HOFR #25: Tight Shoes

August 17, 2012

For late summer 2012, Thad-Simon McRosenthal’s been sporting the “Cornel West” look, requiring at least three layers, plus tie or ascot. Prior to our interview, McRosenthal shows us the proper way to tie an “Estonian power knot.”

There’s an old bit of derision applied to newspapers by critics: “if it’s news, it’s news to them.” Well, we would never be that cynical towards our print brethren, though we will confess that there are times when Bill Dames, the whimsical metro columnist of the Arch City Chronicle, comes up a bit late to a trend.

Recently, for example, Dames was ambling around Downtown, in search of a place to sit, sip a beer and sketch out a column on cocktail napkins. In choosing Pete’s (Three) Tavern, he found the perfect place of respite, ordering a house burger, onion rings and a glass of the local macro brew. His bartender, Jenny Whitlock, was awkwardly hobbling around behind the counter, leading him to ask why a fit, young, healthy woman like herself was stricken by such a peculiar gait.

“Rather than telling me that she’d injured herself while engaged in a youthful activity like skateboarding or club dancing,” Dames told his readers, “she’d been negatively impacted by the size of her shoes! Not only had the comely lass been wearing shoes a full size too small while on her social rounds, she’d even begun her work hours this fateful morning in an inappropriately-sized pair. Upon my persistent needling of this fashion decision, she slipped on a pair of ‘comfy flip-flops,’ which are a sort of seasonally-appropriate, toe-less sandal.”

Intrigued by the encounter, Dames finished his meal and another two drafts, then sauntered back to the office. Calling the National Footwear Safety Association from his landline, he learned that the tight shoes phenomenon he’d come across wasn’t limited to women, men, either coast or the idle rich. Instead, he was told that the process had been been gaining traction nationally, and that Saint Louis was clearly a part of it all. Though impossible to specifically rank where Saint Louis falls in comparison to other markets, the NFSA could confirm that shoes sent to our town in 2012 have been, on average, 13% smaller than a year ago this time. The ultimate health repercussions of this, of course, will take years to determine.

True, Dames had come late to the game, just as he had with his writings on book scavenging and the rise of the Chippewa Street arts district. So we wanted to speak to someone with a better grasp of “the now” and found ourselves in the freelance synergies consultanc” of Thad-Simon McRosenthal, a “trend-spotter” in the parlance of the streets. Ushering us into his loft-style office suite, he quickly added three layers of clothing, noting that the “Cornel West look” was moving into high-appeal during this late-summer season.

We found a comfortable place for McRosenthal to sit, initially confused by his requests to help set up “studio lights” and a three-microphone “audio sweet-spot triangle.” Though initially displeased with our notions of a lo-fidelity shooting experience, he lit up like a holiday tree when the conversation finally turned to the tight shoe trend. Through various back-channel academic funding streams, McRosenthal’s spending some real time studying the movement, now well into its 17th month of known activity.

He added meat to the bones of our theory, namely: that Saint Louis is in the tight grip of tight shoes. We appreciated his ideas, bringing the cultural and political underpinnings into a, well, tight focus. You can view our video featurette below for additional information.

(Thanks to Benjamin Kaplan for some added inspiration on this one.)

HOFR Tight Shoes from Thomas Crone on Vimeo.


Ironically enough, we wound up catching Norah O’Connell on the day when she set her tips record, February 24, 2012. Congrats and may this mark be topped again and again!

Not one, but two days in a row, we’ve quoted from ourselves in setting up a piece. In our July 18 posting, Educations at Close,” we noted that:

In her recent groundbreaking work, “Gimme A Dollar: The Hidden Lives of America’s Service Workers,” social historian Kris Young crisscrossed the country, talking to a wide variety of employees at restaurants, bars, boba tea houses, key clubs, speakeasies, gin joints, two-bit swilleries and even whimsically-themed chains. The angles that she eventually used to frame her book came from discussions held just after closing time, as workers began their individual journeys of shutting down the business for the night.

In our initial discussion of the work, we noted that Saint Louis is well-known for being a place where folks in “the industry” not only close down their shops, they open up their minds. In few places around the country are there better discussions about poetry, film and the arts at closing time. Whether, or not, these things are related, Saint Louis is also the fifth leading region in America when it comes to excellence in tipping. According to an anecdotal survey of local diners, sometimes interviewed while all parties were drinking, there’s an innate need to feel communal acceptance through tipping in excess of 20%, routinely.

In a half-hour of interviews at the Wigwam Diner, the thoughts of Amos S. were indicative of the locals’ feel on the topic.

“It’s a good thing,” said Amos S. woozily, while nursing an organic buffalo-and-watercress slinger. “Yeah, definitely.”

While not providing much in the way of usable narrative, Amos S.’s comments strike at a certain… something. But let’s open up the conversation to some broader notions.

