Sunday, November 29, 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Giving Up on the Central West End

About a year before my dad drowned I was living with my girlfriend Jill in the Central West End. This was the apartment on Parkview I talked about previously.

We had been forced to move from our place on West Pine. Washington University bought the property. Several of my friends lost their places too. A lot of people didn’t want to move but you can’t stop progress, especially when it’s already been paid for.

I don’t know what Jill and I were thinking. Our apartment on Parkview was in the shadow of a looming Barnes Hospital complex.

Sure enough, after our couple of years of domestic bliss, our landlady Effie told us they were forcing us all out.

Effie had two small 4-family flats right next to each other. She lived in the other one. Except for Jill and me, the other tenants came and went. Life was always changing.

The walls and floors were so thin it felt like we were all living in the same apartment. There was a couple upstairs that were always fighting. He’d beat the crap out of her and just as things got quiet, as she sat on the floor sobbing, she’d say something that would provoke him to start beating her again. We called the cops several times but that sick relationship stayed together even after they moved.

A couple of years later my girlfriend Pam and I lived with Fojammi and his girlfriend Josie in the Fox Park neighborhood. Josie and I did laundry together at the local laundry. Josie was never too shy to go up to battered women there and ask, “Why do you let him treat you like this?” I was always amazed at the answer, “Because I love him!”

Effie was never the same after she got the news. She bought the apartments with her husband after WWII. Her husband died several years before and the apartments became her entire social life. She didn’t want to leave. Her son took Barnes to court and they battled it out for a long time.

During this time Effie’s mental state began to deteriorate. She rented the place next to us to two hard assed guys whose faces were pulp from constant fighting. I wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t the same guys that rolled Marge and me up in carpets when we were robbed on West Pine.

We got to be friends with them. They told us creepy stories about partying with Effie. Apparently Effie would get very drunk and dance throwing her dress up to reveal the absence of underwear. She was in her nineties.

While we were living there I made it out to a spot on the Big River where I’d learned to swim as a child. There was a channel between a sand bar and a dock where I first swam without my life vest. The river was deep and the current was swift. I yelled to my dad to watch. He jumped in, pulled me out and spanked me. (It still hurts).

I was swimming at the same place.

I was wearing shoes and the water got very deep. I couldn’t seem to get my breath or keep my head above the water. I went down. Panic set in as I kicked violently. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I remembered my dad getting his head under a waterfall out here. If a friend hadn’t pulled him out he would have drowned. He told me he’d passed the point of pain. I had read drowning was the least painful way to die.

The panic passed and I guess my lungs were full of water. I reached an acceptance of the inevitable.

I opened my eyes to see an enormous cat’s ass moving away from me in the dark. I was in bed and Jill was lying next to me. The cat had been lying on my face.

Jill and I split, I spent some time alone, and Tracy moved in before they actually kicked us out.

Barnes hired movers for us and we beat it to Soulard. Man, movers really makes a difference. I never looked back.

They bought Effie a small bungalow in South St. Louis. She died lonely and heart broken a few months later. A collateral necessity as far as Barnes was concerned.

Pics show Jill's murderous cat plotting behind my dad's back, my brother Patrick and me admiring an object d’art when I was living on Parkview (pic by Matt O'Shea), I wish I had a pic of Effie, my dog Sinbad finally about to get his lizard, Patrick and me at the Big River in our cumbersome life vests.

When I took my son Dylan on his first camping trip, he was 5 I think, we floated in a canoe down the Meramec. The river was high from spring rains, we hit white water and the canoe capsized. Dylan washed downstream. I love those cumbersome orange life vests!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hey Turkeys

When my ex and I split up the holidays got a little strange with the kids. Thanksgiving goes to her family but the kids and I have our own traditions.

My 13 year old daughter Chloe became a vegetarian a few years ago. This made me happy of course but it’s a total pain in the ass for her mother. (This also makes me happy).

Chloe is the only vegetarian within a thousand miles of my ex’s family. Chloe and I are Commies to them.

For several years now Chloe and I sculpt our own bird out of tofu. We added a hat last year. Our design is based on the turkey we all learned in school. You know, the traced hand motif.

I think Thanksgiving is a good secular holiday. It’s great to sit in silent repose and ponder the things we’re grateful for. I’m extremely lucky when it comes to loved ones. So I feel compelled to send my friends and family the bird.

Monday, November 23, 2009

More On Personal Space

My friend Geo commented that his car had been stolen. I had one stolen recently myself. I've published a few articles at Associated Content and one was about that. Check it out.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Personal Space

One of my first posts was about two guys robbing my roommate Marge and me in our apartment. They rolled us up in carpets before they left.

It’s hard to explain how important your personal space is and how violated you can feel. I have several friends who have been raped and I can’t bring myself to imagine how unnerving that must be.

Sanity is a construct that has to be constantly reinforced. Society is an illusion based on trust. We tend to gather in our tribes for security. Sometimes it’s us against them.

