In the picture, I am 22 years old. It is Sunday, July 4, 1988. My girlfriend at the time took it.
We had spent the weekend at the Coral Court, a famous, Art Deco, no-tell-motel “motor-court” on Watson Road, which follows part of the old Route 66 in St. Louis County. We checked in Saturday afternoon after meeting her at her friend’s apartment in University City. I don’t remember if we parked her little silver car in the garage attached to our room or not. The Coral Court was a notorious site of crime and scandal, but we were rank crime and scandal amateurs.
We couldn’t even get into proper trouble. That night after dinner, we bought fruit and ice cream at a grocery store, but we had no spoons. We went out in search of spoons, and decided to stop at Jack in the Box on the corner of Watson and Laclede Station Road for drinks. I was driving. Turning left off Watson onto Laclede Station, I didn’t notice the road was divided by a median, and I turned into the north-bound lane instead of the south-bound lane, going the wrong way. Flashing lights–a cop pulled us over. He laughed at us, two stone-cold sober kids, freshly and frequently laid, and let us off with a warning.
Chagrined but safely back in the room, we found Bob Dylan starring in the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid on the hotel’s ancient TV, which barely picked up the local stations. We watched our hero’s furrowed brow do the acting for him between scrolling horizontal bars. The next morning, Sunday, July 4, she bought me breakfast at Denny’s and we went to Forest Park.
I have other photos from that day in the park. In one, I am rowing a canoe on Post-Dispatch Lake, looking like the cover of Field and Stream magazine. In another, I am studying the brochure from the St. Louis Art Museum. Inside the museum, a passer-by captured us standing in front of Monet’s Water Lilies. We are barely visible because of the lighting, but you can see her dress flowing into the painting; even the colors are right. She got another poorly lit shot of me in front of Chuck Close’s painting Keith–my dad’s name. Chuck Close died on August 20, 2021–my dad’s birthday.
But in that statue picture–with “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” scrawled above me, and my sunglasses, and my wristwatch, and my plain white T-shirt, not a fashion shirt from the Gap or something, but a Fruit of the Loom undershirt–I am struck not by how I got there, but by what would flow from that day; which is to say, all the things I did not know when my girlfriend snapped her camera.
This summer, I spent two months reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. In its most famous scene the narrator eats a cookie–a “madeleine”–dipped in tea, and it sets off a flood of memories and associations that fill not only the rest of Swann’s Way, but also the other six volumes of his massive work, In Search of Lost Time.
The climax of the madeleine scene starts like this:
“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madelein dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and had to put off to much later discovering why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street, where her bedroom was, came like a stage set to attach itself to the little wing opening on the garden that had been built for my parents behind it . . .”
The madeleine scene takes place on page 48, at the end of chapter 1. Chapter 2, by comparison–which includes the explanation of the novel’s title and the story of the narrator’s mostly unrequited, prepubescent love for the young daughter of the family’s Combray neighbor, M. Swann–ends at page 191. The next 250 pages are turned over to Part II. It tells another love story, about M. Swann and a woman named Odette–and it is a story that could not possibly have been fueled by the madeleine, because it happens before the young narrator was born, but is written as if he were there and inside M. Swann’s tortured mind.
In one of the biggest “Oh, nevermind” moments ever, after 150 pages of M. Swann obsessing over Odette’s affairs, real and imagined, with men and women, the foresaken lover finally concludes: “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!”
My experience with this photo is not as vivid as Proust’s, and it is more a flowering forward than a flowering back. I did not know that day (how could I?) that two years later I would be proofreading the definitive history of Forest Park, or that four years after that I would be working across the street from the park at the Missouri Historical Society’s Library and Research Center, or that three years after that I would be co-authoring a book on the 1904 World’s Fair (the park’s defining moment), or that the next year I would leave that job, and that the Historical Society’s excellent photographer in those years, David Schultz, would give me, as a parting gift, a framed, black-and-white photo he had taken of the Coral Court, just before it was torn down to make way for a subdivision, or that more than 10 years after that I would be driving through the park every day to take my daughters to school, or that 10 years after that I would be paid to walk around the park and blog about the experience.
The picture captures who I was in that moment, and in that moment, my girlfriend, unlike M. Swann’s, was just my type, though of course we were both becoming something else. In the picture I am caught in amber, but it is all the other connections and associations, forward and backward, that bring the photo to life for me, even if they are just accidental anchors supporting an illusion of significance, a dream of fate and destiny and things mattering.
After all, virtually every St. Louisan has chains of Forest Park memories, connections, and intersections. What do they mean, these ties to this place, or to any place–this random rock in space, flowing in what we call time? And what can time really mean, anyway, when all we have is this exact moment? But you don’t even have that, because as soon as you realize you are in it, you have already lost it, and all you have is the current moment. But you don’t have that one, either, do you?
The subdivision developer left part of the Coral Court’s wall standing on Watson Road–or, at least, a facsimile, an attempt to capture what was, and what was sacrificed, similar to how subdivisions are usually named for the things they replace, to preserve an ever-elusive experience of now. But the subdivision where Coral Court was is called Oak Knoll Manor, and while it may have a few oaks, it does not have a knoll, and it is not a manor.
All I can say about any of this, alongside M. Swann, is another “Oh, nevermind”: None of it matters, I guess; it’s not even that interesting–other people have much more sordid tales of young love, and the Coral Court saw countless affairs more sordid than anything my girlfriend and I could have conjured. But for me, these pictures from the 1988 July 4th weekend and their connections are everything, even if they all flow, and only arbitrarily, from one slippery marker in time.