Tuesday, August 13, 2013

From Noah's Ark to a Lincoln


©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard

Friday August 9 - Lebanon, MO-Springfield, IL via St. Louis, MO
Everything is wet or damp, including Trooper and me. It’s time to drive, swim or canoe out of here. Checking weather forecasts to the east, I see that I’ll have to drive well into Illinois to escape this unseasonable stormy weather. Fine with me.
I’m so anxious to get out of here that for the first time since Idaho I will drive all Interstate Highways. My original plan was for my next destination to be along the Mighty Mississippi River, a ceremonial crossing if you will. There’s so much history along the big river and the economies are so dependent upon it; it is a perfect stopping point. Like the farmers, however, I am at the mercy of nature. Perhaps I’ll have better luck on the westbound trip.
I map my way to Peoria, IL, six hours but clear skies in the forecast. As luck would have it my route takes me through St. Louis. I’ve never been there, always wanted to visit. It’s a great baseball town and I have a good feeling about it with no real reason. It was one option for my ceremonial crossing of The Mississippi. At least I’ll spend an hour or two there.
I spend about a half hour on the city’s waterfront, snapping shots of the Gateway Arch and The River but my true destination is The Hill. It is one of St. Louis’ best-known neighborhoods, a tightly knit very Italian area, always was and still is. You can tell by the Italian tri-color hanging from virtually every lamppost and many of the shops. It is also the boyhood neighborhood of a personal baseball hero and one of the all-time greats, Yankees catcher Yogi Berra.
Another reason to visit the hill, I haven’t had a good cigar in too long and Google Maps points me to The Hill Cigar Shop. On my tight budget, even one good cigar will do. I choose a Nica Puro, the newest from one of my favorite companies, Alec Bradley, and I love it’s rich flavor and bold character.
For the last week my meals have been limited mainly to fruit and granola in yogurt and peanut butter sandwiches. I ask the shop owner to recommend a good Italian deli for a Hero with wheels (No subs here!). Without hesitation he sends me to Giaoa’s and says, “Don’t even look at the menu. Get the hot salami sandwich.” Who am I to argue with a native?
As a New York City boy, I know and love good Italian food. The minute I walk in, the look and smell of Giaoa’s tells me I’m in the right place. I walk up to the counter and immediately order, “Let me have the hot salami sandwich.”
“OK,” says the bambolina behind the counter, “what do you want on it?”
With no further instructions, I now have to look at the menu and the choices are numerous and dazzling. I am lost. “What do you recommend?”
Her eyes light up like an artist who just found inspiration. “I’ll throw on a little Italian roast beef, some pepperoncini, our special St. Louis Cheese (combination of Romano, Provolone and Mozzarella) and horseradish mayo. You’ll want our homemade bread.”
“You bet your ass I want your homemade bread,” I said to myself. I slummed and added a Diet Coke (“No Pepsi.”), all for ten bucks.
Before leaving, just on a whim, I ask her, “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know where Yogi Berra’s old house is, would ya?”
She shakes her head but as I turn to leave I hear another voice from behind the counter, that of a young man. “I live just two doors away, it’s only a few blocks from here.” Bingo!!

