A few weeks back, poet Henry Goldkamp sent Riverfront Times an SOS of sorts. The publishing deal for his crowdsourced book What the Hell Is St. Louis Thinking? had fallen through. Goldkamp wanted to know, would the RFT be interested in publishing the entire collection (or parts of it) in the newspaper?
Since then Goldkamp and his creative partner, Kirsten O'Loughlin, have come up with a last-minute plan to self-publish the book (it's currently available through Createspace and Amazon.com) but that didn't stop us from wanting to share its content with our readers.
By now Goldkamp's story is well known after receiving national coverage in places like Time magazine and National Public Radio, and locally in numerous outlets. In August of 2013, Goldkamp placed dozens of typewriters around St. Louis, and asked people to type their thoughts and deposit them in an accompanying wooden drop box. Over the course of the next few months, Goldkamp drove around in his pickup truck to collect thousands of entries from all over the city. A good number of the anonymous submissions were nonsensical, others complete doggerel. But many provided a vulnerability and civility that's fallen to the wayside in our digital correspondence with one another.
"If I had made this an Internet thread, it would be just a St. Louis Reddit," says Goldkamp of his decision to use typewriters. "This being a manual and tangible project made it, I think, more smooth and more honest."
Goldkamp and O'Loughlin broke the book into three parts: the first has a more confessional and despairing tone, the second offers passages of advice and inspiration, while the third section contains notes that explore our common bonds as St. Louisans. For our purposes, Riverfront Times took submissions from all three sections. Together, they acknowledge St. Louis' faults while speaking to its potential.
It's important to note that all of the submissions to What the Hell Is St. Louis Thinking? were written well before the death of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson. That's not necessarily a bad thing for the purposes of the book.
"I wanted it to be about the beauty within the ordinary, everyday thoughts of people," says Goldkamp. "Had I done this a year later, Ferguson would have monopolized the submissions. But reading and editing the book now, you can see that many of the underlying tensions are there."
So here they are, anonymous messages of encouragement, hope and love from the not-so-distant past. You know, the one that existed before 2014 gave St. Louis a black eye?
Happy Sunday Saint Louis! A year after arriving, I can safely say that there is no one like you. You are a little tribal and a little wary of outsiders, but if you let down your guard you would be easy to love.
What a wonderful thing to see a typewriter. That takes me back to when I was in high school, sitting in class all day, dreaming about what I wanted my future to be. Now I'm just a working person getting a check, and I don't know if I really made a difference in someone's life. So as you write this book, please think about me, a hard working black man that just wanted to live a decent life for others.
I believe it is time for me to move on from St. Louis. My relationship with this town has been remarkably similar to an abusive boyfriend: I am constantly defending STL saying things like you don't see us when we are alone or you just have to get to know it better. Meanwhile, I am showing up to social functions with a black eye and broken collar bone because St. Louis pushed me down the stairs again last night. So I have been attempting to find reasons to stay, but all I have are my friendships – friendships which are rapidly disintegrating all around me – old friends who are splitting, people who have begun behaving in ways I would rather not be a part of. And yet I cant quite bring myself to go. Give me a reason to stay St. Louis. Just one and I will never leave.
Why does Saint Louis think so little of itself? A relative of mine recently visited from Los Angeles. Our waiter discovered he was from out of town and visiting from LA. The waiter paused and stared too long. "Why? Why here?" He couldn't understand why anyone would visit St. Louis. I hear this all the time from St. Louisans. St. Louis has a low self-esteem complex. We don't value our music, our history, our local talents. We have a tough time bragging about our city. My relative was having a great time in under-appreciated neighborhoods, bike trails, villages, scenic riverfronts, listening to great local music. The waiter couldn't understand anything except the ocean and movie agents. And it's always been this way as long as I can remember. And I've been around here since 1956. Pat yourself a little more on the back. Brag a little more. It's okay.
What the hell is up with cops planting drugs on ANYONE, let alone brown-skinned individuals. What the hell is up with our schools not being accredited? What the hell is so important about Catholic high school? I love when we open the door for one another; we don't do this. I love when we acknowledge another human being with love, respect and care regardless of hair, eyes, body type, gender, ethnicity. BUT THIS IS NOT ST. LOUIS...we will move on and most importantly forward otherwise we will all die or kill each other. Signed a Cuban-American female.
I moved to St. Louis two years ago. I thought I would miss the ocean, the big cities, the "culture" of the coast. But I found myself in the people that wave to me on my runs. In the free museums and music. In the quiet, warm nights of cicadas chirping. My family and friends make fun of me for my new love of a Midwestern place – but Missouri is now part of me, even if I move away.
