Tuesday, September 27, 2011

St. Louis One Day

This is St. Louis. Clearly.

Amtrak affords me many pleasures. One such pleasure is going circuitous routes which take me through random regions to my destination cities. For instance, I went through New Mexico from San Francisco in order to get to Denver. Incredible, but true.
On this particular occasion, the wonder that is Amtrak has taken me through Chicago and St. Louis from Denver to get to Austin, Texas. At first, I was a bit bummed that I would take a four day journey for what should have been a one day trip, but as my friend Ian told me recently, "you can go into any city with the right attitude and have a great time, or, with the wrong attitude, and it will suck". Ian always knew just how to explain things so that I could understand them.*

My itinerary called for a one night layover in St. Louis, and I was a bit worried initially because I don't know anyone there. Luckily, my friend Nick Manci just happened to have a friend in St. Louis, Derek Norvell, who said I could crash with him, and Nick suggested I do a story on him as well. It turned out to be a really great idea, and gave me an excuse to ask Derek all manner of questions I wouldn't have been able to ask him otherwise.

I walk out of the St. Louis Amtrak station at about 1030 pm, and look for Derek's big red truck, which just happens to be pulling up to the curb as I walk out. Nothing like curb-side service, especially when you have a 60 lb. pack on your back. As I hop up into the cab, I eyeball Derek a bit. It is dark inside, but I can tell he is one of those guys who can best be described as having "chiseled good looks".  Later, I would end up changing that description to "devilishly handsome".  I think that is mostly because of his well-groomed eye brows.

Derek immediately starts talking. He has a deep voice and a deliberate way of talking. Derek is well groomed, incredibly articulate, has lived a varied life, is focused on his future and considerate about his present. As we drive to his apartment on the edge of St. Louis, he tells me about being a hair stylist, his love of hockey, food, his Harley Davidson,  his social life, and a bit about the city. He has a lot of energy. Evidently he has not been on a train for the last 24 hours like I have.

We get to his apartment, and as we pull in, he tells me he hates the complex he is living in, but as it fits his needs presently, he stays. We walk in to his place and I am surprised to find a very well decorated and tidy one bedroom. Aimee, his miniature Dachsund, comes charging out of the bedroom to greet him. This little dog is all spunk; huge eyes, floppy ears and a surprising ability to jump. Aimee is the apple of Derek's eye.

I notice and remark on his impressive cereal collection, and he describes the cereals in it, telling me what chocolate type is the best, what fruity type is the best, and while he is doing this, he glances at the boxes, does a double take and says, "I am actually running low right now". We talk a bit about what the plans are for the next day. They revolve around the two of us eating his favorite foods. There are no sweeter words in the English language than: "I am going to take you to the best sandwich place in town tomorrow". If you don't know what I mean by that, I can't help you. Nor do I want to.

We sit on his couch and he tells me about all the food he makes with his best friend, Julie. They take pics of the food they make together and he posts them on FB. Sometimes his friends make fun of him. Derek is indeed a bit of an enigma; he has kind of a tough exterior, but his interests and choices reveal kind of a cream puff. He has a large hat collection, gives discounts to customers who bring in donations for the humane society, and he is incredibly particular about his look. He tells me that he has to be because of his career, but I don't think he would be so good at it if he didn't really like it.

Derek sets me up with sheets and blankets and a pillow for his couch, lets me know that Aimee will be joining me intermittently through the night, then goes to bed. I don't know what it is about that couch, but it is one of the most comfortable I have slept on in a long time. Throughout the night, Aimee comes out and jumps up on the couch, licks my neck and burrows under the blanket to sleep between my knees. Even though I am tired, it doesn't bother me at all.

The next morning I awake to the smell of coffee and the news that Derek is going out to get us donuts at Tony's, the best donut place in town. Evidently I fell asleep at Derek's apartment and woke up in Heaven. He boils water for tea in his grandmother's simple but lovely metal teapot and then takes off for Tony's. I can hardly believe how great St. Louis is.

When Derek returns, he hands me a paper towel, an old fashioned donut and an angel cream-filled vanilla glazed donut. I take a large bite out of the old fashioned, and for the first time in my life after biting into a donut, I am filled with regret. The flavor of the cake of this donut is too good for large gulping bites. I want to spit part of it out and chew slowly, but I am afraid of the judgment it will bring. So I just try and chew slowly, savoring every crumb of the ginormous bite I have taken. After I have chewed and swallowed as carefully as possible, I take a bite of the other donut, and I know that it is delicious, but I can't tell why. This happens very rarely with food. I can usually tell why a dish I am eating is to my liking. But this donut is beyond description. It is so good that I am already dreading when I will be finished with it.

