Our Fallen Embassy: Revisiting the Former Clems

Friday afternoon Troy Skaife took his Friday Social Club happy hour group to the bar formerly known as Clementines, which was the oldest gay bar in the city when it closed in 2014. Clem’s was considered sacred ground by many, and since the change in ownership I’ve thought of the building as a fallen embassy, trying to not even look at it much less revisit it.

But I decided if there was ever a time to go this was it, since many friends of mine attend these happy hours. I dug through my archives and pulled out the December 2014 issue of Vital VOICE, where I had a piece about Midnight Annie, the drag queen whose ashes were long entombed in the wall. While uncertain how it would be received, I felt compelled to impart a sense of history on the new owner and staff, and hoped they’d find it interesting. 
The bar is beautiful and familiar, and the happy hour took place upstairs, which was just an unused apartment during the Clem’s days. The bartender serving us was young and attractive, with a shaved head and muscular physique, and while not talkative he was efficient, relaxed and professional. The drinks, however, were nothing like the famously strong Clem’s cocktails. 
The balcony, once the most coveted and exclusive spot for LGBT people during Mardi Gras–which was also the only time it was used–was open to anyone. As the regular bar patrons arrived it felt they were either consciously or unconsciously engaging in dominance displays, trying to “hetero” the place up in response to our group, yelling at the game, repeatedly blowing air horns, etc. There’s a chance they would have been just as loud and rowdy had we not been there, but soon it seemed our entire gathering had taken refuge (video) on the balcony. 
I went downstairs to look for whoever was in charge, and found a group of three employees at the main bar, which wasn’t busy at the time. 
“Did you know there was a drag queen entombed in that wall over there for many years?” I asked. 
“Say what?!” one exclaimed, but after that burst of surprise I lost their attention instantly. 
“This is an article about it you can ready sometime” I said as the man behind the bar took the magazine and set it down without comment. 
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the story of Midnight Annie, below is an excerpt from Delusions of Grandeur

Midnight Annie’s Final Performance

I almost didn’t go to closing night at Clementines, and Ray didn’t plan on going either. It was a Monday night, I’d spent all of my time there since Wednesday, and I thought it would be too sad. Around eight, however, I decided I would always regret not going, and since I was going Ray came out as well. I walked in, and on the glowing dry erase marquee near the pool table I wrote “Going down with the ship.”

The bar was crowded but not overly so, and the characters there were the ones who really loved the place. The spirits were higher than expected and the camaraderie was simply incredible as old friends hugged, laughed, and made toasts. Miss Davey, a daily regular who had his own hot pink goblet and had been too upset to be interviewed over the past several days, came up and gave me a hug.

“I’m really sad, but I’m going to be ok” he said, smiling.

When owner Gary and his late partner Jim bought the bar in 1985, they held their first drag show with their friend Midnight Annie as the headliner. Unbeknownst to her they billed it as “Midnight Annie’s Final Performance” to make it more of a draw.

“Would you quit telling people this is my final performance?” an exasperated Midnight Annie kept admonishing.

She carried on there for many more years, and even after she passed she was still a draw, remaining among us in the wall.

I was less than a foot from Gary when, in the final hours, he took the mic, and the quiet, introverted man who’d hardly said anything over years gave a rousing farewell speech, and the whole place stopped to listen and applaud. He spoke about how much times had changed since the bar opened in 1978, and changed for the better. He spoke of the historic old brick building which was erected in the 1860s. He said all drinks were on the house until the last bottle was dry, and then he then brought up Midnight Annie.

“I always say my only child was a seventy-five year old drag queen” he began, and then announced “And she’s leaving with me. Ladies and Gentleman, next to Jan is Midnight Annie!” and I’ll be God damned if he didn’t have Midnight Annie’s dusty urn, complete with the yellowed and water stained label, sitting on the bar with a cocktail!

The crowd went mad with uproarious cheers and applause.

On that final evening there were people in attendance who’d come to see Midnight Annie’s final performance back in 1985. After a thirty year wait, she and Gary Reed finally delivered with a closing number the city will never forget. 

Shortly after, I made my way to Nadine’s, where many others had also migrated. We talked about how going back there was like going back to your house a few years after you died. It’s no longer yours, and seeing the new inhabitants is disconcerting.  It felt we were trespassers.
Not only are Midnight Annie’s ashes gone, I can feel that her soul has moved on from that space as well.  I will continue to look away from our fallen embassy, preferring to remember it as it was. 

A Ghost’s Perspective

In the piece below I imagine hearing the perspective of a ghost.

I’m still not ready to talk about how I died. I’ve barely begun to accept that I have. Everyone acts like you’ll somehow fully understand it the instant it happens. One second you’re alive, the next you’re dead, and you’re just supposed to wrap your head around that jarring fact immediately. The same people who live their lives in denial about everything, including that they’re ever going to die in the first place, think you die and BOOM, you have closure. How many of you truly accepted turning forty or fifty? C’mon. Yeah, you went through the motions and you talked the talk, but how many times did you feel like you were looking at a stranger when looking in the mirror. In your mind you were forever 29, and it was constantly shocking to see you in fact weren’t.

