Top Transformer: “Off the Menu” by John Frain

In June 2016, the STL Scribblers participated in a 800-word writing challenge on the theme of Transformation. After a democratic vote, John Frain’s twisty and wonderfully Columbo-esque story “Off the Menu” was determined the first-place winner. John received a $25 gift card to Half Price Books in University City and the glory of publication on this blog. Congratulations to John–we’re very honored to present his story here.

pufferfish  n poison

Off the Menu

Sosuke Tanaka’s license said he understood the intricacies of preparing pufferfish. Overcooked, you lose the taste. Undercooked, you retain the poison. Two years of training, a rigorous certification test and impressive credentials landed him in one of Tokyo’s finest kitchens.

Before going home, he always studied the upcoming reservations list. The restaurant was a destination for tourists and dignitaries, and Tanaka keenly understood his patrons. He’d pick up special ingredients from the farmer’s market. Hit the docks to reel in fresh seafood. Collect herbs from his own garden. All to tailor a meal for a favorite diner or visiting VIP.

One name leaped off tomorrow’s list. Tanaka checked twice. Took the unusual step of confirming with the hostess. Before stopping by the docks, he crossed the street to a bar. Enjoyed twenty-two-year-old scotch that wafted down his throat as smooth as warm, melted chocolate.

He greeted no one upon arrival at the restaurant Friday afternoon. Walked directly to the kitchen to create the evening menu. At eight p.m., he peered through the doorway window into the dining room.

Tanaka recognized the customer at Table 12, tan jacket, patches on the elbow, regaling his guests with a story. Jonas Webster, chief editor at CollinsHarper. Tanaka, not needing his superb memory here, had submitted his flawless cookbook manuscript to Webster six years ago. He’d received a one-sentence rejection: “Sorry, didn’t make it past the appetizer.” An editor who thought he was a fucking comedian.

Took six years, but Tanaka finally uttered his reply, albeit under his breath, as he stared through the glass. “Tonight, Mr. Webster, you don’t make it to dessert.”

Tanaka prepared his specialty appetizer, a teriyaki crusted beef wrapped around asparagus and mushrooms. He had served the dish once to the prime minister of England. Rave reviews. He drizzled a raspberry sauce around the edge of the dish to resemble a hardback book cover. Special for his audience. A last supper should be exquisite.

Webster selected the wine, sloshed it in his glass and dabbed a sip across his lips before allowing the waiter to fill glasses around the table. For the meal, however, he did as important guests here did: allowed the chef to choose the menu.

After the appetizer left the kitchen, and as the sous chef worked on salads, Tanaka focused on the tiger puffer that lay before him. He left the liver inside, an act that could cost him his job, his lofty salary and his future. An act that would most certainly cost Jonas Webster his future.

Tanaka appreciated the fact that preparing the puffer incorrectly – some might say illegally – was even more difficult than a correct preparation. It’s the way it should be. Nothing worth this much should come easy. So engrossed in the moment, he didn’t hear the waiter call him twice. Finally, his masterpiece complete, Tanaka set out the entree for Table 12. He joined the waiter to ensure the correct plate found the man with patches on his elbow.

“Ah, here he is now,” the general manager said, addressing the table, but saving his longest look for Webster at the head. “Allow me to introduce Tokyo’s most awarded chef, Sosuke Tanaka.”

Applause from the diners, smiles all around. Webster leaned back, held out his hand to shake, then, remembering the customs of the country he was visiting, stood to bow.

“A more delicious meal I have never enjoyed,” Webster said.

“Was my pleasure,” Tanaka said. “Special for you.”

“Tell me,” Webster began, “how long have you been at your craft?”

“I’m a recent convert, sir. Indeed, I’ve been a master chef only the past decade. The gift was revealed to me later in life than most.”

Addressing both the chef and the general manager, Webster was effusive in his praise. “I’m sure I speak for all your guests when I say we’re fortunate that whatever you tried first did not pan out. This, my friend, is your true calling.” A toast, and the table drank in agreement.

For Tanaka, this was all unexpected. He wanted to hate the man. He wanted to enjoy seeing the man succumb to the poison in the puffer. His plan laid out so well, and now the victim was spoiling his effort by demonstrating his honor.

The puffer waited on Webster’s plate. The general manager, beaming, leaned in and said, “Please, sir, enjoy your dinner while it is hot.”

“Your hospitality is beyond reproach. I don’t know how you’ll beat that appetizer, but I’ll enjoy finding out.”

