Suddenly St. Louis

We left cripplingly early from PDX. We parked the car and dropped our bags and made our way to a restaurant for breakfast. We sat at the bar, chatting with the bartender, swapping travel stories, talking about her kids, and realizing we’ve had the same conversation with the same bartender at the same bar at least once before.

Photo of the south tunnel at PDX airport

We parked by the crab

There is no direct flight to St. Louis, so first we had to fly to Seattle. More accurately, we flew to Sea-Tac - the made up, fake city which hosts the Sea-Tac airport. I do not have fond memories of Sea-Tac.

From there we flew to St. Louis. So why St. Louis?

The missus (Dr. Missus to you) was presenting at a continuing medical education conference. Doctors must keep their license current through continual education. An ecosystem of conferences has emerged to meet this need. Some conferences are purely functional, like this one. Others are vacations in disguise. Come to Hawaii, learn about gastroenteritis, try the buffet!

We try to turn these conferences into mini-vacations, a chance to get out of town, sleep in a hotel bed, and eat out. This particular was held in St. Louis this year, so St. Louis it is.

The conference was held in the Hilton in downtown St. Louis. The hotel is comprised of two towers, with a dizzying maze of conference facilities piled in between. The hotel felt, weirdly, like a Las Vegas hotel, with out all the sin and wickedness. The hotel appears to be in a slow motion renovation. Our room was nice enough, but was a throwback to the 1990s. We learned, through colleagues, that other rooms have been modernized.  We drew the short straw I guess. Still we had a lovely view of downtown, and rose early to watch the sunrise from the 16th floor.

We arrived on Saturday afternoon. After checking into our 90s hotel room, we had time to kick around. The hotel was just around the corner from the famous arch. We walked over to the arch and gawked at the big shiny steel curve in the sky. Each foot of the arch is planted in the ground. We walked up close to put our hands on the big steel wedge and noted the graffiti scratched into the surface.

From there we walked around this little section of downtown St. Louis. Aside the from the arch, there is an old, presumably famous, courthouse under renovation and a slew of business hotels and large office towers. Not much to see or do, but there is a lovely park. At one corner of the park is a Hooters. I was surprised to see that this place still exists in this day and age. So retrograde it’s almost quaint. My wife had never been to a Hooters, she wanted to see what it was all about. We went in for a drink and a snack. I warned her not to expect much, that the food is not good.

When I was a teenager, back in Charlotte, NC, Hooters was new and captured the imagination of hormonal teenage boys of any age. I recall an embarrassing conversation in college. I assumed that Hooters was a topless bar. Many young men around me in high school and early college boasted that when they turned 18 they’d celebrate at Hooters. I assumed that this meant there was an age restriction, and, given the reputation of the restaurant, I assume that this meant that Hooters was a topless bar. Chatting with new friends in a college dorm I remember saying something like “What? It’s not? Then what’s the point?” I was then left wondering why so many of these kids around me felt the need to wait until they were 18. Maybe at age 18 is when mothers officially give up trying to prevent their sons from turning out like their fathers.

Anyway, the mozzarella sticks weren’t even melted, the margaritas were fine. In the intervening years, it seems Hooters has refocused their ‘uniforms’ on butts over boobs, in keeping with the zeitgeist.

The conference didn’t begin till Monday, so we still had Sunday to kick around. We consulted maps, got brave, and walked a half mile to a different part of downtown to find a great little breakfast joint in a part of downtown which seemed to be full of life and people. We had a great breakfast and caught a car to the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM!).

The St. Louis Art Museum sits atop a hill in a vast park. It was built at the turn of the 20th century as part of a World’s Fair. It’s a beautiful Beaux Arts building. The permanent collection boasts some fantastic work. And it’s free, barring special ticketed exhibitions.

A giant Monet graces one wall. One of his paintings of water lilies. I overheard a man say to his wife “ugh my mom loves Monet” - well, she’s got good taste Junior.

Nearby was a Van Gogh painting  of pears, jittery and alive with brush strokes.

I also got to see two paintings by Anders Zorn . Zorn was a very successful as a portraitist and worked in a post-impressionist style with vigorous brush work. He was known for using a limited palette consisting of black, white, vermillion red, and yellow ochre. From these four colors he could create a surprising range of flesh tones and, almost everything else really. Figurative painters study Zorn for his technique. It was great to see his work in person. His portraits are richly colored and sculptural with fine details that give way to impressionist brushwork in the background. This gives a sense of almost cinematic focus to the painting and a sense that the painting came together in a few short minutes.

A small wing of the museum hosts several works by Gerhard Richter . One wall was covered by a triptych of enormous black and white scraped and squeegeed abstractions. They bring to mind the bark of a birch tree or perhaps the aftermath of a fire.

On the perpendicular wall were several large sheets of dark grey glass (titled, appropriately “Grey Mirror”). And in one small corner a relatively tiny painting of Richter’s daughter, looking away from the camera. This is one of Richter’s famous “photo real” paintings. The placard on the wall had some statement about blurring the lines between photography and painting. I think critics and curators always get this wrong. Richter isn’t painting from a photograph, he’s painting a photograph. He’s emulating the quality of the image trapped in a thin layer of photo emulsion on paper. The subject of the painting is not his daughter, it’s a photo of his daughter. It’s a memory of a memory.

The special exhibition on view is called The Culture  and  features the intersection of hip hop culture and contemporary art. The show featured works by Basquiat and Julie Mehretu and also artifacts from the world of hip hop culture. There was a fantastic “Gucci” coat by Dapper Dan, and three of Lil’ Kim’s wigs. The wigs seemed tiny. It’s strange to discover that a larger-than-life character like Lil’ Kim is a normal-sized human. I think I expected her to bet 12 feet tall.

Each gallery had hip hop music thumping, sometimes intercut with snippets of interviews or conversations. It’s incongruous to hear loud hip hop bouncing off the walls in a museum, but it worked. Museums should curate a sound track more often.

After the museum we wandered over to find a giant art deco greenhouse. It was beautiful, full of amazing plants, and air conditioned. Next we walked over to the zoo (also free. What is this place?). We saw elephants and bought a stuffed platypus for the poodle to destroy.

We caught a car back to the hotel and made our way to the rooftop bar for dinner. This bar is apparently some kind of St. Louis hot spot. There were multiple parties, and a throng of people on this Sunday evening. We found something semi-vegetarian and escaped the crowd early. We gave our seats at the bar to two well dressed ladies who had been hovering behind us.

My trip was supposed to be light work and kicking around town, but a big opportunity came up at my job, and my pseudo-vacation turned into real, actual work. I tried working in the hotel room, but the wifi was just awful. I was lucky to find a great dinosaur  themed co-working space. They didn’t have day rates, but they were nice enough to let me camp for a day and drink their coffee.

That’s the thing about St. Louis, everyone is genuinely nice. Not polite like down south. Southerners aren’t nice (they’re actually petty and mean), Southerners are polite. Folks in St. Louis are just nice.  I found myself walking around the downtown thinking “I could live here”.  If only the food were better.

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