Home Away From Home

written April 19, 2012



I’ve been on a home hunt for about a week.  The Gallery on Washington,  a St. Louis apartment complex on the admittedly dodgy far-east side of the tony Central West End neighborhood, was my first track.  I found a picked-over efficiency apartment carcass for over $700 (large enough for either myself or my cat Payton, but not both).  The desert-like urban environment and common car break-ins called off the dogs.

  The Central West End

 Yet through Craigslist I slowly compiled a list of tasty possibilities appeared a) modest yet inviting b)  in a desirable location with nearby accommodations and attractions c) cheap.  Three neighborhoods were on my wish list: Dogtown, Forest Park generally, and South Grand with its long, leafy Tower Grand Park.

Today I ended my St. Louis search.

 I didn’t think it would be so easy, or derived from luck.  But first how to get into Missouri?  A call to Al’s Transmission in Edwardsville confirmed nearly the worst:  the Chrysler 300 would require six times that amount to be fixed.  Sadly, I gave them the go-ahead.  Meanwhile, Enterprise promised to pick me up soon after 8 am.  A white Humvee instead of a starship belatedly ferried me to their Glen Carbon franchise.  Rental cars have been quite common to me in the last six months.  Between the Cutlass’ death rattle on Illinois 157 just north of Collinsville High School, and the suicidal deer’s meeting of my just-bought 300 (all happening in October), I was familiar with the process.

Maybe another fun new Ford Focus from the first experience, or a Chevy Malibu like the venison episode!  Something compact and zippy for the congested St. Louis streets—

“We have a Dodge Grand Caravan for you, Mr. Carlson.”  A pause.  I had never driven such a beast before.  Yes, as a small child I had ridden an elephant at Brookfield Zoo, but that was it.  Was the heavily hair-gelled man certain?  Nothing else?  I was told there could be a trade-in available to an economy car by the evening.  With trepidation I walked out to the just-washed van and hoisted myself in.

After some errand swings around town I finally left town by ten.  Veering onto the interstate towards Missouri, I continually calculated how much time I would have before my background check in Florissant at 1:30.  Two, perhaps three tours were possible?

The first step was to find Apartment Exchange on Big Bend Road.  Rush hour was easing around me, Garmin leading me the entire way.  Finally finding the tucked-away office building, I asked for the key to a Dogtown apartment I prized.  “Here’s another you might like,” a lady offered.  “It’s on Magnolia.” I hesitated a moment, considering my present commitments, and took the second set as well.

Before either could be inspected I had an appointment on a street called Mardel in Southtown.  From Chippewa I eased onto Lindenwood, then turned right at the corner of what looked like a fun international restaurant, then a final right.  Slowly inspecting house numbers, I finally called.  The brick homes were tightly together, along the constricted street, with a few people taking it east on my porches.  I could hear far off sirens and horns blasts, but did not seem out of the St. Louis ordinary.

This being my first showing, I asked lots of questions as I checked out closets and running water.  “So, what can you tell me about the neighborhood?”  “It’s pretty much what you’ll find anywhere in the city,” the guy tried, using words to not say anything.  It was okay, basic, and could hopefully be improved upon.  I told him I would let him know.  If the area had one selling point—and it did seem singular—it was a coffee place called The World Cafe a block away.  I immediately could see myself reading on a couch, or writing lesson plans in it’s rear study area.  Unfortunately, coffee shouldn’t factor into a move.

Ahead of schedule, I made my way over Chippewa onto Grand, finally to a leafy green neighborhood with untold more charm and character than Mardel. While also adjacent to a gem of a Victorian park I had once visited.  The bustling main thoroughfare boasted Thia hole-in-the-walls, the smell Afghani spices cooking in small cafes, and bookstore called Dunaways that seems to have hoarded thousands of books from the early twentieth-century in its tidy yet slightly ramshackle shelves.

Parking along Magnolia, I grabbed the 342A keys.  I skipped by the stone steps, and inserted one into the lock.  With a turn I entered and peered up a good number of stairs and a detailed stained glass window above.  Creak, creak, creak, sounded the old boards beneath my feet.  Unexpectedly, the stairs turned right from a small landing, until, a few more stairs, I had reached the second floor.  I was amazed.  Someone—but surely not I—was going to get a great apartment.  The main rooms were open, light, and airy, with lots of windows for sunshine, the floors all hardwood.  I was drawn to the brick fire place, and the twin stained glass windows framing it.  It would make a wonderful living room, while the second half could be a European café-styled dining room.  Through a hallway I found a modest, promising bathroom to the left, and then an inviting, functional kitchen, with a large glass cabinet and vine-wrapped view overlooking the back property and Tennessee Avenue.  There was more still—a tiny add-on that would be the perfect office, windows everywhere.  The bedroom was relatively large; I could see all the way from the far back add-on to the front, and it seemed immense.