“Your kindness overwhelms,” Tanaka said. “There is only one way to save my honor.” Tanaka pulled the puffer fish from Webster’s plate and swallowed the liver, chasing it with a full glass of water.

He bowed toward Webster and returned to his kitchen for the final time.

 

John Frain is working on his debut novel and enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction. You can follow him on his website.

 

 

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Top Transformer: “Looking Through Glass” by J.D. Campbell

In June, the STL Scribblers held a Transformation Microprose Contest, challenging writers to produce a 800-word piece on the theme. J.D. Campbell’s “Looking Through Glass,” a powerful piece on justice and empathy, is the second of three winners, selected by democratic vote. It is published here for the first time.

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Looking Through Glass

Joyce Canter watched Jamal through the one-way glass as the boy sat shackled to the interrogation room table. Tears burned his eyes. The law mandated a minor’s parent to be present during questioning, but that would prove difficult since Jamal’s parents lay dead in their living room.

“Book him,” Joyce said.

Lieutenant Daniel Haden cocked his head. “Ms. Canter, the evidence isn’t that clear.”

Annoyed, she turned and faced the Lieutenant. “Two dead parents aren’t clear enough for you?”

The Lieutenant frowned. This wasn’t the first time he and the district attorney had butted heads. “Both Jamal’s and his father’s prints were found on the gun. Self-defense is plausible.”

“So is murder.”

The Lieutenant took a deep breath and said, “Three domestic disturbance calls in the past six months, all from Jamal.”

Joyce quit listening to the Lieutenant. There was no need. She knew Jamal’s guilt the moment she looked through the glass. The eyes of cold blooded killers spoke to Joyce Canter like hymns to angels. They may well up with tears and plead their innocence, or even dilate remorse, but the eyes never lied to her.

She had first become aware of “the gift” while clerking for Judge Thayler as a law student. One glimpse into the eyes of a courtroom criminal was like truth serum, a confession of sorts, which shot an electrical sensation throughout Joyce’s body. The gift was never wrong and Joyce always sided with it over any counterintuitive evidence.

Joyce looked at Jamal again through the glass. “He’s a killer, Lieutenant. A fifteen year old stone cold killer.”

“I would never question your–”

“Then don’t!” Joyce interrupted.

Joyce did not understand the Lieutenant’s empathy. Even when her husband was murdered four years ago, the Lieutenant had handed out compassion cupcakes to every suspect he interrogated. Pointless Joyce thought.

“At least hear his side of the story,” the Lieutenant pleaded now.

“No. I’m late to pick up my son.” Joyce walked to the door but before leaving she added, “The truth will prevail Lieutenant; it always does.”

Moments later, she arrived at Ethan’s school. The Wonder World Preschool decor provoked a degree of imagination long forgotten by Joyce. Cartoon animals covered the walls. Sea lions swam in blue oceans which transformed into green fields peppered with black cows.

Entering the school, Joyce was met by its director, Susan Landers, and escorted into an observation room. In stark contrast to the hallway, this room was cold, colorless, and void of personality. A one-way glass window peeked into an adjacent room where Ethan sat alone drawing at a table.

Confused, Joyce asked, “What’s happening? Why is Ethan by himself?”

“Ms. Canter,” Susan chose her words carefully, “Have you noticed a difference in Ethan’s behavior? Anything out of the ordinary, or say abnormal?”

Abnormal.

The word was still registering for Joyce when Susan produced crayon drawings from a folder and handed them to her. One picture showed a stick person holding a knife dripping with red blood. The victim, labelled Victoria, lay covered in a pool of red. Etched below the knifeman was the name Ethan.

Joyce gasped.

The next drawing showed a boy having his hands sawed off by Ethan. Another painted a gruesome mass killing of his classmates. The last showed a closeup of the knife plunged into his teacher’s eye.

In every drawing, Ethan’s stick figure wore a satisfied smile.

Joyce could barely speak. “I don’t understand.”

Susan Landers took a deep breath. “The children were asked to draw a picture of something they knew how to do, like pickup their room or brush their teeth. Ethan told his teacher this is how you kill someone.”

The drawings slipped through Joyce’s fingers and floated to the floor like falling autumn leaves. She peered through the glass and connected with her son’s eyes. The moment was brief, but the sensation freight-trained her, nearly knocking her over.

“I need to see my son now!” Joyce said, pushing past Susan and entering the classroom.

“MOMMY,” Ethan yelled and ran into his mother’s outstretched arms. His little beating breaths resonated as she held him close, consumed by his pure unadulterated love. “I missed you Mommy,” Ethan said, kissing her cheek.

