Walking around St. Louis lately, I’ve noticed how the city changes for me the more I get to know it. It’s like when you walk down an unfamiliar street, and the first few times you do it, the color of the pavement blends just enough with the dull tone of the concrete buildings to almost make it into a blurred background image easily forgotten.
Your first time venturing anywhere new, you’re so focused on the destination and on not getting lost that the details of the place just kinda fade. But the more you walk a path, the more familiar it becomes, and the more familiar it becomes, the easier it is to notice the little things. This past week, meandering throughout downtown St. Louis has been that for me as the city morphed from that weird blur of general “downtownness” to something with a personality and a feel to it. There was that one dilapidated Tudor building with the timber framing sitting lonely among the steel-and-glass. Or the way, at night, Washington Avenue is lit-up like Christmas. There was the realization that the Public Library, architectured almost like a great, academic cathedral of sorts, was due west of the apartment and only a few blocks away in relation to everything else that’s come to matter to me since I got here. And, of course, the people – conversations of kindred that even when you don’t know them at all have offered something to the familiarity of the place. Yesterday in the gelato shoppe, a man decked out in a soldier’s uniform walked in with three young, black boys probably between eight and ten years old and bought them all something. On his way out, he confessed, “I don’t actually know them at all. They just saw my uniform and asked for an autograph, so I figured I’d do something nice in return.”
I used to think a place chooses you. Like, if you grow up on a farm, you’re bound to grow into that and the lifestyle that comes with it. I wouldn’t say that I deny the truth of that necessarily, but nowadays, I tend to think we choose the place, too. That it’s a both-and kind of thing. The more familiar a place becomes, the more likely you are to claim it as your own, after all. And St. Louis has become mine in a way that I’ve enjoyed making it mine. Even the buildings that aren’t quite as aesthetically pleasing as the others lend to the familiarity like puzzle pieces filling in the parts to make it whole, and sometimes, it’s the pieces that are the same color as all the others that, without them, keep the puzzle unfinished. In that sense, I’ve come to love and want to know more every nook-and-cranny of the city I can absorb and commit to memory.
To me, St. Louis is a city of choice, a kind of merging of paths. I get why it’s called the Gateway to the West, but a gateway West is a gateway East, too. I sometimes feel as if I’m looking as far down each path as I can see with the naked eye, imagining where it might take me if I choose that path but at the same time perfectly content to simply imagine until something greater pushes me in that direction rather than forcing it. But as I imagine, I’m grown content to be in the here-and-now standing at the entrance neither too eager to enter or exit and recognizing that the door does both at the same time. A city of choices is a city bound to the cycle of life, its ends and beginnings. And I’m grown content to be present to that cycle, however brief or lengthy that may be, without getting caught in the need to move through the doors. It’s a bit like serving as a kind of doorkeeper watching the world pass before me eager to keep some constant pace rushing West or East as though they’re caught in the blur rather than absorbing all the wonderful chaos they might have noticed had they stood still for just five minutes. Having been on both sides of the doorway, it’s nice to just stand there observing, greeting, growing familiar.