Dutch author shares shock of moving to St. Louis in new novel
ST. LOUIS, MO — Dutch columnist Arjen van Veelen told his friends he moved to St. Louis in 2014 to write a novel. His wife is a microbiologist who found work continuing her PhD on a rare bacterium at a lab in Missouri. He thought he was moving to a sleepy Midwestern city that rarely made international headlines. Now Arjen van Veelen reflects on the surprise move to St. Louis in his new novel, “Americans Do Not Walk.”
This is the description of the novel from “The Correspondent” – “When Arjen van Veelen moves to the forgotten city of St. Louis, he is startled: this is a rich third world country. To understand the America of today, you must be in St. Louis. Nowhere is the gap between rich and poor, black and white, city and countryside as big as there. In this book the master observer shows America as you rarely see – and brings it surprisingly close.” – Order a copy of the book here.
Van Veelen’s debut novel “Notes on Moving Obelisks” was nominated for the Libris Literature Prize. This is an excerpt from “Americans Do Not Walk” posted to the website of the news outlet the author works for. It was roughly translated from Dutch to English via Google:
“It is three o’clock in the morning when we are startled by loud banging on the front door.
“Did you hear that too?”
Of course she heard it. But neither of us dares to the window to see who is standing on the porch in the middle of the night. It will not be known, because we do not know anyone here, except the neighbor.
Just peep away. Outside it is pitch dark, nothing to see. Only cricket sounds can be heard.
Who of us sneaks down? There are no curtains yet. Soon it will be a trap, you will look like that in the course of a gun – such things will happen here, I have read.
Back under the sheets. Pretending it was the wind? Or an angry raccoon?
“Let’s not go tough,” I say.
But down on the kitchen table is an envelope with three thousand US dollars with rubber bands around it: the deposit and the first months rent of our dream home.
And again it sounds banging, louder and more urgent. Our hearts are pounding now.
Three days ago my wife and I flew with our cat and four suitcases to St. Louis, Missouri, a city on the Mississippi River, not far from where it merges with the Missouri – we did not know much more than that. Only some Wikipedia facts:
The Budweiser beer comes from it.
The rapper Nelly, known for the hit ‘ Hot in Herre ‘, lives there.
The baseball club St. Louis Cardinals is one of the best in America.
The most famous attraction is the Arch, a stainless steel triumphal arch of 192 meters high.
Not a very touristy city, not a place to be, but we are not here as tourists either. We have ended up here by a twist of fate. Better said, because of a lactic acid bacterium.
My wife is a microbiologist, she did PhD research in Amsterdam on the bacterium Lactobacillus johnsonii . She wanted to continue that research. And that turned out to be possible only in a few places in the world, including in a laboratory in St. Louis. We had to google to know where that was. Then we took our rushes, followed by a bacterium, to the promised land.
America never drew me like that. I have never been there, except for a few days in New York. (And you may wonder if you can count New York, it seemed to me an island in itself.) I prefer to travel to places that seem new or exciting: Algiers, New Delhi, Shanghai. America? I could already draw that country blind, I always thought, thanks to books, cinema films and the NOS Journaal. In America, the motorways are empty with yellow stripes. The people are jovial, slightly too fat (and something too warlike). They walk there with large cups of coffee over the street. Neon lights on wet asphalt. In fact, I lived in America for years: the Netherlands always seemed to me to be an American satellite state, with the same iPhones and McDonald’s fries, the same jet fighters, the same words, the same debates about ‘white privilege’ and ‘institutional racism’.
Every snowflake in New York was breaking news in the Netherlands. To keep quiet about the insane amount of attention to the US presidential election. On Instagram was always someone busy with a road trip through the endless States, I found the best thing about America that you did not have to go there to have been there. America came to you, whether you wanted it or not.
That one trip to New York had really pleased me and it had confirmed my suspicions: I had already seen almost everything I saw there.
Like the place where the Twin Towers no longer stood. The yellow taxis. The beautiful art in the Museum of Modern Art. I too had squeezed through the crowd to take a picture of The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. I had even considered taking a city tour along the film locations of hit series such as Sex and the City . That seemed to me the whole idea of going to America: to visit places that you once saw. Moving the films and series.
But further: why on earth are you going to a country that you already know?
I did not know St. Louis from the movie. You seldom heard anything about that city anyway. That was probably, I reasoned before we left, because there was never anything important in St. Louis. St. Louis did not sound as magical as New York or Los Angeles, rather as a kind of Liège or Almelo.
And to be honest, that was excellent for me. In recent years I had been a columnist at NRC Handelsbladbut I had become a little tired of the eternal news cycle and debate, submitting opinions every week. My dream was finally to write a novel, I had already made a synopsis, even signed a contract, champagne with it. It had to be about Alexander the Great. It would take place in Alexandria. It would be a novel about immortality, friendship and civilization.
