Below is a scan of the most recent YOU ARE HERE column, as it appeared in print this week. I thought I'd post a sample of one of the columns in order to display how the texts and illustrations are displayed in hard copy, for those of you who have only seen samples of the column online.
(This week's YOU ARE HERE column)
OUTSIDE THE HOMELESS SHELTER (New Life Evangelical Center, Downtown, January 14) Extremely cold night. The streets, barren and gray, look harder than usual, like everything does when the weather’s this bitter. Outside the New Life Evangelical Center homeless shelter, a man in ragged clothes leans backward over the concrete banister, his face pointing skyward. The position looks uncomfortable and precarious, as does his apparent situation. His breathing is heavy and labored: When he inhales, he nearly tips over backward onto the street below; when he exhales, he slips slightly forward — a human teeter-totter without an anchor. He isn’t quite asleep, but he isn’t quite awake either. A plume of steam rises from his mouth when he exhales, then gets swept away by the wind. A young guy leans against the wall near the entrance to the shelter, smoking a cigarette and watching attentively. What’s the story with the man on the banister? I ask. He’s too far gone, the guy says, too incoherent; he might be dead drunk or high on aerosol. He might be insane. Pathological. Who knows? The young doesn’t take his eyes off the man. You can tell he’s concerned, not sure what to do, but still compelled to keep watch as the man teeter-totters gently back and forth. For a while we watch him together. Eventually I move closer to the man draped over the banister, poke his shoulder, ask if he’s OK. His eyes are closed and he’s smiling, apparently unaware of his predicament. He mutters something incomprehensible, then, finally, slides forward completely and remains hunched like a sack of old clothes in front of the shelter while we wonder, this other guy and I, what to do.
(B.B.'s JAZZ, BLUES & SOUPS, Downtown St Louis)
A young guy sat alone at a table near the stage, his worn bag propped up next to him. Meanwhile, a young couple sat at the bar discussing him. One of girl’s friends – a waitress - discovered that the drifter’s girlfriend had dumped him in New York a few weeks earlier; now he was walking to Phoenix. “Apparently he only has seven dollars,” she told her boyfriend, “and he’s spending that on beer.” Her boyfriend looked at her boldly. They were back together after a rough hiatus. Being reunited had brought with it a tipsy, exciting delirium, tainted slightly by the sour circumstances that had broken them apart. Was the scruffy guy crazy? Of course: Who else would walk cross-country in the middle of winter? “I want to talk to him.” “Don’t.” she said, “Leave him alone,” but her boyfriend had already pushed away from the bar. A moment later, standing before the drifter: “On your way west?” “Yeah.” “Walking?” “Uh-huh.” He said something else that the boyfriend couldn’t understand over the din. He nodded in feigned acknowledgement, wandered back to the bar. Yeah, he was a little crazy alright: “You could see it in his eyes.” But the boyfriend’s compassion awakened. What would the drifter do? There was a homeless shelter nearby, but it had closed hours ago. It was cold out. Very cold. The couple debated over the drifter’s options, philosophized about the virtues and dangers of helping needy strangers. “We should leave some money for him. So he can get a room somewhere,” he suggested. “Won’t he drink it?” “Maybe. But what if we leave it with the doorman? He won’t get it until he leaves.” The couple shared a moment. Their feelings for each other had now spilled outward; the world was its beneficiary.
THWOMP! II(South Broadway Athletic Club, October 6) Now the two wrestlers appear to be dancing, caught in an arm-lock, or something. The spinning makes it hard to tell. But just when you think you’ve got it figured out, a new move is introduced: The arm-lock is disentangled and a limp body is thrown against the ropes, and as it springs back, the momentum is redirected into one of the posts – BOOM! The crippled body pops back, deflates, oozes to its knees like melting ice cream, and the crowd’s roar reaches a peak: Everyone felt that one. The expression on the wrestler’s face speaks of delirium, of shattered dreams. Of brain beaten to jelly. Now the vanquished is wrapped between the bottom ropes with his oppressor kneeling on his back, preening triumphantly. The crowd showers the loser with hoots and catcalls. Nothing is as resounding as a wrestler’s defeat; you can practically feel it in the rattle of your own ribcage.
