Fart cars, stifling humidity, casual bigotry and fast food
Or, What’s not to love about this suburban corner of Missouri?
I feel stuck here. As if I didn’t choose to be here to take care of my father, as if I don’t choose it again day after day. But there’s a noisy part of me that questions that choice every day, too. I didn’t want to live here even when I did, and “choosing” it in this way really rankles.
Where is “here”? It’s a suburb – albeit a remote one – of St. Louis, Missouri, where I was born.
When I was a kid, we lived not far from where I am today. It was a neighborhood like a million others: ranch houses, a fifteen-minute walk to school, and a local civic center with an outdoor ice rink and annual Fourth of July fireworks. Where I was a little kid clog-dancing and chasing my dog, Sugar, and learning how to grow carrots and watermelons, where I found out that kids could be mean, where I built snowmen and learned to swim and play ping pong. It wasn’t all bad, and it wasn’t all that good – it was just the water I swam in. Where Dad was Dad and Mom was Mom, and my siblings were my godparents.
But our family also had Colorado – where most of us (but not me) were born, and where all our extended family lived. Both my mom’s and my dad’s families were from small towns on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, and every July we road-tripped to Colorado to visit all those aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. During the year, some of them came to visit us. I came to learn that we were a family displaced. Dad’s job had brought him to Missouri, and I was born here. But we were supposed to go back to Colorado to stay. It was the everpresent family imperative: our happy ending was not in Missouri.
Everything was good in Colorado – better summer weather (no humidity!), family get-togethers, mountains, and Coors beer. (That last one was not my idea. Don’t @ me.) Someday, our family would find a way to return to Colorado forever. The Big Reuniting. It was the Culver collective dream.
Eventually, we all did move back to Colorado – except Dad. He stayed in Missouri because he had started his own business and it was beginning to succeed. Today, I can understand that Dad didn’t want to start over in Colorado, and I don’t blame him – but at the time I couldn’t see that. He built his business, joined the St. Louis Jazz Club, found his partner, and rooted himself in another neighborhood, not twenty miles from the one where I grew up – but 1,000 miles from where I was.
So today, I’m stuck in sweltering St Peters, nursing my litany of complaints. Though I say I’m in “St. Louis,” it’s not – at least that would be multi-culti, historic, interesting. No, it’s the ‘burbs, in all their sprawly and lily-white glory.
Quite the opposite
Let’s get this out of the way right quick: Missouri is not famous for its tolerance or progressiveness. Quite the opposite. The state is feebly represented in the U.S. Senate by the runaway cretin Josh Hawley and his raised-fist performative masculinity. The state is trying to pass a law outlawing gender-affirming care. And I’d hate to count the episodes of casual racism I’ve stumbled upon. The number might be even higher if there were actually any people of color – but it feels like an unwholesome version of Leave It To Beaver arrived in 2023 and immediately went out and put a bunch of offensive bumper stickers on their too-big vehicles.
Missourians voted for, and still defend, the asterisk president. They’re not me and I’m not them and I don’t really want to be in their midst, where a simple conversation can turn into an argument. The other day at the gym a lady tried to read my shirt, which is in Arabic. It’s really beautiful – my nicest t-shirt. I don’t know what the words mean, and I couldn’t answer her pointed question on that topic. She put her hands on her hips and said, “Well, I hope it’s not Ally-hoo AkBAR,” and went on to tell everyone within earshot how terrorists use that phrase when they’re blowing up Christians.
It was a class and this woman didn’t stop talking, so I heard more of her story. Turns out she worked as a manager in a university laboratory for decades. Several of the unrequested vignettes she shared – she never let anyone else get a word in edgewise – were about her time with university students and scientists. She told everyone how she heard two “black” students (she whispered the word “black”) say they were quitting school to go have babies and not have to work, which she extrapolated to say that “all” the black students she came across were like that. That wasn’t her only whispered reference to “black” people, either. All this in fewer than fifteen minutes.
Maybe the other women were as surprised and appalled as I was. No one said anything – supporting or refuting – and I just ran out as soon as the class was over. I keep wishing I had told her to shut her mouth. I felt blindsided but next time I’ll be ready. This is a loathesome place for many reasons, not least of which is when it exposes my own failings. Why didn’t I say anything???
