In just a little while, I will be heading off to the west side, Creve Coeur to be exact, to see my older friend Larry for breakfast. Larry and I got into this routine shortly after we both moved back to St. Louis from California. I am pretty certain that Larry is an alcoholic. An alcoholic with a broken heart. But, as is the norm with such things here in Missouri we don’t talk about it. That’s one of the main reasons I returned here.
Creve Coeur, the French word for broken heart, got its name from the nearby lake shaped like the severed halves of a giant piece of Valentine candy. No one knows for sure just how much older Larry is, and no one remembers him ever being in a significant relationship except with his things in his enormous prairie gothic home hugged by cottonwood trees and dusty rose bearded irises. I have come to enjoy our weekly Saturday breakfasts – never to be confused with brunch – and spending time with Larry in his household of oddities.
Larry’s home is filled with objects and art that are so much more telling and interesting than the Spartan hovels of my California friends who put an emphasis instead of splattering you with the debris of their tedious rococo emotions. Larry is probably the most knowledgeable person living within 100 miles of the Mississippi River on the topic of Pariah Dogs. He has owned four Carolina dogs and has had three varieties of dingoes. He currently has a Korean Nureongi named Kiaga whose provenance he can trace two generations back to Jindo Island. Every morning, Larry rises at 4:47 a.m. to prepare radish leaves marinated in tamarind and almond oil paired with prairie pheasant pate that he serves Kiaga at precisely 6:14 a.m. when she rises for her morning routine.
Through the years, Larry has procured an incredible range of beloved treasures. Not only his collection of hand painted Croatian rosetta-Azervian porcelain tea saucers with silver-leaf filigree but also thousands of images of penguins in top hats. He has painting of Emperor penguins wearing jewelled top hats and clutching scepters while holding court on thrones made of ice. He has three dozen oil paintings of Peruvian Humbodlt Penguins wearing Aymaran scarves and crowned with brown Vicuna top hats. He has Dadaist takes on the Munsingwear penguin wearing a top hat and dancing with a female penguin dressed to resemble Ginger Rogers.
He has a separate, smaller room with a door hidden within the floor to ceiling bookcase dedicated to the incredibly rare desert penguins, the last known one becoming extinct when taken into captivity by the Belgian explorer Luc Henri Jacvateur in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in 1743. Jacvateur, who was also an unscrupulous promoter, put the penguin on display in Antwerp at the National Museum of Painted Porcelain Tea Saucers and Flightless Birds where it suffered through its first winter in the Northern Hemisphere finding warmth from only a tiny fireplace 40 feet away from its cage. It perished before Christmas arrived, and Jacvateur immediately called in a taxidermist and continued to put the poor departed creature on display at the museum and eventually in muddy provincial Flemish outposts where peasants threw rotten at his spectacle and clamored for belly dancers.
Larry’s tastes and interests suggest that he is a cultural and anthropological omnivore, but once someone made the incredible faux pas of giving him a mug with a penguin in a porkpie hat. He was polite but dismissive, clarifying that his tastes in penguin millinery is exclusive to canvas and top hats, not pork pie hats and ceramics. This is testament to Larry’s opulent restraint. While he has an enormous collection it is focused on very specific aspects of his points of interest. For example, while he has hundreds of images of Galapagos penguins wearing top hats, he has no interest in the research of Darwin on these flightless birds or the larger arc of male millenary.
Once I asked Larry why he had such seemingly narrow and specific interests and he responded that in the cultural buffet one must approach acquisitions this way to avoid collector obesity.
Like me, Larry grew up in Saint Louis and returned after living on both coasts for decades. Though we both lived in San Francisco from the 1990s onward, we had lost track of each other until we returned to Saint Louis a couple of years ago. Many people dismiss St. Louis as a cultural backwater, but Larry is quick to point out that it is the birthplace of William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis and T.S. Elliott. San Francisco is the birthplace of Carol Channing and Alicia Silverstone.
Though we both miss the cool summers in San Francisco, we are glad to be in a place that has a proper winter. Although it gets a little bit cool and rainy in San Francisco during the winter it doesn’t get cold and never has a proper freeze. We both feel that is one of the problems with its people. Every city needs a good freeze to kill off the muck lingering in the air.
