Sunday, July 9, 2017

On East St. Louis Toodle-Oo



 

 

 

It was sheer coincidence that I visited East St. Louis on the hundredth anniversary of the deadly race riot on July 2, 1917. If I had known about the race riot, I certainly would not have driven to East St. Louis on that day, or, indeed, any other day.

The day after our inadvertent visit to East St. Louis, Jack and I toured Scott Joplin’s house. An African-American lady led us through the old house, admitting that there wasn’t a whole lot to see. She put the emphasis where it should have been – on Joplin’s music. His biography is both sad and lacking in any real drama – after brief fame, things went from bad to worse to the musician – and there weren’t really any relevant artifacts in the house. Adjourning to a small room with a player piano, the tour-guide threaded rolls into the machine and, then, energetically pedaling, drove the bellows that produced the music. Joplin’s tunes are infectious and, generally, short: they end before you are properly oriented to the complex syncopated rhythms. We listened to four tunes, including one of Joplin’s most popular rags, "Bethany".

The tour-guide was aggrieved that a "hater" had taken her picture and posted it to face-book. "Take pictures of anything you want but not me," she said. A month before she had experienced a disheartening encounter with a self-proclaimed "Newanderval". "Everyone knows that there ain’t no ‘Newandervals," she said. "Humans came from the Olduvai gorge in East Africa and simple." One of the people on our tour was a music professor from New Hampshire. He nodded his head sagely and commented on the beauty and complexity of Joplin’s music.

Before playing the "Bethany" rag, the tour-guide showed us the tune’s sheet music. The cover shows a beautiful woman wearing dark clothes. The woman looks like a widow and seems to be brooding; she is melancholy and seems to have lost something. "People always tell you that this woman is ‘Freddy’," the tour guide said a little disdainfully. (Freddy was Joplin’s much-beloved second wife who died of tuberculosis only ten months after he married her.) "This ain’t Freddy," the tour guide said. "We showed the picture on the cover of this music to some of Freddy’s family members. We tracked them down. And they told us that Freddy was several shades tanner than this lady." The woman on the cover of Bethany could be White – it’s hard to tell since the picture is printed in sepia, but she looks pale. The tour guide flashed the old sheet music defiantly – "One thing I know is that this ain’t Freddy." This seemed to be her bete noir; she mentioned it several times during the hour that we spent in her company.

During the tour, the Black lady said that "music is mathematics and mathematics is common to all people – it draws all people together." She made an enigmatic mention about "whatever all happened in East St. Louis." She paused and said: "That was once a vibrant city – you know, Miles came from there." She assumed that we all knew that she was talking about Miles Davis. She said that Ike and Tina Turner had played a famous concert at "Our Lady of the Shrines" – I assume she meant "Our Lady of the Snows", a place in Belleville, Illinois next to East St. Louis that we had visited the day before. It was hard to imagine Ike and Tiny shaking up that place, now as still and fragrant and deathly as a mortuary. In the newspaper, I had read something about a bell that warned people in the ghetto that the White mob was approaching. The bell had been rung for the first time in 100 years the day before, July 2, 2017 – but, at that time, I didn’t understand the significance of the bell chiming over the True Light Baptist Church near the Eads Bridge in East St. Louis.

From Chevy Chase’s Vacation, I knew that East St. Louis was a dangerous place. In the movie, Chevy Chase gets lost on his road-trip vacation and finds himself in East St. Louis and, when he gets out to ask for directions, hoodlums strip the tires from his car while his family waits in the vehicle for him.

In a book of historical photographs, I saw an image of the grave of a three-year old Armenian child, little Alphonse Magarian. The Magarian family lived next to a nasty brothel in East St. Louis and no one could get any sleep because people were always coming and going, mistaking the numbers on the houses and drunkenly hailing the Magarians out of their beds and, in the alley, there were shootings and knifings, women hooting in the darkness like owls, and the sound of ragtime piano tinkling at all hours. Mr. Magarian complained to the police but they ignored him. He complained again with the same results. On his third complaint, the police raided the joint, shook down the girls and rousted out the patrons. The next day, someone kidnapped the little Magarian boy, sawed off his head, and left the decapitated three year-old on the stoop of his parent’s tenement. The child is buried in Belleville under a headstone that states his name and gives these dates: Sept 3, 1913 – Sept. 8, 1916.