Joyce sobbed uncontrollably as she carried Ethan to his carseat.

Driving home, she looked at Ethan in the rearview mirror, coming to grips with her son’s true identity, feeling her gift was now an affliction and not a blessed power. For the first time she realized there was a human being, a loving soul, connected to the image she viewed through the glass. Wiping away the tears, she dialed the Lieutenant, hoping there was still time to hear Jamal’s side of the story.

*

After graduating from the University of Iowa, J.D. began a career in advertising by writing, producing, and selling radio commercials. He currently owns Campbell Creative Media, a creative, marketing, and consultation agency.

In his free time, J.D. dabbles in the dark waters of fiction, recently winning 1st place in the 2015 St. Louis Writer’s Guild annual short story contest.

J.D. resides in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife, three daughters, and a finicky Australian Shepherd named Mazie.

 

 

 

 

 

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Top Transformer: “Her First” by Jan Kraus

In June, the STL Scribblers held a Transformation Microprose Contest, challenging writers to produce an 800-word piece inspired by the theme. Jan Kraus’s “Her First,” a stark and lyrical account of a love affair, is the first of our three winners, selected by democratic vote. We are very honored to publish it here.

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Her First

When I fell in love the first time, it was absolute; his hands, his eyes, his voice, his mind, his spirit. It snuck up on both of us.

It was my first full time job, civil service, and Martin was my boss. The war raged in Vietnam. Our team had ‘secret’ clearance and secured entry doors. Martin and I sat in a tiny room, my desk sideways to his.   There was a little window pass through to Fred, the parts guy, and a door that the twelve crewmen used when they walked by on their way to the vault and workshop in back. As the first admin they’d ever had, the only female and very young, I think they all fell in love with me a little and I with them.

“Where’s Martin?” asked an unhappy female voice on the phone.

“He’s away. Can I take a message?”

“He needs to call Addy!” Slam.

I complained “She was NOT very nice”.

With a grin, he said “Well, that’s no lady, that’s my wife.”

Martin was married with sons my age; tall, strong, agile, one fourth Cherokee with a chiseled face someone once called ugly. He’d been US army, retired into civil service, a soldier-philosopher, serene, unflappable, and, unexpectedly, a part-time rare coin merchant.

In spite of the war, it was government work, so we had plenty of time for conversation, familiarity, and a surprising empathy to mature. Soon, I didn’t need to see him to know he was in a room.

The power of the feelings that grew alarmed us. We didn’t want to hurt Addy.   We didn’t want to lose the respect of our friends and colleagues.   It was bittersweet, wretched and so damn real.

I quit my job to put an end to it.

He entreated “Just lunch? Please…?”

My feeble resolve crumbled. We’d meet at a little out of the way place on the edge of downtown; formica table tops, patchy linoleum floors, florescent lights. He’d bring Herb, one of the crewmen, so we were just friends who stayed in touch; except, perhaps, when our hands brushed or we stood too close.

This went on for months, until one day he asked softly. “Meet me by the river?”

The wharf was dark and strangely quiet, sounds softly muted echoes. Barges floated by. The river sparkled with reflected lights from traffic on the bridges and anchored boats. My eyes soaked him up as he’d walk to my car. The kisses, the caress, were sweet, salty and utterly terrifying.   It was thoughtless yet every cell was conscious, awake at last.

We got bold and met in the daylight on the barren, secluded expanse below the bridge. Massive steel girders stood guard as we held each other, two old souls entwined at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Life still happened. Vietnam wore on; boys I’d known gone or damaged. I lived with my parents and siblings. When my Mom died, my home life became agony. The stolen moments with Martin were my solace.

He’d talk about weekend events where he bought and sold coins. I’d drive those routes; visit towns where he’d stayed; have a meal where he’d dined; seek his aura left behind.

He insisted I start night school to get my degree. I’d been drifting without a goal and he wouldn’t have it. Thus, my life’s work and independence were set in motion.

He confessed.   “If I could choose, it would be you. I want a family with you.” Calamity loomed.

Winter came. “Addy and I are moving to Phoenix. You know I hate these cold bleak months.” Yes, I knew.

It was the only way, so right and so devastating.

I whispered, “You’ve got to be the one.”

We met one night at a wayside motel in a distant little town. The vacancy sign blinked outside the window; the room out of an old black and white movie. We were both so frightened. His hands shook. I remember only bits and pieces of our coupling; just the brief pain and the sweetness of his touch.

