Semi-Local Beer and a Psychedelic Jungle Gym: St. Louis by Night

St. Louis, MO: April, 2018

(Continued from here, St. Louis Half Marathon race report here)

There is a large European-owned brewery in one corner of what used to be a bit of a company town.  The name Busch on half of the city notwithstanding, the corporate beer centric economy of the city’s twentieth century left its mark on a few local peculiarities.  For instance, there is no law within the city of St. Louis forbidding passengers from cracking, twisting or prying one open on the ride home.  Front seat, back seat, as long as you’re not driving there’s nobody telling you not to imbibe.

“Until maybe, fifteen years ago, you even could while you were driving.”  Leo said one morning when brewing came up.  “Just don’t go over the limit…”

“Speed or BAC?” Connor asked. 

“Well,” Leo said “probably best to avoid either, don’t you think?”

That didn’t seem right to me that in my lifetime there was somewhere you could drink while driving a car, perfectly legally.  I fact-checked this one and got very little in the affirmative, but also nothing to the contrary so who knows – Either way you certainly shouldn’t attempt it now. In fact, there is currently a movement to outlaw open containers even for passengers but that measure is opposed to by, a shocking twist this, Anheuser-Busch.

I imagine a scenario in the not too distant past in which a carful of people are riding around drinking beer that is notAnheuser-Busch.  They get pulled over and the passenger quickly reaches into the glove compartment and grabs three Budweiser cozies.  Slyly, they slip their contraband into their corporate camouflage.

“Any problems, officer?”

He looks in and sees what he needs to see – a red can, the king of beers. 

“Have a nice evening!”

Out of sight, out of mind.  The St. Louis paper bag.

St. Louis was also slow to adopt the craft brewing trend for partially bureaucratic reasons.  For most of its post-prohibition existence there was one brewery by design – the state was late to legalize home brewing even after Jimmy Carter signed the bill allowing it nationwide.  Missouri’s reason for late adoption was different than some deep southern states (Mississippi didn’t allow home brewing until July of 2013) but it stymied the industry nevertheless. 

The city finally got its second brewery in 1991 when Dan Kopman and Tom Schlafly found a loophole.  Wineries were permitted to brew and sell beer in small batches, so these guys began selling one batch of cider a year, (Cider qualifying as a wine product) in order to call themselves a winery and keep a license to brew beer.  It worked, and the classically named St. Louis Brewery became a success in the earliest ages of Missouri craft.  The brewery is better known by its Schlafly brand, named for the cofounder.  Tom is a nephew of the late conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly, ironically a teetotaler, who was none too thrilled with her family’s name becoming associated with alcohol.  As of 2018, St. Louis has more or less caught up to many of its peer cities, with more than twenty craft breweries in the region.  We had thought about visiting Schlafly but instead stayed closer to Leo’s and went to one of the next largest.

There are two Urban Chestnuts – a taproom in Midtown and an expansive beer hall in The Grove, a relatively new nightlife district.  It was Connor’s turn to drive, and once again navigation and parking went far more smoothly than in other cities this size on a weekend.  It was wide open, like an indoor biergarten.  I ordered a porter and looked at the exposed brick, the bicycles hanging on the walls, the minimalist design, the bevy of bearded patrons.  I could have been in Cincinnati or Boulder or Asheville. Craft breweries – at least those opened in the last decade – look the same everywhere.  But despite the nearly identical interiors of modern taprooms, the art and complexity of the beer stood out against a much worse kind of tedium, that of taste.  And just so you know, if you want that kind of tedium in your beer, well they have it in St. Louis too.

After Urban Chestnut, we were lounging around Leo’s, not wanting to have to much to drink the night before the half marathon.

“Have you heard of the City Museum?” Leo had asked back on our first night.

“It’s actually all he’s been talking about,” Lauren said, indicating me.

“Him too” Casey said, pointing at a grinning Connor.

“Ok. Well, here’s some unsolicited advice.  When you get there, go directly to the gift shop and check out the knee pads they sell.  Trust me, you won’t buy them.  Then in the morning I’ll be making breakfast and you’ll say ‘Leo, we should have bought the knee pads.’”

Considering we were running a half marathon the next morning and Connor had a problem knee already, we went straight to the gift shop upon arriving and checked out the knee pads.  But we didn’t buy them.

Nobody can accurately describe the City Museum, in writing or otherwise.  It’s barely a museum, and aside from being located in a city, that descriptive is as inaccurate as any.  It is part adult jungle gym, part Octopus’s Garden video, part mouse in a cheese maze.  Take the largest playground you can imagine and put it inside a warehouse.  Now, picture what that would look like on mushrooms.  Add in random artifacts, subtract supervision and you pretty well have the City Museum.