On July 2, 2017, Jack and I crossed the river on the freeway bridge from St. Louis to Illinois and, then, stopped at Cahokia. It was hot and humid as we climbed the huge mound and small nondescript grasshoppers buzzed through the air around us. From atop Monk’s Mound, an immense Mississippian-culture earthen monument, we could see St. Louis, the big arch gleaming and poised defiantly over the river. Collinsville, Illinois, where the ancient city of Cahokia is located, is a suburb of East St. Louis except that for all practical purposes East St. Louis has ceased to exist so Collinsville is effectively a suburb of no place at all. The mounds are on a State highway that runs along shabby storefronts with hand-painted Spanish signs, a few Mexican groceries and some auto-lube places selling oil and car parts and, then, salvage yards in the groves of willows and oak, everything here subject to flooding and the soil as dark as dark chocolate and the cicadas howling overhead and the oil and transmission fluids seeping out of the smashed cars piled up in their hundreds and thousands among the trees – it’s all polluted now, all "brown field." The museum at Cahokia is very impressive and contains a mock-up of the village dwellings of the Indians who once congregated around the sixty or seventy ceremonial mounds and the wood-henge post circle for observing the seasons. There are some beautiful ceramics in the site-museum, although these are mostly copies or casts of originals kept in the Fine Arts museum in St. Louis. The birdman tablet shows a figure with a sharp beak and wings, probably a ceremonial dancer – the birdman shaman is inscribed in deep, lucid incisions into a polished piece of red pipestone; on the back of the tablet, the surface is striated, probably to represent scales. The great serpent, I think, with its catfish jaws and skull represents the Mississippi river, here at the center of a valley so broad that you can not see its limits. The museum is politically correct to a fault – it doesn’t mention the fact that human sacrifice was committed here at Cahokia on an industrial scale matching the slaughter in old Mexico on the blood-stained Aztec pyramids at Tenochtitlan. There is a film called "City of the Sun" and it is excellent. The film concludes with a superb coup de theater – the screen goes black and we hear the sounds of bullfrogs and birds trilling; then, the screen soundlessly elevates, rising up to reveal the life-size figures of pre-Columbian Indians standing amidst their reed and grass huts, children playing and women grinding corn and dogs prancing about in search of food scraps as an old grandfather sits cross-legged chanting to the rising sun. This is the mock-up in the museum and you have seen it from above and, even, perhaps, traversed the walkway through the exhibit, but, nonetheless, it is a great surprise to see the thing from this angle and lit as if the sun were rising, figures seeming to emerge from a damp mist. The lighting causes us to see the Indians clearly but the tourists wandering around the exhibit are mere shadows. It is as if we have become insubstantial and ghostly, as if the ancient city has been resurrected and its people brought back to life and all of our modern world reduced to a mere, fleeting dream.

The staff at Cahokia invites you to take a ten-mile hike around the site – it is, of course, immense. But it is blazing hot outside and, so, instead, we follow the voice-prompts on Jack’s smart phone to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. This is religious site consecrated to a miracle said to have occurred in Rome about the third century A.D. A childless couple prayed to the Virgin, imploring Our Lady that the woman might conceive and deliver a child. The Virgin appeared and said that she would give them a sign that their petition had been granted. "What is that sign?" they asked. The Virgin said that snow would fall and cover the Esquiline Hill – a miracle since it rarely snows in Rome and, certainly, not in the month of August. Of course, the skies darkened and snow flakes appeared and made white the Seven Hills of Rome and, later, a child was born to the couple. The National Shrine occupies a tilted landscape of several bluffs – a couple of churches marked with flamboyant, twisting aluminum flames rising over their rotunda like a rooster’s comb are concealed within deep hollows in the hillside and there is an amphitheater with seats cut into the slope and an altar on a stage beyond a little moat of green, algae-covered water. The altar also bears a pentecostal flame of twisting aluminum, curving into a helix like a vast DNA molecule and rising three for four stories above the pond. A singularly cheerless brick motel, looking like some sort of military barracks built during the first years of the Cold War, sits on the crest of the hill – on the evidence of the parking lot, it is wholly empty, untenanted, no guests at all, except, for ghosts. A long, flat office building has been built on a terrace below the nightmare oven-like motel. Jack and I entered the building and walked through it – a long wide corridor with institutional carpet passing between locked conference rooms. At the end of the corridor, there is a huge painting of Cardinal Mazenod, the founder of this oblate order, and the patron of dysfunctional families. The air in the administrative building had the scent of a nursing home at dinner time, a vaguely fecal aroma of boiling cabbage and roasting meat, and there was a cafeteria, also almost completely empty, with big windows opening onto a vista of a wooded grove where a one-lane asphalt track winds through the Stations of the Cross. We took the drive and found that each Station had been removed so that the road passed steps and platforms and, then, pedestals without anything mounted on them, bare plinths like altars to unseen and unknown gods.

