View of St. Louis from the Gateway Arch.
Sarah Haas

As soon as the wheels touched the tarmac at St. Louis’s Lambert airport, everyone on the plane scrambled for their phones, eager to find out what they’d missed during the one-hour-and-40-minute flight. Soon the plane filled with dings and chirps and buzzes. Mine was humming in my lap.

It was a text from my Colorado friend, born and raised in the Gateway City: “Have fun!! It’s a great city… and be careful.”

“Thanks and I will (I think)! But, I don’t really know what being careful means…”

“Just be aware. It’s not safe.”

She’s right. According to the FBI, St. Louis ranked the most violent U.S. city in 2016, racking up the highest number of rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults and murders in the country. There are 88.1 violent crimes for every 10,000 residents in the city. Compare that to a rough estimate of about 20 crimes per 10,000 residents in Boulder, which has a slightly lower than average crime rate.

Hours later, walking around bare streets in the freezing rain, I’d forgotten all about safety. My only thoughts were how to keep warm enough so I could keep gawking at the city’s architectural patina — a blend of hand-carved facades, gothic revival churches, art deco design and post-modern masterpieces — not to mention the 680-foot arch sneaking into vistas all around the city.

As the starting point for the westward movement of settlers in the 1800s, St. Louis represents a hodgepodge of the melting pot that is America, condensed and preserved in the buildings that line the Mississippi. On the river’s western banks, all cultures worked together to create a diversity that is truly American.

I was lost in that thought when a voice called out from behind me: “Don’t turn around. I’m coming to you.”

Of course, I turned around to see a man in an oversized Rams jacket hustling toward me. He smiled at my rebellion, revealing more than a few missing teeth.

“This is a cash deal,” he said. “You got any money?”

“I’ve got money, but no cash.”

“Funny, ’cause I’ve got cash but no money,” he said, reaching into his pocket and fishing for a minute before pulling out a little nugget of weed.

“Not even enough cash for some bud?” he asked. I shook my head and he told me I could find him at the Crack Fox later, if I changed my mind.

In St. Louis, the man was treading a strange line of crime. Since 2013, possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana has been “decriminalized” in the city, and since 2014, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 842 citations have been given in lieu of jail time, 704 of which came during incidents where no other law was being broken.

Still, in St. Louis, it is decidedly illegal to sell marijuana. But the man needed cash, and weed was what he had to work with.

A block later I happened upon the Crack Fox, skipping over pools of vomit as I walked by, like a kid bounding from rock to rock to get across a pond. I couldn’t get his words out of my head: “I’ve got cash but no money.” Why did that phrase sound so familiar?

Days later, it hit me. They were the words of my father on Thanksgiving day 1994.

I was 8 years old and my dad had just been laid off from his job as a public school arts teacher, and he hadn’t yet started collecting unemployment. Somehow, he’d scrabbled together the money to fly out for Thanksgiving, but instead of a feast, we went to get popcorn at the movies.

But in buying the tickets, card after card was declined. I don’t remember any tone of regret or embarrassment in his voice when he joked with the ticket vendor, “I got no money, but at least I got some cash.” My dad spent his last $20 on one adult ticket and a large, buttery popcorn. (My admission would come by way of a father-assisted sneak in through the back exit door).

Many people, from Rahul Gandhi to Ben Carson, have said that “poverty is a state of mind” and for the most part I agree, but only if I’m allowed to split semantic hairs and say that you’re either poor or you’re not. If that’s the case, the St. Louis dealer and my cash-wielding father were both “poor” men, choosing to see abundance in instances of poverty. If living is an art, they are modern-day likenesses of Vincent van Gogh, making masterpieces out of next to nothing.

They are also both criminals.

Sneaking into movies will always be illegal, but marijuana might not always be. This year, like the last three years, legislation is being introduced to legalize marijuana in St. Louis (Board Bill 180), but it’s unlikely the bill will pass. The City doesn’t seem quite ready to be so contrarian to the staunchly conservative state government.

But as I walked around the city, looking at row after row of American architectural masterworks, I couldn’t help but remark at the life that persisted in spite of the daunting odds of the country’s surmounting poverty. As both money and cash become harder to come by for the 99 percent, “criminal” seems less black and white, and more a matter of perspective.