by Colleen McKee, Special to Ecology of Absence
The Continental Building was the skyscraping dream of a crooked banker, a rare combination of conspicuous consumption and taste. It is the stunning embodiment of Art Deco glamour, with a touch of the neo-Gothic. Twenty-two white-tiled flights at its tallest, countless turrets shoot down its dizzying faÃ§ade. Its twelve roofs at varying levels make it appear even taller than it is, and enhance the sense of enchanting vertigo. It’s the kind of roof a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story would fling himself from. The martini glass still in his hand would reflect the lights from Grand Boulevard in flight. Who wouldn’t want to put their money in such a beautiful bank?
The Continental had a kind of fairy tale allure — the forbidden tower, so conspicuously white in a city of crumbling rust-colored brick. Built in 1929, on the verge of the Depression, the building was doomed from the start by embezzlement, fraud, and a mysterious theft of one million dollars from its basement. That winter night in 1989, when our little pack of trespassers first wriggled our way inside, it had already been vacant ten years.
It was easy to get in. There were boards on the windows that led to the lobby, but they were so sloppily nailed, it only took a few moments for Peyton and Tom to pry them loose with a hammer. Nick and I leaned up against the corner in a way we hoped appeared casual, looking out for police. Nick took Grand and I took Lindell. The cops didn’t come, so the guys pulled themselves inside, while I needed a bit of a boost.
I awkwardly landed on a floor slippery with shattered glass. But beneath the gray glass and dust was marble. The entire interior of the building — walls, floors and stairs — was made of marble, silver-gray and silver-white. It looked wet in the moonlight slanting through the windows. But it wasn’t really moonlight. It was streetlight. Downtown the streetlight sucks up the moonlight, but that makes it no less romantic.
I was fifteen and drunk, as I was every night, not just on moonlight, or streetlight, but on Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill “Wine”. (In case you’ve never tried it, it’s as pink as cotton candy, twice as sweet, and fizzy. Need I say its cap twists off? Their target market’s so obvious, they should include a free toy in every bottle.) I was at the Continental with my skeevy drug “buddies,” all guys in flannels and ripped leather jackets, all eighteen, twenty years old. There was my twenty-one year old boyfriend Tom, whom I hate to really call my boyfriend because he was never so much my friend as my sleeping bag. He gave me drugs and a place to stay and in exchange I gave him blowjobs, regardless of how long it had been since he bathed. Any semblance of romance between us was shot down the day I refused to blow him and I was forced to sleep in the playground down the street. The bench was very hard, and I quickly relinquished my pride. I forget who else was at the Continental, besides Peyton and Nick, whom I’d also swapped “favors” for drugs, whenever we figured Tom was too drunk to notice. Usually he wasn’t too drunk to notice. We were. (The only drug I wouldn’t do was heroin. Naked Lunch scared me too much. I thank William Burroughs for my only scrap of adolescent self-preservation.)
I’m not sure why I wasn’t dead, what with all I’d ingested, but that night at the Continental, I was maddeningly alive. The guys liked to run up the stairs, faster than I could or would go. I liked to explore the building alone. Homeless men were rumored to live there, but I was fifteen and unafraid. Besides, I didn’t see any homeless guys, just their Army blankets, food scraps and ashes heaped on the marble landings.
Pigeons cooed in every window and turret. Pigeon shit splattered the stairs — another good reason not to run up them. On one of the lower staircases, I discovered a tin of saltines that read, “EMERGENCY: Fallout Shelter Saltines, To Be Eaten in Case of Nuclear Attack.” Somehow the mice had broken in, and there were crackers strewn across the stairs, with fearless mice gnawing on the crumbs. I guess the mice did not realize that the USSR had not yet fallen, that the Cold War was in fact still on, and that they should really be saving their saltines for Doomsday. But the mice were unperturbed by politics and my boots alike. I couldn’t nudge them out of the way. I wound up tiptoeing over them.
The building narrows near the top, and the staircase does as well. At some point, the wide landings and elegant windows were gone, and I found myself in a stairwell hardly wider than my hips. Each floor was marked by a door whose cursive number I could barely make out. I worried each door would stick or lock. I began to grow claustrophobic, but curiosity carried me through. It was wonderful to push open each new door, 16, 17, 18. I must have been climbing for over an hour when it finally hit me, how tired I was. Only then did I feel the coldsweat under my boyfriend’s black leather jacket, the ache in my lungs, the stray hairs that slipped from my ponytail sticking to my wet cheeks. I brushed the dust from my Danzig T-shirt, and collected my breath for the climb.
