Week THREE

St. Louis: The City That Hates You

Look at that Arch. Magnificent, isn't it? I put that giant picture of the Gateway Arch up for my own sanity, to convince me that there is one thing in St. Louis worth seeing. Based on two days in St. Louis ("The City That Hates You"), the only advice I can offer the unwary tourist is this: stay on the highway, drive directly to the Arch, take your picture, and get out of town. Because St. Louis (TCTHY) doesn't want you or your business. I don't mean there are no other tourist attractions here; I mean that basic services needed for the functioning of a civilized society are missing. Just as an example, there are no grocery stores in St. Louis. Or rather, there are no national chain stores, which means there are no 24-hour stores, which means if you arrive in St. Louis after dark– let's say, hypothetically, ready to claw your eyes out because you are allergic to Missouri, and you are out of Benadryl– then as far as St. Louis is concerned, you can go straight to hell.

Here's a St. Louis (TCTHY) fun fact: several places we've visited (Kansas City, Nashville, Memphis) advertise "St. Louis style ribs" or have jars of "St. Louis BBQ Sauce." These labels are erroneous: there is no barbeque in St. Louis. We even stayed an extra day in this godforsaken berg, and do you know where we ate? Jack in the Box. Because after hours and hours of looking for the mythical St. Louis barbeque– and I use the word mythical in the sense of "widely known, yet not true"– every other restaurant in town was closed. Instead, we ate at a Jack in the Box across the street from a Citgo gas station where everything is behind a bulletproof window: not just the cashier, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, I mean the two-liter sodas, the Gummi candy, the newspapers, the Pringles: everything. That's what looking for food in St. Louis will get you. Not that they don't make the search entertaining: "yessss," the guide books hiss, Golem-style, "we haaaave barrrrbequuuue... it'ssss at Tenthhhh and Sssssoularrrrd." So you drive down to Tenth Street and turn toward Soulard. You drive through the urban decay of St. Louis until Tenth Street diverges: one lane becomes a freeway onramp that will take you over the Mississippi River, and the other lane has a sign over it reading "Tenth Street," with the handy arrow pointing down so you know exactly which lane they mean and everything. Except that on the other side of the intersection is not Tenth Street but a goddamn gated parking lot. If you have any sense at all, at this point, you turn around, whip a U-turn onto the freeway, and drive as fast as your car will go away from St. Louis. Or, if you are more like the sexy teenagers who decide to camp out at the lake house where all the sexy teenagers were mysteriously slaughtered a year ago that very day, you do what we did, which is to keep looking. Eventually, the random tangle of one-way streets and Avenues Interruptus that make up the seedy, dirty, abandoned, closed, boarded up, St. Louis downtown yield the barbeque restaurant spoken of so glowingly in the tourist brochures: first of all, it's not a restaurant, it's a bar. Second of all, it's closed. That's right– don't assume that a bar in St. Louis will be open at 10:00pm. Third of all, you have no way of knowing when you might be able to obtain the brochure-referenced food, because it is too much trouble for them to post their hours of business (if any). So yes, there is one bar in a totally inaccessible, infuriating, dirty part of St. Louis, which may or may not serve this so-called "St. Louis Barbeque," but only during hours which they prefer remain unspecified.

As for that Arch... you'd think that a city with just one tourist attraction would try to make it the kind of place tourists like: grossly overcommercialized, surrounded by cheesy theme restaurants and stands full of tacky Arch-oriented crap. But not St. Louis. With what did they choose to surround the Arch? Stairs. Stairs, and hills. Stairs, hills, and six hundred thousand percent humidity. No air conditioned souvenir stores, no restaurants at all, certainly no barbeque joints. But eventually, we did find St. Louis style barbeque. In Illinois.

I could go on about the adventure of trying to leave St. Louis, and how The City That Hates You chose to drive it home right to the bitter end, but I won't bother. All I know is that my very last memory of St. Louis will be the smell. We finally hit a freeway onramp going the right direction, and as we started across the Mississippi River, a smell like a thousand flatulent cholera victims bade us a fond St. Louis farewell.

