Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Racist Art

Craig Norton is white. That's the answer to the million dollar question.

Whether they ask or not, I would guess that most people who visit the
White Flag Projects gallery (flag color here unrelated to Craig and his show) are urgently compelled to identify the artist.
Craig would prefer to live in a society where people no longer require this answer or pose slightly more probing questions like, Is he Jewish? and Is he gay?

Craig mentioned attending a church, so I don’t think he’s Jewish and I did meet his wife and their baby. I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that information, but my experience of One Hundred Twenty Seven Racists Drawings would be stifled without the knowledge that the artist is white.

To the left of the entrance, three members of the Ku Klux Klan stand over a tormented black family as a house and two crosses burn in the background.

On the east wall, a black man is being sold at auction, a white girl appears to glare at a stunned black face and a black child hides behind his father.

Ahead, in the largest gathering, figures desegregate a school, threaten children with placards and clubs, restrain police dogs and scream out of madness.

All of these images seem merciful in contrast with the west wall’s presentation. Here are the images of lynching.

The festivity and approval of the mob denies the humanity of newly dead faces, but the deeper horror is in the text. Narratives penciled directly on the wall, outlined in speech bubbles detail methods of murder that stick to the psyche longer than a bloated face and a broken neck.

Craig inserted the first person into each of the texts and attached them to his figures, but cites books such as Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America as their source.

Maybe my need to know that Craig is white signifies a dysfunction in my analytical abilities. Once this basic information is revealed, the door opens for conclusions that arrive intact.

For instance—Craig seeks to reconcile his white male guilt as he feels complicit in these acts; Craig is capable of addressing overt racial violence, but shies from racism in its systemic form, for which he is culpable; Craig wants me, a white man, to acknowledge my shame.

So, what if I couldn’t know that Craig is white?

The craft is remarkable. Each photo-like face was rendered with a Bic pen. The bodies were collaged from wallpaper samples. The texts reflect documented narratives. The characters and their expressions were inspired by photographs that are, in some cases, less than fifty years old, and recent headlines deny that these histories have been resolved.

Before he developed this exhibition, Craig had created work addressing genocide in ten distinct historical contexts. He had made oil paintings depicting a St. Louis community in its struggle to cope with seven murders in one summer on Etzel Avenue. Also, no quantitative figures related to the number of black people killed in the American South over the last two centuries appear in the current show because Craig won’t allow statistical comparisons between one human tragedy and another.

“This awful history that has happened to another human being has happened,” Craig said during his artist’s talk yesterday evening. “I would hope that as a human being, I would step up and say, ‘This is happening and this is an injustice.’”

When Craig is confronted with the varied responses that his work inspires, he is inclined to share a personal story, rather than reach for abstraction. He told the small audience that had gathered for his lecture (three out of about twenty being African-American) an anecdote about overcoming his own ignorance.

One time Craig was riding the subway in New York City and noticed a man of Middle Eastern descent dressed in a long robe and a turban. A few minutes later, the man removed his turban, which Craig found surprising.

“I didn’t know you guys could do that,” Craig said.

The man laughed and they continued talking until they parted ways at a street-level intersection. Craig seemed to be saying that sincere inquiry could strike down prejudice at its foundation.

Generosity and open-heartedness are the other weapons in Craig’s arsenal. He talked about presenting a cake to a young man in his neighborhood who was celebrating his nineteenth birthday, bringing the teenager to tears. Craig also said that young people have knocked on his front door, asking for a place to stay and though Craig didn’t feel he could invite these individuals into his family’s home, he let them sleep in his car.

I asked Craig why he labeled his drawings racist in the title of his show. Craig said he wanted the question, Is he racist? to draw people to the work.

“People didn’t know,” he said, “but I was hoping that when they would come, they would look at it and realize that this is about history, hopefully forming a dialogue about things that people didn’t know about.”

An element of the work that no viewer knew about, until an informed audience member mentioned it, is what Craig has started writing on the back of each figure.

“After I complete the figure, I have a little process,” Craig said. “I don’t know if it’s an [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] process, but it’s a process. What I do is, first of all, thank God for the opportunity and the talent to do the work. Then I sign my name. I do a signature and then a print. I sign the time that it’s finished, but then what I’ll do is write down what I did that day. I write about what my daughter and I did or my wife and I. I don’t really know why I started doing that.”

As difficult as Craig’s work is to look at and as complicated as a reading of these images becomes with the knowledge that Craig is white, I appreciate his willingness to address these issues and histories directly, even though he doesn’t seem fully reconciled with the implications.

By the end of his talk, Craig hadn’t resolved all of my doubts about his role as the transmitter of these narratives, but he had presented an incredibly powerful body of work and stood in front of a microphone stand for an hour, enabling a dialogue.

I still need to know that Craig is white because, without that information, I wouldn't have a clear view of his vulnerability or his courage.

One Hundred Twenty Seven Racist Drawings will be on display at White Flag Projects until November 10th.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

City Seedling

Yesterday I woke up to the rain and a cold hardwood floor. My feet seemed to say, “Why’s it always gotta be us? You do yoga. Make the hands go first.” The hands retreated to my chin with the comforter. “You lived in Russia,” a rational lump of brain tissue said. “It’s only October.”

