September 23, 2021

St Louis in (Parts of) Three Days

Saturday: It’s funny how the little things decades past continue to enthrall me in 2020. Like desks. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in 1970 I was enthusiastically reading at my very first one. And in this case I’m appreciating the one in The Pear Tree Inn hotel room. 

A desk is one of the underrated wins of the last half millennia: the table upon which, to paraphrase Barry Manilow, “the whole world writes”.  Give me a wooden desk and a mini-fridge and the hotel sings. 

A great thing about vacations is that a single day can encapsulate 3 to 4 “normal” days. Everything is new, different.  A wealth of days in a single day.  And this felt like one of those in starting at 7:30am and traveling to the metropolis of St. Louis, arriving around 2:30pm local time (3:30pm our time).  We’d made the trip leisurely by some things willed and others not. Willingly we stopped at the quaint town of Casey, Il, population 2,620 (as of 2019!) to see things that are the world’s largest: like the mailbox, three stories and functional enough to accept real mail if one is willing to climb to the top of the stairs and enter the large box. I was touched by the thoughtfulness of not just having an outlandishly huge mailbox but then making it a receptacle for real mail, even to the point of warning that postage was necessary.  Elsewhere there were Dutch shoes the size of small elephants. And there was the indelible image of a rocking chair dominating the city skyline, one so big that actually sitting in it let alone rocking in it would be a fools’ errand.  It was A’s favorite “big thing” and mine as well. 

The unwilling things that impeded the trip involved the now inevitable slowdowns created by a country much in need of service workers: McDonald’s, the fastest of the fast foods, created waits for breakfast and later ice cream that burnt minutes prodigally but without resentment on my part as we needed our breakfast and we needed our ice cream. It was certainly worth the wait, as they say. Another wait at Subway where I had my first sub sandwich that lacked roast beef. It wasn’t delivered that day being the reason. So I had ham. 

So we were not exactly in a hurry but once we arrived near St Louis the pace picked up quickly.  Doug had texted wanting ETA for A and P. We texted them and they were reading and Mom was raring to go soon thereafter. I skipped my plan to run and we headed over there and did a tour of their rooms and some of the campus. Then we planned on dinner at 6 at “Mama’s on the Hill”, a family Italian restaurant a couple blocks from where Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola called home. 

This left a window of an hour to run and shower, not helped by my room key failing to work.  It got zapped by my phone apparently. The gal said, “this happens often.” Sigh.  That took 15 minutes (of the hour I had) by having to wait in a dog-slow line because there was only one person at the front desk, an apparently iron-clad rule regardless of the number of people in line. The sheerly amazing thing is how long one person can remain in line contesting some fine print on their bill.  To paraphrase what Dad later said, this too might be us?  

Even more aggravating was playing the elevator slot machine, where you push the button and you see if you’ll wait 30 seconds...or 10 minutes! Mine was the latter, helped by the fact that I didn’t press “1” on the way down by lazily assumed I could press it when we reached “2”.  No, the elevator has a mind of its own and quickly overruled my “suggestion” of continuing to go down. It perversely headed up, and I hit each button going up, trying to force it to stop. I eventually “won” on floor five. At which point I won the reward of getting off the elevator and pressing the down button and waiting an interminable amount of time. In hindsight I should’ve just clung to that elevator and its whims and pressed “1”. 

Needless to say my run was greatly abbreviated though I did experience the sights very nearby, like Union Station, an Irish pub, and a small grocer. I could see a Ferris wheel in the middle distance and the Arch (world’s biggest arch?) in the far distance. 

I cleaned up quickly and we headed down to outside the lobby where the girls picked us up (yay!!) for the Italian place, “Mama’s on the Hill".  We got stuck by a train, naturally, and were late but it didn’t seem to matter as we were seated nearly instantly in a nice round top.  I had the best margarita of all time, the Italian margarita, and indulged in toasted ravioli before seeing placed before me the largest baked lasagna I’d ever seen in my life. Surely this was a mistake made by catering, a dinner intended for five. But it was even more delicious than the fabulous pictures indicated it would be and I made some progress at the edges of this mammoth concoction of cheese, beef, pasta and sauce before saying, “no mas” and having it boxed up. The lasagna looked barely dented.  If that dish wasn’t 4,000 calories I don’t know what dish would be. Even Dad, who’d had no lunch and a skimpy breakfast, put away only half. I learned you have to come really hungry to this place. 