Our meets grew further and further apart, a slow agonizing parting but the only way we could remain deeply and profoundly joined.

It he’d been single; if I’d been older; if only, if only…. It just couldn’t be.

The last time I saw him, I was moving into my first apartment, he was on one last trip back from Phoenix. His car out front, my roommate Nancy asked “Who’s that?”

I couldn’t say “My other self.” So I said “A friend from work.”

Down on the curb, I leaned into the car window   His hand on mine burned like fire. His eyes were full of me. I hope he saw himself fill mine.

Jan Kraus has been writing for many years, but pursuing a career in Information Technology kind of got in the way.   For her final career based project in 2012-2014, she authored several modules in the open access Health Information Technology course funded by the MoHealthWINs grant program in conjunction with Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Bill Gates foundation.

Jan’s now pursuing the arts, including writing poetry and fiction which is definitely more fun.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/118292762@N02/27447930916″>The Humber Bridge</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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Scribbler’s Transformation Contest

“I intend to speak of bodies changed into new entities”

Ovid, Metamorphoses

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Guidelines for Scribbler’s Micro-Prose Contest: “Transformation”

1. The theme of transformation can be literal or metaphorical–a mannequin coming to life, a girl turning into a butterfly, and a veteran teacher forced to take on a new subject would all be valid topics for this contest. The subject is change and its effects on life. You might also consider how language itself, or the form of your piece, can reflect the theme–can the work itself undergo transformation?

2. Any genre is allowed: fiction, essay, memoir, poetry. If you get stuck, thinking about a moment of change in your own life–a point when something ended or opened up–could be a rich entryway.

3. Maximum length is 800 words. This is approximately 3 pages double spaced. Please use word count to verify you are within the accepted word limit. Entries over 800 words may be disqualified.

3a. The word limit is tight to encourage you to be light, poetic, and suggestive in your prose. Consider using juxtaposition, white space, and strong imagery as ways of getting the most out of your word count.

4. Entries will be read aloud at the meeting of STL Scribblers on Monday, June 6 at 7 pm, Central Library 2.3. Group members will select the winner by democratic vote. The first-place winner will receive a $25.00 gift card to Half Price Books, University City. First, second, and third place winners will have the option to publish their work on this blog in the month of June.

5. All entries must be submitted to elundgren@slpl.org by Sunday, June 5 at 11:59 pm.

The contest is open to members of the STL Scribblers group and patrons of the St. Louis Public Library. Feel free to contact me at the email address above if you have any questions.

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Ted Mathys in the Stacks: Sang Froid and the World’s Fair

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the fourth in a series; see below for previous entries. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

It’s hard, living in St. Louis, to not feel the historical pull of the year 1904. It marked our city’s coming out party. During that single summer, St. Louis played host to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, as well as the 1904 Olympics and the 1904 Democratic National Convention.

Today, the World’s Fair legacy is everywhere. Most palpably it is felt in Forest Park, the site of the Fair. Twice as large as Central Park in New York, and four times the size of Grant Park in Chicago, the park accommodated 20 million people at the Fair during 1904. The fountains and grounds where the Fair was held are now the site of the St. Louis Art Museum. In the park there’s also the Missouri History Museum, which has a permanent exhibit about the Fair, as well as the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center, the World’s Fair Pavilion, restaurants, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, ball fields, horse stables, an ice skating rink, and gobs of geese.

ArtHillCollage

But the legacy of the Fair also indexes aspects of St. Louis identity. Like, we here in St. Louis were once the center of the world, and now we’re not sure what we are, but damn, look at those amazing trees and serpentine gravel paths and fountains and architecture. If you look in the right direction, doesn’t it just feel like Paris? The Exposition was also largely a celebration of conquest and racial exceptionalism, issues that haunt the city today. The Fair came in the wake of the Spanish-American war in which the U.S. had acquired new territories in Puerto Rico, Guam, and elsewhere. People from these areas, as well as Native Americans and indigenous peoples from the Philippines where literally put on display at the Fair. Finally, the Fair lives on in kitsch. For example, there’s an amazing little hole-in-the-wall donut shop that I visit at the end of each semester to get donuts for my students to bribe them into thinking I’m a good teacher. It’s called World’s Fair Donuts. The address is, appropriately, 1904 Vandeventer Avenue. And yes, of course, there’s Judy Garland as Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis, which takes place in the lead up to the World’s Fair, and has given us standards like the “Trolley Song.”

