Surprising tastes of home

In St. Louis, a son of Baltimore and a miracle after Mass.

July 30, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff

ST. LOUIS -- In Pittsburgh I ate a grilled kielbasa at a place called Wiener World, a gnarled little dog that Ostrowski's would not have sold to the Soviets.

The Skyline diner in Cincinnati offered up an abomination of spaghetti topped with chili and enough grated cheddar to make grilled cheese sandwiches every afternoon for an entire adolescence.

It is called, I kid you not, a three-way.

Oh, baby.

When the homemade pasta and tomato-canning spirit of my Italian grandmother protested, the waitress said: "Oh, you want real spaghetti. With Ragu."

My son Jake whispered: "Let it go, Dad. We're strangers here. Let it go."

I ordered a chili dog.

Perhaps this is what Robbie Robertson was talking about in "The Last Waltz," when he said the road was "a [expletive] impossible way of life."

You travel a thousand and one miles from home to see things you've never seen and meet folks you didn't know.

You take a fine room in a hotel at one of the most spectacular rail stations in American history -- the 1894 Union Station on St. Louis' Market Street -- stow your bags and set out.

A sweet, unseasonably cool breeze blows through the old fur-trading post on the Mississippi, and the stainless-steel curve of the Gateway Arch -- far more impressive than expected -- shimmers against the sky.

Ducking into a neighborhood bookstore along a gentrified lane called Euclid, you lay your fingertips on the wrist of the city like a Chinese doctor divining the pulse of someone with a will to live but more past than future. And who do you meet?

A guy from Highlandtown wearing a "Joe Bonvegna for State Senator" T-shirt.

Peter Genovese, City College class of 1963, left the 200 block of South Highland Avenue some 30 years ago to teach college English. The son of an Italian barber, Pete told his family he would have to leave home to find work.

A politically connected uncle -- in those days, this meant that Mimi DiPietro often stood behind you in the Communion line at Our Lady of Pompei -- told his nephew not to rush off.

Let me work on it, the uncle said. I'll find you a teaching job around here. After putting in calls to Johns Hopkins and Loyola and the University of Maryland, the uncle said: "No luck with the teaching, but I can get you a good job down the Civic Center."

That was three decades ago. Now retired from the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College, Genovese publishes poetry under the Garlic Press imprint and grinds the patience of his wife with tales of East Baltimore.

For dinner, he took Jake and me to a neighborhood joint called Hodak's on Gravois in the LaSalle Park neighborhood, an ethnic enclave of "scrubby Dutch," the local term for German immigrants.

Hodak's, promised Genovese, is a place like Gunning's or Webb's, but with fried chicken -- $5.10 for half a chicken with coleslaw and mashed potatoes -- instead of steamed crabs. Jake pointed out that chicken is unlikely to make the endangered species list, while his grandchildren may never taste a Chesapeake Bay blue crab. However common, though, the chicken was splendid, easily the best neighborhood meal we've had so far.

From Genovese, I learned that sometime between the world wars, there was a place on Lombard Street near the recently razed Esskay plant called the "Christmas ball" factory.

A Christmas ball factory! Is anybody alive who worked there?

When Genovese was a kid, he and some friends climbed through a broken window and found an empty safe and a floor littered with dead pigeons but no Christmas balls. A half-century later, he is grateful that no one thought it would be fun to lock somebody in the safe.

For dessert, Genovese took us to Ted Drewes on Route 66 for frozen custard that has delighted St. Louisans since 1929.

Before we left, he gave Jake a book on the Tao of watercolors for his birthday and me a book of poems about Jack Ruby by David Clewell. I returned his kindness with a T-shirt from Matthew's Pizza. And I told Genovese that if he didn't visit us for steamed crabs in our basement kitchen on Macon Street, I would be mad.

Some other notes from the road:

* To Alice McDermott: Just south of Columbus, Ohio, I rescued eight copies of your novel "That Night" from the 20-cent bin outside a Methodist Church turned used-book store and have been giving them to good homes.

* To Mark Pietrowski: Don't forget to bring in the mail.

* To Mom: Don't be alarmed by this next paragraph. No one was hurt.

In St. Louis last Tuesday, I was in a car accident.

As a friend drove around the city following morning Mass at the Cathedral of St. Louis -- after we visited the site of the 1904 World's Fair -- an older woman rear-ended his car at 40 mph on Forest Park Avenue near Spring Avenue.

We had no cuts or bruises, but the car was wrecked and my friend accepted a medic's offer of a ride to the hospital.

I got my journal out of his smashed-up Geo Prizm and began walking toward downtown, stopping for an ice cream cone along the way and counting blessings.

I could have been killed on my son's 17th birthday. Was I saved because I went to Mass? Was Jake, who would have been sitting in the back of the car, saved because he didn't go?

Saved nonetheless, I walked along a ribbon of St. Louis highway like Woody Guthrie -- "THIS MACHINE KILLS REPUBLICANS" written across my notebook -- licking ice cream, giddy with gratitude.

And willing, if necessary, to eat a plate of pasta defiled with brown chili and fluorescent cheese every day for the rest of my life if that were the price of remaining on the planet.

See you next Sunday.

Rafael Alvarez's postcards from a 10,000-mile road trip across the United States will appear each Sunday through the end of August. Previous postcards can be found on The Sun's Web site at www.sunspot.net / features / as. He can be reached via e-mail at rafaelalvarez@sevarez.com.

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