A WashU graduate, a homeless man, and a river: the mystique of the muddy Mississippi

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On Monday, I chased after a river that I don’t really think about that often.

Lightning crashed on either side of me and a curtain of rain fast approached northward along the Mississippi River as I pedaled furiously toward the Chain of Rocks Bridge along the Riverfront Trail.

Let me back track: I didn’t expect this weather to happen. The forecast called for a 40% chance of rain and the Memorial Day bike ride started off with pleasant weather in the mid 80s. But a 40% chance of rain this year in Missouri may as well mean 100%.

Back to the trip: soaked, confused and cold, I steered my bicycle under a trail shelter with two walls and a roof as rain dinged off the tin structure. I was 22 miles into my ride, nervous and far away from home next to a webbed-looking bridge where two sisters were brutally raped and murdered in April of 1991.

I sat on the concrete floor with a 67-year-old cyclist named Mike, who also sought shelter from the storm. He was a nice guy who made it apparent that he was Catholic, a member of St. Andrew’s parish in South County, and a graduate of Washington University. We shot the bull about education, KMOX, and, of course Cardinal baseball.

The rain poured harder. Then, a man, drenched from the storm, walked into the shelter. Mike and I had seen him earlier on the trail, shooing geese away near a pond. He wore a tan ball cap, a worn, striped collar shirt, and khaki pants. The man, who looked to be in his 50s, spoke slow and his eyes sort of bugged out of his grizzled face. Mike asked him where he was going.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m leaving.”

He told us his name was John. He had been walking on foot since the summer of 2009 when he lost his job as a trucker in Las Vegas. John said he wandered through the mountains in Nevada before finding a Greyhound bus to take him back to St. Louis, his hometown.

John didn’t have a home. He’d been working part-time and, for the last six months, he was living out of a car in the city with a 47-year-old woman who had seven kids. He wanted to get away from her and be his father, who was dying in North Carolina. At the moment, he was hungry, en route to the closest Schnucks he could find along the 11-mile trail in order to buy some fruit.

John also seemed tired and lonely, like he needed someone to listen. Mike and I absorbed what he was saying and confided in him while the rain slowly let up and the lightning moved away. The conditions were improved enough that it was time for me to ride back home.

“Goodbye,” I said to John. “Good luck.”

He thanked me and continued across the bridge into Illinois. Mike and I biked through patches of rain and mud. The temperature cooled and the dirty river exhausted itself over its banks.

All of the sudden, three miles to the trailhead, we bumped into a mess of fire trucks, first responders and a KMOV cameraman. A fireman pulled Mike and I aside and asked if we’d seen a car fall into the river. We told him no, and I looked out to see a rescue boat, motoring up and down the water looking for the car. I shivered. Two days prior, a 54-year-old fisherman’s body was found floating face-down in the river.

On the way back to the trailhead, I thought about the muddy river, a waterway that’d held its share of dead bodies and abandoned cars, gave life to fishermen and guided the homeless like John to new places. But the river is much more than that. The Mississippi also offers shelter to those who sleep next to its banks. Slaves crossed the mighty expanse at night to Illinois. Native Americans built the largest city in North America next to the river.

St. Louis exists because of the big Muddy. Still, people live and die by the river. But inland county and city dwellers like myself seldom think about the brownish water that shaped our city into what it is today.

When’s the last time you saw the Mississippi river? Or, at the very least, thought about the river? If it wasn’t for this vital waterway that cuts through our country, St. Louis wouldn’t be what it is.

Maybe the history and importance of the river overwhelms me too much while writing this piece, but we are a river people. Sometimes, I think people in St. Louis forget that.

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Outgrowing Aaron Carter

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I’m not really sure why I went to the Aaron Carter concert last night at the Blue Note.