The Internet also tells me I can now buy an incredible Judy Garland doll donning her trolley dress.

JudyGarland

But, as with Ted Drewes Frozen Custard and toasted ravioli and slimy provel cheese on St. Louis cracker crust pizza, I’m never sure if I’m supposed to be proud of the Fair. Turns out this is nothing new. It’s a question about St. Louis’ identity as a provincial city or a national city, an outpost or a center. And it’s further a question about citizen humility vs. citizen self-regard and ambition. This is what Reedy wrestled with in The Mirror during 1904.

In the New Years Eve issue in 1903, Reedy pontificates on the coming year. Writing about the Fair, he wonders about the city’s residents’ flatlining enthusiasm: “What shall we say of it that shall avoid the mere hyperbole of patriotic booming? It will be the greatest Exposition of all history: that is vague. There have been already expended upon it $30,000,000….[But] to us here in St. Louis, perhaps the Fair doesn’t wear its true proportions.” Reedy feels that despite its magnificence, the locals have been working for so long to land the Fair, raising money for the Fair, preparing for the Fair, and thinking about the Fair, that they’ve forgotten that St. Louis is about to do something of global significance. He mocks how St. Louisans think of the local leaders who helped secure and bankroll the events as just guys down the street: “Dave Francis is a big man? Pshaw! We see him every day. We even take a drink with him. We don’t see any halo around him. He’s much the same sort of man he was when we knew him only as a citizen. He a man of genius? Go on! He’s only a slob of a St. Louisan like the rest of us.” For Reedy, this line of thinking is the problem. “That’s the essential slobbiness of sentiment that has kept the St. Louisan of worth always in the slob class – in his own town.” Reedy wants his city to act like a world city, to have some self-regard.

As the Fair approaches, Reedy ramps up his boosterism. “The Fair opening is only four months away,” he writes. “The old town isn’t in the least excited.” Having struck out in his attempts to whip up excitement, he then tries an about face, half satirically and half earnestly suggesting that St. Louisans aren’t excited precisely because they are not provincial bumpkins but mature cosmopolitans: “We are only acting as cosmopolitans. This is a big city and the World’s Fair isn’t anything more than an unusually large and pretty bazaar or picnic held in an outlying wood…We are not like Kansas City, that turns out en masse to a flower show or a horse show or a cattle show. St. Louis is Cosmopolis. It has all the sang froid of Cosmopolis. It has acquired an “imperturbable aplomb.’…As was written of India, so of us it shall be said: “She heard the legions thunder past, then turned to dream again.”

By February he’s grumpy. He’s worried that construction on a new railway terminal to transport people to the Fair is behind schedule. He uses the fair to highlight corruption again, this time focusing on how “Lindell avenue, the main boulevard to the World’s Fair, is to be paved with bituminous macadam. Now bituminous macadam in St. Louis is a rank monopoly….But Lindell Avenue had to be paved for the Fair, and the Board of Public Improvement would have nothing but the Warren Brothers’ material, and “there you are.”” And he inveighs against local barbers who are preparing for the coming influx of visitors by jacking up prices: “Barbers about the St. Louis Union Station will make whiskers popular with World’s Fair visitors, if they keep up the present rates of $2 per have and $6.25 for a hair cut…The robbery of visitors to the Fair should be punished as severely as the laws permit.”

But by early April he’s excited, as is everyone else, and his pride is palpable. His reflection on April 28th, right before the opening, reads in its entirety: “Even the mighty Mississippi rises thirty-five feet above its banks to do honor to greatest World’s Fair in history.”

Reedy writes on the Fair throughout the rest of the year, though he seems more interested in and writes more frequently about the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis and the meatpacking strikes in Chicago that would be later immortalized in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. About the Fair, he’s consistently celebratory, working to convince the locals that what they’ve done is great. He pillories national and international newspapers that have attacked the Fair for early sluggish attendance and for the “recklessness with which the critics set about to knock the city.” By the time the Fair attendance turns the corner and the year winds down, Reedy seems sure that the Fair will go down in history, and he’s right. In the end his verdict is: “World’s Fair a Winner.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ted Mathys in the Stacks: A Streetcar Named Riot

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the third in a series; see below for previous entries. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

At the corner of Washington Avenue and North Broadway, four blocks from where I now sit in the St. Louis Public Library, 116 years ago, on Sunday, June 10th, 1900, William Reedy was huddled in the barracks of a posse of men wielding shotguns. The citizen brigade was made up of over 2,000 members of St. Louis upper crust society – lawyers, bankers, businessmen, vestrymen from churches – who’d been tapped by the Sheriff to restore order to a city wracked by a streetcar strike gone haywire. The police had proven ineffectual, and the posse wanted their businesses to get running again. Reedy was not in the posse. He was there, of course, to get the scoop.