I eventually got up, admittedly later than the working world, and dug through a few drawers for the kind of socks that induce foot perspiration in any weather. My friend, Shannon, had given me an address, but I typed the wrong one into my Internet machine and proceeded to drive around Downtown St. Louis for fifty-five jaw-tightening minutes. Maybe these sluggish missteps reflected not my incompetence, but the need for a personal paradigm adjustment.

If I were playing the associations game during a road trip and someone said, “concrete,” I would not say, “harvest.” Serve me “urban” and I will not shout, “rutabaga!”

For a nation that appreciates the opportunity to unload its baby mandarins and flaccid pears, canned food and homelessness are wedded by forces of excess and need. City Seeds Urban Farm is trying to confuse us by introducing organic abundance to a plot of land two blocks from Union Station and fresh food to people who need it.

Established two years ago with the support of a three-year USDA grant, City Seeds is a food security project. According to 2003 statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 852 million people worldwide are chronically hungry due to extreme poverty and up to 2 billion intermittently lack food security, meaning consistent access to food. The City Seeds project is the result of collaboration between ten St. Louis organizations, led by Gateway Greening, a nonprofit “dedicated to community development through community gardening.”

Parker Smith holds a degree in horticulture from Illinois State University and is one of the farm’s co-founders. She believes that lower income communities in the City of St. Louis often lack access to grocery stores and fresh produce. Two of the grant’s stated goals are to promote healthier lifestyles amongst these populations and to offer job skills training and horticulture therapy to individuals with varied histories that may include homelessness, mental disabilities, emotional disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse and non-violent crime.

“We’ve had a number of clients this season go on to get jobs in the horticulture field because of their experience here,” Parker said. “Many people, whether they’ve struggled with issues in their past or not, find gardening therapeutic. Horticulture therapy is just incorporating that into what the St. Patrick Center does, whether it be physical therapy or dealing with substance abuse. It just helps.”

The St. Patrick Center, according to its website, is the largest provider of homeless services in Missouri, with twenty-two programs annually serving more than nine thousand people. The organization provides shelter through the Rosati Transitional Living Center on North Grand Avenue and serves a hot lunch to as many as 250 people 364 days a year at its main facility.

The clients, who earn minimum wage, are only eligible to work on the City Seeds Farm if they are actively participating in a second St. Patrick Center program, such as drug or alcohol rehabilitation, employment placement or prisoner re-entry, have been referred by their counselor and passed a physical exam. About fifty individuals have worked on the site since the program broke ground in the spring of 2006 and twenty-five to thirty clients are currently involved. The farm consists of thirty vegetable beds, a fruit tree orchard and a pumpkin patch.

The developing horticulturalists work from 7:30 to 11:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, though most clients are limited to two weekly shifts. On Fridays, the group prepares their produce for sale at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market the following day, in partnership with New Roots Urban Farm. Local Harvest Grocery Store also buys some of the fruits and vegetables and donations are made to Operation Food Search, a St. Louis food bank that distributes free food to three hundred food pantries and soup kitchens. The remainder of the produce is available to both clients and volunteers to take home for their soups, salads and sweet potato pies.

I talked to Christian Sparks, the St. Patrick Center program coordinator, as I palmed my voice recorder to protect it from the soaking rain. Christian works alongside the clients every farm day, and didn't seem bothered by the drizzle.

“Other than days like this,” he said, “well even on days like this, I just love being out here.”

As this was the final harvest of the season, the washing and packaging stations were overflowing with Swiss chard and other greens.

“We have to be real picky about how it looks,” he said, “because we’re essentially in competition with other people who are selling produce [at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market] and we want ours to look the best.”

Christian explained that, as part of the pre-employment program, clients rotate Saturday shifts at the New Roots Urban Farm booth, selling the goods that they have produced. Participants must attend two classes that review procedures for handling money and interacting with the public. Operation Food Search also visits the farm three or four times a season to provide instruction on food preparation, recipes and nutritional information. During the last session, they served butternut squash and black bean chili.

“I’m a meat eater,” Christian said, “but it may have been the best chili I’ve ever eaten.”

A few months ago, Christian informally surveyed the clients to see what they valued the most about their experience on the farm.

“For some folks, it’s an important part of their ongoing recovery process—it’s good just to be out here with other people who are trying to do the same things, trying to turn their lives around. For other people it’s a matter of doing things they didn’t know they could.”

In addition to maintaining the farm’s vegetable beds, the clients have the option of establishing their own plots.

“We have one young lady out here that has some partial paralysis,” Christian said. “One day she was just showing me her bed and she said, ‘I didn’t know I could do this!’ and her whole face was lit up. She’s really come a long way.”

“I think my favorite crop that we raised out here is hope and change, and the green stuff just happens to be a by-product.”

The first client I spoke with was Derrick, who has been working on the farm since April. I asked him what he liked best about the experience.

“Everything is good, but mostly washing, weighing, and getting the stuff ready for the market,” he said. “That’s what I prefer to do, but I do it all. I’ll put it like this, that’s what they say is my specialty. This right here.”

“What do you consider or think about when you’re preparing the produce for market?” I asked.

“I’m not thinking,” he said “I’m in a meditation mode. I just look at ‘em and boom! Just go through it and don’t think about what I’m doing.”

“You might be mad the morning you came in here and this right here helps take all the worries off your mind.”

Annie has been with in program since late March and tends individual beds established by clients who have left the farm, in addition to her own.

