"I AM NOT AN ANT,
I AM NOT AN ION,
I AM A HUMAN BEING!"
Day 112 St. Louis to OFallon
miles today: 15 cumulative: 2,255
Goodbye to Lucy, Hemlock, St. Louis wrestling federation, we will meet again, we will wrestle again.
Crossing the flooding Mississippi. Organize my gear in a McDonalds parking lot. Old black men in fancy hats, and a few bums, and a few gang bangers. I will not see a Caucasian until I leave East St. Louis, and I need a day like that, Amorica is Eurocentric enough. Im still waving like its a presidential election. Friendly folk. Hot bleached white sun deserted streets. And garbage blows and empty lots of wet green weeds. And abandoned cars. And right away I see someone whos photo I have to take. Dennis. He is cleaning his blue suede shoes. Got em for $40 downtown about 10 years ago he says. They are his most prized possession. Dennis looks like he just smoked crack. No, he says, he didnt, but you got any? I could use some, he says. And the whites of his eyes are yellow. He wears blue bell-bottoms. He poses for me with his right hand flashing the peace sign. He does a little dance. He looks like a washed up "Pimp of The Year, 1979," all he is missing are his glass platform shoes with goldfish inside and a wide brimmed blue velvet hat to match his shoes. But he still looks like at least "Pimp of the Year, 1982." "Thanks brotha. No, I cant get you high, I already said I dont have any."
Long Cadillacs and ghetto super star cars drive down State Street bumping and window rattling from the bass of the stereos. Some hard stares. Photograph a man walking out of a shop with a big diamond (glass) necklace and a fur collar, another pimp of the year, a man just inside the door says if I get him in the photo hes going to break my camera and then my face. So maybe we should just keep moving. Day dreaming of drive-bys. After dark the cracked out and yellow eyed cruise State Street looking for a fix. A head to break. I have been told that I best be out of town by sunset.
People loitering outside St. Vincent DePaul thrift store. Where do I go to find the people? They tell me I missed it, have to wait for night, go to Granite city. Too late for that. "Theys gonna be people here in about 30 minutes. In the soup kitchen back there." So I leave Cosmo in the shade of a tree and hope a crack addict does not sell her while I am inside. This place is called Cosgroves kitchen, and is named after Bishop Cosgrove, a white preacher who founded this place long ago. A woman is cutting onions, her name is Mary. She looks 20 but she is 39. She has a gold front tooth, and she wears a blue bandanna. The other woman running the soup kitchen says I can stay, but she is not interested in talking to me, she is suspicious. I do not know her name. There are pieces of pie on the counter. Sloppy Joe mix is cooking in a big vat. It smells like my elementary school cafeteria, and reminds me of dish duty, spraying off the trays. I will not be eating sloppy joes today.
Mary sits beneath a photograph of the Bishop. The walls are made of fake wood panels. I ask her about the reputation of East St. Louis. "I hear people sayin dont go there and this and that, well, I think peoples just afraid of color. Theres no certain colors that kill, theres just killin. That still dont mean you should be walkin after dark round here. I wont go walkin after dark myself." When I ask about the next city up the road, the otherwoman cooking sloppy Joes says, "Dont worry, theys your color over there, you can walk there at night." Cosgroves Kitchens regulars start filing in. Most of them are not homeless, some of them are whole families, most just cant afford to pay all the bills, some are using the system so they dont have to work, some are working hard but could still use a free meal once in awhile, especially the ones with kids. The men I meet tell me no one is going to mess with me if I dont mess with them, but to be out of town by dark. "You run into one a them crack addicts and theyll kill you for $5. Better check on you dog too, theyll go for anything they can sell." I walk to the door. Shes still there. Not many in the kitchen want to talk, so I watch. There is a pile of free bread and rolls on a table under a large carving of the last supper. Some young men in nice clothes and gold chains walk in and eat. A man with yellow eyes tells me Ive been in here too long, my dogs gonna get stolen. So I go.