So I told my friends: I went to write my magnum opus in America, in a city where nothing ever happened, in a country that I already knew. And then I stuffed my bags full of books; not about America, but about ancient Greeks and ruins of ancient Egypt.
Should I have read in better? Absolutely. But would there be a travel guide that could have warned me of what I would find here in St. Louis?
Perhaps the low rents should have made us stand out. In the Netherlands we had a call on Craigslist, the American Marketplace. Soon a Mr. Roth responded, we spoke to him via Skype. Mr. Roth was not a direct family of the famous writer, but a Jew from New York.
The gesticulating sixties turned out, like my wife, to be promoted in chemistry. He taught at a black school in St. Louis, as an apple for the thirst he snapped up houses to rent out. For us he had a detached, brick house on offer, built in 1927, completely renovated. Wooden veranda, mowed lawn, private driveway with a garage: suburbia as in the movie. He lived there diagonally, the rent was 900 dollars, to pay him in cash.
You hardly received a garage for this in Amsterdam.
The house was on Monroe Avenue, we noted, in Vinita Terrace. We already looked around on Google Street View. A leafy, dead-end street, in the front gardens were statues and flowers and sometimes an American flag. Within walking distance was a small shopping mall with, in any case, a supermarket. Fifteen minutes drive was a nightlife district. Also the metro to the university was not far.
Perfect. Deal. I already saw my new life for me: I would first buy a large oak desk. Then I would write my novel, in peace, if my wife was in the laboratory. Finally, I would occasionally take a walk to the neighborhood supermarket for fresh bread and an American smile.
St. Louis would be my log cabin in the wilderness.
From the airport we were with our rental car within fifteen minutes in Vinita Terrace. Our Monroe Avenue looked like on Street View. The only thing that was disappointing was the oppressive summer heat: almost 35 degrees Celsius. Inside the air conditioning already and in the big fridge cans of coke and fresh bagels ready. We released the cat that crept under the bed. We ourselves were also a bit worried about the seven-hour time difference and the long journey (there are no direct flights to St. Louis, so if you are unlucky with the connection, you can be on the road for 24 hours). Luckily, Mr. Roth was there, too, gesturing with excitement.
At the dining table he sketched a map of the city with a fineliner on a paper, always looking up to see whether we were recording the knowledge, like a teacher in front of a chalkboard. St. Louis consisted of the ‘ city ‘, which lay like a half moon in a bend of the Mississippi. Around it were the first suburbs , where we lived. Then he hatched the whole north of the city center: ‘You should not come here.’ For the rest of the agglomeration roughly the same rule of thumb applied: north = not good.
Now Vinita Terrace itself was in the northern suburbs, but according to Mr. Roth we found ourselves in a hidden oasis – albeit in an unfavorably well-known part of the city. We only had to pay a little attention when we drove to the center.
‘It would be better not to turn left at Page Boulevard, rather go straight and then through Forest Park.’ And we prefer not to go to the ‘ ghetto -Schnucks’, the nearest large supermarket. There the quality was less (from the visitors or the products, he left it in the middle). Better was the ‘Jewish-Schnucks’, the same supermarket, but in a prosperous neighborhood where many Jews lived.
My ears were flapping. The last time I received this travel advice was in a backpacker hotel in Cape Town. And then I was still robbed, in the street of the hostel itself.
But Mr. Roth swore to us that nothing ever happened here in Vinita Terrace. “You can go on vacation without locking your house!” We believed him: after all, he lived on the other side.
Our neighborhood Vinita Terrace, we learned, was an independent municipality. It was part of the first suburbs of St. Louis, built for people who wanted to escape the busy city at the beginning of the last century. It had only three streets and 277 people lived according to the last census.
Still, Vinita Terrace had its own local council elections, its own snow removal service, even its own police. For those agents we had to pay attention, Mr. Roth advised. They were often parked around the corner, to be praised on people who did not stop in front of the stop sign. ‘So really stop completely, even if there is no traffic, nor do you roll slowly.’ If the policemen were busy with these kind of peckers, I thought, then it did indeed happen.
Finally, the landlord gave a tip if we wanted to eat out. A ten minute drive to the north you had an old center with brick houses. There you had a nice restaurant in an antique train car, where you could drink good European wine. The name of that other old suburb did not tell me anything at all: Ferguson.
That night we were outside for the first time, we wobbled around on our porch swing , the swing bench that hung from steel chains on the wooden roof. It was still very hot, we were tired but satisfied. Occasionally black men passed by in the street with bare, tattooed barks and sagging trousers. Just rappers from video clips; but they wandered past our porch with less bravado, and also carried much less gold. They waved back when we waved.
Our first weekend in Vinita Terrace we filled with practical matters: arranging the internet, buying an oak desk, pinning dollars for the landlord. When we arranged the most important thing, we drove to the laboratory at the academic hospital, where my wife would start on Monday.