“It’s interesting for me to rekindle the flame,” she said. “In the olden days, you [gardened] with your grandparents and now you’re grandparents are gone on, so it’s quite interesting to start all over again. I’ve learnt a lot since I’ve been here. We’ve planted a lot of things that I knew nothing about. And now I know something about them.”

“It’s relaxation. It’s educational. It’s experimental. It’s adventurous.”

We both laughed.

“I like to aerate the vegetables,” she said. “You know, break up the soil around the bottom of the vegetables and then make sure that the water goes all the way down to the bottom of the plant, where the root grows.”

She led me into the rain for a tour of her individual bed. On the way over, we passed James, who had remained unsheltered, washing and sorting greens since I arrived. I found out that he was the most veteran client horticulturalist, having worked on the farm from its inception.

"It was just clear land," he said.

“What do you like about this work?” I asked.

“The money!” he said.

James didn't want to be photographed, but he was willing to display his product.

When I approached Annie’s bed, I saw that most of her crop had been harvested and that some insects had attacked her collard greens, but a few string bean plants, chard and tomatoes continued to grow.

She described her plan to take a floral arrangement class and learn more about soil during the break between growing seasons. Except for James, the clients I spoke with expressed interest in returning next year. There are no limits on an individual’s participation in the program, as long as the client’s counselor approves. Nonetheless, the end of the season was a difficult topic for Annie.

“I’m kinda okay with it, but I’m kinda not okay because now I’m like, ‘Okay, so what am I gonna do now?’” she said. “But I’ll find something to do. I’ll find something to do.”

“When the okra gets this big,” she said, redirecting my attention, “I usually take them home and let them dry out and then I open them up and take the seeds out and put them in an envelope and save them for next year to replant. And you’re stepping on one of them.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

The last person I talked to was Dennis. He had only entered the program four weeks earlier, but could already attest to its rewards.

“This is great for me,” he said. “It’s a therapeutic situation. I can really get in tune and in touch with nature and myself, if that’s not sounding too philosophical or ignorant or whatever.”

“I’m just saying, I’m urban, so the only thing I knew was concrete, you know. I go to the grocery store and look at [the produce], but to sit here and watch it grow. I didn’t know okra grew up tall.”

“I didn’t either,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

This morning I woke up a bit warmer and rode my bike to the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. The City Seeds farmers had sent me home with a bag of tasty radishes, but I stopped by the New Roots Urban Farm booth for few green peppers and an eggplant.

I’m happy to know the source.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Donut Doughdown

A “doughdown” is a showdown, head-to-head, but with alliteration. It’s a good way to occupy oneself on a Saturday morning and a better way to cripple any activity planned for the afternoon.

I first rode my bike to Dunaway Books on South Grand Boulevard, the only great used bookshop I’ve found in St. Louis (so far!). I almost bought the largest unabridged dictionary I had ever seen, but couldn’t justify transporting its immense weight, what with the existence of the Internet, which isn’t as charming on my coffee table.

I rode from there to an antique furniture store, bought nothing and continued hampering traffic down Chippewa Street. Just past the Bancroft Avenue intersection stands the Donut Drive-In. The named confused me at first because it got me thinking drive-thru, but it might as well be called “Donut Park and Get Out of Your Car.”

I leaned my bike against a window without locking it so that I could run outside just in time to see it peddled away.

“Do you have a signature donut?” I asked.

“No,” the woman said.

“I’ll take a glazed.”

In a head-to-head doughdown, it’s better to eliminate complicating variables like sprinkles and custard. That doesn’t mean it was easy to pass up the seasonal varieties at their peak.

Like its unrevealed competitor, Donut Drive-In offers no seating and does its donut making where anyone can see. A single donut costs fifty-nine cents. I took mine outside and sat on the sidewalk.

Before the first bite, I was experiencing buyer’s remorse. Who orders glazed? I wanted a Long John with orange frosting, but I ate my donut anyway, and it was really good. Very moist, glazey.

I mounted my bike, put on my dumb helmet and rode up Kingshighway Boulevard to Vandeventer Avenue, where I met the challenger.

Or maybe World’s Fair Donuts is the incumbent. The shop opened in the seventies, but its name, employees and indiscernible pun seem like allusions to an age long passed.

World’s Fair has a superior atmosphere, with less boxes threatening to topple on its customers. It also opens at four o’clock in the morning, which probably solidifies its credibility with patrons of the Casino Queen, “Home of the Loosest Slots.”

Again, I took my donut to the parking lot. A World’s Fair glazed donut costs seven cents less, but it’s a good inch smaller in diameter than its Drive-In counterpart and has a bigger hole. I tried to suppress my American lust for quantity and conduct my assessment on the basis of texture, flavor and density.

The World’s Fair donut pretty much lost in every category. It was sweeter and firmer and emptier, but still a good donut. What a great breakfast.

The real doughdown took place on the 1.6 mile ride home as the glaze seemed to harden in my bloodstream.

If others would like to share their own doughdown experiences, we at Middled would to love to share in them. Thank you.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Remedy

What is The Remedy?

A hip-hop radio program broadcast on community-sponsored KDHX St. Louis FM 88.1 every Monday night from eight to ten o’clock, co-created by DJ G.Wiz and DJ Needles, collaboratively hosted by D Hoya, Wallstreet, Tiffany and Honiee.

Who is The Remedy for?

“The people that can’t afford to go to the hospital to get fixed,” G.Wiz said. “So we’re like that midwife.”

So, what is The Remedy?