When I was living in the West End as a young man I had to move three times because Washing University and Barnes Hospital kept expanding. I’ll be writing about eminent domain soon.

I was forced to leave the apartment where Marge and I were robbed. By then I was living with my girlfriend Jill. We found a nice little apartment on Parkview owned by a WWII refugee named Effie. She told us Effie meant grandma in Polish. She had a secret life I’ll write about later.

Eventually Jill and I broke up and I found myself alone in the apartment. The apartment began to fall apart as my life became more and more disorganized. The place looked like someone was always in the process of moving in.

During this time I got back together with my old girlfriend Lora.

Anyone who knows me knows how lightly I sleep. I’m incredibly restless and have always suffered from insomnia.

After one such night Lora and I awoke to find we’d been robbed. The room right next to where we slept had been ransacked. My flute, alto saxophone, and twelve-string Alvarez Yari acoustic guitar were gone. These guys had balls. The door to our room was even slightly ajar.

Eventually my buddy (and bassist) Tracy moved in. We had a very active social life and spent a lot of time away from home.

One night we came home together to find our apartment wrecked. It reeked from a long neglected cat box and our stereo was gone. We looked at each other and had a really great laugh. We had long ago learned not to become too attached to worldly possessions. This was out of psychological necessity of course.

I have a little side story about the power of friendship to diffuse a bad situation.

I lived at that apartment in the 70s. We were very much aware of a potential nuclear event in those days. We never trusted those crazy politicians and even though we were in our early 20s we had already been cynical for quite some time. My buddy Dominic and I were listening to that very stereo (probably Captain Beefheart or Brian Eno) when a low constant rumble shook the apartment. Dominic and I looked at each other, convinced in our hearts that the “Big One” had just dropped. We smiled at each other like it was the last time. It turned out to be one of Missouri’s more famous earthquakes.

Years later, when I was married, my wife Kim and I were going to meet up with some folks at the Train Wreck Saloon in West Port on St. Patrick’s Day. Just as we were about to enter the bar a friend stopped us to tell us our apartment in South St. Louis had been robbed. We rushed home to find our apartment torn apart. Why do people who break into other people’s homes find it necessary to be so destructive?

I had a huge collection of CDs. They filled pillow cases with them. Most of them were obscure imports I’ve never been able to replace and I’m sure they couldn’t sell.

We came home a month later to find the apartment had been broken into a second time. This was too much for Kim and we ended up living in her folks’ basement for a month. This was total Hell for me. Kim, our baby Dylan and I slept on a mattress on the floor.

Our landlord at the apartment was Colorful Tom, one of my skydiving buddies. During the month we were gone he installed an alarm system to tempt us back. After promising to get a dog, Kim acquiesced. We came back to find a big brass knocker on the door that announced The Udells.

The night Tom and I were putting the finishing touches on the alarm system we accidentally triggered some kind of panic button. It must have been at least 10 cops that burst through the door. They threw us up against the wall. Tom had long hair then and I must have been disheveled enough that we looked like burglars.

It occurs to me that I’ve been robbed so many times I don’t remember them all. I may have to update from time to time. The point is we all have personal space that needs to be respected.

Dave with uke circa apartment with Marge, Lora circa Parkview, Kim and Wounded Knee Dave circa Tom’s apartment, Dylan practicing celesta circa Tom’s apartment.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I’ve had 2 bosses in my life that really had an impact on me. Both were father figures. Dennis Connolly, the owner of The Broadway Oyster Bar who I’ll get back to, and Dave Verner.

Calvin “Calmodee” Britt, head Goon Squad member, calls Dave “The Prince of Darkness who’s forgotten more about skydiving than most jumpers will ever know. Dave’s also the father of world champion skydiver Kirk Verner.

Verner ran Archway Skydive Centre in Sparta Illinois and eventually Vandalia. I taught the static line first jump course for him.

I’d spend the entire day with my students. When the class ended I’d take 3 at a time up in a small Cessna and put them out of the plane. Verner would talk them down with a radio.

Verner was famous for his penny pinching. He’d run around the drop zone collecting beer and soda cans. He had the most demonic grin as he flattened them with his little hand pumped crusher.

Verner helped me out of several jams, especially when my car broke down. He threw wildly successful chili parties every winter. I remember leaving there so drunk one year that I drove my little Suzuki Samurai right into a ditch. Luckily I could put it in 4 wheel drive and get out.

Verner could never turn down any business. One time I had a class of seven Japanese engineering students from Parks College. I was teaching them exits from a mock up airplane when I began to get the feeling they didn’t understand a thing I said. I scanned the group and noticed one of them seemed to understand English. “You seem to understand me,” I said. “I understand every word,” he replied. “Great, explain it to them.” “I’m Korean!” he exclaimed.

Anyway, I taught them the commands for steering and landing and Dave talked them down safely.