My home smells like beer and pretzels. I live in Benton Park, a stone's throw away from the brewery, and if that needs explanation you need more help than I can offer. I am just a few blocks away from Gus' Pretzels and all their salty doughy glory. My home is a red brick castle built by immigrant hands at the turn of the century and is made of all the best things in the city. Two and a half stories tall, stately if a bit rundown. My red brick castle has a dirt floor basement and more character than I can describe. How do you explain the alternating styles of brickwork and the color the bricks have after a hundred years of weather? My home is the stool at the corner of the bar on my street, the one that still only takes cash, which makes me mad sometimes, but other times reminds me just how long this place has been serving the "King of Beers." My home is a place that shuts down in October. There is always baseball to watch. My home is a place that has a love-hate relationship with football. I want to love it but hate to have my heart broken when the Rams lose. My home is a place where you can date someone by whether they call our baseball team the St. Louis baseball Cardinals. My home is starving for the Stanley Cup. My home is a land of German brewers, Italian grocers and brickmakers, Irish laborers, but only if you think the immigrants stopped coming here when the Titanic sank. My home is open to Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, to Koreans, Vietnamese and to the Somalians and Eritreans who need a place to call home now. My home is a place that has an inside joke about high schools, but if you really think your high school means something special, then you aren't really in on the joke. My home is a mess of neighborhoods whose borders changed with highways. My home is called the Gateway, the most dangerous place, the worst place, a boring place, flyover country and so, so much worse, too. I don't care what others call it though. I don't care because it is my home. My home smells like beer and pretzels and that is how I like it.
Sometimes I read the local crime section of stltoday.com. I like to believe I only read it for entertainment. But I know there is a part of me that is doing it with a hint of fear of the city I love.
It's not until I left this city that I was able to find my love for the place. I think it's interesting how such an abstract idea as "city" can define such a complicated thing as life & existence. But that's exactly how it is: this place on a map has defined me in every way possible. Much like the way we don't choose our parents or color or sex, we don't choose the city we're born into. And yet, it defines every aspect of my life – even when I've tried to leave. I guess I could choose to love or hate the idea of St. Louis because of this, but instead it's something I have a pride about regardless of the positive or negatives that have come about. I have a solid idea of home, and that's something not everyone can claim to have.
You know what? I quit my job to pursue this thing called art and enjoy this beautiful day to stroll along Washington Avenue to see what area businesses supported local artists and designers by displaying their wares in their establishments. Before stumbling onto this project I was literally thinking to myself, "Why in the hell is STL not a freaking cultural mecca?"
It's time to get our shit together and make this a great place to live.
Dear STL: Be awesome. Find solutions to the issues that plague you. Maximize the passions of your people. Be like glue. Be sticky for those visit you. Don't let them leave. Why? Because you are awesome.
I have traveled the world. Been to India and Japan, to Paris, to Rome, to the ends of the Earth and back again. I have had love in my life and pain, I have reached ecstatic highs and suicidal lows, and here, today, I happen to be in St. Louis. For love. And what I know today, more than anything I know in the world, is that nothing is as real as love. Not fear, not pain, not ambition, not pride, not money, not success. Nothing is as real as love is. Because with love you can travel the world with someone's eyes, you can feel the highest highs with their breath, you can find power and strength in their words and you can attain the greatest success through their happiness. So since I am here for love today, St. Louis is as beautiful as the streets of Paris, as exotic as the mountains of India, as breathtaking as the ocean, and as vast as the sky. Today, I have love. Which means I have the universe contained in my tiny powerful heart.
In St. Louis, people are afraid to exit the highway. Literally and figuratively.
At some point back in the 1980s I talked my way into a choir that was singing Gabriel Fauré's "Requiem No. 1" for the funeral of a blind man at a north city church – Holy Trinity, I think it was. After mass I heard the choir director say of the priest: "I think he's my second cousin." That was the first time I realized how tightly this city is woven. Even though I'm north of the Mason-Dixon line, even though I'm in a big city, people here know their second cousins. Even though I don't have any relatives here – other than the family and wife I have planted – it makes me feel more at home to be living in the midst of lots of people who are related to each other.
Stodgy? No. Hip? Not exactly. Racist? Sometimes. Intelligent? Well, we've got a lot of colleges. Outdoorsy? Yes, as long as there's beer. So who are the St. Louisans? We are one. You can spot us in a New York crowd. We are wearing the sensible shoes. You can spot us at the nudist colony. We have our clothes on. You know us. We are big-hearted, fearful, laid-back middle America. We are the ones who never leave.Follow Riverfront Times on Facebook and Twitter.