“The Solution,” he said. “If you’re sick and tired of hearing what you hear on the regular stations or anywhere else and you just want to be healed, then we have the remedy. It’s that medicine, that miracle drug, which is the music that we play.”

“The music is the drug, but it’s a positive drug. It ain’t crack.”

I arranged to meet G.Wiz an hour before the show at the KDHX station on Magnolia Avenue. I arrived first and waited in the storefront lobby, organizing a sheet of questions while listening to the rain and the voice of Amy Goodman wrapping up Democracy Now! G.Wiz came in laughing with four or five records and a laptop under his arm. We went into Studio A, the smaller of two studios, equipped with a program computer, four microphones and a set of turntables

I wasn’t a radio listener until I moved to Oakland, California out of college and encountered KPFA 94.1, the first listener-supported station in the United States that is part of the larger Pacifica Radio network. Their programming comes from a progressive perspective and, in the words of their mission statement, seeks to promote “pluralistic community expression.” I found some of the programs unappealing, but Democracy Now! gutted my ignorance of global issues and events and Hard Knock Radio, hosted by Davey D, taught me a lot about hip-hop.

I’m still not particularly well-educated on the subject, but I like some of the music and the cultural movement it represents. My listening preferences gravitate toward a genre of hip-hop that has been classified, accurately or not, as “conscious.” That has led me to artists such as Dead Prez and The Coup who spit lines like, “The cops stop you just because you black / that’s war,” and “Raise your hands in the air like you’re born again / but make a fist for the struggle we was born to win.”

Clearly, I’m not the “you” and I’m not inclined to execute the Black Panthers’ signature gesture. I’m also not the only young white male who can recite all of the lyrics to certain songs, but stops short at “nigger” unless I’m comfortably isolated in my car, doing seventy down the highway.

A week ago, I didn’t know the name of one St. Louis hip-hop artist outside of Nelly and his crew, the St. Lunatics, and wouldn’t have expected to encounter anything worthwhile on that long, barren radio dial. When I randomly tuned in to The Remedy a month ago, it sounded like hope.

The Remedy, to me,” D Hoya said, “is basically just refreshing. You know what I’m saying? It’s somethin’ that I needed. A weekly dose of hip-hop and it’s injected. Because you go throughout that week, man, and whatever life you lead, whatever it is…hip-hop just puts me in a place of calm peace.”

G.Wiz is forty-seven years old and has a full-time construction job. Needles is thirty-one and supports himself as a DJ. It would be impossible to summarize either of their music catalogues, but a few artists played on the October 15th show included MC Lyte, Diamond D, The Pharcyde, Grand Puba, Dudley Perkins, LL Cool J and J Dilla.

As a self-described “Old School” DJ, G.Wiz says his music spans an era from the birth of hip-hop to 1998. His selections overlap with those of his counterpart, starting somewhere in the late eighties, but Needles is also charged with providing hip-hop in its current forms.

“That way we got the whole spectrum,” G.Wiz said.

Neither the DJs nor the hosts are paid for the time and effort they put into the show, so I asked G.Wiz what makes it worthwhile.

“The enjoyment of playing stuff for people that I think would get a kick out of it,” he said. “When people call and request something, then you know they’re listening. Just the fact to be back on the air doing something you love to do and nobody tells you how to do it. The freedom part.”

G.Wiz has been spinning records since 1978 when he started carrying crates and amplifiers for Sylvester the Cat, currently a radio personality on Majic 104.9 and mayor of Pine Lawn, Missouri. Wiz grew up in St. Louis city, with his family living on six different streets that he could remember to name.

“Your moms and pops be like, ‘We movin’,” he said. “‘Aww, man!’ Just when you get new friends.”

“Kids was out of grownups business those days.”

Wiz acknowledged that “those days” signified his age, but embraces his station in life with the self-assigned moniker—the “godpops” of hip-hop.

“I’m happy to be able to reach this particular age,” he said, “first, being a black man, you know. Some people, people my age more so, used to say ten years ago, ‘You still listen to rap? You still play rap music?’”

“I’m like, ‘Yeah. Why?’”

“And then I play some stuff for ‘em, to change their opinion because they would come up with this information that all rap is crap and it’s gangster rap, talking this and this and that. And then I throw on some stuff, certain songs for ‘em, just to jog they whole mindset. Whether it’s some Common or some Public Enemy, some Poor Righteous Teachers or something, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, I never heard that before.’”

“Of course not. Because you listen to commercial radio.”

G.Wiz does a mix for Sylvester the Cat’s Saturday show on Majic 104.9, but the majority of his radio work has been for KDHX. In 1987, Russell Giraud and John Teller introduced St. Louis’ first hip-hop program called African Alert that was broadcast on 88.1. A year later, G.Wiz created his own record label, putting out albums by local artists, and was asked by Giraud to do mixes for the show.

Wiz later took over the program, renaming it Street Vibes, and continued broadcasting for ten more years. In 1998, he passed the show to DJ Alejan and Fly D-Ex, who moved to a live venue at Blueberry Hill. G.Wiz retired “at the time when the radio and music industry was bombarded by Master P,” and he remained off the air, living and deejaying in Tulsa, Oklahoma until he returned, met Needles and established The Remedy in October of last year.