Pics are me boarding a blue Cessna 182 (this was one of the planes I put students out of), Dave telling one of his bad jokes to a group of jumpers (he’s wearing the green hat), Me standing in front of a red Cessna 185—gotta jump off here.... Our friend George was the pilot of this airplane. I spent a 3 day weekend at a skydive camp 10 miles from Vandalia being coached by Jack Jeffries. He was the team captain of Arizona Airspeed. They were the world champion 4-way team for several years and Kirk was a member. We were practicing our moves at the Greenville airport when George landed his C-185. He had just watched a load exit the plane back at Vandalia when he noticed a glove finger in the back of his plane. He picked it up only to discover it still had a finger in it. Our friend Steve Otke had his finger in the plane’s door hinge and he exited leaving it behind. George flew straight to show us.

The last pic is the Verner family. I got it from Dave’s FaceBook. It shows Dave, Kirk, Dianne (Kirk’s mom), and Kirk’s son. Kirk’s wife Melanie took it.

When Kim and I got married in freefall, Dianne tried to talk us out of letting Dennis Jett be our minister. Dennis was a bit of a Viet Nam vet psychedelic that seemed to have been ordained by mail in San Francisco. Dave told her to shut up and let us have our day.

P.S. I just remembered. There's a scene in the movie Drop Zone where several skydivers form a large spinning round formation over Washington, DC. The single jumper spinning the opposite direction in the center of the formation is Jack Jeffries.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The School Band

In 1969 my brother came home from school with a violin. I was jealous. I was so jealous my dad gave me his cornet and I was signed up for band. His horn was almost unplayable. It became apparent I would need a better one if I was going to take this seriously.

The place to go for band instruments in those days was St. Ann Music. I got a beautiful Conn trumpet that had a copper bell. I’ve never seen another one like it. They told me it improved the tone. It just looked really cool to me.

The next year I started junior high at Nipher in Kirkwood. It was 3 miles away and I used to walk along railroad tracks to get there. Sometimes I’d hop a train. You should try that carrying a trumpet case.

Band teachers were always a little different than the others. They were just a little off. Nipher is where my friend Baritone and I would trade instruments. Our teacher was cool with it. He encouraged experimentation.

In those days when the door bell rang at night we were instructed not to answer. It could only be a bill collector. One night, as we hid in the dark, the ringing became so incessant I had to answer. I couldn’t stand it any more.

Sure enough it was a guy from St. Ann Music looking for the trumpet payment. If he couldn’t get that he wanted the trumpet. I told him I’d left it at school. He asked how my instruction was going. I told him I loved it and I was getting better every day. He said he was glad to hear it. I never heard from them again.

When I moved out to the country with my dad I hadn’t practiced for months and my embrasure was shot. I auditioned for the school band and didn’t make it. I had always been encouraged and this was a real blow to my ego.

Somehow when I moved back to the city with my mom I passed the audition and was back in the school band.

It was a whole different experience this time. My teacher was a lovely, ancient woman who wore too much rouge and perfume named Mrs. Lewis. She loved me and really pushed me to excel.

Mrs. Lewis took me to play with the black gospel church groups on St. Louis’ north side on Sundays. I traveled with a friend whose name I can’t recall. He would wail out an improvised horn line every now and then. I was really impressed and realized how musically repressed I’d been.

I loved these trips. I felt like I was carrying on a family tradition. My dad and his friends went to church for the gospel music on weekends even though he had admitted to me that he was atheist. He thought the lyrics of a Blood, Sweat and Tears song were really deep that went, “Swear there ain’t no Heaven but I pray there ain’t no Hell.

At the end of 8th grade Mrs. Lewis took my buddy and me to audition for Walter Suskind. At the time he was the director and principal conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

I played Mendelssohn’s Intermezzo which I’d never even heard before. I remember my buddy got to play something that seemed like a lot more fun. We both passed the audition and got free summer lessons from one of the first chair trumpet players of the Symphony. I think this was the course you took to get into the Young People’s Symphony.

I remember I had to ride my bike miles with the trumpet case hanging from my fingers. It hurt.

Eventually I quit. I felt like I was burning up my summer vacation. I regret it now of course but at the time I never admitted to anyone that I hated the sound of trumpets. It was electric guitar for me!

Well here I am with kids in band. Schools are always cutting band from their budget first and we’re lucky the St. Charles schools realize how important music is.

My kids have the same discipline issues I did and Dylan has already given up trombone. They had both studied piano for years and eventually lost interest. Chloe seems to be genuinely into the flute.

To be fair to Dylan he’s getting better at bass and guitar every day. I guess music has to be a personal pursuit.

When I gave up trumpet my brother and I took the bus downtown to Hunleth Music. (An incredible place whose demise is a real loss to St. Louis). We were both playing hooky. I traded my trumpet for a violin for him. We were stopped by a truant officer. We explained we were on a musical expedition for school. He looked at the violin case and let us go.