I laughed at the Galley on Washington’s joke as I quickly dialed Apartment Exchange.  I had looked at the listing’s papers, but wanted to make sure it was real.  “No, that’s the rent,” a voice told me.  “Five hundred seventy-five a month.  Alright, it was really double my current shared rent on Esic Drive with my roommate Doug, but I knew a good place would fall within this range.  Not wasting another second, I let it be known I was very interested in this Magnolia place.  Taking a few pictures and a moment longer to dwell, I quickly had to drive to see the Dogtown apartment.

Dogtown itself has a lot going for it.  It’s one of the safest, quietest parts of the city, with a few restaurants, and best of all is just across from Forest Park’s great museums, zoo, and bike trails.  I’ve even seriously doubted whether I can make this leap across the Mississippi for any less a neighborhood.  This particular dwelling, along Oakland and only yards from Turtle Park, had that key ingredient: location.  The living room was much smaller than on Magnolia, and nearly street-level compared to the other’s height.  Then I saw the kitchen I first mistook for a closet.  The stove had only two burners, the sink looked like something from The Jungle, and there was no counter space.  I simply couldn’t see entertaining here, or wanting anyone to come over.  Dogtown was a raw bust.  But no matter, I had to get to my electronic fingerprinting appointment.

Why?  Modern teaching certifications have to go meet individual state standards, which includes background checks.  After my first Missouri attempt at a back-ground check, a mailed-in police printing was “lost” by MorphoTrust USA, I was told it would be much easier to go the technological route.  I probably didn’t choose the best way, winding through North St. Louis along Martin Luther King and its many terminal, crumbling buildings, but it was good to see another side of perhaps my future home.

I finally found the Florissant MorphoTrust office just before 1:30.  Surreal does not begin to describe what I found.  The door was hard to open, but with effort it gave way.  For my effort a banshee-ish alarm was sounded, then finally ended.  Um, hello…?  A small, empty yet hectic waiting room came to my view.  There could not have been more than fifty square feet combined.  Uncommonly loud jazz music resonated from a small grey boom box in the corner.  Everywhere I looked there were intimidating signs, screaming “STOP!”  or “DO NOT ENTER!”  Instructions on walls, doors, and tables.  One told me to buzz a button, then sit down.  There was no receptionist.   I took a plastic seat.  A camera eyed me from the top right corner of the room as I tried to look normal.

A few minutes passed.  A lady then appeared, telling me to follow her.  She led to a room where the finger printing would finally be done.  I am not certain she was paying attention, though, as Maury Povich drama played out from a TV on her desk.  It took a few times for the computer to work and record my prints.  I was nervous at this point, haven spent the last month waiting on something that was lost.  She gave me a receipt to Jefferson City with.  I asked for a second one.  Then I was gone, through the crazed vertigo room, and out the screaming door.  Dear God.

I had until five to return the keys, but I really needed to fly back to Apartment Exchange so I could put my name in for Magnolia.  I was so hopeful and excited, yet knew a serious roadblock would be in my way—they’d want to know how I would pay for it.  And a sub’s salary might not impress them.  They suggested a co-signer once I arrived, but it would mean having Mom and Dad come all the way down to be in person.  That should be avoided.  When they asked how much I had in savings I came up with a sum of “around $2,000.”  It seemed that this might be enough for them.  Hopping back into the trusty van, I sped back to Bank of America.  A check for $2,000 had been deposited the previous day, in order to resuscitate my car.  My plan was to quickly transfer this over to savings via their website; Mom thought it an acceptable idea as well.  A teller in Edwardsville then printed out a statement and authenticated it.  With this slip in hand I went to campus, and scanned it then emailed Apartment Exchange from the library.  I walked out of Lovejoy library that night fairly confident I would be approved, and went home to investigate more about this Tower Grove East.

I learned it was first French land, and then an lesser extension of the German mansions in Compton Heights along its northern border.  Tower Grove Park was dedicated in 1868, and stretched to over 300 acres.  Rough times had befallen the area, but a “weed and seed” program, as well as an active association, had brought life back to Tower Grove East in the last decade.  Shaped sort of like a isosceles triangle balanced on its point, the far northwest section were I am to (maybe) be looks to be the safest.  Going east past Compton or south beyond Wyoming could be sketchy.  It has a few hidden away eateries like Van Goghz,  The Shaved Duck, and Riley’s Pub.  88.1, St. Louis’ independent music station is just two blocks away!  And there is a converted stage troupe called the Stray Dog Theatre.  I have been told by more than one person, most lately being Kavita, that the Grand area would suit me.  I can already feel like this could be home.


For the next chapter of this story, you can read “The Island Within a Maze”

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