Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I come from St. Louis. It’s always delightful, as a homeboy in exile, to read things like this longer article in the Times yesterday — about how ingrained segregation there still exists in spite of social policies meant to destroy it. Sad, that I left that city twenty-seven years ago, but nothing has changed.
In the southern ‘burbs, where I grew up, there were literally no blacks. 0. The only blacks I ever saw were the ones we were ordered to roll up the car windows in knee-jerk reaction to when we drove downtown for an event, such as the old Veiled Prophet Parade (sponsored by an elite an organization that didn’t admit its first black member until 1979). I kid you not, I didn’t meet a black person until my family moved to Newport News, Virginia, when I was eleven. Luckily, I was impressionable enough at that age to see them as what they were: kids just like me who played baseball and made jokes and talked about girls and loved music and Slurpees.
By the time we moved back to St. Louis — just a year later — my personal ideas about race were set, though obviously nothing had changed in the city. We lived in the white part of town again. I wouldn’t rub elbows with black kids until a high school track meet three years later.
A couple of teammates and I were warming up for the 880 (what we called the 800 m race in those pre-metric days), when we crossed paths on the track with a group of black guys from the other team. They glared at us. There might have been a shoulder bump in there somewhere too, but what was clear to me was that they were reflecting a racial hostility, or resentment, at least, that I was completely unfamiliar with. I didn’t get it. We hadn’t done anything to them, had we? Of course, I didn’t have the imagination at the time to picture their neighborhoods, their homes, their family lives, their sense of defeat (despite their team kicking our white asses that day). They’d been piled onto a bus and driven out to our school from some place I’d never set foot and probably never would. They’d watched the homes and businesses go from decrepit and seedy to new and well-groomed, sans boarded-up windows. (Even now, as in places like Detroit, you can drive through inner city neighborhoods in St. Louis and see nothing but boarded-up apartment buildings and abandoned storefronts.)
My friend Tom had a side business repairing hydraulic pallet jacks and had to pick one up in a section of town that sounded kind of dangerous. Near a place called Lafayette Square, which in later years became a gentrified bohemian spot but was still scary when Tom and I drove there that day. It was summertime. Hot as the bejesus and it smelled like hell too. Garbage, industrial pollution, shit, piss, and whatever it was that came out of the Anheuser-Busch smokestack down the road. The minute we got off the highway, we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. We stopped at a corner to get our bearings and saw a dead dog splayed in the dirt yard there behind a chain link fence that looked like a cannonball had been fired into it. That death smell rose up and Tom hit the gas. A couple of black teenagers yelled something at us as we drove by toward the warehouse where we now wanted in and out of as fast as possible.
I delivered prescriptions for a pharmacy in a tony neighborhood close to Washington University (founded by T.S. Eliot’s granddad, if you didn’t know). Once a week I drove to the north side to drop off medicine at a nursing home up there. The shortest way was through black neighborhoods, which didn’t bother me but always educated me. I crossed a certain boulevard and the world changed. The billboard ads, the fast food outlets, the number of people waiting at bus stops, the very elements that constitute daily living. Everything was different.
And not very long after that I lived in a city neighborhood that abutted the edge of the north side, hop skip and a jump from one of the notorious streets that was always in the police blotter for shootings, strong-arm robberies, and rapes. But the two universes seldom overlapped, as if a kind of mutual segregation were going on, unspoken but practiced out of knowing nothing else. Once, though, a black man stopped me and demanded something to eat. He was not a threat but his manner was threatening, and my girlfriend and I walked away double-time as he shouted to our backs, “Fuckin’ white motherfuckers!”
I could go on. Sadly. I wish St. Louis were the only town in America with this problem. I would take it and own the shame of it if I could know that all the evil of racism and segregation and hostility and pain were concentrated and quarantined in this one unfortunate place.
But it’s not.