Saturday, December 26, 2009

Goodbye St. Louis

My request for a transfer back to Syracuse, NY came through in record time. I successfully negotiated with the largest bureaucracy on earth to be allowed to move at a time that better suited my family. My boss threw me a great farewell party and said nice things about me. So why am I blue?

During the 16 months we have lived in St. Louis I have grown quite fond of the city. On balance it is a lively place with many unique features. The city has fabulous public spaces, chief among which is the Gateway Arch. Unique in the world, this monumental building so dominates downtown as to disappear from consciousness. At unexpected times it suddenly appears as a shimmering reflection in windows of an office tower, or a partial view of the north leg from the windows of the office, or in the distance when driving toward downtown. The Arch reminds me I could be in no other place in the world.

We have spent many reflective and renewing hours in the world class parks here. The parks define the boundaries of my St. Louis experience. The two neighborhood parks, Lafayette and Benton, are good ways to come to know your neighbors, their kids and dogs, at least by sight. A bit further afield is the arboretum called Tower Grove, where our kite got stuck in a tree one breezy Sunday, also home to the farmer's market we frequented. Further, but still within an easy drive is magnificent Forest Park, home to the art museum, the history museum, the Zoo, the MUNY and miles of dog walking trails. Downtown, only a few blocks from my office, is the brilliant new Citygarden, a sculpture park unlike any other. Merry has beautifully documented all these municipal gems on her photoblog at

The queen of all the city parks is the Missouri Botanical Garden. I was completely unaware of this amazing garden before we moved here. Founded in 1859 by Henry Shaw, who made a fortune peddling housewares to passing pioneers, this garden has a look and feel of earthly perfection. We have visited botanical gardens everywhere we have traveled, but only two (Kew in England and Longwood in PA) rival Shaw's Garden. It has historic structures, wonderful sculpture, a 1960s geodesic dome jungle, a kids' garden, a spectacular Japanese garden and an astounding collection of plants from all sorts of habitats. When we visit St. Louis in the future, we will always spend at least part of a day in this garden.

We have spent considerable time searching out the great restaurants of the city. We favor ethnic food, so we didn't eat at many of the well known high end places but we did come to love Vin de Set with its rooftop view of downtown and Chez Leon, traditional French cuisine and a player grand piano to boot. Many weekend mornings we would head for the Mississippi Mudhouse, a funky coffee shop in the Cherokee antique district, for fresh roasted coffee, spicy hot chocolate and breakfast. We tried several Italian places on “the Hill” but generally did not take to toasted ravioli, provel or the heavy pasta here. The single exception is Stelina Pasta Cafe where all the pasta is made fresh daily on the premises. When hungry for reliably wonderful food, we would head for the Tower Grove/South Grand neighborhood and eat at Basil Spice (Thai), Cafe Natasha (Persian) or The Shaved Duck (Barbeque). These are unpretentious spots where the owners treat you like family and the servers remember what you like. We especially love Thai food and the friendly Thai people. The owners of Basil Spice always greeted us warmly, often made us special desserts and even gave us a sweet going away present. I'll miss them.

Of course, a great part of my life here was spent inside 200 N. Broadway where Social Security holds hearings. Before coming to St. Louis I had generally escaped working within any large bureaucratic organization. I was worried that working for Social Security would be soul numbing. In fact, it is psychologically very hard, but the staff who do the work in St. Louis do it with grace. This is certainly due in large part to the efforts of the chief judge, W. Gary Jewell, and the hearing office director, Karen Kumpe. Karen knows everything, can find anything, fix anything, and understands how it all works because she has done every job in the office over the years. Judge Jewell, a true son of Alabama, “Roll Tide,” learned how to motivate people during his military career in the JAG corps. He knows people want to do well but can be lax if you let them. He devises little motivators, walks around the office causing cheerful disturbances and lets people know he cares that they do their work well. He will always step up to help, often taking the extra work on himself. His staff want to get the job done for him. He changed the name of the three staff work groups from A, B, C to Aardvarks, Cobras and Bobcats. I'll forever hear him call out “Goodnight, Bobcats” in my mind at the end of a work day.

And so I leave with a sense of regret for leaving my temporarily adopted city. I'll miss the friendly people and my daily dose of real life as I ride the bus. I'll miss the smell of hops from Budweiser when the wind is from the south. I'll miss my wonderful massage therapist, Cathi, from Indigo, who nursed my sore muscles back from stress and fatigue. I'll miss all of this, but I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to live at the gateway to the west. Farewell.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post! Wishing you, Merry, and Joli a safe trip home.