Perhaps, I wanted to relive those days where I played kickball all afternoon and listened to CD’s on a boom box plugged into my neighbor’s garage. Maybe I just wanted to have a good time with my buddies. Or, perhaps more accurately, I think I just wanted to live out my childhood obsession/fetish of Aaron Carter for a few hours.

Surely he’d take me back to those youthful, nostalgic hot summer days where, as kids, we’d endlessly debate the meaning of a Native American with a bow-and-arrow shooting a star inside of a crunched, crimson Tootsie Pop wrapper.

That, however, was not the case. Aaron Carter isn’t 13 anymore. He’s 25. And after legal issues and drug abuse and rehab, he’s an adult now.

I was rudely awoken to this realization when I stumbled upon this tweet the night before “The After Party” concert.

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Yes, allegedly, Aaron Carter smokes weed and goes to Hooters. Well … I was hurt. Here I was, thinking that Aaron Carter wouldn’t have changed at all since his second album Aaron’s Party (Come Get It).

Alas, he had changed. However, I was determined to believe that wasn’t true.

The entire day before the concert, I jammed to his old hits like “That’s How I Beat Shaq” and “I Want Candy.” I reminisced on the old DJs spinning in the background of his songs and Razor scooters and my tree house beneath a leafy green oak in the backyard.

Aaron, meanwhile, trampled all across Columbia, which people documented all over Twitter. One woman saw him at the mall and got a photo with him.

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At the Columbia Mall, Aaron also got his hair done by Adrian (no stylist on the tour bus, I’m assuming) and then went to Five Guys, where he received some dirty looks about his manners.

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His tweets leading up to the concert excited me. I wanted to meet Aaron so bad! I was beginning to forget about the Hooters incident the night before.

At 7:45, I happily walked into the Blue Note and looked around. The entire audience was full of college girls, dressed to kill. But they weren’t looking to impress the token male who liked Aaron as a kid. They wanted Carter himself.

The ladies whispered to each other in thin voices, “Do you think Aaron will kiss with me during the show?” Eager women pushed tightly around the stage.

One encounter heard in the bathroom (and told to me by a girl at the show) went something like this:

Girl 1: “I want you to know that I will be happy if you hook up with Aaron after the show.”

Girl 2: “What?”

Girl 1: “I’m really drunkkkkk. I’m going to go get Chinese food right now and that will make me as happy as hooking up with Aaron.”

Ostracized, I stood toward the back of the concert with a couple other odd looking dudes. Knowing that I wasn’t going to meet any girls at the concert, I decided to play a prank on them.

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Those 32 favorites made me a bit happier. Then, I stumbled across the Holy Grail of opportunities. A girl in the crowd claimed she had Aaron Carter’s number after seeing him in Columbia during the day.

Quickly, I convinced her to give me Aaron’s number and while I waited for Carter to start, I thought about how I’d contact him.

Then, after 10, Aaron burst on to the stage.

He played all of his old stuff, which seemed odd, considering his age. He also jammed to “Black and Yellow” and filled those words in with “Aaron Carter.”

The girls in the crowd screamed so loud my eardrums almost burst.

In the middle of the show, he took a shot, did a backflip and climbed to the top of a speaker, looking like King Kong wrapped around the Empire State Building.

To top it all off, a mosh pit formed during “I Want Candy.”Image

I left after his encore—“Aaron’s Party”—and didn’t stay for his antics after the show (many people on Twitter were posting how he signed autographs stoned).

That was that, I guess. My childhood star isn’t the same guy he used to be. I was sad, and disappointed. Gone was his youthful innocence, replaced with weed, fights, and Hooters.

When I got back to my dorm, I tried to sort out my feelings that night. Remembering I had his number, I texted him, pretending to be a girl that wanted to hook up with him. He responded 10 minutes later, “Just you and me?”

Yes, Aaron, just you and me. Two fools who thought that we could relive the old days. Last night, I learned a sad lesson: Aaron Carter, and his original fans, have all grown up.

Follow me on Twitter: @JackWitthaus