AMERICAN ENGLISH(THE CASINO QUEEN, EAST ST. LOUIS) They exquisitely capture the details: Paul McCartney's left-handed Hofner bass, John Lennon's unique stance with an acoustic guitar, the mop tops and string-bean ties, the pop-song perfection, the tidiness of the harmonies.... It's an eerie window into an absurdly clean-cut America, a bygone time when teens unabashedly did the Twist. I'm talking to a guy who works for KLOU. I ask him why, no matter where you go in America, the same songs are played on the local oldies radio station. It seems preposterous that with three decades of music to choose from, "Red Rubber Ball" and "I'm Henry the VIII, I Am" are repeated within the same week, much less the same day. But it's too loud and I can't make out his answer, which comes out like a toot from a trumpet with a sock stuck up its bell. His sympathetic expression registers, though: He agrees. And: There is, in fact, an answer. And: That answer is horribly sad. Or maybe he's humoring me. Meanwhile, just beyond these walls, in the bowels of this beached aquatic beast, a multitude of bleary gamblers are reeling amid the game-show-garish lights that surround them, drunk on cheap wine and tumbling toward financial collapse. You don't need to see them to know they're here -- and this is why (as if you need another reason) it's so much fun to live in America.
BELLY DANCER(WAY OUT CLUB, SOUTH JEFFERSON AVENUE) I feel bad for the guy she came in with. Half an hour after they arrived, he sits alone with his beer, trying not to watch his date -- a mischievous coquette in a tight black sweater (to match her short-cropped black hair) -- flirt with some other guy, on whose lap she now sits. Arms wrapped around him, she throws occasional sideways glances at the fellow she came in with. Is she taunting him? Gauging his reaction? Hard to tell. She's trouble, though: This guy's in for it, if not now, then later. He's cooked, finished. Eventually she's back with him, making a big show of her affection. All gooey sex and murder. Can't keep her tongue out of his mouth. Then back to her perch on the other guy's lap. It's times like this when the humanitarian in me gets anxious. I feel like leaning over, saying, "Get out now, brother, while you still have a shred of dignity!" But I don't. Poor dope, he'll have to learn just like the rest of us: the bitter hard way. The belly dancer onstage has wrapped herself into her black veil to the point where she's seemingly lost inside it. Hard to tell if this is part of the act or a quiet little mistake. Who knows? For a moment all I can see is her belly and her legs.
CINCO DE MAYO(SATURDAY, MAY 5, CHEROKEE STREET) The strip of Cherokee Street between Iowa and Oregon is alive -- one big, broad smile. A kaleidoscope of embellished belt buckles and cowboy hats, embroidered shirts, jet-black hair; pointy-toed boots, taco stands. The bandstand is set up next to the Nievería la Vallesana, where people are outside lounging on stools, eating tacos and drinking beer while little kids chase each other around the restaurant and the band, Tamborazo Mixteco, plays mariachi music. It's hard to be anything but happy when you're in earshot of mariachi music. It's a natural anti-depressant, like Zoloft or Hawaiian shirts. A large crowd encircles the people who are dancing; across the street, still more people sit watching from the curb. Beneath a Mexico Vive Aquí sign painted on the wall of a bodega stands New York Dave in all his Beat magnificence, bottle of beer in hand -- more or less the exact pose as the last time I'd seen him. He's back from New Orleans. Hitchhiked there in 100-degree heat for seven days. Lucky bastard!