Posse

Outside, a parade of striking union families and sympathizers were returning home after a picnic. They’d been on strike for a month, in protest of long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions. They had the backing of much of the citizenry. They were livid at the scabs who had taken their places. And they’d done everything imaginable to stop the cars – like rolling huge boulders and trash onto the tracks. Businesses were at a standstill. Fights were on the rise.

The parade wended past the posse barracks and, Reedy writes, the strikers “jeered the posse guard in front of the barracks. They attempted to pull a [scab] conductor off a car that was passing. Several of them resisted attempts to arrest them.” And then “A shot was fired, stones were thrown. Then the posse began pumping buckshot at the strikers.” Reedy was astounded at the bloodlust among his fellow society gents in the posse: “The scene in the barracks was thrilling,” he wrote four days later in the Mirror. “When the first shot was fired, the writer of this article realized, for the first time, that ‘the hunting of men is the greatest game sport in the world.’ The way the posse rushed to its guns, the sharp, metallic, clattering chorus of the filling magazines, the dash for the street of those already armed, and the evident impatience of those who were held back to fall in line, showed that the posse men were more than half glad ‘the music had begun.’”

Stone

The posse killed 3 strikers that day, wounded others, and dragged some strikers inside their barracks. The strikers “were not criminals,” Reedy wrote. “Many of them had families that might starve as a result of the strike. But when the prisoners were searched, a dozen revolvers, many wire cutters and brass “knucks” were found in their pockets.” Armed but innocent. The three dead strikers became for Reedy “a ghastly testimony to the fatuity of their leaders and the lack of foresight upon the part of the Mayor and the police in permitting a parade past the posse barracks.”

How had it come to this? Just one month before, as the strike began, Reedy had written a cheeky “Reflection” in the Mirror in which he surmised that spring strikes, here and elsewhere, were psychological and physiological evidence of spring fever! His deeper point in the piece was that “…unfounded strikes injure the case of Labor…The strike to dictate how the employer shall manage his own business is the strike that fails, and the strike that fails hurts every laboring man.” But Reedy gets carried away with the idea that spring literally causes strikes: “The influence of the sun and air and the burgeoning earth, these days, is not conducive to work. The halcyon time is the time for resting, and the vernal lassitude steals over the man with the hoe, or the man in the shop as much as it does over the man in the office, who begins to hear the ripple of fishing waters…” He lobs one at Whitman, saying that men in spring just want a good loaf. Spring is when “men generally have a tendency to sympathize with themselves. That’s why, as you notice, spring poetry is touched with sadness…The season softens men. It seems especially to soften their brains. So that we have strong reasons for suspecting that the strike is a symptom of the same lunacy which beholds the rarer iris on the neck of the dove and makes the young man’s fancy ‘turn to thoughts of love.’” Spring calls up some “long gone sense of freedom…Boys now begin to play truant. Older boys would go on strike.”

So what changed for Reedy between May (spring fever) and June (horror)? It wasn’t just witnessing the posse’s violence; as a young newspaperman, one of Reedy’s beats had been covering public hangings. No, it was that by mid-summer he had started to put together the political antecedents of the strike, to follow the money. In a feat of proto-muckraking, he untangled a huge string of corruption in Missouri politics. His spread on the corruption was published in the same issue as the posse anecdote and was subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet that went viral across the country, selling out multiple print runs. It reads like something right out of House of Cards:

House of Cards

Episode 1: Until 1899, there are ten independent streetcar companies in St. Louis, transporting rich and poor alike throughout the fourth largest city in America. Then, with the backing of the state legislature and the Democratic Party, a man named Edwards Whitaker moves to consolidate the streetcar lines into a syndicate called the St. Louis Transit Company.

Episode 2: The Transit Company treats workers like dogs. The workers threaten to unionize. We learn in flashback that out in bucolic Jefferson City, the state capital, the Democratic governor of Missouri, who ran on a platform of cleaning up and rooting out syndicates and trusts, has accepted a $50,000 bribe in return for getting behind the legislation that would allow Whitaker’s St. Louis streetcar monopoly to go forward.

Episode 3: Back in St. Louis, local publisher Billy Reedy, gamboling down Washington Avenue, greets merchants and street boys, mocking Whitaker’s new power: “Mr. Whitaker now rules supreme, and wields the scepter. Ave Caesar, be merciful to your helpless vassals!”

