An ambulance screams and careens across Jefferson Street, turning sharply onto McCarthy with sirens blaring. No cars or people are listening. The intersection is empty. Welcome to Jefferson City, where it’s not even 8:00 PM and all the stop lights are flashing red. This is the capital of Missouri. I pity the bureaucrats who have to live here to push papers.
I’ve been warned that Jeff City is dull, but with a name like Jeff, how bad can it be? Answer: not bad, but epically boring.
Silence resumes. Nothing is open. A grey minivan sits in a deserted parking lot with its sliding door ajar. I’m not the only one who thinks this looks suspicious; a police cruiser pulls up behind it and trains a floodlight on the vehicle. Google Maps doesn’t have a ghetto heat map setting, so I never know what kind of neighborhood I’m riding into until I’m already there.
After riding 48 miles from Hermann, I leave the bike at the hotel and hoof it a mile through darkened streets into a residential area home to Prison Brews. Based on rider recommendations, this brewpub seems to be the cool place in town.
Readers of the Road Report know that I like me a good dark beer. And so, even with knees uncharacteristically aching, I walk to Prison Brews to get a Parole Porter, a black ale with sweet notes of caramel and chocolate and the bitterness of black malt and spicy hops. I pair it with a homemade root beer on draft, taking alternating swigs of both.
Parole Porter is fine but the root beer is not as good as Tin Mill’s in Hermann. My bratwurst is cold and mushy. Worst of all is the decor, which is Mickey Mouse meets goofy penitentiary. Fake jail cells right out of a high school theater prop shop make me wish I were back in St. Louis at Capitalist Pig—a BBQ joint in a former police station where the cells are the real deal.
I’ve been in Jeff City for less than two hours, yet feel like a prisoner myself. I walk back to the hotel and wash laundry in the sink.
The next morning confirms what I felt the night before. Jeff City totally sucks. I’m wheeling the bike in the lobby to check out when a hotel maintenance guy approaches. 72-year-old Eddie is a first generation Italian from Belmont in the Bronx. He’s so happy to see my license plate that he touches it.
Eddie left NYC a month before 9/11 and hasn’t returned. It’s not the same place it used to be, not because terrorism changed the skyline, but different ethnicities don’t get along well. Back then, he says, you had Puerto Rican, Jews and Italians living together. Put any of those two groups together now and there’s a fight.
He seems to be comfortable with his self-imposed exile in central Missouri, but Gloria has different plans. The black front desk clerk almost faints with delight upon seeing the New York license plate.
“I used to live in Staten Island!” she cries as if it were gorgeous and exotic like Hawaii.
Making a cathartic connection with a New Yorker prompts her to tell it like it is here. Gloria is an Atlanta native (“A-T-L!” she touts raising her hands in the air) and also lived in Texas. She complains that everything here closes at 7 PM and the locals are xenophobic.
“A Jamaican restaurant tried to open up and they shut ’em right down,” she says smacking her fist into her palm for emphasis. “There’s no options for things.”
For her favorite MAC cosmetics, she has to drive two hours to Springfield or Kansas City or schlep to St. Louis.
“So what are you doing in Missouri?” I ask.
“Misery,” she says, correcting my pronunciation of Missouri. “That’s what we call it when you live in Jeff City.”
I laugh louder than I should.
“This place is dead. You really gotta push to get yourself outta here. When I finish school I’m going back to Atlanta.”
She’s enrolled in Lincoln University, an historically black college founded 150 years ago. What Gloria does like about this place is the cost of living. Her three bedroom house with ample one-car garage to fit her Ford Expedition costs $650 a month. Her two dogs occupy the spare bedrooms. In New York, you’d have five roommates in that kind of space and rent out the garage on Airbnb for $85/night as an affordable, cozy and unique sleep.
“My friends say I’m paying too much. They say I can get three bedrooms for $550, but I like my place. I mean, you can get one bedrooms for $200.”
To prove this, she loads craigslist.org and spins the monitor around. Listings for $400 and $500 get you 2,500 square feet.
Gloria needs to get back to work and I need to get back to biking. As usual, I’m running behind schedule. A bike with New York tags means I should factor in an extra 20 minutes for conversations with curious people.
A stately capitol building might be Jeff City’s one redeeming feature. On my way out of town I circle it and stop to check out the monuments behind the building on the bluff overlooking the Missouri River and the Jefferson City Bridge that carries cars into the capital.
The second interesting thing about the city is the square pedestrian and bike ramp that leads up to the bridge over the stagnant Missouri River, which embodies lifeless Jefferson City itself. I reunite with the Katy Trail happy to be back in nature to celebrate two months on the road (video below or online).