This isn’t a running story other than I ran that day. In fact, I did a rare double. But running isn’t central to the memory, though perhaps a catalyst.
In August 1973 I moved from my hometown of St. Louis to begin a new life in Boston. It was there that I took up running before combining it with broadcasting to mount what has become a career.
But during my final full year in St. Louis I found myself hanging out at a new restaurant/pub in the Central West End called Duff’s, eponymously named by its original proprietors Karen and Dan Duffy. In the ensuing years, though I only visited home once, sometimes twice a year, every trip would include a visit to Duff’s. Not just because old friend, and one-time fellow Bostonian Charlie Moseley bartended there for 25 years or so, or that his partner Nancy Kirby was the hostess, or that Nancy’s brother Tim had joined Karen Duffy as co-owner, or even that Tim, Charlie and I had attended St. Louis U. High together in the mid-1960s.
No, it was more than that. Perhaps something generational, as Duff’s came along as we Baby Boomers were reaching early adulthood, and like every generation was beginning to scout out its own territory. Just as Boston’s Eliot Lounge would become synonymous with the running era, so was Duff’s a new kind of establishment for a new kind of crowd.
Though it offered an inventive, seasonally changing menu, a splendidly stocked bar, family-like staff, and such a warm bohemian atmosphere — including its famous Monday night poetry readings — those high pressed-tin ceilings, wide wooden floors and exposed brick walls felt more like an extension of people’s homes than a place of business. Over the years our family (I’m sure like many others) celebrated births, graduations, anniversaries, and even wakes there, and never felt anything other than perfectly at home.
A few days ago another old St. Louis friend emailed saying Duff’s would be closing at the end of the month after a run of 41 years. While it is the nature of restaurants to open and close, for tastes to change, and neighborhoods to transform, as I read the email I was flooded with memories while being reminded of what a single establishment could mean to a city and it s people.
Just north of the Central West End Gaslight Square was the epicenter of nightlife in St. Louis in the 1950s. Future stars like the Smothers Brothers, Miles Davis, and Barbara Streisand could be seen performing there on their way to the top. Hipster travelers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg were known to stop by on their coast-to-coast ramblings as they took in what Kerouac called “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent.”
As teens we would make pilgrimages to Gaslight on Friday nights if only to explore the thrill of what may lay ahead. Walking along the bustling gaslight lit sidewalks we’d watch black-clad beatniks mix with expense account swells who spilled out of clubs like the Crystal Palace, Peacock Alley and The Left Bank, each with a high-coiffed, sweet-smelling woman in tow.
But before we could come of age, Gaslight Square fell victim to post-war urban decay and the corresponding white-flight to the suburbs. The combination eventually left the city of St. Louis with less than half its peak population, and drained city coffers of their much needed tax base. It was into this environment that Duff’s opened its doors several blocks south of what had been Gaslight Square at 392 North Euclid near McPherson on July 7, 1972.
It was a risky proposition, no doubt, but with the diligence and hope of youth Duff’s, along with Balaban’s — another restaurant that had opened one block north that March — helped return the northern wing of the Central West End to must-visit status. With the two restaurant/bars serving as anchors, a growing melange of brick-faced antique shops, art galleries, book stores, restaurants and sidewalk cafes once again brought a Left Bank-like urban chic back to the city, and began what has become a long urban renewal for the old hometown.
Though best known for its Monday night poetry readings when the restaurant was closed, here’s a Wednesday night story that, among many, stands out.
In mid-August 1985 I was in Chicago doing some public relations work for the upcoming Chicago Marathon. Calling home that Tuesday I learned that my younger brother Marek was back in St. Louis for a rare visit from Seattle where he and his wife were students at the University of Washington and parents of two growing children. Since I lived on the opposite coast in Boston, our nuclear family of five – Mom, Pop and we three kids – hadn’t been all together in perhaps ten years. Only our older sister Teresa still called St. Louis home.
Upon hearing of Marek’s visit, I hopped the short flight to Lambert St. Louis airport out of O’Hare. My old friend Charlie Moseley picked me up, and the next morning we spun six miles beneath us around Forest Park. Later that afternoon I tagged on an extra four miles at speed through Tower Grove Park in my parent’s neighborhood on the city’s near south side.
Later that night our little family headed, where else, but to Duff’s for our reunion dinner.
As always, Nancy greeted us at the door before handing us over to Charlie at his altar of wood where we waited for our table to clear in the main dining room. While we sipped and laughed, Charlie hummed background while working the spigots and pulls. Then, after a few ‘welcome home’s’ from Karen, Tim and other long-time staffers not used to seeing us outside the Christmas holidays, Pop leaned in from two stools over.
“Tone,” he began, removing a ring from the little finger of his right hand. “I just noticed that you’re the only one here who isn’t wearing a ring.”
And with that he handed me the star sapphire ring that he had worn for as long as I could remember.
“Happy Wednesday,” he said.
A registered gemologist who worked at Jaccard’s Jewelers, the old-line jewelry store in St. Louis, Pop had designed the ring himself, taking the star sapphire from his side of the family, and the two small diamonds from Mom’s Polish ancestry.
Something of a cynic, Pop never put much stock in red-letter days like birthdays, anniversaries or Christmas. “I don’t like all that have-to-do business,” he’d say in a way of explanation. “It’s all just marketing.” Thus Pop was a spur-of-the-moment gift giver, and never more generously or memorably than that Wednesday night at Duff’s.
Looking back, where else would we have celebrated that unplanned reunion in 1985? And though we lost Mom in 2009 and Pop a year later — both occasions once again taking us back to 392 North Euclid to laugh, console and reminisce — with the passing of Duff’s I wonder where we might go next to toast life’s passages and linger into the night over cozy drinks and idle talk?
It reminds me when the Boston running community saw its beloved clubhouse, the legendary Eliot Lounge, close on the corner of Comm Ave and Mass Ave. in 1996 to make room for a chic new French restaurant.
While Duff’s is closing — as Balaban’s did in 2008 — the Central West End will go on, long ago eluding the fate of Gaslight Square. A new tenant has already been signed for 392 North Euclid, though all that was Duff’s, the mismatched furniture, wall-hangings, place-settings, silverware, etc., will be sold off piece by piece until only bare walls and hollow hearts remain.
Perhaps we will find a new place in town, and a new long-run will begin. Maybe. Even so, it won’t be the same; it never is, nor is it meant to be. The great wheel turns, and thus are we all ground into dust. Such is the Rib-Taker’s design, and so must we all be delivered.
Duff’s will serve its final brunch on Sunday June 23rd — by happenstance Nancy Kirby’s birthday. Then it will open Monday, the 24th for what will be its final poetry reading, one of the legacies of Duff’s initial impulse. If you are in the area, head over to 392 North Euclid to help celebrate not just their long history of poetry-reading in Saint Louis, but to salute a unique establishment that reclaimed its neighborhood, defined its era, and helped so many people make and share memories for life. Thanks, Karen and Tim et al.