Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The #Midwessay: Gwen Niekamp, Wanted: Grad Student to Show Famous New York Writer Around St. Louis

Wanted: Grad Student to Show Famous New York Writer Around St. Louis

Gwen Niekamp


Riding shotgun in my second-hand Civic—paid for in cash I saved from an $11/hour gig—the New Yorker sucked her teeth as the St. Louis Arch appeared on the horizon. “Before I came here, I didn’t realize the Arch was an actual structure; I thought it was a metaphor. Gateway to the West, yada yada.”
     I was in my mid-twenties, and in the first semester of an MFA program, which had brought the sixty-something New Yorker to campus to work with graduate students. I’d never heard of her before the visit was announced, but a frantic Google search revealed she was New York literati. I hungered for her validation.
     The day before I toured the New Yorker around St. Louis in my car, I arrived at the duplex, the top floor of which my MFA program maintained for its visiting writers. I was to conference with the New Yorker to discuss an essay I had written, and I rang the doorbell for quarter of an hour, then emailed my professors that the New Yorker did not appear to be home. “Keep trying,” they advised, and eventually, she appeared at the door, her wrist draped over her brow to shelter her eyes from the afternoon sun. She was wearing a sheer nightgown through which I could see her nipples.
     “I can come back,” I offered.
     “No, no, no, no, no. Come in, come in.” 
     I ascended the staircase behind her, averting my eyes from her exposed panty lines, and once we were inside the apartment, I took a seat at the dining table while she showered and made breakfast. She set a hot bowl of microwave oatmeal on her copy of my essay.
     “I don’t really have any notes,” she said. “But in New York, we don’t use the Oxford comma—”  
     “—I’ll take it out.”
     The doorbell rang, signaling my classmate had arrived for his conference. I collected my things, pausing briefly to notice that a ring-shaped pucker had formed on my manuscript where her bowl had been. I thanked her for her time and made toward the stairs, but she called out for me: “Wait! Wait! What are you doing tomorrow?”
     Would I have given her my number had I not perceived she was well-connected, a byline machine in cutthroat New York City? Had I not felt insecure as an emerging writer from flyover country, as a Kentuckian living in Missouri? I’m not sure. But when the New Yorker called me to invite me to take her to the St. Louis Zoo, I felt a rush of pride to be chosen from among the graduate students. Her attention, I thought, could pluck me from obscurity.
     It was 2 p.m. when I arrived to pick up the New Yorker for our zoo excursion, and after calling her several times, she finally woke. Again, the nightgown, the nipples, the panty lines. Again, the waiting as she showered. Again, her hunger. She was out of oatmeal, so together we visited a chain coffee shop, where she ordered French toast and bought souvenirs for her daughter. Would a young woman appreciate a tote recycled from a burlap coffee bag? I did not think so, nor did I think it represented St. Louis, but she bought it anyway. 
     The zoo was closing by the time the New Yorker and I finished the meal, so we settled instead on a tour of St. Louis in my car. I was still getting my bearings in the city, and the area I knew best was my neighborhood. Crabgrass and red or yellow brick duplexes, metal awnings and chain-link fencing. Bathtub Madonnas. Fire hydrants painted after the colors of the Italian flag. Donut shops with ten-cent coffee in Styrofoam cups. Handwritten for-lease signs. Once in a while, a hawk atop a powerline, or children learning to ride bikes in a church parking lot.
     The New Yorker clucked and mewed at my St. Louis. When I hit a pothole, she braced herself belatedly against the seatbelt. “How long have you been driving?” she demanded, and seemed surprised by my answer. “Since sixteen?! How do you feel safe on the road knowing teens are driving?” 
What else was said? She bragged of her celebrity friends and the movie stars she’d profiled for glossy magazines. She asked where I wanted to submit my work and scoffed at the idea of a $40 honorarium: “My book advance? Half a million.”
     She asked if I had ever held a gun—“Is hunting something people do here, or is that a fiction?”—and I remembered shooting at Coke cans as a kid. “Inconceivable,” she murmured. 
     I began to feel unnerved by her musings about the Midwest, by the idea that she was approaching St. Louis the way she might have regarded the exhibits at the zoo. Would I factor into her next essay? St. Louis Arch on the horizon—metaphor for a gateway I’d never manage to pass through—my character would be promising enough with whom to spend an afternoon, but ultimately provincial, broke, and uncultured. 
     When I hit another pothole, the New Yorker asked if it was easy to learn to drive. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “you could teach me.” 
     By chance, we were approaching the Missouri Botanical Garden, and I redirected her attention away from the prospect of driving lessons in my personal vehicle. The Garden, I informed her, had woodlands, box gardens, rose gardens, and the historic home of a man who’d made his fortune selling supplies to California Gold Rushers. 
     At the ticket counter, I showed my Missouri driver’s license for a reduced admission rate. The New Yorker, ineligible for this discount, faced a $14 ticket.
     “I’m a member of the press,” she announced to the attendant. “A press pass? Don’t you offer free admission for members of the press?”
     “I don’t know what that is,” said the attendant.
     Reluctantly, the New Yorker shelled out full price, and we strolled through the Japanese Garden, whose paths border a four-acre lake and wind over bridges to small islands. At the crest of a taikobashi-style bridge, we paused to admire the vista—the artful reflection of autumn leaves in the water below. “You know,” breathed the New Yorker, “this is really nice.” Then, she listed the members of my cohort, criticized their writing each in turn.
     At the start of our tour of St. Louis, her approval and confidence would have thrilled me, but by the time we stood on that bridge, I didn’t want it anymore. I was tired of her and disappointed in my own hastiness to define the Midwest by comparison to New York. Middle America, to the New Yorker, was but a buffer between coasts. St. Louis, to her: a blight, a pockmark, a gateway, a layover. 
     Of course, the New Yorker never wrote about me or St. Louis. Why would she have? She likely hasn’t thought about the tour in years. But I think about it every time I glimpse the Arch on the skyline. I’ve made the choice to live in St. Louis even after graduating from my MFA program, and my concept of the city and the Midwest continues to swell and evolve. I don’t mind flattening the New Yorker into a punchline. How daft she looked, gaping up at the Arch with an open-mouthed grin, wearing pity on her face, reveling in her own perceived cleverness. Maybe the Arch is a metaphor, just not the one she expected.


Gwen Niekamp holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and now teaches English at Maryville University. Her work has appeared in Boulevard, Belt Magazine's Louisville Anthology, Hippocampus, and Hobart Pulp.

 Like fellow Midwesterner and incredible essayist Sonya Huber, I loathe the harmful writing advice of “show don’t tell.” Yet, I am also a writer born and raised in the Show Me State. While Missouri is steeped in Southern front-porch storytelling, the Middle West’s characteristic pragmatism, understatement, and complicated* past and present are perpetual in our prose. We want it both ways: to show and to tell, to be Southern and Midwestern. Ultimately, there’s a certain resilience and toughness Missouri essayists must harbor because we can’t assume you, dear reader, share our points of reference or understand why we stay or live in this place, however long. Ultimately, though, describing what others do not know or have the words for makes for wilder, more inventive stories. The Missouri essayists in this project share the very Midwestern joys and terror of what it’s like to be in a state with “no particular place to go.” What constrains and releases us may surprise you.

Missourians: we'd love to have more essays riffing and rumbling on the #Midwessay! Contact me at michaella.thornton at gmail and I'll be happy to include your thoughts and insights in this project.

 —Michaella A. Thornton

* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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