Times sponsored a music festival in U-City with diverse great music for free. Both events were greatly under-attended, and yet you can’t get a seat at one of the 47 billion sports bars in town, all serving the same toasted ravioli–what’s that about?

Speaking of food, my tolerance for provel cheese has greatly diminished–so someone remind me why we dump 4-1/2 pounds of it on every dish? When Lauren asked me what the hell it is exactly, she had me stumped; so she figured it must be short for “professional Velveeta.” But I have to stop about the food, otherwise it’ll descend into a full-blown rant on that alone… Deep breath; get focused…

* * *

It’ll take, I hope, forever and a day to get used to the racism and segregation that still stifles this city. I’m certainly not saying St. Louis is more racist than LA, San Francisco, or Prague for that matter; but we’re way behind the PC protocol of containing it, or even admitting that it’s wrong. It’s upsetting that so many people here aren’t yet embarrassed to make general, offensive stereotypical comments in public.

In 20 years, things have gotten incrementally better, though this town is too slow to embrace the advantages of diversity. Of course, I’ve become immediately part of the problem here, regressing into my own racism.

More than once I’ve had an experience like this: an old high school friend says, “Why did you buy a house in Webster Groves? There’s blacks there, right?” Stunned, unable to react, I simply say, yes, that’s one of the reasons we bought there–we wanted our kids to grow up in a diverse neighborhood.

“Come on, Kev—be real!” he said, rolling his eyes. What do I do with that? Worse, would I have been like that, have that attitude, if I had never left?

“It’s gotten a little bit better, it really has,” says a friend and a lifelong south-city resident. He then tells a story of some people he grew up who’d make racist comments in conversation, but when they actually meet a minority, see them only as an individual, and “they’re like best buddies in two minutes.”

When business brought me out to LA recently, my best friend Patricia, a writer now quipping for Donnie Osmond for a new syndicated game show (yes, I’ll make her get me an autograph for my Mom, thanks for reminding me), blurts, “So what do you like about St. Louis?”

Eyes shift, and I breathe the vast pollution LA has to offer, looking around at all the women and wondering why I didn’t by stock on Botox.

Finally I hear myself say: “I like the parking spaces. They are big enough for my new fancy-pants ‘98 Nissan Maxima. I like that people wave me into traffic instead of shooting at me; I like that women who were born during the presidency of Grover Cleveland hold the door open for me at my YMCA while I’m, you know, just pulling into the lot at 6 A.M. downing that can of Bud Light.

Then I tell this story: I’m at my Starbucks with my incredibly obnoxious, obedience school–defying mutt we named Lucy Bloomer (she chose to keep her maiden name and we respected that decision). Lucy was jumping up and down with one of those big metal café tables in her mouth when this woman, juggling four cafe blah-hoozerwatzits and a kid, said to me, “You just getting coffee? I’ll watch her.”

Okay, I rationalized, being so LA, being so into me, I assumed this woman chose to sit at this table, you know, to watch Lucy Bloomer, rather than sit at that table. I ran in, stood in a long line, barked my litany of conditions (blah blah, latte, blah blah no-foam, blah blah turkish poppy–etc.), got my java fix, and came out.

This Mom handed me Lucy, gathered her kid, her four java drinks, and headed to her mini-van.

She had someplace to go. She had others waiting for her. She wasn’t hanging. In L.A. lingo, it wasn’t about her, it was about my dog. Why? Just to be nice.

I was stunned—and touched. Never would someone have done that for me in any of the places since I left St. Louis. So, yes, you can come home again–just don’t always order toasted ravioli, don’t try to figure out why 66 turns into Watson turns into Chippewa, and appreciate the strengths the city has and will always have, enhanced by the travels you’ve taken.

And Ronnie? Yeah. Then I have to live here. But I don’t have to, I want to.

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