It’s a fairly recent thing, opened in 1997 with about half of the attractions and fanfare it enjoys today.  Bob and Gail Cassilly purchased the building that once housed the International Shoe Company factory and filled it with stuff they found.  Each floor has a loose theme, like ‘Egypt’ or ‘circus’ and the main means of getting around between them are hidden staircases or metal climbing tubes that resemble stretched out Slinkys.  The stairs up and the slides down make the whole place resemble life sized Chutes and Ladders.

The sign at the entrance reads ‘No maps, so you can get lost’.  This was apt, as lost we almost instantly became.  We began walking through metal tubes and a faux cave on the ground floor and came across a fish tank. Connor and Casey went down and to the right, Lauren and I up and to the left.  That was enough – we were on a completely different floor from our friends, and after climbing up a spiral staircase couldn’t find our way back if we wanted to.  With the winding metal pipes and squeezing of selves through tiny openings, continuing onward was substantially more doable than turning about.  This situation, just hours after riding the capsule up the arch, meant that I had been spending more of that day squeezed into a tiny metal objects than any prior.  St. Louis is not for the claustrophobic.

Lauren and I climbed with no basis of direction or destination, through a maze on the ceiling, down slides with no visibility.  One wooden tree-like structure with ropes as handles opened up into an area with what looked like Egyptian artifacts.  Perhaps this was to qualify the place as a museum, or maybe just to add to the arbitrary whimsy of it all, possibly both.  Near a recreated pharaoh’s mummy was a room full of spinning chair things, large tops with a place to sit.  Leaning back in one of these provided a reenactment of that trust test people do on retreats where they fall backward, counting on being caught by the others.  It took a few tries to trust the chair but it always swooped me back upright.

I was beginning to become enamored with the place.  It was a realization of a childhood fantasy my brother and I frequently had at places like home goods stores or the warehouse in the building our dad owned.  We would talk about how great it would be to climb up shelves, hide behind the plywood or scramble around on the ladders without any form of restraint.  I had found the manifestation of this dream, except with a bar.

Not that we used the bar – there’s a special panic reserved for being stuck inside a twisting metal link tube with a beer bladder, unable to tell which staircase into the unknown would provide much needed respite.  I can think of worse places to have a drink than the City Museum, but most of those are illegal to begin with.  No, this most certainly remained a sober excursion, but our unclouded minds provided no assistance with wayfinding.  We eventually stumbled upon one of the main attractions, the Shoe Shafts, a series of spiral slides, three, five, and ten stories high that were originally used to get shoes from the upper floors of the building down to the loading docks.   There is also a giant pipe organ to add to the eeriness.  Lauren and I climbed the staircase to the summit, which, for those who have never walked ten stories up a spiral staircase, is not the simplest of tasks.  Once on top, we could see out over the roof, an area of extra fun that was closed for the season.

In an act of serendipity, Connor stepped in behind us as we were about to plunge down the slide.  “You lose Casey too?” one of us asked.

“She’s down there.” Connor pointed ten stories below.  “Not big into heights.”

Lauren went first, and then I waited for my okay to slide, this the only place in the whole museum with any kind of attendant.  It wasn’t as thrilling as I would have thought, the tightness of the helix slowed me down considerably, as it would to anyone taller than about five feet.  I got stuck twice, and had to propel myself and lift my shoes to get me going again.  The most terrifying part of it wasn’t the heights per se, but thinking about becoming stuck just as Connor would come flying down behind me, Brooks forward, ready to punt me to my doom.  There was a net about five stories up so if you fling over the side during the first half you might be spared but if you fell from four stories up you’d be having a rough evening.  Needless to say I was grateful to be safely spit out of the bottom of the tube near Lauren and Casey and we waited a while for Connor.

“He should be right behind me” I said, looking up the slide then realizing I might be better off placing my face elsewhere.  After a few moments Connor was also on our platform.  “Got stuck” he said.  “Yup” Lauren and I concurred.

We made sure to at least attempt to cover every inch of the museum but realized that was impossible on one visit.  My favorite section was a full-size skate park with half pipes and pools and other elements for running and jumping sans board.  Connor and I tried to swing on a rope from one side of a half pipe to another but that became a tailbone crushing failure as I let go too early.  The room felt like it was designed for parkour, not the wisest thing in which to partake ten hours before a half marathon but no matter.

It was chilly when we went to the outdoor portion of the museum.  This area was more of the same except with the added fun of breezes causing the slinky tubes to sway hither and thither upon us reaching the highest and most vulnerable points.  There was a castle, two airplanes, and something that looked like a Christmas tree.  Many people were playing in a colossal Chuck E. Cheese style pit filled with cantaloupe sized plastic balls and various communicable diseases.  We passed on this but instead tried to plot our path from the castle’s turret to the airplanes.  Then, after thoroughly exhausting the outdoors, we dropped down a metal slide that seemed to be at least a sixty degree angle and found our way out.  I think my knees survived the City Museum, but we all had took home several bruises to commemorate the experience.

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