It was interesting to hear about A and P's glamorous lives, on the precipice of great change and great achievement.  A will hear Tuesday of her MCAT score but it’s only a fractional component contributing to a larger issue: which med school she’ll get accepted to. And before you know it P will be taking LSAT. 

Afterward we hit the hotel bar for a couple drinks at the bar/restaurant next to hotel to round out the eve! Beautiful artwork hung all around us (baseballs preserved, probably signed by great St. Louis Cardinals, were under glass and plastic, elsewhere pictures of Bob Gibson and other greats hung on the walls. 

Sunday:  So the upside of being an hour “behind”, as St. Louis is from the gold standard that is Eastern Standard, is that you wake up early and have a leisurely morning as a result. I got up at the unheard of hour of 6am, made myself a cup of coffee, read a bit, played Words With Friends, and otherwise just lounged in a room with large south-facing picture windows.  I joined Mom & Dad for breakfast (8:30 our time) and then more lounging before 10:30 mass (11:30 mass). 

Parking was my nemesis and so today I managed to set a record for most times parking in a tow-away zone in a single day with two. I parked illegally on SLU campus property and later on “hotel guests only” property at Luminere. But no harm, no foul was done to my vehicle. 

We arrived at Mass not long before it began and A and P met us in front. Mid-mass I had a coughing fit so I exited stage right and I’m sure half the people, including A and P, must’ve thought I had covid. St. Francis Xavier (College) Church has that old time cathedral look - in fact I’d say most dioceses in the U.S. would be proud to have this for their cathedral even though this is just a “regular" old church. Built in the 1880s, three out of four Catholics agree that it’s too nice a church to be controlled by Jesuits. 

Our schedule was tight after mass. We had 1pm tour bus tickets, a 15-minute ride to get to the Luminere Casino starting place and thirty minutes available. The wrinkle is that mom needs to go to the bathroom every 4.6 minutes and the church restroom required a map to get to. Literally a map, as you had to go down stairs, to the catacombs, and then hang a left at first intersection. Come to think of it, it might’ve been fun to explore those subterranean churchly passageways but we were time-short. Maybe next time. 

So it seemed best to try for the casino bathrooms. But St. Louis is famous for the Cardinals, who wear red, and the reason they do is that is the typical color of a St. Louis stop light. Red lights last 10-15 minutes. You can do whole crossword puzzles by the time the lights turns green. Meanwhile Mom really has to go and there’s a Walgreen’s and Mom said they all have restrooms (spoiler: fake news!) but I left the righteous path (ie the path to the casino) and headed there. Then there was a gas station where again restrooms were non-existent. We finally arrived at the casino just a few minutes shy of 1pm, and so I parked in the most conveniently located tow-away I could find. Then hustled in. All the bathroom talk made me think I had to go, which probably proves that the need to urinate is 90% mental. 

One of the joys of vacation is not driving, but I could find no way to talk myself into letting Uber do my city driving. That’s just decadent. (Although supporting of the local economy!?)  I’d somehow thought maybe I’d drive to St. Louis but then park it and uber it the rest of the way but that just didn’t fly when I saw the $12-$15 rates even for ridiculously short distances. So the old blood pressure went up but we made it on time. “Hurry up and relax.” 

The tour guide was an older gentleman who did his thing in a rather monotone style, free of jokes. He was the old fashioned “just the facts” Joe Friday. Maybe a touch of the Ben Stein character in Ferris Bueller. I didn’t mind at all.  Certainly no one could accuse him of being Gary Glass. 

We saw large expanses of the city, including the huge park that encompassed museums, sports fields, golf courses, a lake and who knows what else. Bigger even than the famous Central Park. 

We saw the City Museum with a school bus half-way off the top of the building (you had to be there). 

We saw old Victorian mansions on “Millionaires’ row”, built when having a million dollars meant a lot.  We went to the loop area with a bookstore and eclectic shops: Chuck Berry records and ‘50s style restaurants, Pappy’s BBQ with Memphis style ribs (“the best I ever had” said the driver). 