* Saint Louisans are generally hospitable. Whether it’s a matter of a shoveling a neighbor’s snowy walkway in the wintertime or giving a breath-challenged stranger on the Metro a stick of gum, Saint Louisans live to give.

* Sitting is still important. The coming of the food trucks has meant that Saint Louisans are now dining while seated on broken tree stumps, or in places like gutters and storm sewers. The joys of sitting in chairs with table service has never seemed so worthwhile.

* Not limiting themselves to tipping just servers, Saint Louisans will sometimes (if a bit awkwardly) break the wall between customer and worker, by simply walking into the back of house and offering the fry cook or sous chef a five-spot when a meal comes out better than expected. For example, on the night we interviewed Amos S. at the Wigwam, a new busser at the classic diner was slipped $10 within the first half-hour of his employ, simply for providing an extra pack of organic wheat crackers with an order of curry chili.

In order to better get a sense of what’s happening here, we made our final trip to Club Royal for this season, visiting with server Norah O’Connell, who averages a 10-12% advantage of her Chicago contemporary. The following video featurette brings  a human face to the trend.

HOFR Excellence in Tipping from Thomas Crone on Vimeo.

We hope it’s not vain to quote from ourselves, but today’s entry revolves directly around a post that we offered to you on July 6. To recap, we discussed the love of cover/tribute bands in Saint Louis, and how some old friends had mined that field successfully, before creative differences lead them apart:

At first, guitarist Jeff Lysaght and bassist Eric Gallo were allied in their desire to merge the music of two groups, Jane’s Addiction and the Smashing Pumpkins, playing alternating sets of each during their monthly gigs at the new, Loop location of Kennedy’s. Jane’s Pumpkins was able to play to a growing crowd by mastering the tracks that defined their origin groups, nailing cuts like “1979″ and “Jane Says,” with no small amount of energy brought to songs that were released at the same time that many of their fans were born. Tensions, though, began to creep into the creative picture with the desire by Gallo to begin mining the b-sides, the European import tracks, even the covers that those origin bands played on their own tours. Gallo’s heretical desire to incorporate some Porno for Pyros material suggested an early breaking point; the suggestion of adding some Zwan layered on the tension.

With the birth of Smashing Addictions, the two bands were now honing in on the same, general audience, though one group played the hits, while the other handled the obscuria. They’ve found peace in that arrangement, even if some tensions remain.

Recently, the pair began to put together a group that would bring on less friction. Straight to Goodbye is the result of an idea to pay tribute to Saint Louis bands, only. To date, the group’s still hashing out how deep they wish to go, in terms of the Saint Louis rock canon. (They’re also looking for a trustworthy drummer. Of course they are.) Among their questions: Should the complicated, progressive rock of Pavlov’s Dog be incorporated? Can you be in a Saint Louis tribute group without playing some Chuck Berry? How many Pale Divine songs should go onto the playlist, figuring in the group’s nod to them with the name Straight to Goodbye? And, to that end, should Straight to Goodbye cover songs by original bands, when those original bands were also well-known for specific covers?

Assuming that the group remains on agreeable terms, most of those things should play out in time.

For now, the nascent group’s just begun rehearsing. And we traveled to the South Side porch of Eric Gallo, where he, Jeff Lysaght and vocalist/guitarist Alan Hopper were working on the first batch of tracks for their new group. The band recruited their old cohort, Hopper, after his departure from the music scene to establish his own food truck, the Icelandic-themed Oh My Cod. But the possibility of reuniting with old friends – and, no doubt, making some good coin with the new venture – was too hard to resist. As we visited, the group was working out the cut “Crushed,” originally played by L.O.V.E. (Let Our Vision Evolve).

The following video featurette tells the rest of the story.

HOFR Tribute Bands from Thomas Crone on Vimeo.

In January, our cameras caught the exact moment at which Angela Corwin signed on as food-and-drink director of the coming Metropol Afterlife. Little did we know at the time….

We’re all gonna die. Come to grips with that and you can start to have some fun.

And Saint Louisans, in greater numbers than ever before, have decided that if they’re not going to have fun upon their departure, they can at least travel down the River Styx with a bit of style, leaving behind a wake of goodwill and good times. Only four cities in America have more firmly-embraced the notion of hipness in funeral services, with more options on the way.

In a recent cover story for Modern Funeral Home Magazine, managing editor Eddie DePriest pointed to trends in collegiate mortuary sciences programs, suggesting that broad cultural forces are supplying the mortuary profession a host of new professionals with decidedly different ideas of how to celebrate life. The trends, DePriest figured, would soon feature an expectations-defying new crop of morticians and funeral home owners/managers.