Against the advice of our landlord we turned left on Page Boulevard. That had to be possible, there was a lot of traffic, and it was the fastest way to the center. Gradually we became quieter. We passed shabby eateries with hand-painted inscriptions. Shabby mini-churches. Poetified buildings appeared on both sides. Almost everyone here on the street was black. I thought about Cape Town again.
And the closer we got to the city center, the more rudely the sight became. Garages with rusty cars, drink shops with bars, overgrown sidewalks and here and there a plot where grass grew. This was probably the ghetto – although there was something crazy about this ghetto. You saw no flats here, no dreary social housing, no projects. The houses were stately: cupboards, freestanding, built from nineteenth-century brick, with spacious wooden verandas and ivory white pillars, balconies with cast iron decoration.
This seemed more like the canal belt, where the original inhabitants had run away in a hurry.
Some buildings had half collapsed and overgrown, stripped of gutters and everything that had value, to the bricks. Rotting porches were crooked on the facades.
Other houses were burned and left so. But in most other houses people still lived. And there too, the paint often flaked off the pillars. What had happened here? A tornado, a civil war, the apocalypse? Why did not we see this on the news?
The residents walked on the street or sat on their verandas as if the havoc were normal. We passed a neo-Gothic church with boarded doors and a slender steeple where ivy grew through the broken stained glass.
According to Google, we were almost at the university hospital.
Turn right now, cross Delmar Boulevard. And as the sun can suddenly break through, the urban landscape changed by magic. Again we fell silent. Now we drove past opulent villas with walled gardens and driveways with shiny cars. A little further we passed a pie-shaped skyscraper with a luxury hotel, cinema rooms and red runners; Opposite was a city park where mothers jogged behind strollers.
Soon we reached the block towers of the academic hospital. At the foot was a nightlife for students, with restaurants and terraces. There was a metro stop, with many security guards at the entrance. There were students with coffee cups, doctors in light blue hospital clothing. This neighborhood felt like coming home. The majority of people were white here.
On the way back we took the route our landlord had recommended, over a road that meandered through the beautiful, miles-long Forest Park, to our oasis.
After that ride I searched on my laptop for information about what we were driving through. St. Louis was one of the most segregated cities in America, I read. And indeed, nowhere was the divorce as clearly visible as on the Delmar Boulevard. North of that road almost everyone was black, to the south the vast majority white. This dividing line even had a name: the Delmar Divide. With its own Wikipedia page. There I read that the people on the north side earned an average of 18,000 dollars a year and on the south side 50,000 dollars. In some postal code areas on the north side people lived on average eighteen years shorter than in postcode areas a few kilometers away on the other side of Delmar.
The sharp line that we crossed earlier that day could not possibly have grown spontaneously, like an ivy against a church tower. “This city is Apartheid City,” I told my wife. And this was indeed no news, this was just the status quo. At least I found few irate opinion pieces about the antique-like racial segregation; in the news reports about northern St. Louis, it was mainly about crime and punishment.
Within a few searches, I also understood why Mr. Roth had warned us so precisely. Crime figures turned out to be much more accessible here than in the Netherlands. For example, I came across a handy ‘rain radar’ from St. Louis, with the most recent robberies, burglaries and murders per district. I found countless rankings of dangerous cities. I read that St. Louis had just taken the number one position from Detroit, as the most violent city in America. And that the crime was highest in the places where many black Americans live. And, I learned that we had moved to a neighborhood where three-quarters was black.
It is with safety as with health: if you are worried about it, you better not google about it, and yet that is exactly what you do. Handy, all that data; you will only get a little bit of it. And paranoid. Because you can nuance all those statistics very well – that’s how I learned later – but if you bang at the door of your new house in the middle of the night, it’s bad odds.
My wife and I are sitting upright in bed. It could of course be Mr. Roth, who comes to say that our car lights are still on. In the Netherlands we would probably have to open the door a bit. But here we call the police of Vinita Terrace. Already within a few minutes we see the blue lights in the night. Outside we find two agents, they are talking to a black woman of about thirty. She points to us, claiming she knows us.
The next day Mr. Roth tells that he has never experienced anything like this. And in the time that we will still live in Vinita Terrace, such a thing will indeed no longer occur. Maybe that woman was just a little confused, or she was mistaken in a door.
I do know that the spirit of St. Louis immediately mastered me in those first days. This city, with all its history, is penetrating my nervous system. It is a city that I prefer to stay in, a city that scares me.
Afraid, yes, but also angry. Because this America, where I have landed by chance, reminds me more of what I saw in Cape Town or New Delhi. Why would you go to a country where you have already been? Well, for example because you have not seen anything of it yet.”
Why call the novel “Americans Do Not Walk”? This explanation is given on The Correspondent:
‘If you see an American walking, you will usually hear the blinking of his car lock within a few seconds.
I found it comical. Until it began to dawn that Americans were not necessarily lazy, that they might want to walk, but that they just made it very difficult. Because of broken pavements, because of the heat. But especially: because of the fear. ‘