Departures: Long Road to Shu Feng

On Thursday, October 26, 2000, I was on an airplane approaching St Louis airport. I looked down, saw the Mississippi River, saw barges. I squirmed with happiness. Soon I could see the barges of the Mississippi close up. I saw the arch, surrounded by large building. I guessed that was downtown. Surrounding downtown was--was lawn. Lawn? I shook my head, looked again. Many blocks around downtown contained buildings, but many were just lawn.

Bryan told me where the lawns came from.

Bryan and Elissa had been living in New York City. Bryan had been doing math research there, trying to land a professorship. He'd landed one at St Louis University (SLU). They'd moved to St Louis. I was visiting them. They told me some things about St Louis.

For example, St Louis has a lot of abandoned buildings and empty lots. Sometimes, instead of just leaving a lot abandoned, someone (the city? real estate agents?) will turn it into a lawn.

I thought of the people of Los Angeles, draining California's water to keep their lawns green. I thought that they should move to St Louis. Angelenos wanted lawns, St Louis wanted people; it was a win-win situation. But that thought came later.

I was in an airplane, looking down at lawns; right then, I didn't know what to think.

Photo: Lawn, where there might otherwise be a building or something

The airplane landed; I found my way to a MetroLink station, and boarded a train, which soon started trundling along. I looked at my fellow passengers. I couldn't figure out if I was in a trainful of white trash or if these people had all dressed up in floral prints on stretch fabric as a Hallowe'en prank. I didn't ask. These people were talking loud enough without my help. Those people got off before the train reached St Louis proper--apparently going to some event. The people left behind on the train seemed pretty normal. St. Louis was going to be all right.

I disembarked at the Central West End station, walked out of the station onto Euclid Ave, and walked North for perhaps a mile past a hospital, yuppie shops full of satisfied-looking white people, mansions, more yuppie shops full of satisfied-looking white people who wouldn't have looked out of place on San Francisco's Chestnut Street. I turned right onto Westminister, walked a couple of blocks with dim streetlights, my feet crunching in fallen leaves, unable to see where I was stepping, unable to read house numbers in the dark.

But I found their place. There were Bryan and Elissa. Soon I was fed and showered and all was right with the world.

The Best Vacation

I was unemployed. I'd quit one job a few weeks before; I was starting another job soon. I'd spent a few months unemployed the year before, and had noticed that I liked going to diners and sitting at the counter. I hadn't liked it so much when I was employed, though. There's a reason for this.

When I'm unemployed, I like to watch other people working hard. Bryan and Elissa came through for me with flying colors on Thursday night, scrambling to get lessons together for Friday morning. I'd sort of planned things this way: get in Thursday night, see St Louis sights on my own Friday, then socialize on Saturday and Sunday. I pulled out a book and sat down to kibbitz as Bryan made a practice midterm for his calculus class.

Dave Moulton called. Bryan talked to him for a while, then put me on the phone. We caught up: Dave was teaching at some school in Princeton, but not at Princeton itself; I was living in San Francisco, pretty close to where he'd been living when we'd been in high school.

Dave's girlfriend was going to be in St Louis soon. So were Bryan's parents. Otherwise, Dave's girlfriend might have visited. I suggested that the girlfriend and parents visit at the same time, that they might entertain each other. Dave liked the idea. Apparently, Dave had suggested the same thing. But Bryan, spoilsport, had vetoed the idea.

There was another phone call that night. One of Elissa's students called her. She hadn't given him her phone number. But she'd called his place about something, and he'd got her number from the Caller ID. This impressed me. This special ed. student knew how to use Caller ID. I'd never used it. I was behind the times.

I checked back in with Bryan. He was trying to come up with homework problems for his computer science students. They had just learned about pointers, but didn't know about strings or arrays yet. So he wanted ways to use pointers that didn't involve strings or arrays. I couldn't think of any. He pointed out that a function could take a pointer argument, then return a value at that pointer. Oh yeah. I tried to imagine what it would be like to not know about arrays or strings, wondering what was so cool about pointers. Probably I'd been in that situation about 13 years before, but I couldn't remember.