DePriests’s piece pointed to a “surfeit of tattooed young people coming to mortuary sciences,” who moonlight during their college years “as roller derby queens, club deejays, organic farmers and mixologists. They’re driven as much by the ‘authenticity of their experiences’ as they are by the financial security of their chosen industry.” While some of the profession’s old-guard expressed reservations about some of these trends, others fully embraced the new ideals and approaches.

In Saint Louis, Charon has become the principal location for trend-spotting. The funeral home, named after the ferryman of Hades, has recently expanded its chill room. Stlplatform.org intern’s Reg Edwards covered the debut of Charon’s newest sub-venue, noting that a service for the recently-passed Francine Colombini, a lover of trip-hop and ‘90s club culture, reflected her time period faithfully, “as Portishead and Tricky played over the sound system at a tasteful level, with tiki drinks avialable from a bartender clad in period attire, encapsulated by his bright, multi-colored Hawaain shirt.”

The room’s black walls, though, allow for flexibility in approach.

When Hiram Busch, a local roots music solo performer, departed this mortal coil, the room took on a more countrified vein, with loop set up on enhanced sound system, featuring the late barista’s favorite album, Uncle Tupelo’s “March 16-20, 1992,” as mourners sipped at his beloved mint juleps. Eventually, they formed a guitar circle and played until 1:30 in the morning, symbolizing “last call.”

Charon’s promotions director Eduardo Salas indicated that “the beauty of the moment reflected the beauty of the audience, giving an appropriate curtain call to a friend and loved one. If that means we had to stay open a few hours later, or pick up a series of crushed PBR cans in the parking lot the next morning, those are the kind of service add-ons that we, as a venue, are glad to invest in.”

Though the pacesetting community of Madison, WI, still defines the trend, Saint Louis is now no stranger to national spotlight in post-life party giving, with an expected visit by Modern Funeral Home in coming weeks, with a round-up story highlighting both Charon and the new Metropol, the highest-ticketed funeral home conversion project. The latter’s rehab has a reputed price tag of $800,000, including the installation of concert-quality sub-woofers for each of three chapels, a party hearse that’ll allow for 15 guests to ride with the dearly-departed, and a coffee bar, which will be open even on days when the chapels are quiet.

Metropol’s developer (our old friend Amber Wayne) and head food and drink director (Angela Corwin), took time out from overseeing that build-out to meet with Half Order Fried Rice, explaining some of the trends that they figure might have hyper-local appeal, including a small, remote-controlled submarine that would send cremains into the center of the Mississippi River.

It’s a service that Corwin says “figures to be quite popular with history professors and poets.”

Catch the remainder of their conversation in our exclusive interview below.

HOFR Hip Funeral Parlors from Thomas Crone on Vimeo.

HOFR #21: Demure Blogging

August 13, 2012

When Michael “Stretch” Armstrong suggests that Chicago’s bloggers are similarly demure to Saint Louis’ own, Amy Champion believes the comment to be of dubious whimsy.

It’s tough for Saint Louisans to not brag about the good things happening locally. So there’s a tendency for blogs, columns and other online Saint Louis writings to be based in a deep setting of self-satisfaction, but without enacting a self-satisfied tone. As if the entire town’s saying, “we got it good, there’s no reason to boast,” local writers are content to moderately burnish the charms of the region without pushing their storylines into unbelievable territory.

This bleeds down to the amateur ranks, as well. Some culture-watchers have gone so far as to suggest that local users of social media employ more modesty than those elsewhere. An example: instead of putting a whimsical photo of a cat on a photo-sharing site with the caption, “My cat is the cutest in the world!,” Saint Louisans might say, “This is my cat, one that’s reasonably good-looking.”

Perhaps this modesty comes from being located in the Midwest, as we feel less need to chase the trends that point inward from either coast. If anything, it’s our own trends that are now proving the more authentic and exciting. (For example, just today, photos are popping up of young people around the country, wearing bowler hats, something we tipped you to just last week.) Living life with a pace that’s not too fast, not too slow, we enjoy exactly the right amount of time to think, then enact.

As you’re well-aware, HOFR is a site of list interpretation. Today, we point to an early-summer piece in Our Town Magazine, in which a staff-written report about the “20 Reasons Visitors Call Us Nice” pointed to “Reasonableness in Tone” as #14. We’ll be nice and agree that reasonableness is, in fact, one of our best traits. Perhaps higher than #14, but let’s not quibble.

Two folks that you’ll be familiar with from past episodes – poet and poetry activist Amy Champion and tippling expert Michael “Stretch” Armstrong – are our guests today. Interestingly, they met through their activities relating to Half Order Fried Rice, and, in meeting, found themselves to be kindred spirits. Their connection will probably become apparent to you even within the few minutes you’ll spend with them in our accompanying video featurette.