Deer Processing
Who doesn't love the fresh taste
of Home Killed Meat?
This southern Illinois city is named Metropolis, and they're not afraid to
exploit it.
Wow, the home of Superman and the home of Popeye in the same day. Wait a minute... Emily Bathroom?!?

When city folk like us think Illinois, we tend to think Chicago. Then we get there, and discover that the 99% of Illinois that isn't within Chicago city limits is made up almost entirely of NRA members. Driving from St. Louis to the southernmost point of Illinois, we passed more hunting clubs than gas stations. Many roadside businesses offer "deer processing" or "duck processing," for the sportsman who'll plug an unsuspecting herbivore from a hundred yards away, but doesn't want to get blood on his pretty orange jacket. If you're into rabbit, you can buy them "Live or Dressed," and they don't mean wearing a cute rabbit-sized tuxedo, either. The savvy rabbit buyer knows you should always go for live, so you can have a big steaming cup of fresh bunny blood with your dinner.

All the hunting and coal mining finally ended as we came to Metropolis, whose economy is based on two things: the Superman Museum and gift shop, and the Harrah's Riverboat Casino. In fact, I have news for those of you who think you have to go to Vegas or Atlantic City to gamble: there are casinos everywhere. And not just on boats and reservations. Along with fireworks, gambling seems to be marginalized only in California. The Illinois riverboat casino clientele are on average much, much more pathetic than the people in Las Vegas casinos. Vegas is a well-balanced blend of gambling types: a few high rollers with money to burn; some locals just out for entertainment; a huge swath of people there for the buffets as much as the gambling; and a small percentage of desperate addicts on the verge of losing it all and ending up dead in a pay-by-the-hour motel, having wasted the very last of their panhandled nickles on video poker at the Gas'n'Gulp. The riverboat casino, however, is about half tourist rubes looking for a low-rent taste of Sin City, and the other half squarely in the desperate addict group. I ended the evening with $1.50 profit, so I guess that makes me a tourist rube.

At breakfast in Metropolis I ordered a bowl of chili with my sandwich, because how much chili can you get for 95 cents? It turns out, quite a lot. Really, the most chili I've ever seen. A great, gaping bucket of chili. A monstrous, quaking mountain of chili that threatened to swallow the city. If only someone could save us! Okay, it wasn't really that much chili, but it was a LOT of food for 95 cents. If you're ever starving in Metropolis and you only have a dollar, go to Lucky's Diner and order the chili. They also have placemats drawns by local high-schoolers trying to convince you not to smoke. Mine was drawn by J. Russel, age 17, and warned me that "One cigarette is all it takes." Takes to what, give you stinky breath? As far as I know, the only way to hurt yourself with one cigarette is to push the burning end into your eye, but maybe J. Russell knows something I don't know about a new killer strain of Africanized SuperCigarettes. Either way, it sure taught me a lesson about the fragility of life, and the importance of knowing what the hell you're talking about. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the oil painting of five huge-eyed cartoon puppies in a basket of flowers in the women's restroom.

The Superman Museum is a head-exploding smorgasbord of everything ever created about, for, or featuring Superman. You can peruse things like George Reeves' boots, Superman musical clocks, and promo posters for "SuperGirl: The Movie" as you enjoy the sounds of the Mighty Mouse, Super Chicken, and Brady Bunch theme songs. Across the corner from the museum, in front of the Metropolis courthouse, they have the ten-foot Superman statue; it's pretty big, but some might argue that its stature is lessened by the fact that there's a grocery store on the edge of town with a fifteen-foot statue of a bag boy.

Wild, unpredictable and dangerous:
  just like me, baby.
The front gate of Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division, where I went to kindergarten.
Ha ha ha ha! Get it?! It's Bin Laden and John Walker Lindh! And it says Bad Company! Cause it's for a classic rock station, and there's this band, see... never mind.