We have plenty of reason to be angry on the roads here in suburbia. There’s this weird middle lane that people turn into and out of, but everyone has their own rule about how it works. There are so many businesses and churches and old folks’ homes and drive-thru banks to turn into, you can easily end up facing someone in that middle lane and neither of you can get where you want to go. This aged suburb somehow has more than its fair share of speeding in residential zones, aggressive turning and red-light-running, and a near-complete absence of turn signals. Do they think they’re doing Dakar?
As a cyclist, it’s even worse. Drivers here are unaccustomed to bicycles. There are these short but beautiful footpaths I can take along one of a dozen little creeks – but that doesn’t get me anywhere when I’m using the bike to commute. There is no choice: if you want to go to the library, the coffee shop, Dad’s facility, or any other destination via a bicycle, you have to brave the sidewalks.
Not that there are any pedestrians in the way. I bet I see one person walking every two weeks, maybe less. The problem is that it’s all entries and exits – and since the drivers aren’t looking for walkers or bikers, they don’t see us. It’s a slog up and down broken, angled, interrupted sidewalks that at the same time requires Constant Vigilance to avoid getting squashed like a bug.
Fart cars and other egregious automotive excess
Why do people think it’s cool to have a car that sounds like it’s farting? Loudly? Why are people in this suburb obsessed with being able to step on the gas – in the midst of unending sloggy traffic – and regale everyone with their blasting, growly, obnoxious engine noise? (Dakar again? Are all these people frustrated adventure-seekers? Or are the penises just that small here?) It’s not always, but it is most often, trucks. Big stupid ponderous trucks – from 20 years old to 20 minutes off the lot – that are ready for a smash-up derby, or for shoring up weak personalities, but not much good for anything else. People are just generally over-vehicled here. It’s one-person, one-car, in massive machines whose combined weight merits a giant, state-wide sinkhole.
As bad as this is on so many levels, it’s even worse for bicyclists. Every ride is all the more precarious because these behemoths spurting fumes and sounds and not watching where they’re going surround us. My Resting Bike Face is nastier than ever.
Hot max summer
When I was a kid, I spent all my summers right here. I guess Dad wants me to have another summer here (or more?!) before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Except, with global warming, not to mention post-menopause, it’s worse than I remember. First thing in the morning – not my natural time of day anyway – it’s already hot and sticky. Late at night it doesn’t cool off. It’s just hot as hell, and the humidity just settles it on you like a hot wet blanket you can’t shake.
The weather is arguably what makes it so green – providing those nice (if too short) bike paths I talked about above.
Lots of green, loads of it, but also bugs. Whining bugs laying down the summer soundtrack, and gnats in swarms. Minuscule ants that coat the concrete in every direction from the house, as if waiting for an invitation to enter. Fat black beetles, and million-footed creepy crawlies, even in Dad’s assisted living facility. Worst of all are the bjillions of mosquitoes and no-see-ums (no, I did not make that name up) and ticks.
Blech. Hot sticky buggy yuck.
I grew up hearing that little things mean a lot. But it’s not true in this neighborhood. Mom-n-Pop shops or restaurants are non-existent. It’s all the biggest chain restaurants and mostly fast food. There’s a place called Culver’s Butterburgers, and I get a kick out of telling people that I’m the Butterburger heiress. But who can eat like this constantly? Burger, taco, pizza, sandwich; repeat. So instead I try to cook.
But I think my negative mood even spoils my cooking. My meals don’t come out like I plan. The butchers here won’t pound a chicken breast for you like they did in Tunis, the nearest farmer’s market is miles and miles away, and all the produce is imported from Chile. (Nothing personal, Chile. You’re fine. But we’re in the freakin’ heartland. You’d think farmers would be lining up to sell us their wares.) There is just one brand of parmesan cheese at the local grocery store, but that brand comes in 11 different formats. It’s a strikingly Tunisian way of filling a grocery store shelf.
There is nothing like riding your bike around a suburban corner and finding a phalanx of landscapers arrayed in front of you riding on mowing machines and wielding rocket-launcher trimmers and blowers like Mad Max with a gardening jones. Every day I watch convoys of trailers driving into Dad’s one-entrance suburban development, fanning out down the quaintly-named streets (Constellation Hill! Suncrest Drive! Dogwood Lane! Shagbark (!) Drive! Gailwood Drive – is that a buildder trying to get in good with someone? Orchard Hills! And Donner Pass – an unexpected reference to cannibalism I can’t begin to unpack.) They make ungodly amounts of noise when all that landscaping machinery is riled up, and make rapacious mincemeat of the lawns at all four points of the compass, then shoulder everything back into its transport and onto the next block.