We took Illinois 15 W from the sepulchral shrine down to a gas station in a place called Alorton. The gas station was of a breed unfamiliar to me, a "Step & Go", and it occupied a one-story white building that seemed conspicuously re-purposed from some other use, perhaps a Dollar General store or a pharmacy. I drove among the pumps and found that almost all of them were shrouded in plastic sacks – the sacks covered the pump attachments themselves and seemed to have been in place for time sufficient for the elements to have shredded those bags. I found a single pump that seemed to be operable. The credit-card reader on the pump didn’t work and, so, I decided to go into the Alorton "Step & Go" and pay for my gas with cash. Jack had already entered the store, searching for the rest rooms.

The interior of the "Step & Go" was surprisingly large, airy, and vacant. Along one wall, glass windows set into a two-by-four frame opened into a view of a laundromat. Two bewildered-looking junkies were sitting at a picnic table in the laundromat and, behind them, a washer was spinning clothes, a blur like the rotor of an old prop-driven air-plane. The air stank of disinfectant – it smelled like a porno place and there were some buckets on the tile floor, placed to catch water dripping through the ceiling. A White woman with a pitted and sorrowful face sat enthroned among a thousand bottles of hard liquor – she was the cashier, selling booze and candy and chips, and managing the gas pumps. I paid the woman 10 dollars and went out to the pump. The pump wheezed a little and spun its numbers back to zero but no gas came from the spigot. I went back into the "Step & Go". A couple of cars had pulled up at the pumps and some Black girls dressed like whores got out, shook their shoulders like wet dogs, and, then, went into C-store. A junkie appeared from nowhere and walked crookedly among the pumps. I noticed that there was a tiny white-frame building, apparently mobile and mounted on wheels pulled up against the side of the laundromat – a sign on the door said "Alorton Police." I went back into the "Step and Go". The hookers were buying hot dogs from the rollers under the heat lamps in the middle of the double aisle of candy and potato chips. The woman said that she would fix the problem and that I should go outside, hit the pump hard against the concrete, and try again. I went back outside. A couple more curious junkies had roused themselves from a vacant lot and were perusing the cars pulled up at the gas station. A bad hombre driving one the cars got out of his vehicle and, in defiance of the ‘No Smoking at the Pumps’ sign, lit a Swisher Sweet. The pimps knew enough not to waste time trying to buy gas here. I beat the pump against the concrete pier and tried to get some gas again – no luck. This place was making me nervous. I asked the haggard clerk for my ten dollars back and she sadly refunded the money. I went to the cooler to buy a can of pop but the place didn’t seem to sell soft drinks except for energy drinks and Gatorade – everything else was malt liquor and cheap beer. On my way out to the car, I noticed that the "Step & Go" was selling Nyquil bottles from a bin conveniently located for impulse buys – two bottles for three dollars, such a wonderfully cheap price that, for a moment, I contemplated stocking up on that soporific cough syrup.

"Get me out of here," I said to Jack and he programmed his cell-phone to take us back to St. Louis. The girl’s voice on the phone told me to drive down W 15. We were going into the heart of East St. Louis except that the heart has been ripped-out and no longer exists. The road ran between abandoned factories, now reduced to their barren brick cores. We passed a church that seemed to have been bombed and, then, a liquor store with its roof burnt-through and fallen into its interior. At some of street corners, empty houses stood in lawns of prairie grass dotted with wild flowers. Everything was spacious and empty. No more than one house remained standing on each block and none of the homes were occupied. All of them were windowless with masonry falling onto overgrown sidewalks and hedges turned into tropical forests. There were no businesses anywhere, not even any traces of businesses – no gas stations, no C-stores, no groceries, no restaurants, not even any liquor stores. In some places, you could look across the vacant fields to the hills, here and there the ruins of factory or railroad terminal like a wrecked aqueduct in the Roman campagna.