THE INK SPOT(HAMMERSTONE'S, SOULARD) I ask the bartender whether what I've heard is true. Yes, he says, the guy up there singing, Earl Gibson, used to sing with the Ink Spots. Not with the original Ink Spots, but the Sensational Ink Spots, an offshoot that formed after the original group fragmented in the late 1940s. Maybe you don't remember the Ink Spots. Ask your grandparents; they would. When your grandfather, only 24 years old in 1942, was proposing to your grandmother after receiving his draft notice earlier that day, "If I Didn't Care" was probably playing on the radio. The Ink Spots' harmonies gave rise to the doo-wop groups of the ´50s like the Orioles and the Moonglows, who led to the proto-soul of the ´60s -- the Drifters, the Four Tops and the Temptations, who... You get the idea. With a little concentration you could continue sketching the evolutionary tree right up to hip-hop. This casual Sunday night in 2007 might seem like just a run-of-the-mill diversion from life's humdrum. But it's more than that, because that 86-year-old guy on the bandstand, cigar in one hand and mic in the other, plays a role in our culture's mythical narrative. A piece of what brought us from there to here. Of course, on the surface he's just a charming old-timer singing vaguely recognizable tunes that resonate with a faint tremble above the barroom din. But isn't that American history, too?
WHERE'S UNCLE BILL?"(THE VENICE CAFÉ, BENTON PARK) I haven't been here in a while -- in this neighborhood or at the Venice Café. Although the Venice Café is in Benton Park, I associate it with Soulard -- it has that otherworldly quality to it, a sort of magic that you don't find anywhere else. To most people Soulard is a drunk ricocheting off a barroom door sill with a bleary expression and a crooked hat, but I say that's missing the point. Soulard is the Greenwich Village or the French Quarter of St. Louis -- but those are only loose comparisons, because, like Greenwich Village or the French Quarter, Soulard possesses a uniqueness and authenticity that can't be compared to anything. Now, tucked into a corner table next to the door that leads downstairs, amid the warm frivolity of the crowd, buried under the outrageous luminescence that is the Venice Café, I notice that there are as many women dancing as men who are not. To my immediate right, a woman tries to coax her date into dancing with her. He's not a dancer, apparently. Nor is his friend. Undiscouraged, she dances alone to the Zydeco antics of the Garbanzos, an all-male group wearing women's dresses and performing at the front of the bar, playing their version of the Who's "Squeeze Box." All of them are animated and lively except the drummer, whose sour expression looks comical beneath his floppy wig and captain's hat. Eventually, voices shout: "Where's Uncle Bill?"
Who is Uncle Bill?
Staring up at me now from the hand of the woman in front of me, something that looks like a metallic bug with several sparkling eyes – an alien insect. This bug is, in fact, an enormous gold ring, exquisitely sculpted, studded with a bouquet of glowing diamonds, shining like a B-movie space ship.
A breeze of fear passes over me; I think of bolting – afraid that to linger might result in abduction; a tractor beam might spit from one of those diamond eyes and suck me in. There, inside that ring, experiments will be conducted, implants deposited into my orifices.
Is she showing that thing off? Something about her stance tells me that, yes, she is, and my job is to 1) notice the ring and 2) be immensely impressed by it – with her! I am inconsequential, merely a shapeless bystander caught in the line of fire. I could be anybody. My name is Audience.
But it gets worse, because of the ensemble the ring comes with: Fastened to it is a hand, trying hard to look younger than its years, the fingertips of which are polished with an equally gaudy manicure job.
I think of Burt Reynolds’s face-lift – cosmetic things done voluntarily that leave a Frankenstein effect.
Maybe she’s the alien, not the ring, wearing plastic human skin as a cover-up. Then I think: No, maybe I’m the alien!
But how did I get here?
WHO RAN FOR EDDIE GAEDEL? (SPORTSMAN’S PARK, ST. LOUIS, AUGUST 19, 1951) The obituary pages in newspapers nationwide noted the passing of former major league outfielder Jim Delsing, who succumbed to cancer at his home in Chesterfield on Thursday, May 4. He was 80. Delsing played ten seasons in the big leagues, but he made the obit orbit for an incident that occurred during a stint with the St. Louis Browns: He pinch-ran for Eddie Gaedel. On August 19, 1951, the hapless Browns played a doubleheader against the similarly low-rent Detroit Tigers at Sportsman’s Park. Browns owner Bill Veeck, an inveterate showman, hired Gaedel to pop out of a birthday cake comemorating the 50th anniversary of the American League and the Falstaff Brewing Company, radio sponsor for the Browns. Unbeknownst to all, Veeck also contracted with Gaedel to play. In game two of the doubleheader, Browns manager Zack Taylor inserted Gaedel as a pinch hitter. When he hefted his tiny toy bat and crouched at the plate -- Veeck later said he measured Gaedel’s strike zone at an inch and a half -- the Tigers protested, but Taylor produced a legitimate contract and Gaedel was permitted to play. Pitcher Bob Cain walked him on four straight pitches. After Gaedel ran to first, Taylor sent in Delsing. The Browns lost the game 6-2. Gaedel was banned from baseball the next day. Delsing bounced around the American League for the rest of the decade before retiring in 1960. “Jim was a good teammate to have on your ballclub,” former Browns teammate and long-time friend Don Lenhardt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He was a very good fielder and a good ballplayer.”
