A lot of us have been the annoying kid brother at some point in our lives, sometimes serving that role for folks who aren't kin. When I walked into the editorial department of the Riverfront Times, I was a nineteen-year-old intern from Webster University. At that point, in the late '80s, the paper was already an established media voice in St. Louis, a decade old and a very representative example of the alternative press movement that grew throughout American cities in the 1970s and '80s. Even if I was mostly compiling calendars, it was thrilling to be a part of that environment, around a solid group of seasoned, cranky journalists.
Gunning for a staff position from day one, I served as an intern for a second semester, gaining a few more clips and a bit of confidence. A staff job at the St. Louis Journalism Review emerged first, though, and I served in that role for the better part of a year before quitting to string for the RFT, an uncertain role that slowly, surely morphed into a full-time gig as a staff writer before I turned 23. Covering the culture beat — local music in particular — I was able to parley an interest in the arts into a real, live job. Arguably the best one I ever had and one that'd define me for years to come.
Looking back, I was too young for the role in some respects, too immature; my opinions regularly got the better of me when writing as a columnist. I'm thankful that most of that work — accompanied by a series of changing, foolish headshots — hasn't been uploaded to the web. But it was a sweet gig with great perks, and a job that I enjoyed for basically my entire twenties.
Looking back on those days, I can't help but remember the powerful role that downtown played in the paper's editorial bent. After a move from Lafayette Square, the RFT was housed on the ninth floor of a faded office building, the Shell, at 1221 Locust. Like much of downtown at the time, the Shell felt a bit worn, not unlike the neighborhood surrounding it. There, a few still-functioning warehouses and retail outlets reflected the area's history as a center of fashion and shoe manufacturing. Lots of empty space was the rule, and "Wash Ave" was steadily transitioning into a district of underground arts activity. As a twentysomething with more spirit and curiosity than cash, it was a great playground.
My first warehouse party took place at the loft of a Webster professor, Carol Hodson. My first pieces of art were purchased at the Sixth Floor Gallery. The first chef I got to know, Blake Brokaw, was populating multiple concepts in and around Wash Ave. Clubs came and went. Some of them, like 1227, provided lifelong memories; where else could a St. Louis kid see Nine Inch Nails and Screamin' Jay Hawkins? Isolated developments began to spring up in every direction of the Shell's home, and I recall killing time at work 'til showtime on dozens of nights, making the long walk to Laclede's Landing for shows at Mississippi Nights, or in the opposite direction, to rooms in western downtown like the Side Door Music Club or the Other World.
Then, as ever, it always felt as if the coolest rooms were created by the coolest people, independent of city planning and often doomed by funding that couldn't match ambition. That things felt just a little bit seedy and dangerous only added to the appeal.
With a staff of just nine writers and editors, I was called on to write more than music. I distinctly, tearfully recall hours spent in the microfiche room of the St. Louis Public Library, researching a cover story for editor Julie Lobbia, and covering the protest marches, rallies and media events that peppered downtown in those days. With page counts that routinely topped 100 pages an issue, seeing two, three, even four of your own bylines in any given issue wasn't a surprise. For a young writer in need of discipline, the endless content needs, even pre-internet, were a fantastic training device.
But the pace burned me out and, in a move that would predate other, ill-considered decisions, I left my staff job in 1997 to return to Webster University for video work. Only two classes later and dead-ass broke, I limped back to the RFT, a chastened role player with part-time pay and full-time clip expectations. It was a short-lived return and as Phoenix-based New Times bought the paper from Hartmann Publishing, the trajectory of my adult life shifted as I left again, and this time, not by choice. You never forget your first firing, and you're lucky if you learn from it.
My final byline as an RFT staffer was written in the Tivoli building, and it was a fine place to work, in a rapidly transitioning U. City Loop. But my memories come almost exclusively from the Shell.
On Mondays at noon, we'd wander from there to the Missouri Bar & Grill, a busy lunch spot in those days. Over sad sandwiches, we'd tackle that week's headlines, a task that was often (ably) handled by staff writer Richard Byrne Jr. and arts editors Cliff Froehlich and Daniel Durchholz. Not afraid to toss out clunkers, I did so, often. Occasionally, I'd hit on one, too, though those were infrequent wins. Already, though I didn't fully appreciate it, I was winning at life, an annoying kid given a seat at exactly the lunch table I desired.
Thomas Crone co-owns a bar, the Tick Tock Tavern, and still writes about local music and culture for, among others, the Riverfront Times.