"I don’t like the looks of this," I said.

Jack said: "Well, she is leading us to St. Louis."

I recalled the German tourists led by their car phone into an impenetrable desert badlands in Death Valley and, thus, left to perish in that wasteland. "I think she is going to get us killed," I said. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, East Saint Louis is the most dangerous city on earth – in terms of murders per capita it is more dangerous than Juarez or Honduras, the two places that have the highest murder rate outside of East Saint Louis. The city has an even more horrific rate of violent rapes.) I looked at the dense underbrush between ruins – "this is just a body-dump," I said.

The telephone calmly told us to drive another thousand feet and turn on 15th Street. At the intersection, there was a pointlessly flashing yellow light – there were no cars moving anywhere. In fact, the only vehicles that I saw were burnt-out and without wheels, sitting next to open charred cellars.

15th Street was eerie. It ran for a dozen blocks through a sort of jungle. Huge shrubs shrouded wreckage that we really couldn’t see. Sidewalks and driveways led nowhere. It was like driving on a lane in the Yucatan – huts were visible in the undergrowth but there seemed to be no people. During the last five blocks, we passed intersections that were blocked by corroded dumpsters, other roads rendered inaccessible by heaps of rotting garbage or piles of haphazardly dumped concrete rubble. Some shapeless piles of brick stood atop low mounds in tangled undergrowth.

"This is getting worse," I said.

"In three-hundred feet turn left at Piggott," the woman’s imperturbable voice said.

At Piggott, there were some ruins in which cardboard had been tacked up to cover holes in the walls. The cardboard was marked with hand-written ads for beer and whisky. Smoke rose from a howitzer-shaped barbeque machine and four old black men were sitting side-by-side on folding chairs next to a half-collapsed brick wall. A couple big, rust-eaten cars that looked as if they might be drive-able were parked along side the ruins. From a precarious second-story balcony, a woman with her hair up and wrapped in a bandana looked out over the intersection.

We turned. "She is going to get us killed," I said.

The road ran six more blocks through wasteland to a huge gleaming bridge. The St. Louis Arch loomed overhead – the great stainless steel arch towered over the grey and brown river and the desolate grain elevators marooned on the Illinois side. For a moment, it seemed that the arch was about to take flight, that it was an animate thing, only temporarily confined to earth. The arch seemed to be insulting – it was a huge domed knuckle giving the finger to prostrate and abject East St. Louis.

A hundred years before a White mob had gone berserk in East Saint Louis and massacred some unknown number of Black men, women, and children. In late May, 1917, East Saint Louis was a vibrant city, housing, perhaps, 50,000 people. World War One had increased industrial production and many men had enlisted. This meant that the metal foundries and aluminum factories in East Saint Louis were short-handed – there were more jobs than workers. The manufacturing plants recruited African-Americans from the deep south. In 1917, two-thousand people were arriving in town every month and almost all of them were Black.

Since the great railroad strike in 1877, East Saint Louis was heavily unionized and labor - management relations were tense. Samuel Gompers denounced the new workers recruited from the deep South as "scabs" and "union-busters" and called for the workers to take action. There was some rioting in May, 1917 and Federal troops were called-in to keep the peace.

During the evening of July 1, a group of White men drove through what was called the "Negro neighborhood" firing randomly into the people living there. Several Blacks were injured and, so, the people on those streets armed themselves. The next afternoon, a sedan moved slowly through the Black neighborhood. Someone glimpsed a gun and so the African-Americans in the area opened fire. When the fusillade ended, two police detectives occupying the sedan had been killed and several other people in the car were wounded.

This shooting triggered an assault on the African-American neighborhoods that was protracted and vicious. Mobs of White men and women surrounded Black people on the street and clubbed them to death. White women beat Black mothers and girls with iron bars and left them to die on the sidewalks. People were set afire, lynched, beaten into shapeless pulp. The cry resonating through the mob was "Let’s get a nigger." The streets of East Saint Louis echoed with gunfire. Journalists covering the riot noticed that the White mobs were not content to merely shoot down the Negroes – rather, they felt the need to smash them to bits, pulling up paving stones to brain women and children, dragging corpses behind their cars through the streets, and hanging mutilated bodies from street posts. No one knows how many people perished – the official death toll was reported at about 50 with innumerable people injured; the NAACP estimated that the rioting killed as many as 250.