I snuck a peek at some of the computer science students' proposals for final projects. One of them wanted to write a program that would generate dungeons for a rogue-style text-rendered dungeon adventure game. I suggested that Bryan tell this kid that he (the kid) was a Satanist and was going to hell. Bryan conceded that SLU was a Jesuit school, and he did have standards to maintain.

A newspaper reported that local kids would need parental permission to buy certain video games, games which suggested sex or violence. We imagined kids standing outside of game shops, stopping grown-ups: "Hey, mister: can you buy?"

Eventually, I shut up and let Bryan finish his work, and then I guess there was some sleeping.

Fear and Loathing at the Majestic

I woke up in an empty apartment. I'd slept in while my friends went to work: how delicious. I headed down Euclid to have breakfast at the Majestic, where the food was nothing special.

At one point, I overheard a waitress talking to someone, and she said, "If you'll just have a seat outside." Weeks later, I'd read a passage in A Life in the Struggle (Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition), a biography of Ivory Perry, a man of African descent active in St Louis' civil rights movement: "On a trip to St. Louis... he and two white soldiers entered a restaurant in Joplin, Missouri. A boy behind the counter poured Perry some coffee in a china cup, but the boy's father came over, poured the coffee into a paper cup, and told Perry to drink it outside." This caught my eye; I'd always figured that racist establishments would just refuse to serve whoever; I didn't think they'd compromise by sending people outside. It made me wish that I'd payed attention to that exchange in the Majestic, seen who the waitress was talking to. Hopefully, it was just someone who wanted to know if the tables outside were available.

I finished my breakfast, looked at the receipt, took some money out of my pocket, put it on the table, got up, started to move towards the door. One of my fellow restaurant patrons was sitting down, staring at me. I smiled at him; he quailed. I walked past him towards the door. When I was past him, in my peripheral vision, I could see him jerking into motion; gesturing to get the attention of the staff, point me out. I wonder if he thought I was doing a dine-and-ditch. I wonder if they get that a lot. Or maybe that guy was just a spaz.

Take me to the River; Don't put me in the Water

I took the MetroLink to LaClede's landing and got out and wandered down to the edge of the Mississippi River. I thought that this was my first time getting close to the Mississippi. Later, my parents would tell me that on the way South from Gunflint Lodge in Minnesota, we'd stopped in a town called Red Wing on the Mississippi.

I'm glad that they didn't tell me before this St Louis trip, because I was pretty excited to see the Mississippi close up. It wasn't constantly splashing with barges, as I'd imagined, but there were some. Its banks were lined with debris. There weren't many buildings built level with the river, which I took as a sign of respect.

Photo: Some boats tied up (fore) and a barge in motion (back) on the Mississippi

Standing under a bridge, I took some pictures. I heard yelling from above. Someone was yelling at me to move. They were doing construction, and they didn't want to drop anything on me. I picked my way over the cobbles and debris until I wasn't under them anymore, and waved. I wondered why they hadn't put out "caution" tape or cones or something. But then, I was the only person who was down by the edge of the river. There were lots of other people around; a few were jogging up on the sidewalk; most were going to the riverboat casinos.

I walked South. There was a place offering riverboat tours of the Mississippi. It was offering them by means of a really loud loudspeaker. The loudspeaker encouraged me to board either the Tom Sawyer or the Becky Thatcher for a fun tour of Mark Twain's Mississippi River. I didn't want a fun tour of Mark Twain's Mississippi River. I wanted to see barges and covered conveyor belts, ideally without having a really loud loudspeaker blare Twainiana at me.

I like a lot of things that Twain wrote. Heck, I even kind of liked The Stolen White Elephant. But I didn't think I was going to learn a lot from these people. Later, Bryan would tell me that the tour actually pointed out factories and covered conveyor belts. There isn't that much that you can actually say about Mark Twain. So I guess I'll take the tour the next time I'm in St Louis, despite their advertising.

Exercises in Futility

I walked South to the MacArthur Pedestrian Bridge. Its name fooled me. No pedestrians were allowed on the MacArthur Pedestrian Bridge. There were "No Trespassing" signs up by its entrance. In defense of the bridge, it didn't claim to be a pedestrian bridge. Only my Rand McNally map called it the "MacArthur Pedestrian Bridge". Rand McNally probably has a tough time keeping track of St Louis, what with buildings getting abandoned all the time.