When I opened door 21, the stairwell began to grow light. One more flight and I was there. I was on the roof. It had begun to snow, snow dry as cocaine, skittering down from a sky that seemed so close. I walked across the icy roof to the ledge, looked down, enjoying the vertigo. I saw grids of gold streetlights, and headlights pulse down the streets between them in slow snakes of light. Acres of cracked factory glass in metallic black and silver, the colors of negative film. My breath was dry ice, little clouds of exhaustion and exhiliration. I was on top of the city. Up here, the air was thinner and all the usual St. Louis sounds — the whine and hiss of Bi-State buses, the bang of busted tires, the softer bang of bullets, the groans of trains and drunks — up here, all that was gone, that soundtrack of my life. I only heard the wind.
In the center of the roof was an elevator shaft with no elevator in it, a completely black abyss. The guys poked around it, bending over it daringly, but I preferred the edge of the roof. I gazed down at the light outside, the new and strangely appealing light. But the boys had climbed all the way up here, just to stare into a hole. “Look, look!” they yelled, proud of their nondiscovery. I ignored them as I had so many times before, which was half as often as they ignored me. I served a very limited, localized purpose for them.
I returned my attention to the ledge, surveying my city like a queen, a teenage queen, yes, and a queen of ruins, but beautiful ruins, beautiful lights in slow graceful motion. It was an unfamiliar feeling, to let go of the lure of annihilation. I didn’t want to jump. I wanted to look at the world from afar, then reenter it some different way. Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t want to become Nancy Reagan, and I never did. I just got an idea, no, more like a vague yet heady feeling, that there might be more to life than being fucked and getting fucked up, that life might not be best lived on one’s back.
I could have stood up there all night, but the guys wanted to explore the basement. So we tromped down 2400 slick stairs to the darkest place I have ever been. The boys turned on all their flashlights. Still we could only see a few inches at a time. The basement was vast. It was once divided into rooms, but now the doors were gone. On one end was a safe, its door was wide open and, needless to say, it was empty. File cabinets had been kicked over and a layer of papers knee-deep covered the floor. The basement was like an underground swimming pool, like swimming in paper instead of water. The guys waded through the papers as though they were piles of fallen leaves, but I was not as intrigued by this lightless place. It seemed sad to me, all the women who spent years typing those documents, just to have them stomped on by brats in combat boots. I was thinking of row upon row of typists, hammering the keys, hour upon hour. I thought of the ache in their wrists as they typed and filed, typed and filed, darting their eyes at the clock. I did temp work myself at 15, with the help of a fake ID; between the typing jobs by day and the hand jobs by night, I knew what it felt like to have every muscle in my hands go numb then cramp in pain, as though instead of blood, there was salt water running through my veins.
But mostly I was thinking about the view from that roof. I stood in one place as the boys swarmed around me in the dark. I was lit from within by the city inside me. A city of coal dust and rail yards. A city of flickering light.
By 2003, when a friend and I pulled up to its curb, the Continental had been all cleaned up, after many notorious false starts. Just as my life had been.
The mere mention of cocaine still makes me salivate, but watching a friend turn tricks through her pregnancy persuaded me to stay away from it. I no longer go to work in a mini and a filthy bra held together by safety pins. Now I go to work in buttons and pleats; my safety pins are kept in a jar under the bathroom sink. I only wear them to punk shows now. At 30, I’m the oldest one in the pit. I suppose the rehabilitation — both of the Continental and my life — is a good thing. After all, we could easily both be dead.
Yet I know something’s been lost.
Once this building, one of St. Louis’ most amazing architectural triumphs, was accessible to me, if only by force. But now it is barred to me forever, by money. It is carved into neat little suites and I can only peer through the window at the listing of names and security codes where once I had been able to easily clamber up twenty-two flights of stairs to a strange sort of urban heaven, high above the frozen heart of Murder City.
St. Louis has an extraordinary number of vacant buildings; about one out of five are empty. In some neighborhoods, entire streets are vacant. Sometimes that makes me sad, but it is not an unmixed sorrow. Behind every cracked panel of glass, every chipped and fading brick, behind every board on every busted out window, I know there are possibilities.