St. Louis on Zero Dollars a Day


Photo by Janet Riehl
Photo by Janet Riehl


The Chase Park Plaza, grand dame of a hotel on  the historic record, anchored the revitalization of the Central West End in St. Louis. In a curious way I consider it my second home in the neighborhood. This morning I came in the side entrance off Lindell. To the right as one enters is the ticket booth for the beautiful Chase Cinema’s mini-plex. A man stood there wide-eyed, wondering…just wondering. I could see him wondering so many things. So, I stopped.

He hadn’t been there in years. I discovered that he was on the edge of homelessness. After a bad argument with his mother last night he was back sleeping in his car. Yet, in all this there was never a flicker of him hitting me up for a hand-out. Black. Gay. Male. Out of work. 48-going-on-18. He looked amazingly young. Neatly and cleanly dressed in jeans and a short t-shirt with a messenger-style satchel flung over his shoulder. He grew up nearby when the area was messed-up and poor. He hadn’t been back for decades.

“I discovered the water fountain, and the water tastes so good!” I decided to take him under my wing and give him a Janet’s-eye-view of this  beautiful, elegant, luxurious hotel. I initiated him into how to enjoy all this without spending a penny.  As we went through the Chase and then the adjoining Park Plaza I pointed out the entrances, the bathrooms, and water fountains. Plus the safe places to sit for free. “Don’t go down this escalator to the lower lounge. They’ll kick you out.”

We strolled though the marble open spaces. “The coffee lounge closes at 11. Come here after that, bring your water (which you can re-fill at the drinking fountain) and your book. Sit towards either end, and no one will bother you as long as you are dressed neatly, clean, and don’t fall asleep. You’ll have a lovely view of the pool and the statue. But, don’t go out into the pool area. That’s patrolled regularly.”

“It looks like a Rodin, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it does.” We came into the main lobby and he marveled at the central flower arrangement of lilies. He reached forward to stroke the petals. Real! I touched his arm. He looked over and I said, “Looking only.” And we laughed.

We scanned the front lobby. “There’s the concierge desk and there’s the check-in desk. I’d suggest you sit further down. Ah, here’s a place you’ll be tucked away and no one will bother you.” We continued through the connecting hallway into the Park Plaza. “This is where the condos are. Or, ‘Residences’ as they are called. Cost? Into the millions. Here’s another concierge desk just for this area. See those chairs over there? Don’t even think about sitting there.”

“No one ever talks to me. I’m so grateful. My name’s Doc.”

“Janet. When I traveled abroad I camped or stayed in cheap places. We’d put on our best clothes, head to the nearest luxury hotel, order a coffee, and spend the day catching up on our reading an journal writing. As long as you’re well-behaved, no one will bother you.”

“Me, I feel intimidated. I’d be looking down at my feet all the time.”

“Don’t be. Just relax and walk confidently and easily. You’ll be fine. Then you’ll blend in and no one will notice you.”

We walked by the etched glass windows of one of the fancy restaurants. He looked over with that awed gaze I often feel here. “That’s a motif, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Are you familiar with the library? It’s only a block away.” “I can’t get a card because I don’t have proof of residence.” “Hmmm….I don’t know the answer to that. But, you have a driver’s licence? Go to the reference desk in the center and ask if there’s anyway you can get a card. You want to use the computers to look for a job? See if they’ll let you do that with just a courtesy card. Also, they might be able to help you with information about resources to help you get a job or find a place to stay.

“In any case you can stay there without a card, sit in a nice chair in air-conditioned comfort, and read any book in the library. There’s a bathroom and a water fountain. Although you can’t drink or eat in the library. Relax, but don’t go to sleep. Then  they can make it unpleasant for you and toss you out on your ear.

“You said you’d like to travel, but never got the chance? There’s an easy way to do that even in the situation you find yourself in now. Travel where you are. Look at the city with new eyes. If you were a traveler, what would you see and do? There is so much free culture in St. Louis. There’s an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum celebrating St. Louis’ 250th birthday. It’s free. You could spend the whole day there, come back again and still not see it all.

“All but the special exhibits are free at the art museum and those are free on  Friday. The zoo is free and one of the best in the country. There are inspiring places to rest and stroll in Forest Park. Just don’t stay over-night there. Tower Grove Park is free and there are festivals there.

“You have to pay to go up in the arch, but the grounds around the arch are open and free to explore. There’s a free museum underground about the Gateway to the West.”

“What about parking?” “That I can’t help you with. But, I bet if you look around you can find a spot a ways off along the waterfront. Or, find a meter with time still on it.”

“Right. You’ve helped me with all the rest. I guess I can solve the parking.”

“Sure. Good luck,  Doc, and take care of yourself.

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One Comment

  1. Oh, Janet, what a wonderful gift you gave Doc. To open his eyes with your heart and knowledge, you’ve given him the world. I’ve written a short story, Proof of Address, about a homeless mother and her children who must leave the shelter during the day and go to the library. When her daughter wants to get a library card, they run up against the same problem as Doc….I feel for him but you gave him sound advice. He’s lucky to be in St. Louis and not in a city where there’s a charge for everything, as with much of San Francisco.

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