Some places should only be seen at night, when the dim candles timidly flickering through the smoky red of their dime-store holders only partially expose their surroundings and blanket everything in a warm veil. Here the poetic light flits off the diverse display of bric-a-brac that appears to support the architecture of the room: a huge, arching wooden shelf stuffed with (to name but a few things) birdhouses, carved masks, painted portraits, antique cans of cut plug, Italian coffee containers, old bottles. By day this clutter might seem nonsensical, but at night, bathed in this light, it's all elegance: a scene from Paris' Latin Quarter shot by Brassaï or Doisneau. At night, it's perfect. On stage, where only moments before the Landes-Martin Trio performed a coolly surreal jazz version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," the "folk artist" Steve White, positioned like a preacher at his pulpit, performs his puppet theater show. The characters, made out of Pez dispensers, include George W. Bush, ("Sinister") Condoleezza Rice, Jesus, Mexican wrestlers, cross-burning racists, irresponsible news reporters and Our Lady of Guadalupe. While manipulating his puppets, White narrates: "As the sun went down, and the cross went up, it started burning. As they talked, an object floating downward appeared. 'Hey, look! It's Jesus!'" Laughter from the audience.
Then there are those like Carl. He's great company -- a pleasure even. While he mulls over the neurotic details of his daily indecisions, you can mentally stretch out and relax. While he verbally squeezes out his morose confessions, epically revealing to you the anatomy of his quivering mind, you can take long country strolls through the landscape of your own imagination, occasionally offering a reassuring "uh-huh" or "no kidding?" just to keep his neurosis properly nourished. Throw him a bone, so to speak. Somehow it's easier to daydream while Carl chatters than it is alone in a quiet room. It's a likable quality about the guy.
As we sit at a table outside drinking our coffee, up stumbles a bum. The coffee is transcendent -- a string quartet, a carnival in your mouth. The bum hits us up, one after the other. Carl doesn't miss a beat, answers with a quick brush of his hand. "Go away," says the gesture. "Can't you see I'm busy with my self-absorption?" The bum dawdles off, shrinking into the pavement.
Thing is, he'd told us two different stories: To me he said he was trying to collect bus fare to Detroit. To Carl it was Memphis.
"Did you notice that?" I ask, interrupting Carl midsentence.
He's dozing now. Our would-be hero's eyes may be open, but the critical material in there that generates thoughts is all worn out -- or orbiting a different solar system, many galaxies away. He reminds me of the lonesome slobs who used to prop themselves against the bar I tended in south Minneapolis, musing over the sorry vacancies of their spent lives like sour apes sucking their stubbed toes. No, wait...he isn't finished. Not yet. Gangway! He plows pell-mell into another lament: a fragmented sequence of half-constructed, disparate thoughts about how he wanted to be a jet pilot. A jet pilot! Then a fireworks display of emotional outbursts. "Why don't you go be a jet pilot?" I ask, finally. But I know why. They must require candidates to pass a sanity test before stuffing them into a cockpit. Besides, he's too old now; that ship sailed. Never entered port. But that's not the reason he gives me. "My fucking eyes," He indicates, "Fucking vision's no good!" His brain is on fire: How many expletives can fit into a single sentence? Vulgar? Maybe, but no matter: He was never under any obligation to be clear-headed or articulate -- what use is there in doctoring a life of chaos with that kind of pretense? It would be a Band-Aid on an internal hemorrhage; a shallow answer to a tough question.