A Hoosier Childhood
I remember a warm autumn breeze, the taste of dust in my mouth, an all-afternoon play session in the schoolyard, and a yellow bus parked at one end. I remember looking in the concave side-view mirror of the bus and being shocked at the sight of my own face: dusty, freckled from summer sun, hair dirty, matted. I was distracted by sudden activity, a skateboarder going down the long driveway from the church grounds and a scolding catcall from a neighborhood boy, accusing me of being stuck-up in the way I was looking at myself. But I was ten years old, still unconcerned with my appearance, so I ran, my feet in white clogs, my arms up in the breeze, to where the friends were playing, and it felt great to be alive there, in my old neighborhood.
It looms large because it needs defense; it is a place that has taken much riddling and outright scorn, misunderstood, as I have often felt, and so like a sister I wish to shelter it. But it’s a place you should know, because it’s gone, because it held a quiet, strange world that’s no longer there.
Less than a mile from the Mississippi River, though not in sight or sound of it, tragically placed between the shadows of two giant old Victorian homes, is a pithy, sunless bungalow, circa 1960’s, on Ohio Street in South St. Louis City. If I stood before that orange-bricked, squat house right now, it could be no more vivid than in my mind, this gravitational pull of my universe, and the rest of my life orbits around the events that happened there, forming some kind of sense. We all have a place that molds us and scars us, and maybe it’s as simple as saying to the world: “I like oddball things because of this.”
For practical purposes, here it is: the “States Streets Neighborhood,” as I like to call it. The place is roughly bordered on the north by Arsenal Street (home of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery), on the south by Meramec Street, on the west by Grand Avenue (now affectionately known as “Grand South Grand”), and on the east by the Mighty Mississippi. It’s a tightly packed area, by expansive suburban standards, but admirably roomy by urban standards. The population began to decline in the 1970’s, its vacancies opening doors to families like mine. Most of the homes are red brick, but few of them match or show any signs of cul-de-sac type planning. On my street, there were Victorian mansions, squat Germanic cottages, industrial-looking apartment buildings, and a few nasty, intrusive, little modern bungalows, like mine.
This neighborhood began developing in 1836 when the streets were laid out in a gridiron pattern and named after the states of the Union or Indian tribes. By 1910, most of the neighborhood was formed. It was settled mainly by German and Irish immigrants, and most of the friends I had were partly of this descent. Gradually, Slavic immigrants came there, too, which is probably why my family settled there. It had always been a blue collar neighborhood of clean, hard-working people. And then came the late sixties and early seventies, with its free love and earthy notions, and this was when the whole feel of the place changed. The period in which I lived there was unique for South St. Louis, as it surely was for other urban cities across America. It was a time of transition. The neighborhood was still a good place to live, safe, friendly, and affordable, but the inhabitants seemed to be living in a detached, easy manner, as if we knew it was almost over, and we were powerless to stop it, and so we’d all try to have fun while we could. Even at my young age, I savored the strange dynamics.
First of all, understand that Mom and Dad were at work. In every family, it took the labor of both parents to make ends meet. It was a land of children and teenagers running loose, wild and free on hot summer days. There were no June Cleaver moms baking cookies and calling us in for lunch, although in some kitchens sat the eternally bubbling crock pot of chili, prepared by a weary parent in the wee hours of morning. No one told us to brush our teeth and match our clothing; there was no one supervising activities. If one created a haunted house, put on a show, or had a circus, you could be sure there was no adult hand in the matter. Sometimes that hand was sorely missing, such as the time we went trick-or-treating dressed up as hookers.
We spent whole days in swimsuits, barefoot, yard-hopping from one metal trough-like pool to the next. The older kids called the younger ones “little hoosiers,” the neighborhood’s insult of choice, because we were usually smudged with dirt. Everyone else was a hoosier, it seemed, except, of course, the one doing the damning. Every day at about four o’clock, there was a lull in outdoor activity while we quickly dressed, washed our faces, scrubbed the accumulated dishes, and greeted our parents home from work, nodded in appreciation while they groused about their rough days, ate a quick meal, and then headed back outside. Some kids had evening curfews; others didn’t. Still others, like myself, just climbed out bedroom windows to go to the front porches of those without curfews. The absence of supervision colored much of our development, making us independent and street-smart.