After we eat our delicious donuts, we sit around Derek's apartment and I ask him about the art on his walls. The array is impressive. He has a very cool, stylized painting of Aimee, a few pieces by Marco Almera and several great 70's era original movie posters, including "Hunter""Mother, Jugs, and Speed" and "Corvette Summer".  All in all, Derek seems to have a very good sense of what he likes and, more importantly, why. He tells me that he is in the city because it is near to his son, who is full grown, and his mother, who he adores. They both live in Springfield, Illinois, which is where he is from originally. When I ask about his son, it is clear that he is exceedingly proud of him, and shows me a picture of the two of them on their first motorcycle ride together.

We decide it is just about time to go to the best sandwich restaurant in town, so Derek puts on a different hat and we leave. As we drive, I look around at the urban landscape. It feels very much like Chicago and its outlying areas, though St. Louis is much smaller. Derek tells me about why he likes St. Louis, his experiences visiting Chicago to see his long distance girlfriend while they were dating, and living in Florida. As he speaks to me, I notice that he has no hair on his arms. I think this is a bit strange for a man who rides a Harley and loves hockey, but I figure I will ask him about it after we have talked more. Several minutes later we pull into a parking lot of a strip mall, get out of the truck and walk up to Mammer Jammer, the best sandwich place in St. Louis.

The Heartbreaking Moment of Truth. Note the hat.
As we approach the place, a small old black man comes out and tells us that they are closed. Derek is visibly crestfallen, and asks the man why. The old guy looks down at his feet, mumbles a bit about getting some stuff done and cleaning, pauses, looks up at Derek with resignation in his eyes and says, "I'm tired."

It is difficult to argue with a hard working man. Especially an old one. It must be tiring making the best sandwiches in St. Louis.*

As we walk back to Derek's big red truck, he seems a bit disoriented. I am worried that he is going into shock until he says, after we climb in, "That is really kind of heartbreaking."  We drive away, and he decides to take me to The Loop, the part of the city that he likes best. He is clearly still reeling, and it is the first time since we have been hanging out together that he is silent.

We walk around the area, which is quaint, with a few cafes, several restaurants, an old-fashioned movie theater, and a sculpture that is supposed to be Chuck Berry which looks more like Jerry Lee Lewis. Mostly because it has white man hair. While the sculpture is amusing, it is late and we are both hungry. First, we look at a place called "Thai Pizza".  I veto it, due to lackluster menus and the concept of dumping pad thai on dough and calling it pizza. Derek suggests Thai, so we get in the truck and drive to the neighborhood where Verve, the salon he works in, is located.  We walk down the street, and for some reason, walk right past the restaurant without noticing. We walk back only to discover that it too is closed, as it is now 3:00 and have missed the lunch shift. We walk back in the other direction, looking for a tapas restaurant. We find it in short order, but it is closed. Finally, and fittingly, we go to City Diner. It is decorated in the style of the old 50's burger joints. Portraits of Elvis and Marilyn all over the walls, Chuck Berry playing on the sound system.

Derek orders The Cuban sandwich and I order the Meatloaf sandwich with mashed potatoes.  About half way through the incredibly comforting and delicious meal, I come to the realization that it is the perfect thing to be eating in St. Louis with a man wearing a hat that I can only describe as "vintage". I figure this is the time to ask about his hairless arms, and the irony that he is a hairstylist, but doesn't like hair on his arms. It comes out that it is a combination of not liking how it feels and not liking how it looks. From there, we launch into a conversation about hair in general, and I mention that the idea of what is appropriate has changed so much since the 70's. Derek's response to my observation: "The 70s were gross." It takes every ounce of my strength to not burst out laughing. I have meatloaf in my mouth. That, too, would be gross.

We go back to his apartment after "lunch" and hang out for a bit. It is just about time to go to the train, so I pack up, and before I leave, Derek gives me some snacks for the trip.

When he drops me off, he puts my pack on my back and gives me a hug good-bye. As I wait in the Amtrak station for the train, I think about St. Louis and I think about Derek. The purpose of this project is to get to know the cities I visit, but it would be impossible to get to know any city in the span of a single day. In a way, St. Louis and Derek seem pretty similar. Both have this kind of tough exterior which would lead you to believe that they are inaccessible. But scratch the surface a little bit and it feels like you have known them forever.

*These lines are a tip of the hat to the movie Forrest Gump.