From Metropolis we drove through Kentucky via the Land Between the Lakes, which is more or less what it sounds like. It's a lovely tree-lined drive down a strip of land between the Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. I had no idea there are bison in Kentucky, but there they were. Lots of 'em. Elk, too, which is more than I can say for Arizona. We would have stayed longer to enjoy the wildlife, but every second the car remained motionless, the temperature rose one degree. Since it started at ninety degrees, this made thirty consecutive seconds of wildlife viewing a potentially fatal endeavor. Instead, we took the Magical Sauna Car to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the Screaming Eagles and my kindergarten classroom. I figured security on the base would be tight, since the 101st Airborne Division was heavily involved in kicking Afghanistan's ass, but it turns out they'll let any shmoe with a form of ID and proof of auto insurance on base. First Lieutenant Apathy at the guest registration office could not possibly have cared less about me or why I wanted to be there. I got the distinct feeling that a desire to check visitors for auto insurance is not why he joined the Army. What they do not let you do is take pictures. Since the three guys who checked our IDs and warned us about the picture-taking were carrying machine guns, we decided not to test them on it. We did get a few pictures of the front gate on the way in, and they were kind enough not to confiscate our memory card. So, if any of you are wondering why I'm weird, I'm going to go on the record with, "because I went to kindergarten surrounded by machine-gun-toting men in fatigues who don't let you take pictures."

By this time it was too late to get to Memphis in time to see Graceland, so we went to Nashville. We had an absolutely delicious barbeque dinner at a place called Jack's, and I would like to go on the record as saying that Jack's offered "St. Louis style ribs." [Note: I've been informed that St. Louis is known for its Italian food, not its barbeque. This is probably true for the people IN St. Louis, because they know first-hand that there is no such thing as St. Louis barbeque. In addition to Nashville, though, Kansas City and Memphis– both barbeque meccas in their own right– labor under the misconception that there such a thing as "St. Louis barbeque sauce" and "St. Louis style ribs." I have never, on the other hand, been anywhere that offered me "Amatricciana a la St. Louis" or "Linguini Bolognese, St. Louis style." I respectfully submit that only St. Louis thinks that St. Louis is known for Italian food.]

Breakfast in Nashville was Waffle House-errific. I learned mouth-watering things like, "if you stacked all the sausage patties served by Waffle Houses in one day, it would be as tall as the Empire State Building." The Cars of the Stars museum had not only classic cars belonging to people like Dolly Parton, Elvis, and Conway Twitty, but also a DeLorean and a ludicrous black car whose body was made out of a single molded piece of bulletproof Lexan. The Willie Nelson museum was, well, a museum full of Willie Nelson stuff. And that was it for Nashville.

Now that's how you set a truck on fire.
The Memphis Pyramid where Mike Tyson was to get spanked the very next weekend.
Elvis Presley's jacket.
Elvis Presley's TV room ceramic monkey.

The Nashville-to-Memphis drive was one of our few long stretches of interstate driving, and we were making good time until we got near the truck fire you see pictured here. It's debatable exactly where The South begins, but I'm pretty sure that when the highway gas stations are selling souvenirs like confederate flag bumper stickers and "black mammie" salt and pepper shakers, you're there. We got a hotel on the outside of town and went down to Beale Street, which is apparently a historic old street that has been renovated into the Cool Street Where All The Tourists Hang Out And Drink Overpriced Booze (CSWATTHOADOB). Many mid-sized American cities have this street, and this one was just the first in a series that we would be visiting over the next couple of weeks. Beale Street is actually a lot of fun, and I recommend it. There are two major differences between CSWATTHOADOBs that are kind of serious about fun and those that are really, really serious about fun. One, the really serious streets are closed to cars. Two, the really serious streets let you drink on the street, not just inside the bars. Beale Street is really, really serious about fun. Not quite as serious about fun as Bourbon Street, but then, nobody is.