There was an abundance of playmates. Within a city block or two, there were enough children to populate a school, and this they did: public schools, Lutheran schools, and Catholic schools sat nearly in sight of one another. Circles of friends blended into each other, overlapping repeatedly, and we found ourselves all running within a giant pack, like a huge, extended family. The dynamics of the crowd changed slightly from block to block, alley to alley, so alternate amusements were always at hand. If that wasn’t enough, we would venture outward by foot, usually through those alleys, a complex maze lined with dumpsters and littered with glass — a place where adults never went except to take out the trash. Parents weren’t there to shuttle us around, so it is fortunate that everything was in walking distance, including five movie theaters, three shopping areas, two hospitals, six parks, bus lines, dozens of confectioneries, and even more taverns. It was a long time before I understood the concept of an indoor mall. We went and saw, experienced and lived, from the earliest of ages. I recall going to a hospital snack bar at the age of seven, accompanied by my four-year-old friend, where we counted out our pennies to pay for a single slice of pizza. It never occurred to us to stay in our yards. It was our birthright to do what we wanted.
We were brave, young consumers, saving or taking pennies and spending them frugally up and down Cherokee Street, only two and a half blocks away, which was then a thriving shopping area with department stores, or we would scavenge at the “Pennywise” junk shop, one and a half blocks away, or at the common confectioneries dotting corners. Ours was owned by an ominous Middle-Easterner named Omar. Candy was a main staple of our diets, and I have the dental work to prove it: Pixie-stix, Chico-stix, chewy red candy fish, Now or Laters, Mary Janes. The Ted Drewes we attended was not the chic, preppie hangout on Watson; we went to the smaller location on South Grand, just a stone’s throw from Cleveland High School, the school now a magnet military academy. Later in our youth, we’d blow our money on cheap clothes and cheap make-up, or cheap cars. There was no one to advise me or stop me from buying several clunkers, and if someone had tried, I would have taken great offense. I went through four cars by the time I was eighteen.
One of the greatest features of our neighborhood was the giant homes that dominated each block. They were bastions of freedom and privacy, a place where one could hide away for hours, where kids would switch bedrooms on a whim, just because there was always an empty room or two. Some features I loved: third floor ballrooms in which we roller skated; expansive, cobwebbed, dungeon-like basements; tall porches under which clubhouses could be formed; rooftops accessible through upper level windows where we watched sunsets high above the cityscape; empty, unused garages (everyone seemed to prefer street parking); deep closets under massive staircases. It is a wonder we didn’t get into more scrapes simply because of the many secret places we could hide. I still carry with me a love for large, shabby-genteel homes.
The humorous clichés about Southside life are mostly right on target. Yes, we used the term “hoosier” pretty freely to describe anyone who looked like white trash, including, at various times, one another. Strictly speaking, however, a true hoosier had to have a few teeth missing and needed to have that distinctly inbred sparkle to his pale eyes. None of us fit the true definition, but some came close, and we ostracized them mercilessly. Even poor folks have their pecking order. Yes, some people were obsessive in their desire to protect their mean possessions. I can count at least three households that utilized plastic runners throughout to keep their shag carpeting clean, though I can’t recall ever seeing plastic furniture slipcovers. Maybe they cost too much. I do remember lots of knick knacks and country crafts long before country crafts became trendy. Most of the households in my neighborhood, however, were neither “Scrubby Dutch” nor obsessed with Zoysia lawns. They would be more aptly described as unkempt homes with dirt yards. Again, this lent to the overall feeling of freedom; the natives weren’t chained down to chores. How could a busy mother of six with a full-time job possibly know that one of her seven bedrooms had dog urine on the floor?
The language of our neighborhood was very colorful, generally peppered with minor curse words and mispronunciations, such as “zink” for sink, “melk” or milk, “muska-chile” for mostacolli, “sunda” for sundae, “yous guys” for the plural you, “warsh” for wash, and “far” for four. Frequently, a heavy “s” sound was added to undeserving words, such as “Ventures,” “K-Marts,” as in We’re going to Ventures. Wanna go? The “s” was also sounded when it should have been silent, such as in Illinois or Gravois.