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Sidebar: Yogi’s Place

She is sitting and reading a book. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t an attractive young woman in shorts and a college sweatshirt lounging on Yogi Berra’s front porch. I glance down and the bronze plaque embedded in the sidewalk tells me I’m at the correct address.
“Excuse me,” I call, “I’m sure you hear this a million times but I’m still another tourist and Yogi Berra fan. Can I take a picture?”
As a youth, Yogi Berra lived here
for 18-years
She smiles brightly, “Sure, go ahead.” I snap away but I’m not done yet.
I walk a few steps up the short walk, “Listen, I’m sorry to bother you but I’m driving cross country and writing a book on my travels. Can I interview you?”
She marks her place in the book and throws me another bright smile, even friendlier than the first, “Sure but I only have a few minutes.” I cannot believe my luck.
She introduces herself as Courtney Brown and then, my luck gets better. “I’m Yogi’s grandniece. I grew up here” she informs me.
“How many tourists like me stop by every week?” I ask her.
“Oh, hundreds. We get tour buses.”
“How often do you talk to Uncle…..,” I hesitate. “”Do you call him Uncle Larry or Uncle Yogi?”
“We call him Uncle Yogi,” she says laughing.
“How often do you speak with him?”
“We used to talk to him a lot more; he used to come visit at least twice a year. It’s not as much since he got older and my grandma passed away. Grandma was Uncle Yogi’s sister.”
A horn honks behind me and Courtney says, “That’s my sister, I have to go.”
“One last question, please?” My mind is racing, searching for a good one. I can only come up with, “Uncle Yogi is iconic as a slow thinking guy who never paid his syntax. I know he’s not dumb; you can’t be and catch for those great Yankee teams. What’s he really like?”
“He’s a very nice guy, very funny, he’s always got a comment to make about something. He likes to talk a lot. He never minded getting bothered by people for autographs and whatnot. Uncle Yogi now lives in New Jersey. He is a healthy 88-years old (May 12, 1925) and just opened the new Yogi Berra Museum.”
As Courtney gets up to leave I can’t help but ask, “Are you a baseball fan?”
“Of course!” Big smile.
“Yankees?”
“Cardinals!!”
So much for family loyalty.

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Before leaving The Hill, I unwrap my sandwich from Giaoa’s so I can eat as I drive. I take a bite as I pull from the curb and my taste buds immediately scream, “STOP!!!” I return to my parking spot and my taste buds explode with pleasure. I was going to eat one half of the sandwich on the road for lunch and save the second half for dinner. Forget dinner, this is an unbelievable sandwich and I scarf it down right there.

If you are ever in St. Louis, visit Giaoa’s on The Hill. Do not look at the menu; just order the hot salami sandwich.
Ninety minutes later I am in Springfield, IL under clear skies. This time I stay on the Interstates, my need to escape the torrential rains driving me forward. As I pass the Farmersville Interchange on I-55, I am reminded of how agricultural Illinois is away from its big cities. I haven’t seen so many cornfields since Kansas.
Once in Springfield, I quickly check the weather forecast and it’s good for the next week or so. I find a county park with camping (for $15 a night!). I will drive no further but, Houston, we may have a problem. I quickly learn the mayor of Springfield is named (J. Michael) Houston and the Lincoln Museum is at Sixth and JEFFERSON. I’m confused. I’ll figure it out over the weekend.
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Monday August 12 - Springfield, IL
Lincoln Home
Illinois may be “The Land of Lincoln” but Springfield is its epicenter. It was in this capitol that Abraham Lincoln began his political career as a four-term state lawmaker (1834-1840). It was also one of the nine sites where he and Stephen Douglas conducted their famous series of political debates in 1858. One hundred sixty five years later, Lincoln is still a rock star in Springfield. In fact, Lincoln-driven tourism is the city’s fourth largest industry, pouring $388-million into the economy and providing over 3,000 jobs. 
There are statues everywhere, along with the Lincoln Home, the Lincoln Presidential Library, the Lincoln Museum and the Lincoln Tomb, to name a few. I did not see any “Abe Lincoln Slept Here” signs.
Lincoln may be Da Man but government is King in Springfield; between the city, (Sangamon) county and state, it is the largest “industry” in town. Health care and finance/insurance are two of the other largest employers.
According to a study by the Atlanta-based consulting group Market Street Services, Springfield fared better than the nation and the state of Illinois in the recession. The study found:
“health care, education and for all its financial troubles, state government, provided a solid employment base. Unemployment remained relatively low, housing slowed but there was no bubble to burst, and wages continued to rise.”
Still, there are stories to tell from both tourists and locals. Richard is a 45-year old mortgage loan consultant from Chicago. He is visiting the state capitol with his family because he no longer can afford a more distant vacation.

“Needless to say my business decreased substantially,” he tells me, “but it wasn’t so much about getting clients as getting clients qualified for loans – people losing jobs, no income, no credit.”
Richard’s job was also at risk. “I’ve bounced around over the last several years; either my job was eliminated or the company went out of business. Luckily, my wife is a teacher and her income has been carrying us.”