Photo: Along the way to the pedestrian bridge, I saw a highway sign for Tulsa, whose name has something in common with "East St Louis".

The other side of that bridge was in East Saint Louis, or "East St Louis," as it was called in my Lonely Planet USA guidebook. I'd wanted to set foot in East St Louis due to its name, it being the longest name that matched a certain criterion. But I didn't want to catch the MetroLink there; I'd wanted to walk there, snapping pictures of the river from above along the way.

Instead, I decided to walk to SLU. I walked North, not stopping at the International Bowling Hall of Fame. I stopped a bit when a carful of people asked me for directions, which I couldn't help with. I stopped again for another carful of lost people; I couldn't help them, either. Strangely, though my brain was raging against the inaccuracy of my map, it didn't occur to me to show the map to these lost people at the time; rage will do that. I didn't stop at the Arch, though I did walk into the underground area beneath it to grab a drink of water.

Photo: I liked the color of this stone bridge. Not that you can tell what color it is on your monitor, especially since the developed photo didn't look the same color as what I saw.

I Had Trouble in Getting to SLU Solo

I walked North a little further, through the touristy area catching Arch visitors and downtown office workers, then turned West. I was walking past a housing project. Some people get spooked walking past some housing projects. I rarely do. Some youths walked past me. One of them said, "What's up, dude," with a perfect California surfer accent, which impressed me. I said, "Howdy," because I didn't know the perfect stereotypical St Louis greeting. We all kept walking.

But then there was a housing project on one side and an abandoned housing project on the other. It was pretty spooky. The abandoned project was made of crumbling brick; its windows were all out. Graffiti around it proclaimed it a "murda zone". The street didn't go through; it turned North, then West, causing me to walk all the way around this big, spooky building.

Photo: Abandoned buildings, empty lots, decaying brick

I found another way to go West and took it. I walked past abandoned buildings. I walked past abandoned lots. I walked past huge lawns which were, I guess, abandoned lots. I walked past chain-link fence which prevented cars from traversing certain streets for no reason I could discern.

I don't want to give the impression that I was walking through a completely bombed-out area. But that's what it felt like a lot of the time. I'd walk through an abandoned area. Then I'd look into a building and see lights on inside, realize that I'd emerged from the abandoned area into a place with people. But there was no-one else on the street, the whole place felt empty.

Photo: Old factory. I didn't get close enough to confirm that it was abandoned.

A man walked up to me and asked for money. I rummaged around in my pocket. He told me, "I just got out of jail." I wasn't sure if that was supposed to encourage me to give more, or if he was just making conversation.

I made my way out of the emptiness, onto Olive Street, a busy boulevard. Some buildings were boarded up, but others weren't. Cars whooshed past, reminding me that I wasn't the only human being left in the world. People stood smoking outside of one building; a deep pile of cigarette butts out in the street reassured me that many people had smoked there that day. Glad for the life, I didn't stray from Olive until I reached the campus of SLU.

A Tourist's View of SLU

I walked onto SLU campus. Ahead, I saw a statue of a man holding a bowling ball. I'd skipped the International Bowling Hall of Fame, but apparently, bowling was big in St Louis. When I got closer to the statue, I saw that I was mistaken. The figure was holding a space-helmet, not a bowling ball. It was some astronaut. I was nevertheless disappointed.

I called Bryan on three payphones and when I got through, he told me to stop by his office. When I got there, Bryan was helping some student. I grinned the grin of the gleefully unemployed and went off to look at Cupples House, a house on campus chock-full of antiques. The Cupples House wasn't very busy, so I had my own personal guard: when I went up to the second floor, this guy came up to the second floor to watch me. When I approached the stairs to the third floor, I saw a sign off to the side of the stairs, saying that there was no admittance to the third floor. This guy said, "It's okay; you can go on up." So I did, and he followed me, and watched as I looked at all of the exhibits. I didn't steal anything.

Rhymes with "Okra"

Next, I visited SLU's Museum Of Contemporary Religious Art.