2 blocks down a man offers me crack. Another 2 blocks and I stop to give Cosmo water in the shade of the Rainbow Liquor Mart. Clyde is 18, he wears a white tank top, tattoos, and his 4 front teeth are capped with gold, and engraved stars with diamonds inside. He says they cost him $10,000 each. I do not believe him. He says he got the money working at an Italian restaurant. Again, I do not believe him. He wants his photograph taken next to an advertisement for Colt 45 malt liquor. His friends arrive. They are the Aces. A gang. They flash gang signs. They are dressed like missionaries.
5 minutes later. A place to hide from the sun. Helens restaurant. No menus. Fried chicken, corn, and pigs feet. Ill skip the pigs feet. Gill is taking orders, he is not going to let me pay. He wants to know what Ive seen. He is worried about the image of African Americans. "This city isnt the best representation of Black America." I know that, and I am aware that I am showing the worst side of it, I hope to find people to balance this picture out, but when you walk the streets, you meet the people of the streets. Gill is one of the ones that will bring balance.
But back on the street, more yellow eyes. More stumbling drunks. There is no way to find the educated community here in East St. Louis just passing through, so I will have to be content with the people of the street. This is not an accurate picture of this city or of the Black population, these are the people I meet in the streets. And the streets are hard. So the people are hard. Jerome sells crack. He thinks he is going to make a sale so he is willing to talk to me, no photos, twitch. Tweak. Dont push it Aaron. He shows me a crack rock the size of something between a BB and a pencil eraser. $10. I tell him that I dont smoke but that my dog does, I convince him that it makes her walk faster when she is tired. He believes me. He wants to know how she takes it. She smokes it like everyone else. I laugh. He laughs. He just figured it out. Even crack dealers can laugh. They are still human. "So howd you get into this?" "I started when I was 15, the moneys too good. Why should I work for $5 an hour?" He walks crooked. His eyes are yellow. His every movement is geared towards the buying and selling of crack cocaine. I cant imagine. I would like to photograph that life, to see the blood and guts of it, I want to understand it better. I have had moments of desperation, but to have a whole life of desperation. I wonder how long Jerome will live.
He pushes the sale of the $10 crack rock. I walk away. There are too many people in the street for him to hurt me.
Jerome was on the east end of East St. Louis, 100 yards away from Jeromes corner the city of Fairview Heights begins. Climbing a hill within shouting distance of the crack corner I can see a rich suburb. Green, well watered yards, American flags, a Lexus, a Mercedes Benz station wagon, a retired couple drinking iced tea. Do they know that if they walked down the hill they could buy crack? I cant believe these worlds are so close to each other. Poor black, rich white. And just like the Sloppy Joe lady said, they are my color over here, and it is like Pleasantville again. A T-ball game is happening in town. And I cant help myself, it is such a dramatic shift that I have to sit here for awhile, to watch suburban mothers with big hair filming their children with video cameras. 5 minutes ago someone tried to sell me crack. I buy 2 hotdogs and a soda and two of those fun dips, you know the vanilla stcks that you dip in fluorescent powder that tastes like sour cherry or grape. A little boy beside me that plays on the red team shows me his tongue, it is purple. I show him mine, it is green. We both laugh. My little friend has snuck out of the dugout, and he is up to bat, he runs around the fence and grabs an oversized helmet. His name is David.
In the infield 3 girls are doing cartwheels, and one boy is trying to stand on his head. The first baseman is trying to leav ethe firld, he wants a drink. The second baseman is making an angel in the dirt. David hits a dribbler to the pitcher. The parents yell for him to throw it to first. He misunderstands, he stops just before he gets to the ball, looks at the parents, turns, and runs to first. The parents are laughing so hard they are crying. Still the girls are doing cartwheels. My tongue is now red. A girl with a pom-pom in her hair is playing balance beam on the bleachers behind me. The sun will be setting soon.
