The St. Louis Art Museum sits atop Art Hill in Forest Park. A fine statue of King Louis IX on horseback overlooks a long sweep of grass—excellent sledding turf after a good snow. It’s a welcoming place, filled with beautiful things and charming people.
A few years back I visited the museum before Christmas to buy something in the gift shop. I don’t remember what I went there for, because I got distracted when I discovered a basket filled with little three-legged clay pigs, called chanchitos. Made in Chile, they are considered good luck. They were darling, and I decided to buy one for my brother-in-law, Mike. He already has everything he really needs, but all of us can use a bit of extra luck.
As I paid for it at the counter, a second clerk said, “Does this chanchito have a butt?” She was probably in her 50s, with a chin-length blonde bob. She looked like the sort of museum lady who would know a great deal about setting a proper table and baking delicious tea cakes.
I looked blank. “He has a tail,” I said uncertainly.
“Some of them have actual butts,” she said. “Not all of them. I think they’re really cute.”
While I finished paying she went over to the chanchito basket and started rummaging through it, presumably to find one with a butt. I joined her, with my butt-less chanchito in its little bag in my hand.
She said, “Someone put the price stickers over the butts, so I’m having to peel them back to check.” I started helping.
“What are we looking for, exactly?” I asked.
“It’s just a little hole, like one of the eyes. I think it’s so cute.”
None of the other chanchitos had a butt, as it turned out, and we decided that increased demand for lucky chanchitos had probably led to the need for greater efficiency in their manufacture—thus the butts had been discontinued.
But all of that happened later. When I first arrived at the museum, I thought I remembered that the large gift shop was on the 2nd floor, so I entered through the back door, walked across the lobby, and took the stairs on the north side of the building. They are the type of stairs that go up seven or eight steps to a landing, then the stairs turn and go up another seven or eight steps to a second landing, turn again, and finish the trip with a last set of steps to the top. At the second landing I noticed a plaque on the wall. There was no piece of art nearby—not even a nail on which a piece of art might have once hung—but I stopped and read it anyway.
You can make yourself enter somewhere frightening if you believe you’ll profit from it. The natural response is to flee but people don’t act like that anymore.
I said, “Huh.” Then I moved on to the 2nd floor. At the top of the stairs I stopped, turned around, and went back down to the landing. I copied the words carefully on the back of my grocery list (diced tomatoes – 2 cans, cabbage, carrots, coffee), then I went on to the 2nd floor, realized I was in the wrong place, and came out at the stairs on the south side of the building. A directory near the elevator didn’t appear to list the gift shop, but I remembered that it was near the café, which was on the lower level. I started down the south stairs, and this time I was prepared when I saw an artless plaque on the wall. I stopped and pulled out my grocery list. This one read:
Exercise breaks at strategic points during the day enhance productivity and provide simultaneous sensations of relief and rejuvenation.
“Isn’t that great?” A woman coming up the stairs stopped and looked at the plaque with me. She wore a museum name badge. She said, “I sometimes stop as I’m coming up and down these stairs and read that out loud.”
A year or two later, I received my own chanchito from my nephew, Ryan. Ryan understands how much I like pigs. The chanchito sits on my desk and regards me with his deep, gimlet eyes and panting mouth. His front legs are spread apart in a pose that implies he’s only pausing temporarily and will soon make a sudden, pig-like dart to resume his energetic, rejuvenating exercise.
He is, alas, butt-less.