24 Hours in The Gateway City (USA Day 39)
So, 4th July. In every other country in the world, this day is known as Thursday. Here, however, the shops close, the grills turn on, the touch papers light up and the whole nation has a balls-out celebration. You can’t blame them: I wouldn’t like to live in a country ruled by the British. Perish the thought.
We awoke to the hottest morning since National Furnace Day, and made the best of it by standing in the sun for hours. St Louis has this insane parade: a procession of nationalism and tradition broadcast on telly to the entire Midwest, featuring beauty contest winners waving atop sports cars, the city’s newest fire engines blasting spectators with confetti cannons, various floats with themed dancers: diners, tropical islands, jazz clubs and so on, inflatable Optimus Prime and Yankee Doodle (the obvious choice), all flanked by costumed folks handing out copious handfuls of candy. Knowing how many calories we need on any given day on those roads, we accepted them heartily. Behind all horse-drawn floats came the ‘Ecology Units’, which consisted of grumpy men shovelling horse manure back up. Those were my favourite floats. Between each of these marched a high-school band in dungarees and hats, stamping rhythmically, this odd mixure of military precision and artistic flair. First came the banner-holders, then the flag-wavers, then the conductors, then the flutes, clarinets and so on in ascending order of size, ending invariably with Very Cool Drum Boys. We gather that marching bands are a huge aspect of high-school life, especially for those who don’t play sports or cheer for them. Honestly, if given the opportunity I’d have climbed inside a sousaphone and got in line, though the moves looked pretty sharp and we didn’t see a single marcher from thousands out of step. Not one.
This all sounds great, and it was, but by far the best ingredient to this feast of Americana was the announcer who, despite being broadcast all the way down the miles-long boulevard, seemed to treat his PA system as a director’s-chair-come-stage-manager-intercom.
“And here comes Miss Missouri now. Isn’t she beautiful, everybody? Hang on, don’t send the car without Miss Missouri. Can someone find Miss Missouri? No, Dave, hold the tractors. HOLD THE TRACTORS DAVE. Right, here’s the Beaver Creek High-School Marchi-Slow down please. Someone slow down Beaver Creek. Thirty second gap behind the ecology unit, please, Beaver Creek. Where are the fire engines? Fire engines, you’re next. Who’s that man on the route? Steve, get that man. Get him, Steve.”
I love that announcer. Apparently he’s done every parade for the last forty years, and I can totally see why.
As our bodies melted in the humid Missouri sun, we staggered through central St Louis looking for breakfast, with two main obstructions: St Louis’ town centre has been through some serious urban decay, and any shops that would have been open weren’t because, well, Independence Day. Eventually we found one with the intelligence to be open, and shared the space with the rest of the thirsty city, all of whom had had the same idea as us.
Once the sun had faded we joined thousands of revellers under St Louis’ famous and quite breath-taking arch, where a handsome country singer sung limited melodies over four chords, basically. We all waited until it was dark enough for fireworks, at which point the singer was swept off-stage pronto and the explosions began, all accompanied by more country music, but this time with lyrics featuring regular mentions of freedom, eagles, cornfields and blue jeans. No doubt it was a spectacle, and fully worth the scrum to leave and the long walk home, but once the crowds had faded, the realities of this struggling city reared their ugly heads again. Empty lot after empty lot lined the streets, with a crumbling city hall that looked like a haunted mansion. Halfway we changed our minds and waited for a bus by a gas station that served its string of customers through a grille, then joined a cast of dodgy characters on a bus, one of whom, who introduced himself at different points as both ‘Billy’ and ‘The Investigator’, spoke so quietly that even he couldn’t hear, and showed me a small folder full of tiny scribbles and photocopies so terrifying that I had to look away. When I asked where he was going, he shrugged and said he’d ‘probably have to kick a door down tonight’.
Glad to report, it wasn’t ours, and we slept comfortably, if not happily.