Back to the highwayyyyyyyyy. But it is not a highway for quite awhile, it is two towns that run into each other and I am walking in the street. Every car has a vanity license plate that says MOM #1 or MY BMW or PSLM 116 or their name or their dogs name, because you can do that for free in Illinois. The next person I will meet will have one that says Scooby Doo (SCOBDO). There he is walking across the street with a 12 pack of beer, I do not know that I will meet him yet. He is wearing a silk shirt that looks like something Jimi Hendrix would wear, with a neck that ties up, but which is left open to revel a gold harp necklace. The mans name is Patrick, he is Irish, hence the harp. And as I am walking down the street noticing Patrick, who I have not yet met, and looking around at other buildings and license plates and signs and the way that people stare and what they wear, I am imagining this strange dice game with a billion dice all rolling down the street and wondering whod number will come up, who will I meet today, where will I end this strange crack cocaine t-ball big haired mother, day? Patrick walks inside his apartment but comes right back out with a stocky Samoan with a buzz cut. Actually Phil is not Samoan, but Samoan describes him best. Patrick- "Hey man what are you doing?" I tell him. "Wait man (as though he really wants to know the soul of this), come up here and talk to me." So I pull the dog cart up onto the curb and roll it over to his door. "Want a beer?" "Hell yes." And so we drink a beer together and 5 minutes later we are in a Volkswagen van with the license plates that say Scooby Doo and we are driving back into St. Louis to see a very famous band at a small club on the River.
5 minutes back. "Want a beer?" "Hell yes." "Where you headed tonight?" "I dont know, maybe 20 miles east of here. Trenton maybe." "Well Phil and I are going to see RUSTED ROOOOOT!!!!" (Pulls out 2 $30 tickets, giving me the mouth open, holy shit its Christmas and I just got a huge surprise present! face) And then he looks at Phil, and looks back at me. "Want to go? Ill buy your ticket." "Are you serious?" "Hell, yes. Phil and I are always talking about love man, this is it. This is what its about. Why not? I can do anything I want, and I want you to go to this show! This is love man! This is what we can do! I am not an ion, I am not an ant, I am a human being!" And I can see everything slipping into place, it is so surreal to see it like this, like I just pulled the lever on the slot machine and I am watching all the $ signs line up. Like I am hearing exactly what I want to hear. Like a conversation that would happen in the perfect world. So my fellow human beings and I are headed to see Rusted Root in the city. Love, love, love, is everything. And there is so much love here. Grab a few beers, wheel the blue comet inside, get Cosmo some food, and take a ride in Scooby Doo. 10 minutes ago I was sitting next to a woman with big hair watching a T-ball game. One hour ago someone tried to sell me crack.
Before the night is over I will be hanging out with rock stars. Viva America! This is it, the whole spectrum in an hour, this is America.
Driving to the music of the band we are about to see. Driving towards the arch. I am laughing quietly, I cant believe this, but I can. It happens everyday. This is life on the road. My hosts are pointing out landmarks and places where they jumped freight trains. And Phil tells me about 10 months in rehab for attacking some guy with a knife. And Patrick tells me about the end of the train ride when he woke up in Indiana and they were asking if he was dead, but he was just drunk. I hope Cosmo doesnt eat Patricks Iguana. In the parking lot we drink one more beer. Grab the camera and go. Inside the small club is packed with pretty hippie girls wearing homemade dresses. Dreadlocks and hemp jewelry. And we try to get closer to the stage. And the show is amazing. I saw these guys in Boulder, Colorado, 6 years ago. Maybe I will try to talk to them after the show, its a long shot, but hey, Ive got a good enough story. Why not? Tim manages the club. Tim will talk to someone. Dancing saves the world. So we all dance. And we dance. And we dance. And we drink a few beers, and Patrick drinks 20 beers. I have to admit that I hesitated on going to this show tonight because Patrick said that he was going to get wasted, and I didnt really want to deal with holding someones head over a toilet. Or loud embarrassing shouting. Falling down. Guilt by association.