Nonetheless, the recession took its toll on Richard at a personal level. “It took away that pride and security,” he says, “the feeling that I am providing for my family and I’m successful.”

Today Richard is freelancing, as he puts it, but considers himself lucky if he lands one deal a month. “I’m still looking for where I’ll land next,” he says.
Sixty year old Greg Schaefer has been a state employee for 39-years. He currently works in the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office. Like government workers everywhere, he experienced a wage freeze, furlough days with no pay and increases in the cost of some benefits. With retirement on the horizon Greg kept a sharp eye on his state pension. “At one point,” he tells me, “it dropped 40 percent. I thought I wouldn’t be able to retire when I was planning to. I considered pulling out but decided to stick it out. It’s starting to come back almost to pre-recession levels.”
One of the most interesting stories I gathered in Springfield was from a young nurse at St. Johns Hospital, one of the two largest in the city. Nursing is considered a bulletproof profession because there is always a shortage. That’s why 29-year old Lauren is a nurse; she says the recession made the choice for her.
“It used to be that you went to college, got your degree and found a job,” she says. “Today the degree doesn’t mean anything anymore. A lot of people I know have their degree and work at McDonalds. In my case, the recession started right after I got my first degree, which was community health education. I applied for hundreds of jobs and ended up with one I could’ve had without a degree. That’s when I decided to go back to school and get a degree in nursing.”
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South 11th Street is more than just a street, according to Howard A. Peters IV, Special Assistant to the President of Springfield’s Urban League. His office is on 11th in a neighborhood labeled as the 13th worst in the country by WalletPop.com. To Peters 11th St. is more like the Mason-Dixon Line. 

“In many ways,” he says, “Springfield is still living in 1960. East of 11th St. it’s mostly African-American and low-income neighborhoods, to the west it’s exactly the opposite. Many of the same problems, like segregation, still exist and some of the problems worsened during the recession”
At 114,250 people (in the 2010 Census), Springfield is similar to other smaller cities I’ve visited yet each city is unique based on geography, politics, economies and demographics. Springfield, for example, is the first city I’ve visited with a significant African-American population. The census puts it at 18 percent of the population, Peters says it’s much higher.
“During the recession Springfield’s population stratified to an even greater degree,” he explains, “Minorities from much larger cities like Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis migrated here, mostly Latino and Black – some ‘on the books’ if you will and some ‘off the books.’ They’ve moved in with family members and many didn’t participate in the census. I’d say the black population here is now closer to 24 percent.”
Unfortunately, their recession-related issues followed them here. “Unemployment is still significantly higher in the low-income minority population and it only got worse during the recession. Our rule of thumb is if the overall unemployment rate is X, then minority unemployment is X times two. For minority males, it’s X times three. It is a devastating issue. Typically we serve the family through Head Start; we serve about 850 kids a day. Before, parents would bring their kids in and leave. Now, both moms and dads bring their kids in and start asking about what programs are available for them. We didn’t see much of that before the recession.”
Peters becomes more animated; clearly he is emotionally invested in his community. “There is a feeling of desperation; crime goes up, drugs, everything. We are making progress but it’s very slow”
I see evidence of Peters’ assertions just a few blocks away from his office as I am driving east of 11th St. In a small strip mall I see two men, each standing by their “ride,” one a 1990s Chevy Impala, the other a more recent Cadillac – both waxed to a gleaming shine. Both cars are so tricked out they are almost caricatures. They ride high on oversized tires each with big flashy hubcaps and adorned with assorted ruffles and flourishes.
I park at the other end of the strip to watch them. Within minutes one or the other greets what I assume is a “customer” who hands them something (unseen) and waits while the man walks to his car, reaches through an open window and returns with something else (also unseen). The transactions take but seconds. I’ve been around enough to know a drug deal when I see it. Talking about “seeing,” I notice the two men eying me eying them and I drive off before their eying turns into something else.