One exhibit, titled "Noli Mi Tangere," was a lead bowl full of honey. I like honey. I was sort of wishing that the piece was called "Tangendum Sum" so that I could have dipped in a finger. Or would there have been a risk of lead poisoning? I couldn't figure out what the honey had to do with religion, though. It's tough being an atheist in a religious museum.

For example, there was a piece titled The Four Winds. On three walls, there were sort of designed collage-y pieces. There was one about the North wind, one about the East wind, one about the South wind. I tried to figure out what the absence of the West Wind meant. I searched my brain and came up blank. I wanted to ask a docent, but I was pretty embarrassed. What if it was something really obvious? I dithered. I waffled. I finally nerved myself up and asked the docent. It turned out that some rain had been leaking into the building. The docent had taken down the West part of the display to protect it from water damage.


I slumped, relieved that I hadn't embarrassed myself. In fact, the docent seemed kind of embarrassed. He told me that the museum would be closing soon, and that they'd be turning off the air pump which was inflating Paranirvana. Lewis deSoto's Paranirvana was a large, inflated Buddha statue. The artist made it in memory of his recently-deceased father. Part of the work's concept is that when the pump turned off, the statue would deflate; when the pump turned back on, the statue would re-inflate. Those Buddhists are big on the circle of life, and the statue was supposed to reflect that.

So at closing time, I made sure I was close to Paranirvana when the docent unplugged it. The statue deflated slowly. I watched it for a few minutes. If I really wanted to watch a statue deflate, I could have watched longer. It was a big statue, with plenty of deflating to do.

As I picked up my backpack at the museum's entrance, the docent asked me if I'd learned anything by watching the statue deflate. I said, "Uhm, as we approach death, we crease and fold, but also we, like, relax." It had sounded a lot better in my head, before I'd said it.

Geeks on Parade

When I got back to Bryan's office, he was coding. Next year, he would be teaching a class called "Microprocessing" in which his students would write control software on some 68000-based boards. Unfortunately, most 68000 assemblers were configured to produce Mac apps. So he was, ironically, porting a 68000 assembler to the Mac from Unix, an assembler capable of producing S-Records. I nattered at him a bit about the 68000-based DragonBall inside the current Palms. But first I got it mixed up with the StrongARM. Hey, give me a break; I'd studied them both at the same time. And ARM would, reportedly, be inside Palms eventually.

He was trying to get the Assembler to display a File picker dialog box. He didn't know much about C++, and I didn't know much about Mac programming, but between the two of us, we figured it out. He learned about class-static functions, and I learned about Pascal strings. It just goes to show the good things that can come about when academia and industry share knowledge.

We made our way back to the apartment with him bicycling and me walking, talking about computers and math and teaching and school.

Photo: Along the way, we walked past this Temple of Moolah.


We tried to figure out where to go to dinner. I suggested Shu Feng.

We went to Saleem's Lebanese Cuisine in the U-City Loop. Saleem's had a write-up in the St Louis guidebook. I'd picked up a copy of this guidebook at the San Francisco Borders travel bookstore. Apparently, lots of people had this guidebook. Most people Bryan knew had this guidebook. The strange part was that this book didn't really help you to find things to do. It would tell you about businesses and institutions, but wouldn't talk about how to see the river. Obviously, I should have been content with the St Louis section of my Lonely Planet USA guidebook, which also mentioned Saleem's.

Elissa pointed out some contrasts between parents of the kids in her New York City special ed. class and parents of the kids in her St Louis suburban special ed. class. St Louis parents didn't want her to give their kids so much homework. These parents wanted to spend "quality time" with their students, and helping out with homework didn't qualify. New York City parents wanted their kids to learn, put a premium on education. St Louis parents seemed to feel otherwise.

The U-City Loop reminded me of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue. It reminded St Louis people of Greenwich Village. Bryan and Elissa had been taken aback when told this. "Well, maybe people just told you that because you were, like, coming from New York. Like, maybe they were trying to help you to understand the place in a way you'd understand..." But, no. St Louis people tell each other that the U-City loop is like Greenwich Village. It's not.