Am I wrong or is there an obesity epidemic in this country? WHY are these people not mowing their own lawns? Or at least having the neighbor’s kid do it for Character Building? (For the record, that’s what happens here at our address.) Does the toting of machinery on even heavier, larger machines sound like a colossal waste of gas to anyone besides me? And if you move to the suburbs, aren’t you doing it – at least in part – for the joy of living on your little parcel and making it look like the other parcels so you can feel like you’re in a neighborhood? I thought people loved their grassy lawns and vegetable gardens and swingsets and shade trees. How and when did this go so horribly wrong?
What I hate most about being here
Dad seems miserable, and it’s just the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced. I guess life has to be this awful to make someone as vibrant and lively as Dad want to head to the next one.
This is not the kind of post I usually write. I tend to be pretty peppy. Who wants to relive their unhappy moments by typing them out and sharing them with their nearest and dearest? Not me. But this post has been percolating in my mind for a while now. Maybe I think by putting it on paper and laughing at it, I can purge how shitty everything seems.
But the closer I get to the end of the post, the more I see why none of it is going to look all that rosy, no matter how much purging I do here. Dad’s old and sick, and suffering, and I’m with him to see all the little painful bits of it. Today has been a particularly rotten day, as he seems suddenly to have lost his ability to hold some of his own weight up. So each transfer to bedside potty or wheelchair is heavy freaking lifting. I can’t rely on him to do what he did even yesterday. The day is coming when we will have to get more help, and I fear that’s in the form of skilled nursing care. That’s just too horrible to contemplate, but I think we better think about it and quick.
Where’s my silver lining? What am I learning? Maybe learning the reality of death or mortality or something. I’ve heard you should always look on the bright side of life.
Unconscionable bright sides
It’s horrendous that I’m writing this on the worst possible weekend, with Dad enormously agitated, running us around like his orderlies or his butlers except he’s miserable so we don’t really think he’s getting a kick out of it. When we talk to him he seems to understand what he’s doing. But literally five seconds later he has forgotten all we talked about, and he’s making no sense, and he wants… something, can’t say what, but he’s unhappy and he can’t relax and he can’t bear it, and he carries us right along with him into his lost-ness. A point is coming when we won’t be able to lift him, to care for him, anymore. But we will push that day back until Dad wears us down to nubbins.
There can be, and there should be, no bright sides. It would be unconscionable. But…
There are fireflies.
Also there are rainstorms at night – why are they always at night? – and they are incredible. Right now it sounds like we’re under a fast-moving river. There’s an incessant pounding glug-glug-glug splatter-splatter-whoosh outside until it ramps up to a roar when the rain gutters fill and overflow. How can something so noisy feel so peaceful and reassuring?
Riding my bike on those bug-choked paths.
The crew at the local Starbucks – they’ve been so kind to me. I mean, it’s just a Starbucks, right? Why would that matter? It absolutely matters, and those lovely people matter.
Learning more about Dad’s past – specifically his navy years. I can’t get over the impression he and his buddies are going to break out in song when I look at these pictures.
My brother, my ditzy, lovable, silly, heartfelt, lionhearted, heartbroken Superman of a brother. Our sister is here with us too – physically she has to work in Alaska but emotionally she’s riding my shoulder, dove-like, cooing empathy in my ear, telling us we’re doing okay, even when we’re pretty sure we’re not. My auntie, Dad’s sister, who we talk with every day. My brilliant adorable niece, who pops into my world with a manbun joke text, just because.
And our darling stepsister and step-cousin and step-auntie. So much love and support and even laughs – they’re the ones who know Dad like we do, and love him because.
Dad’s buddies, a crew of lunatic insurance salesmen who invite us out to lunch every couple of weeks among other generosities.
My whole extended family – including chosen family – supporting me bigtime from afar. They don’t know what their words mean, but it’s like a cold glass of water in the shade to hear from them.
I can’t mention bright sides without a shout-out to Salt + Smoke BBQ, which is a freaking revelation.
Cardinals – not the baseball team, the actual bird. Nothing like seeing their red streaks dart across the path ahead of me. To date I’ve not been fast or stealthy enough to catch a picture of one.
And we have our laugh-out-loud moments. One is when Dad says, “That’s enough philosophy” to get us to stop wiping his bottom. “That’s enough philosophy: is a phrase he used approximately one billion times over the years to cut off his own rambling discussions of politics and what’s wrong with the world. Now it just comes out of him from old familiar habit.