At a quarter to eight, Needles and the other hosts plus St. Louis MC, Nato Caliph, and DJ Crucial, who would appear on the show to promote Nato’s new album, Cipher Inside, piled into the studio. DJ Alejan was also in attendance as a guest interviewer, bringing the total number of participants to nine, not including me. The energy was high as Needles and Honiee discussed Janet Jackson’s new film, Why Did I Get Married?, but no one appeared nervous or particularly occupied with the business of the show, except for Wiz who was organizing his set.

The Remedy is unscripted and G.Wiz often announces his Old School interview guests, people like DJ Red Alert, Grandmaster Kaz and female MC, Sha Rock of Funky Four Plus One, to the rest of the crew a few minutes before the show or even on the air. This spontaneity makes the program very funny at times and often enables listeners to influence its direction and focus.

The Remedy is everything,” Wiz said. “The Remedy is whichever way we feel when we come in here.”

“[The program] gives [our listeners] a chance to have something for themselves,” D Hoya said, “where you can actually request a song. There’s interaction. I think people can connect with us because…it’s just a friendly show.”

“Literally, the other stations are almost cookie cutter,” Wallstreet said. “Like I can tell you what time something’s gonna come on, on what day.”

“I really hate when you listening to one station,” D Hoya said, “‘Aw, I don’t want to hear that,’ then you turn to the next station—same song is on that station and I’m like, ‘Aw, shit, I’m trapped! Where do I go?’ 102.5—Let me go easy listening.”

Although there are several radio stations in St. Louis that play hip-hop music, the contributors to The Remedy are reasserting their definition of that broad genre.

“Hip-hop was the younger people’s soul music,” G.Wiz said. “In all actuality, singing is rhyming too. Every other line is rhymes, they just singing. But hip-hop was using breaks from James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, you know, and it’s like, that’s the music we grew up on.”

“As far as the people that’s doing it on a major level,” Needles said, “they’re doing what they believe is hip-hop. I can’t really knock one man’s perception or interpretation, but I can’t really honor a lot of that stuff because I don’t agree.”

“I kinda came to the realization that for one group of people to dictate what is and what’s not hip-hop, it’s sort of like how a lot of people in the conservative and Republican party dictate to everybody what is and what’s not American.”

“To me it’s more of a movement,” he said. “It’s a culture that you live and hip-hop gets mixed up with a lot of things that come out of what’s considered a very negative, quote unquote ghetto experience, and that’s pretty separate from hip-hop.”

“Hip-hop came from the ghetto, but it’s not a thing to glorify what keeps people down in the ghetto and that’s what a lot of people associate it with. Hip-hop is about the four elements that make it up. And people who understand it, they know what I’m talking about. And those are positive things. You know, that’s deejaying, emceeing, graffiti writing and B-boying, break dancing and stuff.”

“So, if you’re not really promoting that, and if you can’t acknowledge that and don’t appreciate that genuinely, I don’t really look at you as hip-hop. If all you can do is promote what’s negative in urban communities and poverty stricken areas, then I can’t say you’re hip-hop. You’re just what you are. I don’t know what you are.”

G.Wiz’s “if I won the lottery” dream is to open a lounge that would play music spanning generations and genres, but he believes it would be a gamble in St. Louis.

“I remember when we was growin’ up,” he said, “you would listen to the black radio stations, you would hear, I mean, from Parliament-Funkadelic to Elton John, ‘Bennie and the Jets.’ Same station, you know. You’d dance off of that in basement parties. I mean, black basement parties. You know, we were teenagers. We didn’t have a boundary line.”

“But then the change came with radio and it started helping separate the people. This is your music. This is their music.”

The music that The Remedy plays reaches a diverse community of listeners. Though the demographics have not been charted, the phone calls indicate the range.

“We know we have people fourteen and black, female,” G.Wiz said, “and on top of that we have a fifty-five year-old white school teacher, female, listening, because she actually called and asked me if I could make her a CD or two of some of the music that we play so that she could let her kids at school listen to it.”

Sitting in the studio for the duration of the two hour program, I was amazed at the conversations taking place when the red light was off. I had prompted some discussion about hip-hop and The Remedy’s mission, but it was clear that debates about the direction of the music and the larger cultural movement are conducted whether the microphones are on or not.

The willingness to engage with one another in an honest, opinionated manner seems to enable the group’s family-like dynamic, an approach to relating that G.Wiz perceives in the larger hip-hop community.

“Cats, female and male,” he said, “will come up to you and embrace you, and you don’t really know who they are, and you embrace them because they embracing you.”

“And it’s like, ‘Man, I grew up listening to you. You saved my life,’ you know, ‘You inspired me to want to DJ,’ or, ‘You inspired me to rap.’ And that’s some family-type stuff.”

“To be still in it and to be embraced by the different generations—that’s lovely.”

After my Monday evening experience, I can only agree with D Hoya's comment that, “Hip-hop is well in St. Louis.”

To listen to The Remedy online, just visit KDHX.org to access streaming audio files. Requests and comments can also be made at the program’s MySpace page. In addition, check out Deep Krate Radio with Fly D-Ex and DJ Iceman on Fridays at 10 PM on 88.1 and get a copy of Nato Caliph’s album at F5 Records.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Men's Bowling

Every Friday afternoon my ninety-four year-old grandfather, John Schwartz, meets some of his friends at Coach Lite Lanes in Rolla, Missouri for three games of bowling. He says by the start of the third game, he’s ready to be home in bed, but the group of four women and sometimes as many men is social and entertaining. When he remembers to bring it, Grandpa wears a yellow thrift store button-down that my sister brought to life with a felt bowling ball and the nickname, “Love Tap,” spelled across his muscled back.