St Louis people tell each other that the Central West End is like SoHo. Many of St Louis' galleries are in its Central West End. The Central West End may be the SoHo of St Louis. But the Central West End is not like SoHo. I wondered how Bryan and Elissa felt when hearing these things; it's bad enough moving from NYC to St Louis without having the natives say stupid stuff like that. If you think that your city needs to be like New York, be prepared for disappointment. [Note: Attentive reader Carol writes: "I have lived [in St Louis] all of my life and no one I have ever met has ever referred to U-City as the next Greenwich Village or a So-Ho wannabe." Maybe Bryan and Elissa had just fallen in with a misguided crowd.]


Saturday morning, we headed over to Washington University. We walked past buildings of red stone. They all looked old, until we noticed new building construction. New buildings were going up, made to look like the old ones. No wonder the place looked so monotonous.

I was there hoping to get a glimpse of, an ftp site which I remembered fondly from around 1990. Though we got into a hallway in the University's computer science area, there was no sign saying "This way to the servers," and there didn't seem to be anyone around.

Photo: Bryan and Elissa standing in front of a teaching statue at WUStL. This statue told people how to join I-beams, I guess. It included a 100 year commemorative bolt from St Louis Screw and Bolt, founded in 1876 and still in business as of 1976.

Not Much

We had lunch at Bean's Java and Juice, a deli in the U-City Loop. someone had recommended it, saying it had the best sandwiches anywhere. It had nice sandwiches.

We took the tour of the local Budweiser plant. The "BLGD 154" sign amused me. I noticed that Anheuser-Busch was formed at the same year as the St Louis Screw and Bolt company, who'd put a commemorative bolt into a metal-joining teaching statue on the campus of WUStL. An instructional video showed a CO2 molecule joining with an A molecule (where the "A" stood for "Alcohol"). This reassured me that science was at work. The tour showed us some aging tanks, and I noted a pipe labeled "cleaning solution", but restrained myself from opening its valve.

At the end of the tour, we sat for a while in the hospitality room, where Bryan drank a few sips of beer.

Elissa talked about the social gatherings to which she'd been invited. She'd gone to a candle party. A candle party, it turned out, was a party in which someone tries to sell you candles. I tried to imagine such a thing. I tried to remember the last time I'd bought candles. I couldn't imagine how one could muster up enthusiasm for such a thing. Elissa had been invited to a few peoples' houses, always so that someone could try to sell her something. She was considering throwing a sex toy party, just to try to fit in. She didn't seem pleased with the idea, though.

Bryan drove us through the historic Soulard district, but I wasn't really paying much attention.

The Big Fun Central West End Party Happening Machine

We figured out where to have dinner. I suggested Shu Feng.

We had dinner at a Welsh pub whose name I don't remember. Usually, the place would have been packed at that time on a Saturday night, but we got a table right away. Bryan asked why. There was a big Hallowe'en street party going on a few blocks away. Lots of people wanted to catch the start of that. Thus, we'd beat the rush. Eating the food, I wondered why the place would normally be packed. After a while, there were more people. Most of them were drinking; suddenly, I understood the place's appeal.

Then we wandered down towards the party. A stage had been constructed at an intersection, and a cover band was covering "Brick House." They didn't seem like a bad band, but they didn't really seem up to covering "Brick House." A crowd milled around. Some people were in costume; some weren't. Some people were handing out stickers encouraging people to vote for Gore; I glared at them but didn't hit anyone. Bryan and Elissa checked out peoples' costumes. I zoned out and thought about my genetic algorithm approach to the prisoner's dilemma, wondering why things had turned out the way they had.

Lazy Sunday

We broke our fast at Duff's, where the line formed soon after we sat down and the food didn't seem to justify a line. It was fine. It was more interesting than the Majestic. But it was no Bongo Burger, if you understand what I mean. I was able to get plenty of coffee refills, but the coffee wasn't very strong. Still, we were sitting outside, and the coffee did help me to keep warm. A dead leaf settled in my hair, falling apart as I tried to remove it. I decided that seasons were yucky.

I learned that Bryan and Elissa were planning to vote for a dead man. A senate candidate had died in an air crash. They were going to vote for him anyway, as he seemed better than the alternative. [Addendum: "the alternative" was John Ashcroft, who was appointed Attorney General soon after.]