But I could hear the gears, moving everything into place. The strange clockwork of the universe. The you need to go so just hold on tight, something will happen. Click click click the way it should be, click, gears turning. I will go, and I did and I have and I am here in the middle of this dance floor with all the beautiful people, and two beautiful women on the stage shaking their tribal instruments, summoning the god in us all to dance and the instruments are working and the call is out and the answer is WE ARE HERE! And we dance. And we dance. And the beautiful women wail, and we wail back, and can you believe so many gods in a single room, and can you believe that all the faces are really this beautiful, like we made it! Like the end of time! We made it! We made it! And a man with curly hair wet with the sweat of summoning dance strums the guitar and every time his hand passes over those chords the people move. He is guiding the crowd. His voice is the one. His voice. He is giving his sermon, and instead of the quiet nodding heads and dead eyes in pews, the congregation dances and wails and swings their arms and stomps their feet, and the whole place is alive! Everyone in this room is alive! And the man with the curly hair is Mike. And the beautiful girls on each side of him are Jen and Liz. And I do not know it yet, but I will be talking with them soon, and we will be talking about nothing less than changing the world.
Today the rock stars that I am watching on this stage are changing the world. Today I am changing the world by dancing to the music made by the rock stars on this stage. Today the dominoes fall and you are reading about them falling, and hopefully one of those dominoes will hit you and you will say YES, and that alone will make another fall. Hopefully I am changing the world by writing these words. Everything we do echoes in eternity. The wings of a single butterfly affect the atmosphere so that over time a tornados course is altered. Save the world. Sing and dance. I watch them smiling and I watch their invincible grins, moving the beautiful people. I watch the drummers. I will not meet the drummers tonight, but I will meet them soon, we are on the same page, so it is not so far to find each other again. I watch Jen pick up her drink and laugh, still playing her instrument, still moving the crowd. The show is over, but everyone knows it is not. The encore. The screaming crowd, "Come back and make us gods again!" The encore. The songs everyone has been waiting for.
Curtains. People leave. I stay. Tim has found the road manager, Dana. Dana says we can work something out. Hang around and hell grab a few of the rock stars. Groupies flock to a table to buy CDs and get autographs. I wait patiently. Click, click, the strange clockwork of the universe. The opening band, Highway 9, is standing at the door where I am waiting. Kevin is in the band, Kevin is interested in my journey. Kevin takes me to meet Liz. Liz is the beautiful brunette, and one of the rock stars. Liz wants me to walk faster so I can see them in Pennsylvania in 2 weeks. Shell put me on the list. But that would be 17-60 mile days with no rest. I dont think Ill make it. The fall is more likely, we will meet again in the West. When I am home, when I am not walking everyday. Kevin tells me the best way to NYC, via the bands hometown, Asbury Park, New Jersey. We will meet again. "You guys going to the Train Wreck Saloon?" "Yep." "Well giddy up, Ill see you there."