The first time I joined them, Grandpa and I were ten minutes late and the seven other, seventy-plus year-old bowlers were waiting with shoes laced, ready to roll. The group usually gets lunch together at Long John Silver’s or another fast-food establishment before the one o’clock start time, but had eaten at the alley that day because of Jeanne’s doctor’s appointment. Jeanne is ninety-one and bowled with a cotton ball Scotch taped to her arm, but that didn’t stop her from defeating me in the first game by twenty-seven pins.

I asked Ann how lunch was, to which she screwed up her face, indicating sub-gourmet. I was also a bit disoriented by the beverage situation.

“Do you have iced tea?” I asked Harold Fite, the alley manager.

“Maybe,” he said.

He returned with an inch-deep sample of tea in a paper cup.

“See if you can stand it,” he said.

“It tastes like tea,” I said.


In the men’s restroom, laid at the foot of the urinal, is the most direct and practical bathroom mat I have ever seen.

When I mentioned it to my grandfather he said, “Really? I never noticed it.”

“Really?” I asked.

Coach Lite Lanes, thanks in part (perhaps) to that mat, is a clean facility offering an excellent deal to senior bowlers on Friday afternoons at a dollar twenty-five a game. Unfortunately, last Friday morning Jeanne was taken to the hospital with pneumonia, so most of the group was unable to attend. We heard from Nadine at Church on Sunday that Jeanne was now back home, recovering well.

Despite our concern and intentions to act respectfully, Grandpa, Bob Mottin and I went bowling anyway.

“What do you like about bowling?” I asked them from the back seat of Bob’s Taurus as we drove to Long John.

“Just the company, I guess,” Grandpa said. “There’s also a certain amount of satisfaction in letting loose of that ball if it hits, you know. If it hits. If it doesn’t, you wonder why.”

“We have a lot of fun,” Bob said. “A lot of laughs.”

“Who’s got the best victory dance?” I asked.

“I get a kick out of Nadine,” Grandpa said. “She does a little skip, a little turn on her foot.”

“You know,” Bob said, “for no harder than she throws, she gets more pin action. I can’t believe it.”

Bob started bowling in 1950 when he worked at the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Hazelwood, Missouri. At that time he participated in an employee league, but Bob hadn’t donned his bowling shoes for thirty years before Bill Knight, the Rolla group’s highest average scorer, invited him along.

“Bill wanted to get me out of the house,” Bob said. “That was two years ago, after [my wife] Rita passed away. He thought I was spending too much time in the house.”

“We bowl in the Tuesday league up there and on Fridays, you know, and it kinda breaks up the week.”

Bob was particularly proud of a fundraiser he had participated in to benefit Miranda Blattel, a nine year-old girl living with Epidermolysis Bullosa, a rare genetic skin disease characterized by extremely fragile skin. The event was held at Coach Lite Lanes in September and Bob was photographed with Miranda by a journalist from the Rolla Daily News as the oldest participant at age eighty-four.

“Boy you want to see something sad,” Bob said. “And that little girl is so nice, you can’t believe it. You can’t even touch her cause she blisters. Her mom’s got to grease her complete body with Vaseline every morning and wrap with gauze. I don’t know how she could be that nice and be in all that pain she’s in.”

“We raised sixty five hundred dollars," he said. "The alley didn’t charge nothing for the bowling and we all paid twenty dollars a piece to be in it. And they had all these hearts that they stuck up all over the hall and they were a dollar apiece.”

“The little girls’ mother is a very good bowler,” Grandpa said.

“She teaches bowling to all the young girls up there,” Bob said. “Boy, you want to see strikes. Criminelly.”

Bob, whose average currently hovers at 109, has also experienced health problems that have challenged his game. On November 11th of last year, he dozed off while watching TV early in the morning and woke up to discover an absence of feeling in his right hand.

“I thought I had sat on it,” Bob said. “So I took my arm and I swung it around and around. It didn’t help at all. So I called Bill and I said, ‘Bill, I think I’m having a light stroke.’ And he said, ‘Bob, take two aspirins and I’ll be over there in five minutes.’”

Bill drove Bob to the hospital, where the medical staff administered an injection that returned the majority of sensation and mobility to Bob’s hand within two hours.

“Bill saved me,” Bob said.

Bob, Bill and my grandfather live in Indian Hills, a private residential community set on a 355 acre man-made lake. Bob designed and built the original teepee that stands just outside of the entrance gate and recently crafted a ship's wheel and anchors to adorn a twelve-foot lighthouse that has, to date, received only one complaint about its powerful spotlight. He became a permanent resident in 1980, the same year that he retired from Ford, where he worked for fifteen years on the assembly line before transferring to the stock department.

“That working on the line is miserable,” Bob said. “When they’re running forty cars an hour, which is usually about the lowest point you go, you’ve got to keep doing the same thing over and over, every minute and a half.”

Bob was much happier driving a tow motor out of the pre-delivery department.

“I had one time, Ryan, I worked eleven and a half hours a day, seven days a week and I worked like that for nine months without a day off.”

“Nobody could learn that job of mine because I had to go all over that plant to get parts. Even to get to the right department was a challenge. They had four repair lines and I’d keep all them going. It kept me busy, but I liked it because I never had no two days alike.”

Bob worked at Ford for thirty-one and a half years, having gotten a job when the factory opened in 1948.

