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the Literary’s Hot Asphalt Guide: Part II

10.20.2012

Best Literary Birthplace

We came within a hundred miles of Hannibal, but it was downriver in St Louis that the Literary finally got its idol-worship kick. The Central West End neighborhood on the edge of monumental Forest Park was once childhood home to Thomas Stearns Eliot and Thomas Lanier Williams. Both would change their names and their municipal loyalties but you can’t completely shake where you came from. William S Burroughs grew up here (as did Thomas Wolfe, weirdly, for a bit). Kate Chopin, another name-changer, both lived and died here, the latter event of a brain hemorrhage during the 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park (T.S. purportedly had a season pass). Martha Gelhorn was a child here, as was Sally Benson, writer of “Meet Me in St Louis.” We found it a lovely suburb. As nice as Oak Park, with wise tree-shaded streets and, in some areas, just a mix of mansions and bigger mansions. Not too much literary fanfare besides a couple statues and a plaque or two outside the one (good) bookstore—Left Bank Books.

The Literary also made the necessary pilgrimage across Forest Park to Washington University in search of the ponderous shadow of William H Gass, brooding down raven-like from the north tower of the Dept of Philosophy building. We didn’t see him, but we felt his presence (actually it turned out he was in Vienna giving a reading—at 88! Which is pretty damn good).

Best Architecture

Union Terminal in Cincinnati easily took this prize from the Literary. A great, strange dome of a building, all the typical art deco flourishes flawlessly mixed with some very atypical ones. The colors were of a palate rarely seen (by us). Even the color of the water in the fountain outside (on a gorgeous sunny day) was of the same light-but-bright variety. The inner dome’s murals masked a massive installation of organ pipes, for which the keyboard sits in the center of the hall, on which concerts are given every couple months (which unfortunately we did not have the good luck to hear–why don’t you podcast?!). Some seemingly lost old man wandering about the huge hall under the dome walked up to us and explained all of this. We’re still quite certain he was a ghost.

Now imagine you’re listening to Bach’s Tocatta… actually watch this.

Runner Up: Another train station, Grand Central in KC. Beautiful, more straightforwardly classical style, cavernous interior, a hall the length of a football field, and on our way there we saw elephants and zebras traipsing down a city street. The circus, as they say, was in town.

Best Built-by-Mother-Nature Architecture

Mammoth Cave, KY, with the possible exception of…

Grandest Canyon

The Grand Canyon. Is dangerous.

from the Notebook: KingshighwayGravoisLoughborough, south on Morganford, Bayless (east) ave H straight entrance, sect 3 lot 1 gr 1

Best Neighborhood

Lafayette Square, St Louis. An eruption of green greets you across the interstate from downtown St Louis. Large Parisian-style three-story mansions line the quiet blocks on every side of the square, wide streets feed small, dead-end alleyways, little cafes and restaurants with strung white lights, the city’s fleur-de-lis everywhere. The all-inclusive beauty of this neighborhood is all the more impressive when you realize there’s another interstate just to the south as well, effectively fencing it in. A walk through the park in the morning with the quiet and intent owners of small dogs reminded us of similar strolls in Paris and London.

Runner Up: Mt Adams, Cincinatti. Perhaps because the rest of Cinci is pretty uninspiring, this little San Fran-esque hill packed with pretty houses and good shops and cafes, and a lovely Art Museum complex, was impressive. A Best Church award goes to the cathedral at the top, the Church of the Immaculata, with the best views of the city you’re likely to get, and the best stair-step pilgrimage this side of Sacré-Coeur.

Best Place for the Only Basketball Hoop the Literary Saw on the Campus of University of New Mexico

Do they call the ball the nucleus? Do they play protons v electrons? Will these observations affect the outcome of the next match? The desk-jockeys need their exercise, too, folks, and this is where it happens. He splits the defense, explodes to the hole…two points! And the foul.

Best Library

St Louis Central Public Library. A strange choice, if only because it wasn’t open. Although we have no idea what the inside looks like, the outside of this newly refurbished palace of books looks great! And honestly, the other candidates were all pretty shoddy.

Best Meal

Oklahoma Joes, Kansas City, Kansas. As the Literary was doing this trip on the cheap, we didn’t exactly dine with an eye for great food (as least as advertised). But in KC the barbecue is famous, and on the sleepy Kansas side of the border (and in a gas station, as [they] do) we were fortunate enough to find the best food of the trip. Slow-cooked, spicy, dipped in delectable vinegary sauces, it was our biggest meal in terms of volume as well. OK Joes is an actual gas station diner, but the really strange thing is that the one other showcased item they sell besides petrol and scrumptiously-cooked meat is…disc-golf discs. Incredible.

Farthest We Drove Out of Our Way in Order to Not Have to Pay the $3.75 Non-Wells Fargo ATM Fee

17 miles, round trip, lost in the Kansas City suburbs.

Amount We Believe That Cost in Gas

~ $3.75

Best Café

This award, as some of you may know, is one of the Literary’s most prestigious. There’s a lot that goes into a great café. That’s why we’re giving this year’s award to… Iris Book Cafe, in Cincinnati, Ohio. A small, cozy front room with a long hallway, and every wall lined with books. The coffee is quality, the food is locally-sourced, the cookies homemade. But the book selection is where it’s at. This was the Literary’s favorite book browse of the trip (with three books purchased, tops for that category). A seriously sweet place. There’s a record store (same owners) next door. We spent about two hours in a warm booth reading our new Julio Cortazar collection and dreaming up plans to open one of these things in a place as off the literary map as Cincinnati. If any of you are going through Cinci, plan this for a detour.

Best Drip

Satellite Coffee, Albuquerque, NM

Best Espresso

Little Freshie, Kansas City, MO

Best Décor (exterior)

Again, we’ll give this to Iris Book Cafe. A facade cool but crumbling, paint bright and chipped, neighborhood up and coming. It was also raining, which, besides being beyond the creative control of store designers, nevertheless added that extra cozy something to our experience here. Some book cafes get all the luck.

Best Décor (interior)

We don’t know how we can give this award to Shakespeare and Co, of Lexington, KY, but here it is anyway. Half 19th Century tearoom, half 21st Century sports bar, excelling at neither, we have no idea how this place was formed or why. The color palate of the tearoom is about as garish as it gets for these things, like something out of the most banally offensive Victorian England book-of-manners. The room directly adjoining is a loud, pub-style barroom with twelve tv’s, a row of beer taps, and young, lasciviously done-up twenty-one year-olds in oversized American football jerseys. Did we enjoy our meal here? Yes, and no.

from the Notebook: Jim Beam: Sunday: 12:30-3:30→off I65 (→245) south of Louisville, free    SAT: 9:30-3:30

Woodford: M—Sat: 9-5  $7  off 1659 in Versailles, w of Lexington    Sun: 12:30—4:30

Go to Part III

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