As noted writers, both have solid, understated credibility around town. Armstrong’s continuing to pour his efforts into the years-in-the-making “A People’s History of the Saint Louis Public House,” an oral history of local taverns; his blog “A Crystalline Catfish,” is continuing to pick up new readers and fans. Meanwhile, Champion’s recently self-published a chapbook entitled “This No River of Sadness,” a paean to the hidden life of the River Des Peres, including a compelling trio of poems on the group of young, Burmese-American fishermen who work the banks of the river daily.

And did we mention that they’re nice people? Sitting next to a really large table?

See the video below for proof positive.

HOFR Demure Bloggers from Thomas Crone on Vimeo.

Unaware are many of us, in relation to the whims of fashion.

Tomorrow could bring anything! Youths wearing left-footed shoes on their right. Youths affixing toothbrushes to necklaces. Youths carrying their belongings in bowling ball bags. Frankly, nothing surprises us these days.

We’re a smart group, we Saint Louisans. We read much, study more and listen to public radio extensively. In doing so, we’re only tracking months, not years, behind the cultural curve. For example, many of us still liberally quote from the bible of cool, Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.”  Though the work was published in 2000, we still look around for those Hush Puppies, known to have spread from the actions of just a few clubgoers in Brooklyn, spreading them into a national craze. Through Jon Leland’s “Hip: The History,” we’re awaree that youthful, African-American culture is also the place where many trends go home to roost. And it’s a pleasure, if not an honor, that HOFR cameras were at the Vintage Haberdashery in a recent weekday afternoon, as three brothers walked into the place on a whim, thinking about trying on some hats.

Still idling in the neighborhood only because we were distracted by a garlic-themed food truck, we tucked into the Vintage Hab just ahead of the three youths, who quickly engaged clerk Birdy Hillis in a conversation about headgear. They seemed to know what they wanted: bowlers. Even though they were wearing casual, summer gear, the bowlers immediately committed the three to what we used to call “a look.” As quickly as the hats were tried on, they purchased them. And we were lucky enough to catch that exchange; as well as the hats being worn in street settings!

In recent months, no small amount of digital ink has been spilled on the trend of African-American youths wearing unnecessary eyeglasses. Even though we came across this pattern on our own travels (see photos), we were amazed to literally be at the birth of a possible new trend. PEOPLE, people!: if you see young residents of the City of Saint Louis wearing bowler hats, even in the heat of the summer, you’ll know where it all began. Right here in River City. Not today, but yesterday.

Please follow the story in our documentary film, attached below, in which amiable clerk Birdy Hillis sold a trio of hats to a trend-setting group of South Side youths, proving, once again, that there’s a lot more going on here than even we can track.

In our compendium of listings, forgive the attitude. Black youths in bowlers? We are numero uno.

Enjoy our video featurette.

HOFR Black Youths in Bowlers from Thomas Crone on Vimeo.

Wheels of steel in East Saint Louis.

Recently, a premier urban exploration site, anotheramerica.net, attempted to define “abandonment porn,” that nebulous place where art, architecture, civic planning, suburban tsk-tsking and a community’s willingness to spend resources all come to play. Normally, the result of the discussion is oft-striking photographic evidence of the health of a region through the documentation of those spaces long left for dead. This isn’t to say that each space put before the lens will meet the wrecking ball. Or that these places represent an “ugly” vision of their surroundings.

Instead, photographers claim that the spaces they photograph relay a sense of realism, of pragmatism, even of beauty. Critics contend that the pictures often show the community in the worst possible light, bringing the notions of urban desolation to audiences that already have negative feelings about the cities.

These types of artistic debates can be tough to negotiate. In trying to find a new way to frame the issue, anotheramerica.net attempted to put a fiscal spin on the debate. For example, can urban exploration be a boon to a local economy? Results were, at best, mixed.

Kathy Bentley, an editor at the site, says that tourism, for example, is hard to quantify.

“We took Gary, Indiana, as our beta testing site,” Bentley says. “What we found is that dozens of photographers a year are drawn to the town for photography excursions, many of them from nearby cities, not unlike your own. But these folks are pretty resourceful and wind up not spending the night in even the most-affordable local hotels. Instead, they ‘couch surf,’ or camp, or simply sleep at the sites. Typically, the second-hand equipment that they bring with them doesn’t need augmentation, save for the occasional lens cap replacement.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the local industry most positively impacted was that of the locally-owned organic grocers. Quinoa burritos, regionally-sourced peaches and local craft brews, in particular, are hits with urban explorers, according to the numbers compiled by Bentley’s intern staff.

In Saint Louis, we’ve got our share of abandonment, ranking fifth on anotheramerica.net’s list of more pornographic cities (abandonment-wise, that is). To put further context on the topic, we invited in an old friend, Dr. Eugena Spratt of the University of Saint Louis-Missouri, who met us a towering, midtown apartment complex, just waiting for a new life.

Our video featurette with her follows.

HOFR Abandonment Porn from Thomas Crone on Vimeo.