Then round 1:30 we were back where we started and we headed to our next destination: friends N and A on “the Hill”. They looked remarkably unchanged after what has to have been a long, long time. 18 years?

They were as easy to talk to as ever.  Shockingly, they’re moving for the first time in their lives to a ranch house out of the city next month. Pretty intense time for them. They even had homemade cookies.  Mom and A bonded over old ‘50s movies.  Dad checked his phone. 

Next up was the grand basilica. I’m not sure when I started really appreciating mosaics, but it has increased over time. Perhaps first when in Rome and seeing some of the ancient works. And in the Marian Shrine at D.C. And in Byzantine Catholicism where mosaics are common. The last time I went to St. Louis was in 2003 but I don’t think at that point I was as enthralled by the collection of little colored stones as I was this time. Just breathtaking. I believe Mom told me there were 42,000 little stones? 

An organ concert had started at 2:30 and so we were forbidden from entering the church at first. We visited the mosaic museum downstairs (I saw a huge choir book from the 1400s! - everyone who used that book is now dead) and then headed reluctantly out to the car. As soon as we reached the car, naturally, the concert was over. So Mom and I headed back to the cathedral and took it in. 

Now it was after 4 and time to head back to the hotel. I did a run/tour, starting at the local Irish pub before walking the splendid Union Station, now a melange of shops and restaurants and hotel.  Walking into it was like walking into 1920s Manhattan elegance.  Looking around I had the feeling that we didn’t deserve to inherit such beauty since we no longer “do beauty”.  It’s kind of like how some of the Barbarians must’ve surely felt when they took over Rome, wondering if they were really worthy to have acquired such beauty. A civilization capable of creating St Louis Cathedral and Union Station in the early 1900s seems qualitatively different from our own. 

Interesting to learn it had opened four years before great-grandparents left St. Louis. So undoubtedly they were in the same Grand Hall as I was, if only by the trivial difference of 123 years.  The hall was a waiting room for trains so they would’ve been jammed in whereas I shared the large space with only a dozen or fewer people.  The trip from St. Louis to Cincy, about a 5.5 hour trip by car now if no stops, would’ve taken them about twice as long since the average speed was close to 30mph. 


My run was abbreviated by a sudden rainstorm; I hie’d back to the hotel and had to be satisfied with my 1-miler. 

Next up was the happy hour where Dad had not believed three free drinks per person could be found on a hotel on planet earth. He said, more or less: “Unless I see the beers in my hand, and put my hand on the cup, I will not believe.” 

But by 5:30 an enthusiastic crowd had gathered for this event. Mom had her wines, Dad his beers, and me a combo pack of 1 wine and 2 beers. A hotel staffer interrupted the happy hour by saying that should all of us decide to go eat at the adjoining restaurant at once it would not go well. They could not handle that. So we should stagger ourselves without physically staggering. 

So Mom and I headed over to the restaurant, drinks in hand, and no censor censored us despite a sign saying, “no outside drinks can be brought in”. We lived to drink another day.  Dad stayed to wait for A and P and we all had a fine dinner at Syberg’s Restaurant. 

Monday: So we completed our 3-day vacation as the ancient Jews considered it (i.e. parts of three days = three days). I had fond thoughts of maybe hitting something like the Old Cathedral since it was “on our way” but nothing is really “on our way" in a city where finding street parking is an activity in and of itself, and it being a workday and downtown it seemed much easier to just tackle the Big Thing (the drive). 

We ate early and packed and checked out by around 9:15 our time (8:15 theirs) and so headed back on the long drive. It went reasonably smoothly, helped a lot by my not having to stop for food (I had leftover lasagna, protein shake and breakfast at the hotel). But there was certainly the pain of construction which slowed us down and some rain, and I hit Fairfield around 3:00-ish and then landed in Hilliard at 5:15. So a significantly long drive day of very near 8 hours but helped immeasurably by Dad taking a turn. 

Got home and Steph surprised me with an impressive weekend project - she built a deck made of weather-proof material (the same as our front deck) for our chairs in the “quiet forest”!  I was pretty shocked and pleased. Told her I should go away more often since she gets a lot done with me not around...

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