People really did ask what high school you went to, not for status reasons, as is the case in other areas, but because down south, one didn’t always get beyond high school and rarely moved out of that neighborhood. It was just a way of geographically pinning down an acquaintance. And Southsiders did have an odd way of dressing: uniquely redneck, like hangovers from the hippie generation. Girls had the windswept Farrah Fawcett hairdo well into the mid-1980’s, but with a twist: in the hair right above the ear, they wore a roach clip with feathers dangling from it. Peeping out of the back pocket of their boot-cut Levis, guys had huge leather wallets with chains hanging from them. Both sexes wore what we called “brogues,” oversized hiking boots with steel toe inlays and bright red shoelaces. Clothing was frequently purchased at the head shops that lined Cherokee Street, our main shopping center.
The States Streets Neighborhood residents were not the same as those everywhere else in South St. Louis. If one traveled farther south or west, one would find impeccable neighborhoods full of middle class professionals. We from the ‘hood probably frightened those more conservative neighbors with our dress and manners. Among ourselves we felt great loyalty and closeness. There was an interesting acceptance of oddity within our ranks and a looking out for one another. I’d witnessed girls physically protect their boyfriends, or perhaps even beat them into chivalry. I knew that the teenage boys on the corner were stoned, but also that they kept an eye on the younger kids who were crossing the street. Since the families tended to be large, the chances were good that one of those loitering boys was your older brother. Yes, there was some crime in our neighborhood, but it wasn’t random. I remember one murder at the house on the corner. The man who lived there was a very congenial sort who smiled and chatted with us kids, though his house had an eight-foot, glass-shard-topped fence around it and two large German shepherd attack dogs within. When he was shot, it was definitely focused, not random. I remember the man, a very congenial sort who smiled and chatted with us kids. What happened to him was separate from the community, so we felt little threat.
Sensuality came early to my neighborhood, usually to one girl and a dozen boys. Let me back up and explain some of the social atmosphere. In lieu of organized youth functions, we girls spent whole afternoons watching the boys play ball in the schoolyard, the older ones drinking cans of beer. Never baseball, but Indian Ball, which utilized a straight line outfield (one or two outfielders lined behind the pitcher). Bases weren’t run; scoring was determined by how far the ball was hit, and whether or not it was caught. A baseball wasn’t used, but a tennis ball (in which case the game was deemed “Fuzz Ball”) or a cork ball (“Cork Ball”). Because of the ambiguous nature of scoring, there were sometimes fights, which we girls enjoyed far more than the game. It was in this social setting that we figured one another out. It became quickly apparent which of the girls would break ranks, defect to the boys’ camp, and be deemed “the one.” The rest of us cleaved greedily to “the one” to listen in rapture to her twelve-year-old sexual tales of bravado. Generally, it was a girl who lived in a bigger house or apartment, for it was she who had the coveted 24-hour access to empty rooms. In the schoolyard, in houses, on the streets, the place was teeming with adolescent sexuality. Music was incessantly blaring from one car stereo or another. The music of the seventies was certainly conducive to the wild, free atmosphere (“Bad Case of Loving You,” “Let’s Go,” “Kasmir,” and “Ring My Bell,” to name a few of the musical backdrops).
The place was an overload of input: the smell of detergent wafting out of the corner Laundromat (every corner had a business or a tavern), the feel of accidentally sliding your bare foot on a slug or crunching a waterbug, the oppressive humidity (no one could afford air conditioning), the sound of cicadas, the feel of gnats in your hair and teeth after you rode your bike through a swarm, the sight of peeling paint on front porches, the experience of watching the sun rise to the sounds of Sunday church bells ringing all over the community. It was good to feel lonely pangs of smallness, standing in darkness on high bluffs in Bellerive Park while mosquitoes feasted, watching the barges passing silently on the Mississippi far below, seeing the distant lights of downtown, hearing the sounds of a friend cursing as she searched for her shoes in the black, woodsy area behind us, because a fellow threw them there in an amateur attempt at flirting.