But the thought is when you die there’s a beautiful white light and all you have to do is go into it. Well, that’s like telling an insomniac how simple going to sleep is. Going into the light is much like going to sleep in that it involves a process of peaceful surrender. In the same way sleep eludes many of the living, the white light eludes many of the dead.

I remember living in New York and reviling all of the gentrification going on around me. People with no reverence for who or what was there before just taking over the city. I got to go through those feeling times a thousand when I died. The first thing that happens is people barge in your house and just start ripping it apart, robbing you blind. Man, they go through everything, they’ve got opinions about everything, and then they throw half of it away.

My dog, he didn’t even understand what was happening and I was powerless to comfort him. His water bowl was too low, and he likes it refilled with fresh water a couple of times a day but nobody was paying attention. This house and all that’s in it is mine. I paid for it over thirty God damn years and it’s just taken from me by some young privileged fucks who decide my taste was horrible and they’re going to change everything about it. Picture sitting on your sofa one day and someone comes in and happily decides your house now belongs to them. That’s how it feels.

In retrospect it’s amazing how much the living take for granted. Being alive is like being a god, I mean the power you have is extraordinary. Do you realize how much energy it takes me to so much as make a floor creak? You can make someone happy or sad in an instant. You can displace water. You can inspire or horrify. You can use your hands to build something, or heaven forbid blow something up. The world cares about and bends to your needs. You can set boundaries and claim space.

I miss the tactile. Being able to touch another person, and being touched. I miss my body – what an amazing thing to have a physical body. I miss feeling the wind. I really miss hugging my friends and family, and being able to care for my dog. I miss people seeing me. I miss companionship.

I remember walking through nursing homes and seeing so many lonely people all in the same place, and wondering why they couldn’t provide one another companionship. That’s what it’s like being dead, only worse. I see other spirits, but we’re incapable of offering one another companionship. Unfortunately we’re not incapable of making one another miserable, though. Most chill, peaceful people quickly move on, so those of us lingering aren’t really a pleasant lot.

Every bit of unfinished business is like a rope tethering you to this life. If I could do it all over again I’d make sure to say everything that needed to be said, and I’d always forgive. When I was alive I never bought the saying that forgiveness is more for yourself than the other person, but now I know that forgiveness is a knife cutting you free. Here’s a tip: If you can’t let go in life, you won’t be able to let go in death.

I would never wish time away. I would spend less time worried about money and status. I’d take better care of my body and get more enjoyment out of it. I’d use my tremendous power to make a difference, knowing I only had a brief moment to do so.

I don’t want to cut this short, but I mentioned how other spirits can be a pain in the ass. Imagine spotting a celebrity on the street and having them actually talk to you. You as a living person are that celebrity, and when other spirits spot you actually focusing on one of us they mob the scene trying to get your attention for themselves.

You’ve got to …[inaudible due to static and background noise]… while it’s your turn.

I’m getting pushed, shoved, and drowned out by [inaudible].

Have to go.

The Mad Beader of Mardi Gras

Auntie M in the Emperor’s Opera Box. Photo credit: RFT

Interviewing the Cheshire Cat

I’ve known Auntie M for a hundred years. I’ve been his sidekick in several parades. I’ve foraged through big faraway cities in search of hidden bead stores with irregular hours, and have escorted him through through the streets and subways of San Francisco en route to Folsom Street Fair while he was dressed in nothing but skimpy shorts and a rope tied in knots.  Yet, I find interviewing him to be a challenge.

Discussing his vast collection of beads, which delighted desert dwellers at Burning Man and have adorned drag diva Varla Jean, I began by asking about some of his most precious and unique strands.

“Well it’s not like I have some in some locked up case that I consider the most precious, you know? Do you mean the ones that are glass?” he asks.

“You scour the world for beads. What are some of your most prized pieces? I’d like to get the beaded backstory.” I continue.

“You do love your alliteration! You’re like some weird super villain of journalism. I do not have a most prized.”

We’re conducting part of the interview over text when he begins to tell me about getting mobbed for beads while riding a bike in the Mardi Gras parade. When I push for more details Auntie M says we’ll talk about it another time.

“I’m tired of texting and I’m bored.”

After all these years I would think it would be easy to reduce him to words, but I’m stumped by the task.  When I think of characters to compare him with none quite fit the bill. He has a love of costumes on par with American Dad’s Roger, and an intellectual sensibility like Dr. Frasier Crane.  In large crowds he moves like a bumble bee pollinating flowers. Or maybe it’s some kind of LSD Alice in Wonderland version where the flower (Auntie) approaches the bees, and his beads are the pollen.

Holding Auntie M’s bead box. St. Louis Pride 2009

A Coveted Collection 

“C’mon, just flash it,” a woman says to her boyfriend while lusting after a luscious strand of unique, hand strung beads. With very little prodding the sculpted man complies, the gallery is impressed, the beads are awarded, and the Mad Beader moves along to find the next lively exchange.

Beads are everything during Mardi Gras, from currency to status symbols, and while Historic Soulard is awash in bead vendors, the most coveted strands are typically those that cannot be purchased.

