Hometownness: Old guitars and shared stories

Last week, I went to see a band from my hometown play here in Detroit. They play American music from past decades and are very good at it. When I was growing up, my parents’ friends were musicians who played the blues and 1920s music. So, the band the other night sounded like home in a way I at first couldn’t name: That’s what St. Louis sounds like. That’s the sound of having red brick and river mud running through your veins.

When I walked into the club, a man dressed like a dapper cowboy looked at me like he was trying to figure out if he knew me, but it was dark and I didn’t think I knew anyone who looked like that. When he came out onstage playing washboard and a harmonica with the band, I thought I know those eyes. He kept holding my gaze. It took me half the set to figure out: His piercings are still the same. Oh my god, we went to some of the same parties when we were teenagers. We both grew up in Tower Grove South.

People say that folks from St. Louis will inevitably ask you, “Where did you go to high school?” It’s thought that your high school determines your whole life forecast in parochial little St. Louis. And after the set, we talked. For the first time in a good while I got asked a permutation of that question: “Didn’t you go to Gateway?” My family moved to the Chicago suburbs before I started high school, but I would have gone to Gateway and it’s strange to think that information is still encoded into my DNA.

I guessed: “You went to Central, right?”

“Yes.”

“Creative city kid. Makes sense.”

We talked about growing up in South City. We both attended summer school at Enright and then urban explored the school after it closed, startled to find artifacts from our era left in the abandoned building: names on chalkboards, the smell of the place unchanged. We both still have bowling balls that our 16-year-old selves stole from Western Lanes when it shut down. He mentioned his lucky bowling ball from Western and I responded, “I have one too! It’s outside in my car right now!”

I think the “Where did you go to high school?” question is almost always about Catholic and suburban high schools. I know characteristics of people who went to a certain Parkway school or who went to SLU High, but such jokes rarely mention the city high schools. It was neat not to get that rare-for-me little blast of shared heritage, but also to identify characteristics that mark someone as having grown up in St. Louis City and SLPS.

Relocating to Detroit was absolutely the right decision for me. But a flipside to the wonderful possibility and novelty of relocation is that you don’t have people around that you go back with. Nobody knows the things you were content to leave behind, but they also don’t know what you’re capable of and where you’re from.

I’d been vaguely meaning to get rid of that lucky bowling ball for a while, but I think I will hang on to it a little longer. I ought to take it bowling in Detroit.

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