The year was 1991. I was a miserable sophomore in high school in Tennessee, but Paula Abdul was on the radio singing about the promise of a new day and my school was planning a charter bus trip to New York City. Things were about to change!
For just $800, we’d be staying a week in a luxurious Holiday Inn in Brooklyn. Of course, my intentions were to go to New York, abandon the lame field trip, and never come back. I could get a job on Broadway and become a rising star. After all, I’d just wrapped up my first community theater roll playing Ike Skidmore in Oklahoma! It was a non-speaking part, mostly chorus, but in theater everyone knows there are no small parts. Just small actors, and I was determined to make it big time.
I would do anything. Anything! I would work the coat check at Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I would clean the litter boxes at CATS. I would bake bread and feed the miserable in Les Miserables so they’d have to change the name. I could be the Phantom of the Opera!
Or take up tambourine and join an out-of-work actor commune in Central Park, where occasionally a big Broadway exec is jogging in the park, well he’s not but his assistant is, well the assistant isn’t but the assistant’s intern is which is fine because we all know interns are also out-of-work actors, but the intern spots a pretty face sleeping on the groud and the intern tells the assistant what they saw and the assistant tells the exec and the next thing you know that face gets picked up off the ground in the park, you wake up next to the Broadway Exec, and you’re starring in the next erectile dysfunction commercial. I could be the face of erectile dysfunction. I could be anything!
But no, it wasn’t meant to be. We needed 100 kids in order for the bus trip to be a go. And we only had 30 because apparently kids at a small town high school with a barn next to the football practice field don’t want to pay $800 for a bus trip to experience culture. But the 30 of us had already paid for the trip and got our tee shirts, so rather than give us our $800 back the teacher in charge was determined to take us somewhere, so all dreams were not lost just yet.
But where could 30 small town high school kids go to experience culture for $800 on a bus? Chicago? No. Los Angeles? No. Atlanta? No. We were going to go to St. Louis…but just for the weekend. I remember I had my walkman on the bus with me, and let me tell you, there aren’t enough cassette singles in the world to cure the boredom of a three hour trek on a bus across the state of Missouri.
When we arrived, we stopped at the Arch and I remember this was the very first time I ever said those five little magical words….”Hey, look, it’s the Arch!” And then it was on to our hotel, the once ostentatious Hyatt Regency at Union Station. Now in 1991, Union Station was a happening place. It was a touristy teenager’s dream come true to not only be staying in a fancy hotel, but one that was connected to a shopping mall. I remember hitting up the bookstore, the music store, the fudge factory, and Hooters and that was just in the first ten minutes.
But that night something magical was going to happen to me. The bus was taking us to the Fabulous Fox and we were going to see….yes….Les Miserables. None of us on the trip could even pronounce it correctly, but that didn’t matter to me because for the first time ever, I was about to see a touring Broadway play. This was as close to New York as I could get. And it was everything I had imagined. I bought the soundtrack that night…on cassette of course and listened to it nonstop on the bus ride home the next day.
By the time we were home, I think I had listened to the Les Mis soundtrack at least twenty times, and memorized all of the lyrics. Now, fast forward ten years. It’s 2001 and I’m a manager-in-training at Pier 1 Imports selling wicker and candles to the middle class, because that’s what you do with a six year English degree with concentration in creative writing, and I mention that I’d love to move to St. Louis if they ever had a store come available.
Months later I have a phone interview with the St. Louis district manager and get offered a store. The company pays for me to come up and find an apartment, and then they pay for movers to get me there. And moving day is September 12th, 2001. Yep, the very last thing the movers packed up was my TV set because I was watching all of the news coverage while they were packing up my things all around me.
After I got settled in St. Louis and started work, I wanted to go back to Union Station. I had not been there since the school trip ten years before. So on my day off I drove into the city and found it and I went inside and it was empty. There were just a handful of stores. Union Station was a dead mall. Suddenly I knew how Marius in Les Mis felt when he’s in that bar singing about empty chairs at empty tables, cause the war is over and all of his friends are dead.
But it was okay. I’d dreamed a dream of days gone by. I was an adult now. I had a good job. I didn’t know anyone. I had a new start in a new city and I didn’t have to sleep on the ground in a public park or with a theater exec to get it. I was going to be okay.
I left Union Station and I drove down Market a bit and that’s when I saw it. I looked up, and I think I said to myself….”Hey, look, it’s the Arch!”