- Historic Sites
Meet Me In St. Lewis, Louie
A collection of little-known early-twentieth-century photographs of St. Louis recalls the author’s unfashionably happy childhood
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Let’s look at those pictures again. Restaurants? Well, yes, St. Louis was pretty well known for food, though we did tend to depend on our own cooks rather than go out to eat. I don’t think I ever knew Frank John’s restaurant, but I’ll bet you anything that indoors it was draped with red plush and had hand-tatted mats on the tablecloths, perhaps even tatted or crocheted antimacassars on the chairs. That’s a fine picture of his saloon at Grand and Morgan. Just looking at it brings back a smell that meant St. Louis to me—the smell of beer. After all, like Milwaukee we were a famous beer town. It comes down to this: Would you rather have Anheuser-Busch or Schlitz? No wonder we mangled those French names—a lot of us were very German in St. Louis. Dimly I recall that long, long ago, before I started spending Saturday mornings at art school, I went to German school and learned a song starting, “Fox, you have stolen the goose.” But with the onset of the First World War, all that stopped, and we changed the name of Berlin Boulevard to Pershing, and our old cleaning woman, Minnie, made me stop singing a song that went, “Oh, Heidelberg, dear Heidelberg/Thy sons will ne’er forget. …” A St. Louis man told me that when he was a child there was a general store down at the corner of his street to which a number of old men used to gravitate and spend most of the day sitting around on cracker barrels, spitting at the stove and talking when they felt like it. One of them would say, “Germany must be beaten.”
“Ja, Ja,” they would murmur in chorus. More silence, and then another old man would bestir himself and say, again, “Germany must be beaten.”
Another murmur, and more silence, until at last somebody would say, “But it’s going to take a hell of a long time.”
But I was talking about beer. We didn’t drink it at our house—we preferred wine, if anything—but I knew the smell, as every child did. One rainy day I was walking along the street with my kid sister, who must have been very small, because I wasn’t so big myself. We were sharing an umbrella. Along came a shabby man, walking toward us with uncertain steps. As he reached us he turned until he was resting an elbow on my shoulder, and he said earnestly into my face, “Life… is flitting… fahst away.”
He stared fixedly, then repeated it. A strong whiff of beer came with the words, and I was terrified. I ducked out from under his elbow, grabbed Dauphine, and we ran. Afterward I thought about that man a lot—an out-of-work actor? Why fahst otherwise? I thought about him, and life, and all that. Was life flitting fast away? Not so I could notice it. To my mind, in St. Louis, it stood charmingly still.
When we went to Michigan in the summer, we took the train, at Union Station of course. I say “of course” because, unlike other stations in other cities, it was indeed a union, the only one in town, and we were proud that it should be so. Look at Chicago with her various stations, we said to each other: we were far more efficient than that. Union Station is still there and has been restored, but it’s not a railway station anymore. It looks, as it always did look, like a Bavarian castle and is supposed to be “good,” architecturally speaking. One thing, however, that we never used—and it surprises me to think of it—was the Mississippi. Even when Aunt Blanche took us out in her car, we never drove down to the levee to have a look at the great river. I suppose it was muddy there and nobody admired it in those days. I had to wait until I came back from my university as a graduate, as a visitor, to go down to the levee at night and take a look at the paddle-wheelers and the lights and the hills across the river. Now, of course, with the Saarinen Gateway to the West—those gigantic elephant tusks that stand higher than anything else in town—it is a celebrated place, and the few boats that are left have been turned into floating restaurants duly tarted up in red plush and crystal sconces.
The loss of my dog was a heartbreak, but one heartbreak in fifteen years is not too bad.
In my childhood I heard sometimes about the Cahokia Mounds where Indian relics could be found when carefully shepherded archaeology students dug in them. Cahokia was celebrated among archaeologists, lots of whom used to come long distances to look at the mounds, but I never saw them. As far as I know, none of the family did. After all, the mounds were right there. They had always been there and always would be. All you had to do was take a certain streetcar and there you were. So we never went, and I haven’t been since, though from the top of the elephant tusks at the Gateway one can see the town of Cahokia fairly plain.