“Were you in the War?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Bob said. “You ain’t gonna believe what I did.”

Bob was a Motor Machinist Second Class in the Navy and served on PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat three fifty in squadron twenty-five, operating in the Pacific. PT boat squadrons were nicknamed “the mosquito fleet” because they were small, fast vessels used to attack larger surface ships. Though they carried torpedoes, mounted machine guns and eventually five-inch rockets, PT boats were built with wooden hulls susceptible to damage.

“That was strictly volunteer,” Bob said. “They couldn’t assign anybody to those boats.”

“Because it was so dangerous?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “They had to all be volunteer. You had three thousand gallons of gasoline on them and if they hit that, you didn’t have to worry about swimming. A Jap twenty-five would go in one side and out the other. It was just so dangerous.”

“One time it took them two months to repair [our boat]. The carpenters, after they got done fixing it, put a nameplate on the front of it—El Patcho.”

Twelve enlisted men and two officers were assigned to each boat, and Bob, in addition to his responsibilities as a machinist, operated the number four torpedo and loaded the forty millimeter guns during air attacks. His squadron started in New Guinea and conducted combat operations throughout the Philippines.

Over hush puppies and fish fillets, Bob described the threat of suicide attacks posed by the Japanese Air Force.

“Well, you just never knew,” he said. “I still couldn’t believe it. Every time I’d keep waiting for them, when they’d actually make a dive, waiting for them to pull up.

“One time we wasn’t far at all from this big ship. It was a cargo ship and it had gasoline and torpedoes and they suicide dived it, and when that thing blew up, there was pieces coming down out of the sky that were the size of a railroad car.”

“We were putting heaters in the boats and everything, getting ready to invade Japan when they dropped that [atomic] bomb.”

“We didn’t know nothing. We couldn’t believe it when we heard it. We were dreading that invasion. We knew what was gonna happen. We didn’t have a chance of getting ashore.”

Bob’s high school girlfriend, Rita, had been waiting two and half years for him. They were married three months after he returned from the War, had two children, Robert and Susan, and were together for fifty-seven and a half years before she died on December 6, 2003.

“Yep, she was a good one,” Bob said.

After bowling, Bob waited in his car while Grandpa and I shopped at the local supermarket. As we left the parking lot, Grandpa and Bob got into a discussion about foreign automobiles.

“They tried twenty months to kill me and couldn’t do it,” Bob said. “The only way I’ll be in a Jap automobile, I’ll be in a pine box going feet first.”

“And, you know, a lot of people don’t figure this out. They’re doing with automobiles what they couldn’t do with the War. Taking over this country. A lot of people think, cause they’re made here in the United States…that ain’t the thing of it. The thing of it is that the main part of the money is going to Japan.

“But a lot of the parts from American cars are being made all over the world,” Grandpa said.

“Well,” Bob said, “that was part of these new contracts, John. With General Motors and all of them.”

“Yea, but it isn’t complete,” Grandpa said.

“Well, they’re trying to,” Bob said.

Bob told us about an acquaintance of his named Bill (not Bill Knight) who asked Bob’s permission to fish off of his dock.

“And he come down to the house and he was in a Nissan,” Bob said. “I asked him, ‘Bill, have you got any other car?’ He says, ‘Yea, I got a Dodge pickup.’ I said, ‘Well, the next time you come down, you drive that pickup, cause I don’t want that Nissan in my driveway.”

“Oh my gosh,” Grandpa said.

“He never came back,” Bob said. “That’s up to him.”

“Does any one you know have a…” I started to ask Bob. “Well, I guess you have a Japanese car, don’t you?” I asked Grandpa.

“Yeah, I do,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “you’re not driving the carpool, I guess.”

“Yeah, I don’t have to drive at all,” Grandpa said. “It works out well.”

The following day, Grandpa and I drove over to Bob’s house in my Volkswagen. Bob had offered to show me a book put together by PT Boats Incorporated that features photographs from the War and yearbook-style biographies of the men who served in those squadrons.

“I think there’s a lot of them gone since this book come out,” he said.

He also showed me a photograph that his daughter had framed alongside a medal she had purchased.

“When that was made,” Bob said. “I was nineteen years old.”

“You’re older than that now, Bob,” Grandpa said.

“Just a little bit, John,” Bob said.

Climbing the stairs to the second floor of Bob’s house, we passed a shelf full of miniature models of Ford automobiles. Halfway up the staircase, Bob had me turn around to look at the model PT boat he had spent four months constructing.

“Boy it took a long time,” he said. “Oh, man. It’s not just a block of wood. I made it like a real one. I put all the ribs in it and planked the outside of it. I made the case and everything. I made everything but the guns and the torpedo racks. I ordered them from a model company.”

“I had a set of plans to make the hull and that, but mostly it’s just what I remembered from being on it so long.”

Bob gave us a tour of the rest of his house, much of which he had worked on himself, including the upstairs fireplace. As we were leaving he showed us another model ship he had built inside of a palm-sized bottle and told us the story of celebrating the end of the War with beer cooled on the ship’s deck with fire extinguishers.

In the entry that Bob contributed to the PT servicemen book, he wrote, “I stayed with the PT 350 right to the end when they stripped her down, ran her up on the beach and set her on fire. This was a sad day because it was like losing one of your shipmates.”

We invited him to Grandpa’s house for a meal, but Bob said, “No, thanks. I’m okay over here.”

