Chapter 4: Blueberry Hill
When I awoke, I was alone in the house. I found an envelope outside my bedroom door, with a note thanking me for getting in touch with my family friend (and childhood babysitter) Lindsey, and for choosing to spend my night in Saint Louis with her and her husband Brian. The couple lives in a beautiful house in the suburbs of Saint Louis. I arrived later than expected last night, following horrible traffic on the Interstate. Lindsey had been hoping to play tennis with me in the afternoon, but daylight was fading when I reached their house. Instead, I arrived to find a wonderful dinner of eggplant parmesan and pasta awaiting me. I’d never eaten eggplant before, and lied about it. But the meal was delicious, and I happily — and hungrily — accepted seconds. After the meal I sat in the living room watching ESPN on mute with Brian and listening to music. Lindsey made s’mores for dessert. When the couple retired to bed for the night, I went upstairs to my guest room and wrote for what felt like hours. Transcriptions of conversations, detailed notes about my surroundings and the action occurring inside and outside the interviews I’ve conducted thusfar. And, of course, silly little love notes and late night ramblings regarding my trip.
The next morning I showered and packed what few belongings I had brought in with me from the car, wrote the young couple my own thank you note, and locked their house before driving to the Delmar Boulevard “Loop” area.
The streets were calm on this Monday morning. Scant few folks were seated outside having lunch, and pedestrian traffic was light. As I walked, I paid close attention to the Saint Louis “Walk of Fame,” an east coast take on Hollywood’s renowned immortalization of local legends. T.S. Eliot, William Burroughs, Walker Evans, Stan Musial, Kate Chopin, and Miles Davis caught my attention. Along my walk, I stopped at a record store called Vintage Vinyl and a used-clothing store called Rag-o-rama. I picked up Xiu Xiu’s new CD, La Foret, and a couple t-shirts. Anything to prolong the amount of time before I have to do laundry.
As far as Rock & Roll is concerned, the most famous Saint Louis legend—perhaps one of the greatest American musical legends—is Chuck Berry. So, my stay in this city would not be complete without a trip to Blueberry Hill, the restaurant and live music venue where Berry still performs every month. Lindsey and Brian touted their world-class hamburgers and walls lined with bric-a-brac as a necessary Saint Louis experience. I rolled inside not quite sure what to expect, and wound up having a truly surreal experience.
I walked through the narrow corridor in the back of the pub, looking at photographs of bands who had passed through Blueberry Hill posing with a guy I assumed was the restaurant/club owner. There was a large display case dedicated to old Simpsons toys, Futurama toys, and the kind of obscure pop-culture memorabilia that one could lose hours studying.
When I was convinced I’d seen enough, I walked through the restaurant to the bar, and found a seat between two middle-aged men. To my right—I could have sworn—was Darryl Strawberry. He was a lanky, bald African American man in black sunglasses, who was enjoying the last remnants of a pint of an unrecognizable wheat beer. He nodded at me before returning his gaze to the glass sitting on the bar before him. To my left was an older gentleman, Caucasian, with gray/white hair, more-than noticeable stubble, wearing a wrinkled dress shirt. He was drinking a darker beer and fingering a pack of American Spirits for a smoke.
The bartender asked for my order, and I asked for a Famous seven-ounce hamburger with bacon and American cheese, and a pint of Fat Tire. I must have groaned as he told me they were out of the beer, because he laughed after I changed my order to a pint of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat. As he excused himself to place my order the guy on my left turned to me, his breath heavy with alcohol, and asked from where was I traveling. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have answered.
I introduced myself and said I was from New Jersey. He shook my hand vigorously and introduced himself as Douglas, from Saint Louis. He asked what brought me to the area, so I fed him my “traveling writer” line. Before I could spit out anything else, he screamed, “Oh, have I got a story for you.” The comment drew the eyes of a half-dozen customers enjoying their lunch. He leaned over the bar and yelled for the bartender to bring me paper on which to write. Darryl Strawberry to my right let out an audible sigh and got up to go to the bathroom. I tried to tell Douglas that I had a pad in my pocket, but he cut me off and slurred, “You’re going to love this, it’s about Chuck Berry.”