Back at the apartment, we played Settlers of Catan. Elissa won, making her winning move as I traded her the things that she needed. I was surprised when she won, surprised that Bryan hadn't blurted, "No! Don't give her that!" as I handed over the keys to victory. I hoped that this was a case of him mellowing, not the start of senility. I also made a note to pay more attention next time we played, to supply my own vicious alertness.

More About Food

While Bryan did some more class preparation, Elissa and I went grocery shopping. The store smelled funny, but I couldn't really figure out why. There was provel cheese in the deli. I squeaked, "Provel cheese? A friend of mine mailed me about St Louis-style pizza, mentioned the 'provel', but I thought, I thought it was a typo for 'provelone'." Elissa had the straight dope: Provel cheese is a processed cheese, with a similar relation to provelone that suisse cheese food has to Swiss cheese.

Provel cheese is the signature of St Louis-style pizza. St Louis people embraced this artificial dairy product, claimed it with pride. Elissa thought that St Louis-style pizza tasted nasty, and I wasn't going to go out of my way to test her findings.

When we checked out, I noticed that there were bags of pork rinds next to the line, positioned for impulse buys. It was just dawning on me what an alien mindset these people must have.

When we got back to the apartment, Bryan was still working. Elissa and I took a walk along Euclid Street so that she could get an ice cream. Along the way we looked in at the Houska gallery, which had some good shiny things. We talked about love and sex and insanity and special ed. As I watched some kids playing in a big pile of fallen leaves, I wondered if perhaps seasons weren't so yucky after all.

Forget It, Jake

We tried to figure out where to go for dinner. I suggested Shu Feng.

You might wonder why I persisted in suggesting Shu Feng.

When I'd met Heather Hanly, years before, I'd been impressed by her cultural savvy and poise. I'd been curious to know where such a sophisticated girl might be from. I expected to find out that she was from New York.

I don't say that to heighten certain St Louisian' sensitivity about their level of sophistication versus that of Greenwich Village or SoHo. I say that because it's what I had thought. Anyhow, I had been been pretty surprised to find out that Heather had come from St Louis. (Later, I would find out that she was actually from Columbia, Missouri; she'd just lived for St Louis a few years prior to coming West.)

Did I want to hear that Heather was from New York? I wasn't as cool as Heather was. Why wasn't I cooler? Consider the possible hypotheses:

Hypothesis: I'm intrinsically uncool.
Implication: Wait, I don't want to think that I'm intrinsically uncool. What are the other choices?

Hypothesis: I'm lazy. Maintaining coolness requires some effort.
Implication: I should exert myself. I should go out and do things. I should learn more about cultural things, rigorously pursue a program of self-improvement. Jeez, that sounds like work.

Hypothesis: I'm not from New York, and New York is intrinsically cool.
Implication: I have the potential for coolness, but was thwarted by an accident of geography, the locale of my birth. There's nothing I can do about it now.

Clearly, this is the best possible conclusion.

But Heather wasn't from New York; she was from St Louis, a place less culturally whatever than San Francisco. So where did that leave me? It left me without scapegoats, without excuses. I was damned to find my own road to coolness, as surely Heather had in the wasteland where she'd grown up.

Heather had recommended Shu Feng, and I was inclined to trust her judgment.

Bryan wasn't. He explained that they'd had bad luck with restaurant recommendations. They'd found some good places. But good places were rarely recommended, and recommended places were rarely good. They'd followed up on suggestions by people who seemed to be of sound judgment, to near-universal disappointment.

Nevertheless, I persisted in whining, and soon we were driving West, out to Western U. City, on Olive Blvd. It looked like any strip mall--but there were some Chinese and Korean characters on some signs. When we walked into Shu Feng, there were probably as many Asian as white people in the place. It smelled good. Shu Feng was the best restaurant I ate at in St Louis. [Addendum: New management took over Shu Feng and the food (as of 2001) is reportedly "awful". [Addendum addendum: as of 2002, according to Jill Posey-Smith, the original Shu Feng has come back in the form of Insoo, a couple of storefronts down the street. But beware of the place called Shu Feng.]] In case that weren't enough to make it a good evening, as we were driving out there, we went past a big store called "Schnuck's".


The next morning, I caught a flight back to San Francisco, where there was Mexican food.


comment? | | home |