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Journey to the Arch

When I applied to write a guidebook for St. Louis two months ago, in response to which I’m still awaiting even cursory acknowledgement, I tried to make myself appear interesting by saying I wouldn’t put the city’s six hundred and thirty foot icon, The Arch, on the cover. I didn’t offer anything to stand in its place—a cardinal foraging for winter or a cup of frozen custard, to name the candidates.

As the publisher seems to really be mulling my suggestion over, maybe there is something novel or very dense about trying to separate St. Louis from its singular symbol. I guess I don’t like that many people wouldn’t know or recognize the city without the Arch, but if it were removed, Downtown would look a lot like Cleveland.

Before yesterday, I had probably been inside the Arch twice. I remembered the elevators that simultaneously reference 2001: A Space Odyssey and a coal mine, the underground museum and the small windows at the top, easy to miss on the postcard. I decided to get on my bike and reexperience this black hole of our city’s national identity.

On the way down, where Chouteau Avenue meets South Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard (that was Missouri’s first woman in Congress), less than two hundred feet from the brown and swift Mississippi, there is a twelve-foot concrete flood wall that runs for more than a mile along the railroad tracks.

The wall opens for gravel drives leading to whatever riverside industrial complexes lie behind it, but the graffiti covering nearly every gray inch picks up again after each of the gaps.

The dedication in the wall’s top corner, where the artwork starts and the admirer can look left under a freight bridge to acknowledge the Arch, states that this project was sanctioned.

Over the Labor Day weekend in 1999, hundreds of graffiti artists, roused by Internet chat, gathered for the first annual Paint Louis festival.

As I’d rather not pay the St. Louis Post-Dispatch $2.95 for access to an article in its archive that should be free, I don’t know how many years the event officially ran. As recently as last year, organizers battled with Mayor Clarence Harmon for approval, in conflict with residents who decried the unauthorized vandalism of previous years.

None of the paint I saw looked fresh, but the wall gave me hope for alternative book covers.

Riding from the wall to the foot of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (that’s the Arch), I passed the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher riverboats and a “Bike St. Louis” sign that had been hit by a car.

I had to carry my Schwinn up a lot of steps, but this, I felt, benefited my sense of scale.

The Arch is as tall as it is wide. It’s made of rebar and 25,000 tons of concrete, encased in nine hundred tons of stainless steel. The cross-sections of its legs are equilateral triangles that narrow from fifty-four feet at the base to seventeen feet at the top. In one hundred and fifty mile per hour winds, it sways no more than eighteen inches.

Every national monument is probably a target for publicity-seeking stuntmen, if not terrorists, so the National Park Service has blocked the only point of street access with a humvee. Eleven light aircraft have successfully flown under the structure and two men have attempted to scale it by means of suction cup. In 1980, Kenneth Swyers died when he tried to parachute onto the Arch, only to slide down the length of one leg.

I locked my bike to a lamppost and descended an inconspicuous ramp. Unlike my first visit in the eighties, my bag was subjected to a security inspection and I had to pass through a metal detector. While I was waiting, I read a warning sign addressing the types of knives that are not permitted inside the memorial. These included Kershaw knives, switchblades, butterfly knives, double-edged knives and concealed sheathed knives, leaving me to wonder what knives might’ve been left off the list.

I spent eleven dollars on tickets for the “Trip to the Top” and the film, “Monument to the Dream,” which documents the construction of the Arch between 1962 and 1965. I also bought a coffee and some taffy from a shop selling “historically-inspired food” because I’d forgotten to eat lunch.

To kill the forty minutes before the next film screening, I wandered into the Museum of Westward Expansion, a dramatically lit exhibition of artifacts, taxidermy and robots.

I didn’t do much reading because helpful individuals like Indian Agent William Clark and Chief Red Cloud were right there, spilling the history from their mouths.

The only thing I found strange about my visit up to this point was the number of people free to tour the Arch grounds on a Wednesday afternoon. Some even appeared to be foreign tourists, but maybe they had a long layover at the airport.

“Monument to the Dream” was excellent. I learned that Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect, beat out more than a hundred and fifty competitors in 1947 with his design.

“Across time a simple shape has given the great memorials their dignity,” Paul Richards narrates, but points out that nothing about the Arch was simple beyond its shape.

Each of the legs had to be self-supporting, as the connecting bridge wouldn’t be set in place until they were over five hundred feet tall. Both the lifts and men were held by the structure they were building and five hundred tons of pressure were required to jack the legs four feet apart in order, on October 28, 1965, to position the final piece.

The film summarizes eighteen years of planning and effort with, “By strength and skill and valor, they unrolled the unknown before them.”

I left the theater feeling electrified by the will of men, then stood in line for an elevator that had malfunctioned just two months before, leaving people stranded at the top.

I only spent three minutes observing the city through the airplane-like windows, but it’s the best view of St. Louis and the visible poverty on the east side of the river.

I left the memorial site shaky with hunger and rode back to Chouteau Avenue, where a kind of utopia awaited me.

The Eat-Rite Diner at the intersection of South Sixth Street is one of the few remaining links in a larger restaurant chain.

This establishment has been flipping patties and serving breakfast since the 1940’s and is an official Route 66 Roadside Attraction.

I order coleslaw and a cheeseburger and would’ve tried the raisin pie if I hadn’t been staring down a few more miles on the bike.

I love the Arch and I love St. Louis.