Now, at the time, I had no idea who I was talking to. For a moment, his profile looked eerily similar to that of the guy from all the pictures on the walls of Blueberry Hill. I didn’t ask if he was the owner of the pub, and I don’t know why I thought the owner might be an unkempt, brash geezer who was starting to give off the impression of prolonged alcoholism, but I did. I let him talk—at great length—in exchange for and American Spirit. The bartender walked over, looking mightily irritated, and tossed a guest check and pen at Douglas.
“First of all,” he said, handing me the utensil and paper, “I should tell you that I’m an itinerant musician. I’ve been a singer/songwriter for a little over twenty-five years. So you’re getting this information from someone who knows about local music over the last half-century.” After prefacing his story, he began talking about his days in the local “CYO,” or Catholic Youth Organization, during a generation when Ike and Tina Turner, and Chuck Berry, were huge public figures in Saint Louis. That’s where he met his future wife, Juanita.
Juanita, I was informed, lived a “riches to rags life.” She was the oldest of six children, and was born into the richest African American family in the area during the early 1950s. During her adolescence, in the early ‘60s, her mother died. Juanita and her brothers—“the boys” as Douglas referred to them—were sent to live in a maternal center in the ensuing months, and after a short while, her father married a, “pill-popping socialite.” The new wife began running through Juanita’s father’s money rapidly. As his health deteriorated, she spent more and more money. “The boys and Juanita,” Douglas said, his voice choked with emotion, “they had no chance at success. No chance, whatsoever. That woman took his money and made damn sure there was nothing left for them.” By the end of his sentence, Douglas’s face was, maybe, three inches from mine.
After Juanita’s father died, there was little money left, and even less concern for the well being of his children on the part of his second wife. The family was forced to sell their estate, and the highest bid on the house was—who else—Chuck Berry.
“You wouldn’t believe how pissed the neighbors were that Chuck moved into that house,” Douglas commented. “I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about his habits—those neighbors were offering him one-hundred, two-hundred thousand dollars on top of the cost of the place just to move!” he exclaimed, again getting uncomfortably close to me.
Meanwhile, Juanita—who had nothing tying her to her stepmother—moved in with Douglas, and the pair was soon married. They had two sons. One attended Washington University in Saint Louis. “He’s into plays, and movies.” The other son went to the Chicago Art Institute. “He’s into fine arts, like, the human form.”
I was unsure how much more I really wanted to hear. Luckily my phone rang, so I told him I was sorry, I needed to take the call. While I spoke on the phone, my burger arrived and I ordered a pint of Blue Moon Belgian White.
When I hung up the phone, I turned to my left and Douglas was no longer there. I slowly began to eat, savoring the incredible food. I heard voices rising behind me, and turned to see Douglas crammed into a booth with a group of boys that looked to be in their late teens. The bartender noticed too, and his demeanor suddenly shifted.
“Is he bothering you?” The bartender asked the booth.
“A little bit,” one kid said, looking absolutely petrified.
“I think you’d better settle up and leave, now.” The bartender demanded of Douglas. He shimmied out of his seat and walked to the bar with his head down, pounded a twenty-dollar bill on the table, and left.
“I’m sorry about that,” the bartender then said to me. “I was going to say something to him, but you looked like you weren’t going to stand for much more.” Just then, Darryl Strawberry cleared his throat.
“Man, I didn’t want to say anything when you sat down, but that guy was telling me the same story before you walked in—”
“He’s just a local drunk,” the bartended chimed in, “I have to literally throw him out of here every once in a while.” He took the pint glass from in front of Darryl Strawberry and refilled it. “How’s that burger, by the way?”
“It’s incredible—it definitely equals the hype,” I stated.
Darryl Strawbery said, “You’re lucky you came when you did, boy,” he cleared his throat again, “because he was getting up in my face—just like he was with you—and I swear to god I was about to punch him in his fucking face.” He lit a Newport while shaking his head. “I can’t believe you didn’t pound him.”
I finished my food, a pint of Schlafly Hefeweizen, and then settled up with the bartender. By that point, Darryl Strawberry had already left, but not before I thanked him for the small talk and the laughs. The bartender wished me luck on my travels and extended an invitation to return any time. I rose to my feet and realized I wasn’t in much shape to drive yet. The skies overhead were starting to look like they might become a threat in the near future, so I walked around The Loop for another twenty minutes before returning to my car and starting on the road to Kansas City.
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