Episode 4: We’re introduced to a powerful Democratic Party gentlemen’s club called the Jefferson Club. The president of the club is a party operative named Harry Hawes, who is pals with the slimy Governor. Hawes and his Club are facing a primary election season and need a lot of manpower to help win their candidates’ campaigns.

Episode 5: Reedy’s Mirror: A Weekly Journal Reflecting the Interests of Thinking People hits the stands, predicting an imminent streetcar strike. In retaliation for increasing union activity, Whitaker’s St. Louis Transit Company has begun to arbitrarily fire conductors and replace them. “There are so many new drivers,” Reedy writes, “that wrecks with other vehicles and horses is way up…The syndicate…has a death grip on the community.”

Episode 6: The union votes to strike. Whitaker replaces every streetcar worker with a scab. Riots break out, with violence on all sides – fights, property destruction, attempted lynching, gunfire, women stripped naked and painted green. But the police are weirdly absent, ineffectual.

Episode 7. Episode set in pre-Civil War St. Louis. In the lead up to the War, sentiment in the northern leaning city is at odds with pro-Confederate minds in rural Missouri and in the state capital. State leaders, fearing that the St. Louis Police force will turn on them, take control of the St. Louis police, putting the city’s police under state control, an odd arrangement that will last 152 years, until 2013 when Mayor Slay signs an executive order to bring the force back under local control.

Episode 8: Back to 1900. Reedy learns that the bill that the bribed Democratic governor signed allowing the streetcar monopoly to go forward was attached to another scheme in which, unbelievably, the St. Louis Police management has been handed over to the Governor’s friend Harry Hawes, president of the Jefferson Club. Hawes then literally pulls the St. Louis police off the streets and withdraws officers from streetcar trolleys during the strike in order to work on Democratic party primary campaigns for his Jefferson Club.

Episode 9: Citizens in St. Louis are desperate. People ask the Governor to send in a state militia to restore order after the police force leaves to work on campaigns. The Governor refuses, punishing the city and its newspapers for treating him so harshly in his own recent campaign.

Episode 10: The strike’s economic toll has now filtered down to the Mirror. “The strike has simply paralyzed the great retail dry goods stores,” Reedy writes. “The patrons cannot get down town. These great stores have stopped advertising. That cuts off the newspaper revenue. It cuts THE MIRROR pretty deeply each week.”

Episode 11: The posse is formed. Things get ugly.

Episode 12: A federal court passes an injunction requiring the streetcar lines to start up again, in the name of ensuring that the U.S. mail can travel on the streetcar lines. “The people of St. Louis have seen too much rioting, have seen too many cars smashed, too many innocent people killed and maimed,” Reedy writes. “The Federal Court injunction has put a stop to the obstruction of traffic and the displays of disorder.”

Episode 13: In a private club called The Noonday Club at the top of a downtown skyscraper, Reedy returns to his private luncheon group with some powerful men. In a twist, we learn that one of them is Harry Hawes, the Democratic party operative who pulled the police from their jobs. Another is James Campbell, a man worth $60 million who also helps bankroll the Mirror. Reedy has been playing all sides or has been played by all sides.

Episode 14 (Finale): The strike wears on until finally petering out in September, leaving 14 dead, hundreds injured, and the city in shambles. At the Noonday Club, the conversation turns to the bankruptcy of the two party system, the rampant corruption that precipitated the strike, and the need to fix it if the city is going to land the deal for the upcoming World’s Fair. Reedy wants a third party to get into politics. Campbell instead decides to buy up both parties, pay for everybody’s campaigns, and demand the right to choose the slates. This appeals to Reedy’s love of the absurd. It happens. The strike is over, and the municipal reform movement is born out of bribery.

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Ted Mathys in the Stacks: On Cyclones and Call Outs

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the second in a series. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

There’s a myth that admissions officers at elite colleges have so many applications by equally qualified megastudents – those valedictorians who have 1500s on their SATs, are captain of the school squash team, serve as president of the debate club, spent 3 summers doing service work in Guatemala, and moonlight as cartoonists – that they just throw the stack of applications down the stairwell and see which ones land face up.