There were almost too many inviting places to eat in Memphis, but we started out with dinner at the Elvis restaurant. We had deep fried dill pickle slices, which seems to be standard southern fare, and they tasted almost exactly like you would expect a deep fried dill pickle slice to taste. We decided to take a break from touristing around and went to the movies; Star Wars Episode 2 had been out for almost three weeks and we hadn't seen it yet. Movies in Memphis are only $7. However, when your movie gets interrupted forty minutes in by the fire alarm, $7 is still a little steep. When you wait 45 minutes for them to get their act together, finally give up in disgust, and then have the manager announce that there will be no refunds, $7 starts to seem downright outrageous. The middle-aged failure running the movieplex at Peabody Places apparently feels that once he has your money, it's his regardless of failure to render service. His solution was to tell everyone to keep their ticket stubs and they would be good to get into any movie at any time later on, which is all well and good unless you don't live there and are scheduled to drive to Mississippi the next morning. Well, we showed him. We stayed in Memphis an extra day to finish seeing Star Wars, just so that balding little weasel couldn't rip us off for $14. Okay, we also stayed so we would have a chance to go to the Isaac Hayes "Hot Buttered Soul" restaurant, but partly just to show that irritating little canker sore of a man. What's far more disturbing than Middle Movie Manager's complete lack of a sense of decency, though, is the fact that the fire alarm went off in a 16-screen theater in the middle of the biggest mall in downtown Memphis, and forty-five minutes later there was still no sign of the fire department. My advice is, if you're going to see a movie in Memphis, bring your own fire extinguisher, because you're on your own.

While in Memphis, we also saw Graceland. The rooms are smaller than I expected, and the tour only includes the first floor, so it really doesn't seem that big. What is impressive is the number of gold records in the trophy room. That, and the decor in the jungle room. I can only dream of having a room with green shag carpeting on the floor and the walls and the ceiling. What a guy.

Finally, I just want to mention that a real "playa" (that's like player, not like playa, the Spanish word for "beach") in a deep maroon Cadillac with swirly purple pinstriped and silhouettes of naked ladies on the back windows said that our car was "tight."

A lot of the traffic in Arkansas looks like this.
Is Coca-Cola having quality control problems in Arkansas, or are they not quite as law-abiding there as I'd been led to believe?
This tenacious fellow rode our windshield all the way from Vicksburg to Clinton, Mississippi (that's right outside the capitol city of Jackson). Shown larger than actual size.

Today we went to Arkansas. All we saw was 60 miles of farmland, so the only comments I have about Arkansas are two disturbing signs we saw. The first was the "Best Coke" sign you see pictured on the left. Is all Coke not the same? Have I unwittingly been drinking inferior Coca-Cola products all these years? Or is this town just flaunting our nation's sensible and prudent drug laws? The second was a sign advertising "Do It Yourself Septic System Kits." I'm all for self-sufficiency, but there are some places the layperson just shouldn't go. We didn't notice excessive amounts of sewage flooding the streets and fields, though, so they must be doing a decent job.

We crossed back into Mississippi and took Highway 61 all the way down to Vicksburg, stopping once at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. On the way we passed through the colorfully named town of Alligator, Mississippi, and through Cleveland, which had a store selling Christian Books and Fireworks. I'm not clear if the fireworks were Christian, or just the books, but I bet if you want to explode something for Jesus, this is a good place to go. Vicksburg turned out to be another in a long line of riverside towns whose sole purpose is to provide food and lodging for the riverboat casino patrons. While parked at Wendy's, we picked up a tiny green hitchhiker (see photo) who clung desperately to the inside of our windshield all the way to Clinton, about 35 miles away, even at speeds up to seventy miles per hour. I hope we didn't upset the delicate balance of Mississippi grasshopper migration patterns by giving this guy a ride into town. If the town of Vicksburg ends up devoured by gnats or something, I was never there.