Did all kids of the seventies experience this? Did all neighborhoods have dogs roaming free as the residents, the children accepting that a dog bite is almost a rite of passage? Do all stoned, teenage boys spit on the ground to watch the same dogs lick it up, and then laugh uncontrollably? I can say with some certainty the chained turkey in a distinctly hoosiery yard was a novelty. Was every neighborhood gripped in religious superstitions, compelled to play with Ouija boards, fostered by that seventies’ trend of Catholic horror movies? Or is it just that so much of our land bore a long, murky history, our institutions built on top of graveyards, some of the buildings insane asylums? I knew from an early age that the woman strolling along the boundaries of the park in her gaudy clothing was not there for introspection. The homeless man dubbed “Bucket Joe” or “Gravois Joe” (so named because he walked Gravois with his jug of sludge in hand, a stomach-turning mix of whatever fluids and semi-solids he could find in restaurant dumpsters) really was pathetically crazy and we stayed away from him. Suffering was public, like when the boy fell on the spokes of the iron churchyard fence, and we stood watching for hours while the paramedics saved his legs. Deep poverty wasn’t shunned; we played with kids from grand houses as well as those from dumps. Some families housed their overflowing children in unfinished, partially-dirt basements, old blankets hung for partitions. Being a single child seemed awful to us, like the one in Compton Heights, doomed to roam a mansion in loneliness (his, he boasted, had 31 rooms). Some families had oddball dads, like the one who collected pianos, gradually pushing his family into more and more cramped quarters to make room for grands he would someday repair. Theirs was a delightful and musical family.
I can’t lie and say it was easy living there; in many ways, it was very hard. I can count the people who committed suicide, drowned, died of cancer, were shot, raped, robbed, and placed in mental institutions. It was a place of pain and doing without, but those simply weren’t the remarkable aspects of my childhood. We were surrounded by terribly dysfunctional families. There were alcoholics in nearly every home, and there was sickness, and there was cruelty. These are problems in any working class community, or in any community in general, but in that place, the windows were open and we all lived in each others’ lives.
It is humorous to poke fun at the oddities of South St. Louis, but it’s also important to know how admirable were these people, and how very free. I have great respect for the people I knew there because of the gift they gave me. With their blessing, I could be anything I wanted to be, act any way I wanted, find myself afresh every day. I was applauded (albeit with suspicion) when I planned on going away to college. When that time arrived, a change came for me, or from me: when I opened the door to other worlds, there was chaos and collision, and my idyllic childhood was gone. The stark contrast between my neighborhood’s world and the world I was about to enter was confusing and maddening. I didn’t feel quite welcomed in my new place, and at the same time I saw doors closing in the old. I keenly felt alienation from my community and what I thought were my friends, as if my ambition was disloyal.
Because I was a typically rebellious teen, placing blame where it didn’t belong, I burnt hundreds of my poems the year my parents sold that ugly little bungalow. They were childish words created in a place I’d decided was meaningless. I stood in the back yard and started a bonfire of poems, offering them up to some god of fortune and hope, and even then I didn’t understand. I was glad to wash my hands of the place. But after angry years spent lost and wandering, the throbbing beats of music come faintly back to me, the feelings of heat, and people, people, people everywhere, interacting, knowing one another.
For many years, I wondered what became of all of those people, since I felt so far away and so far removed. In adulthood, they surfaced, or gossip came to me, and I learned they are firemen, policemen, restaurateurs, nurses, hair cutters, waiters, data entry clerks, shipping clerks, cashiers, home day care providers. Nary a doctor, lawyer, investment banker, professor, or artist among them, but still I found a dearth of failure (I have heard of just two who slipped briefly onto the welfare rolls). They take unglamorous jobs and fill them loyally. They marry and have children. They are all obsessive about tidy housekeeping (a backlash?), and they live mostly in the city, but in better neighborhoods. They earn their money and fill a needed niche in society.
It is these people I think of when I recall one night in particular. I was twelve. It was three a.m., and I was pressing my body in the doorway of a neighbor’s house so that when my mother peered out her door she wouldn’t see me. She yelled over to the others, in her harsh accent, demanding to know if I was there. They answered, “No, ma’am, Mrs. Odak. Haven’t seen her.” And my mother, knowing full well I was there, retreated and went back to sleep, because she was tired and had to work in the morning and because there was no great risk. It was love all around me. It was safety and security in my cluttered, dirty old childhood. I looked into the eyes of human nature at its most basic and simple level, and it was beautiful, and it wrapped me up as one of its own.
(Appeared in St. Louis Magazine, August 1988; Recited at UMSL Graduate Reading, 1998)