This past week I’ve felt a bit like one of those admissions officers, staring down 25 years of Reedy’s Mirror with 52 issues per year. The Special Collections librarians have advised me against throwing the archive down the stairwell, so instead I’ve decided to pluck ten key events in Saint Louis history from the period and see how Reedy handled them. They are:

  1. The infamous 1896 St. Louis tornado.
  2. The 1896 Republican National Convention in St. Louis.
  3. The St. Louis streetcar strike in 1900.
  4. The 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park.
  5. The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.
  6. Construction of the St. Louis Coliseum, site of the Veiled Prophet Parade, in 1908.
  7. The 1914 publication of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology in Reedy’s Mirror.
  8. The 1914 founding of the NAACP Missouri Chapter in St. Louis.
  9. The 1916 battle over a proposed segregation ordinance.
  10. The 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

These ten events, then, will help me wade into Reedy’s process of, as his biographer put it, “bringing life and letters into phase with one another.” Starting with The Great Cyclone of 1896.

Tornado1

At 5:00 p.m. on May 27, 1896, a super twister made a direct hit on Saint Louis. In just 20 minutes the tornado killed 255 people, damaged almost 10,000 buildings and structures, and decimated Lafayette Park. It remains the single deadliest incident in St. Louis history.

TornadoPath

Reedy’s Mirror was set to go to press the following morning. I imagine him up late at night, scrambling to reorganize the issue’s text and to write something appropriate. The issue did appear on schedule, and Reedy’s “Reflection” on the tornado begins with a thunderous statement: “This city awakes to-day, after a night of suspense, to but a dim realization of one of the most colossal calamities that ever befell an American metropolis.” The reflection maintains a sober tone, personifies Death, and calls the storm a “visitation” whose “majestic horrors” will only be appreciated over time and by degrees. Reedy tries to find purpose and meaning in the event, and writes that “there was one thing about the storm that those who have passed through it remember with a certain increased pride in humanity. During its fiercest moments no one thought of himself. Affection for others was stronger than personal fear.” I believe that Reedy believed this.

In subsequent issues, the cyclone starts to morph into a platform for Reedy to do what he does best: call out selfish members of genteel society who haven’t donated to the relief fund, and dream up cyclone metaphors to address politics, slam the newspapers, and make people laugh. He would have excelled on Facebook.

In June, he lambastes the national newspapers for sensationalizing the event, inflating the death toll, and padding their stories with “sloppy ‘fine writin.’” He then starts in on the Mayor, who had declared that St. Louis needed no outside aid for cyclone recovery efforts. Reedy points out that in their pride, the politicians and wealthy people are throwing the poor people under the bus: “The big factories will rise again. The fine homes will be rebuilt. The man whose house, that he had not yet paid for, is splintered and shattered into debris that cannot be rebuilt.” So, “Let the gentlemen who have told the outside world that we want no help ask the people whose homes were swept away for their opinion on that proud pronunciamento.”

Tornado2

Then Reedy gets weird. In one reflection he tries to wrap his head around Malthus’ en vogue theories on the dangers of overpopulation, and argues that “Wars, at least bloody wars, are a thing of the past. Pestilences are becoming rarer and rarer and diseases, necessarily fatal a score of years ago, are now regarded as little worse than a bad cold. But there have been killed by natural forces in the last three months more people than have been slain in battle for thirty years. Cyclones, tornadoes, floods, come upon the world and in a mere pang of fear thousands of peasants lose their lives.” I can’t tell if he’s being satirical, but he basically argues that the population question is a non-issue because for all societies in all times, natural disasters will wipe out enough people.

Reedy then plays punching bag with one newspaper, The Chronicle, which has proposed a new tax on corporations to repair city institutions. “By all means,” he writes, “Tax them to death. Tax their profits until they dwindle to losses… The rich are all criminals… They bribed the cyclone to pass them by and devastate the poor man.” Then the characteristic swift pivot: “The rich have no rights. They are Enemies of Society. The Chronicle is right. It is the Friend of the People. It is a rich corporation.” Boom. The reader can feel Reedy’s delight as he turns the Chronicle’s boneheaded oversight against them.

Finally, he’s gotta have his jokes: “I direct the attention of the dog-catchers to the cyclone humorist… I object to the cheerful lunatics who say that St. Louis is a solid city and can always raise the wind. I loathe the fellow who says in response to this that the wind razed us right back. Who does not abhor the meteorologist in motley who accounts for the disaster by saying that the cyclone was due to our having recently, by our vast progress, taken the wind out of Chicago’s sails? It is weariness to the flesh to listen to the narrow-gauge infidel who points out that the churches suffered more by the storm than the breweries and saloons because the latter were better able to beer the pressure of the elements.”

 

 

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