And a little dance in the street. Jump on a bench, tap your feet. At the Train Wreck Saloon. Patrick and Phil have already been here for an hour. Patrick is drunk. Crazy drunk. Phil is also drunk. I will be driving. A Greatful Dead cover band plays on the stage. The rock stars sit together at a table behind me. Mike is wandering. I stop him and ask his name, I did not know it before this moment, although I have heard his voice many times over the past 7 years. "And dont you think we are changing the world? With this dancing and this singing." And he laughs. "Yes." "Mike, you are changing the world every time you play your guitar and wail because it makes us dance. The most redeeming quality of man and womankind is the ability to create beauty. To paint to sculpt, to write, to dance, to sing. So we are changing the world Mike. We are changing the world." He laughs again. "Yes, we are." "Everyday I try to dance. And think about how many people right now are listening to your music, and how many are dancing right now to those drums and that wailing. Thousands, even at this late hour and that is how the dominoes fall. That is the butterfly effect that changes the future. Ive met so many people Mike, on this walk that are afraid, that are grabbing the sides of their heads, crying, nuclear proliferation, war and famine, drilling for more oil, building the empire, and they shake their heads, and they dont know what to do, and I tell them to paint. I tell them to make more sculptures. Dance. Sing. Change the world with a song. You are doing it Mike. You are saving the world. You and Liz and Jen and the drummers that have found the rhythm of the universe. And I hope that I am doing it too, with this conversation, with the refuge for artists that I am building out west, with these words that you have just read, and are about to read. WE ARE CHANGING THE WORLD!" He smiles. He nods. "Id like to do that someday, to walk across the country
" And I examine his face, anonymous enough, no one would know he was a rock star. "You could do it, but I cant recommend walking, its too dangerous, roads arent made for walking, do it in a van, do it alone." I like Mike. He wears a white straw cowboy hat. I tell him about people who are afraid of life and of their dreams, the fear I have seen on this road, and what I am trying to do in Santa Fe. He says that I need to meet Jen. Jen is the beautiful blonde that was standing to his right on stage. Jen is drinking Cranberry and vodka.
I like her smile. She likes my story. "Anything else that happens to you Aaron," she says, "remember that love is all thats real." Create beautiful things and love each other. So, we have solved the problems of the world for this night. And I am still talking, as I am known to do, because I have ideas and stories and the will to change the world. About the crack dealers and the gang bangers and the hot dogs I had for lunch, and the T-ball mothers and butterfly wings, and I cant believe today is still here, hasnt it been a week!!? And Jen is laughing, this guy is crazy. And Kevin offers words of wisdom too, he says "Teach and be taught. That is what you need to do on this journey." And I am trying. That is why I am out here. And Mike has something to say, and that is that religion has become a psychosis, (here here, we cheer) and that sensuality and spirituality should be one, and I think he can see it on the dance floor. That is where I see it, where I saw it tonight, turn the churches into dance halls. And it is a hell of a lot better than the dogma and the down on your knees be quiet please of quiet pews. And Pete from Highway 9 says "Defend what you love." And I will. And I tell him that I will knock a few dominoes down for him, because he gave me a stack of CDs and I will give them to some people down the road. And he likes that idea. Dominoes, butterfly wings. Everyone is happy. And then they take the stage, because everyone wants to see the rock stars one more time. And they sing Greatful Dead and Rolling Stones songs with drinks in their hands and miss a few words, but it is perfect. It is the way it should be. And the Highway 9 guys are doing the backup woo-woos while Mike screams on the electric guitar. And Jen gives the crowd her I am invincible, queen of the world stare and laughs and sings
"Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul and faith
And I was 'round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a general's rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
'Cause I'm in need of some restraint
(woo woo, woo woo)"
woo woo, woo ooo. The Highway men sing.
And the crowd is cheering. And Mike has one more for them, the song that everyone knows. "I would like to reach out my hand, I may see you, I may tell you to run
I have to walk tomorrow. Hugs, good lucks, and hope to see you down the road.
Dennys at 3 am. Patrick beyond drunk. Why do you abuse alcohol? Why will you not follow your dreams? He wants to be a writer but he says he doesnt know grammar, and I say those rules dont matter anymore, there are no rules anymore and he says there are and he is wrong. And I say stop using that excuse, but he still uses it over and over because he is drunk, and because he believes it, and he uses the excuse of his girlfriend not wanting him to be a writer and he knows hell be good if does write, but he hasnt yet so he cant show me, and I tell him to start tomorrow. But he wont. He is afraid to fail. So he will not try. He will remember very little of this conversation. I am the designated driver. I drive us back and fall asleep face down on another couch.
Cell block, crack rock, gold toothed youth, a picture of your child taken with a disposable camera as he swings a baseball bat for the first time, a purple tongue, a 12 pack of beer, love and drunkenness and fame, what will become of us?