The five posts that make up “Down by the River” were adapted from an essay I wrote for the Missouri Historical Society in 1997, after my week in St. Joseph painting my parents’ house. I think of that time now as my professional high point. I was editing a magazine, had two books published with my name on them, and was in the best work environment I’ve ever enjoyed.
Which is not to say that things went completely downhill when I left to join Ameren the next year or any of the other employers I’ve had since–it’s just to say that it was a good time, a time of feeling on top of the world.
When I think about that time and that essay now, and my ongoing efforts to write memoir-style pieces, I wonder how growing up in St. Joseph–a town that once had so much promise only to be felled by circumstance, history, and (in retrospect) bad choices–affected me, and why I felt such a strong need at eighteen to leave it and not go back.
The image of the Pony Express rider, going forward into the unknown with hope and courage, resonates with me. I could have stayed close to home–that’s what my mom wanted for me–but I chose not to stay. And, because she was my mother and indulged me in all my hobbies and fantasies and flights of fancy, she let me go.
Of course, I can’t say with a straight face that my moving to Kansas City, or Columbia, or St. Louis compares in any way with what the Pony Express riders endured during their ten or so days riding hard toward California, but symbolically, it’s similar.
I also feel the violence of my home town–the violence of having briefly lived down the street from where Jesse James was shot carried over into the violence I experience growing up in my idyllic Parkway neighborhood, the violence I saw at my schools and in my neighborhood and as a Boy Scout, violence against person and property. Some of this I’ve explored in Dead Things: A Triptych. Most of it is to come, when it’s time. I live in a violent place now, but as an adult. Then, I was sensitive and impressionable and fearful.
I also understand the ultimate futility of the Pony Express riders. Yes, they got the mail through, just as I have succeeded in publishing books, articles, and reviews with my name on them. But what does it mean in the end? A few dollars, modest recognition, a fleeting sense of accomplishment, and then … the loneliness of the writer.
The best I can say is that had I stayed in St. Joseph, I would not have had most of the experiences I’ve had, and I would not be who I am. Still intellectually curious, still drawn to the fringes of musical and artistic expression, still unsure of my identity as a person, as a writer, as a parent as a husband, but stifled–straining at my bridle like the horse in the statue, trying to move but constrained and guided with a bit in my mouth and a strap across my back.
I am better now, I tell myself, having left. Better for me, that is, because my better isn’t everyone’s better. A lot of my friends have made good lives in St. Joseph, and some have left and returned, reinvented, to breathe new life and perspectives into the community. I can’t picture that fully for myself, but when I go back, as I explore in Running Home and other pieces–when I hold the town up to the light and twist it just right, I can almost see it, can almost see where I fit in this long history. Almost.
But for now there is just me, now, and my little LLC and my little jobs and my little articles. All together, maybe it’s not so little, and anyway, there’s a lot more to do.