During the race riot, some young men fled the burning waterfront on rafts, crossing the river to Saint Louis. City police and troops made no attempt to stop the bloodshed. Indeed, it was reported that the armed police shot down dozens of African-Americans as they tried to flee churches and fraternal meeting halls that had been set afire. At least, 8000 refugees poured across the Eads Bridge. But, as would occur later during Hurricane Katrina, the White cops in St. Louis intercepted them, barricaded the bridge, and let people pass through only after they had been subjected to humiliating searches for firearms and other weapons. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, to its credit, reported "eye-witness" accounts of the "massacre of Negroes." One headline read: "Mob’s utter brutality a striking feature of the rioting" and the story recounted how dazed, and half-dead black men were dragged to trees, lynched, and set afire. In a story published on July 3, 1917, the St. Louis Post Dispatch described the mass exodus across the Eads Bridge: "There were Picaninnies carrying pets; one little boy hugging a small chicken. There were white-haired men and buxom mammies..."

The White mobs in East St. Louis had become a little too exuberant. Hundreds of freight cars were burnt down to their iron wheels in the rail yards and half of the Caucasian-owned businesses were in ruins. W. E. B. Dubois came to town to investigate the depredations and a year later some 34 people, mostly Black, were set for trial on charges of murder, attempted murder, mayhem, and riot. The first couple trials involving White defendants resulted in acquittals. And, so, the legal proceedings were abandoned. But, as if in retribution for its wickedness, East Saint Louis now lies totally destroyed. It’s tallest structure, the Spivey building, remains standing, but it is gutted and a decomposing ruin. Elsewhere not one stone remains set upon stone and the great Arch broods over the wreckage, a city more smashed and defunct than old prehistoric Cahokia five miles away. Of course, the perversity of this judgment is that it was a largely Black metropolis that has ultimately perished here – in other words, the victims of the 1917 riot have suffered a second insult: now, their city itself is gone.

For supper, I went to Laclede’s Landing, an entertainment district comprising a few blocks of crumbling river-front buildings to the north of the Gateway Arch park. Twenty years ago, Laclede’s Landing was vibrant, a place full of music and the smell of barbecuing pork. Now, it’s mostly padlocked – except for a couple of brew pubs, the place is deserted and the upscale Sushi cafes are abandoned. Leaving Laclede’s Landing, I turned in the wrong direction. A wrong turn on the St. Louis waterfront has only one outcome – you find yourself whisked across the river to East Saint Louis.

This wrong turn led me onto the Eads Bridge. The bridge spans the muddy waters and ends at a modest casino on the Illinois side of the river. The casino is on the north side of the bridge, showing some white walls and a flash of neon. South lies East Saint Louis except that there is nothing there to see – just vacant fields running to the brick shells of buildings and the sad spire of the Spivey tower.

We make a u-turn and returned to St. Louis. Crossing the water, I heard in my mind an instrumental from Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic – "East St. Louis Toodle-oo", goodbye to old East St. Louis. This version of Duke Ellington’s tune features Walter Becker imitating a muted trumpet by singing through synthesizer; Jeff "Skunk" Baxter plays guitar manipulated to mimic a slide trombone. (The instrumental is one of two songs dedicated to jazz on the record – the other takes us across the State to Kansas City for "Parker’s Band", referring, of course, to the great Charley "Bird" Parker.)

When I got home, I located some recordings of Duke Ellington’s original song on You-Tube. In my view, the best is a recording on the Brunswick label made on March 17, 1927. This version is not the best-known: Ellington recorded the song again, only a week later, for Columbia and that up-tempo account of the tune is the one that most people have heard. But on March 17, 1927, Ellington’s band plays the song very, very slowly – the effect is that of a dirge. Bubber Miley’s deep-plunger muted trumpet makes an unearthly sound, indeed, a spectral "toodle-oo" above the mournful orchestra.

Farewell: East St. Louis.


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