And there is a lot of human muck in the air in San Francisco, much of it coming from the whine industry. No, I am not talking about viticulture but whine with an h. There is an entire subculture and multi-million dollar industry of whining. Millions of dollars are wasted each year on group therapy and retreats and encounter groups where people sit in circles and whine, whine, whine about how depressed they are. People share their every emotion, every heartbreak, every phobia individually and in groups. People whine about how depressed they are about how their anti-depressants aren’t working and that leads to the people listening to start questioning the effectiveness their own anti-depressants and start wasting their own time and money on the whine industry or throw thousands of dollars to go to a pointless weekend workshop on discovering their shadow self in the shadows of redwoods in some mountain retreat.
When these people ask me if I get depressed or if people in St. Louis do not get depressed, I say that we are no less prone to it than anyone else. But people never talk about it here. “Well how to you handle it?” they ask. “You snap out of it!” I reply.
People in San Francisco waste so much time talking about their feelings or wanting to know about your feelings. Nobody in St. Louis talks about or asks about feelings. We live by the adage referenced in a lyric by the Staple Singers bassist and patriarch Roebuck Staples: “You ask me how I feel; I feel with my hands.”
Larry feels with his hands, I am certain, but when I visit him we never talk about how we feel or how other people feel since we can find so many more upbeat and interesting topic than emotions. Well, that is except for one of our friends whom I will call Brandon even though if anyone were ever to read this they would know I’m talking about Matt. Brandon is very emotional and always talks about his tedious, boring emotions. Brandon has never lived in California, but he is always changing his anti-depressants, none of which seem to do the job.
We’re all worried about his morbidity and eating habits. Brandon is over 45 and eats pancakes. One night we went to dinner and Brandon had pancakes as his meal, at the 7:45 p.m. and at the age of 47. Pancakes. He also eats bread. He is the only person over 40 I know that eats bread. And he also eats cookies, doughnuts and pork. We know that his depression is related to his blood sugar and wretched eating habits, but of course we never talk about it. Except when he’s not around.
Larry has been vegetarian since I have known him, but not in an annoying holistic lifestyle way. Larry comes from a long line of Adventists. As a child he lived with his family in Cameroon where they were missionaries, but rumor has it that his family was there to secretly oversea a huge network of plantations, though no one gossips in St. Louis about such things. Ironically, when they returned from Africa, his family made their fortune through with dairy and cattle ranches in western Illinois though they never consumed animal products. Larry’s family would – who had connections going back to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg – would never consume a sacred cow but had no problems benefitting from the profits of others doing so.
Though he gave up on the dogma and supernatural aspects of Adventism as a teen, Larry still holds steadfastly to vegetarianism and other routines and rituals. Both Larry and I would describe ourselves as religious but not spiritual, fond of still staying grace as a pleasant but meaningless routine before our meals. It does nothing to bless nor nourish our bodies by saying those words provides a graceful pause before the meal.
I continue to attend mass each Sunday at Trinity Episcopal not for any spiritual nourishment but for the music, architecture and fashion. It’s also a calm, pleasant place to balance my checkbook and check my to do lists without the distraction of the phone and emails. Brandon, however, has lately been going to a series of spiritual retreats held in a yurt on the shore of the Lake of the Ozarks, seeking a shaman to exorcise his eating disorders and depression. Every now and then Brandon’s name will come up in the discussions Larry and I are having but we never speak of him, leaving our judgment of him to rest in the silence that is interrupted by a discussion of a favorite Frank O’Hara poem.
Larry, I am sure, has his secrets that fortunately he never shares and I have no interest in knowing. Earlier this year I was having duck confit with mango chutney at a bistro off Lafayette Square when I saw Larry disheveled and drunk stumbling down Walnut Avenue. As I patted my mouth with a prairie storm green linen napkin, he spotted me spotting him and our eyes locked in a fraction of a second of blank recognition, a silent understanding that neither of us would ever mention nor acknowledge that we had shared this moment.
Once Larry had disappeared, I happily returned to my meal, able to blot out this moment, hoping that Larry made his way home but respecting his dignity too much to check that he made it back to Creve Couer safely. A couple of days later we had our regular Saturday breakfast , and it was as if the earlier incident had never happened. As usual, we sat down at precisely 8:15 a.m. after he had walked and fed Kiaga who watched us politely and obediently on her glen plaid bed across from the dining room by the fireplace in the study. Like a good Missourian, she watched and took it all in without making a comment.