Friday, March 25, 2005

Ghost Town

I’ve just read the RFT’s cover story on Carl Officer and E. St. Louis. I’m kind of surprised they gave it so much time and room. E. St. Louis is our very near neighbor to the east that we like to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist. Some of us see her as we pass by over the highway on our way to somewhere else and some of us choose to not even look. That article was very truthful but it didn’t even scratch the surface of the city’s problems. Did you know that in 1960 East St. Louis was named an All American City? People used to purposely go across the river from St. Louis to shop, dine, and go to the theatre in East St. Louis. It’s kind of amazing to think about it. Obviously I wasn’t there then and I can’t make comparisons but I can tell you even the decline that I’ve seen in the course of my lifetime is staggering.

When I was a small child my grandfather used to take off of work every Thursday and spend the day with me. The city was our playground and each week was an adventure. Often we would stop at the Arch and ride the tram up. We’d look out of the windows on the Illinois side and he’d always say “can you see the store? Your dad is waving. Can’t you see him?” I never did see it. Then we’d get in the car and drive across the Poplar Street Bridge to East St. Louis. We’d stop at the Woolworh’s where I got to pick out whatever candy I wanted and occasionally a Barbie doll. Today that building is a shell being held up by the boards on the smashed windows. Then we’d go down the street to the store where my family has made their living for nearly 60 years. My Grandfather went off to do whatever he did there and I’d float around between the different areas and employees. One man, named in the RFT story, always sang to me while he was working. In the back room there were mattresses stacked up and it was a coveted privilege to be able to jump up and down on them. This was exciting stuff for a child. Sometimes I used to go to the Post Office on Missouri Ave. with my mother. It was always a bustle of activity. If you go there today there are bars on the windows. There was a prostitute who lived in one of the apartments upstairs from the store. She was a flamboyant old woman and she used to come downstairs when she saw me there and give me a hug and tell me what a beautiful child I was. I found delight in one of the customers, a very large transvestite, who frequented the store. He always wore the most sparkly clothes I had ever seen and he’d wave to me if I was behind the counter. Today it’s less colorful but the store still stands and my father goes there every day to make his living just as his father and his grandfather did.

I still go there sometimes and I don’t feel unsafe there at all. I just feel alone when I’m driving down the street. A street where I can remember numerous viable businesses and lots of pedestrian traffic is almost completely boarded up and it’s a crap shoot each day as to whether or not the street lights are in working order. It kind of reminds you of one of those ghost towns in a kitschy cowboy movie except there’s nothing western about it, it’s just deserted.