Auntie’s baby beads, pictured, are among his most well known and sought after. Strands come with brown babies, white babies, and interracial pairings of babies.

New for 2017 is the Porn Star strand, which is guaranteed to be a hit with those who like to put on a show.

Auntie M & the Krewe of the Tawdry Turret have a thousand disco ball beads to toss from the Emperor’s Opera Box at Russell and Menard

While Auntie rarely tosses his handmade strands to the crowd (you must find a way to delight Auntie in person for those), Auntie M will be tossing beads from the Emperor’s Opera Box, along with the Krewe of the Tawdry Turret, across from Bastille and above our gracious host, Remember Me Vintage & Costumes at the big gay intersection of Russell & Menard.

You’ll also find Auntie at Nadine’s during the High Heel Drag Race events, and working the crowd near the Bastille drag stage.

Finally, A Few Do’s and Don’ts                                      

High Heel Drag Race beads

I may not be able to interview Auntie M worth a damn, but after seeing him bestow beads since before some of you were born I have some advice.

Auntie M works year round amassing the finest beads to share with Soulard’s most bold and colorful characters, so don’t be shy.

Do engage in conversation. Do be fun and entertaining.

Don’t be grabby and don’t be greedy. Otherwise there will be no beads for you.


For more on LGBT Soulard Mardi Gras, check out Karla Templeton’s piece in the Vital VOICE. 

Road to Ruins: Glenn Baker’s Prehistoric St. Louis

I knew Illinois Route 3, just across the river from the Gateway Arch, was steeped in history. There’s of course LGBT history, which included a popular hangout in the fifties called the Olde English Inn, and there are the infamous dens of iniquity some people have long slinked to at all hours along the route. I was aware that the road runs through Alton, site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and Brooklyn, the oldest town incorporated by African-Americans in the United States. But I realized my historical understanding was a mere inch deep the morning Archaeological Illustrator Glenn Baker, who just completed the illustrations for Mark W. Leach’s upcoming book The Great Pyramids of St. Louis, gave me a tour of prehistoric St. Louis.

It turns out, where Route 3 runs, a road existed for more than a thousand years, and it’s just one of several in the region with similar pasts including Gravois, which led to mounds in the Fenton area, and Collinsville Road, which Baker says has been used “since man first entered the valley.”

Grand Plaza. Courtesy of Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center

Showing me his illustrations of the American Bottoms, which is the name of the flood plain that runs along the Mississippi in the Metro East, Baker explains, “To understand the roads and access points you have to understand the old map of the Bottoms. These maps show all the known mounds. Where they are grouped together are the main towns. The road sites were important because they ran on high ground along the oxbow lakes that existed then in the American Bottoms. I tend to think of the area like the Valley of Mexico, teaming with towns and villages connected all together by these waterways. It would have looked very much like Lake Texcoco (Site of present day Mexico City where the Aztecs built a city on an island). It’s clear that people came from great distances to Cahokia. This was an important commercial center and religious pilgrimage site.”

One of the things I love about this region is the seemingly infinite layers upon layers of history. Before we were the largest city west of the Mississippi and the 4th largest in the nation, before we were part of the USA, before we were part of the Spanish or the French empires, before European explorers set foot on North American shores, one of the world’s great cities rose right here, at the confluence of two mighty rivers. Cahokia, as it’s now known, was the Manhattan of its time, larger than London in AD 1250, and few know it better than Baker.

“It’s important for people to know that Monks Mound (the crown jewel of Cahokia) is possibly the 5th largest pyramid on Earth—that makes it a serious archaeological site—and there were seven large towns and many smaller settlements connected by well-maintained roads and causeways over a site that spans from Chesterfield Valley to Lebanon, and from Grafton to Dupo. It was as large in scope and scale as any city in Mesoamerica.


Born and raised in the Central West End, Baker left for Houston where he spent twenty years working for their chamber of commerce, and then spent a decade doing similar work in San Francisco. When he retired, he returned home.

“Like many St. Louisans we come back. It’s like umbilical whiplash, it’s as if there was a brick missing and I was just slipped back into place in the wall.” Baker says, before quoting St. Louis native T.S. Elliott: “And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time” 

It was after his return that he attended a screening of a film about ancient St. Louis, and while he found the subject matter fascinating he was dismayed that the film completely lacked imagery of what this place might have looked like.

“…and there was nothing …nothing that had ever been done to show what it looked like inhabited, which is why I drew the first drawing of the St Louis Mound Group for the Mound City Archaeological Society. I’ve adapted it later and have maybe done fifteen more drawings since then all of sites and aspects of sites that had never been illustrated before. It was my interest really in knowing what it all looked like based on the data we knew. My goal was to recreate them in a way that would show them as they were. So I could see this lost world as it was. To recreate it and to see it again.”

There was no larger city in what’s now the USA than Cahokia, and the great mystery is why it was abandoned around AD 1300. Baker draws the parallels between past and present, and between the two audacious symbols – Monk’s Mound and the Gateway Arch. 

“Why Cahokia is a mystery, it is not just in the past, but it’s an omen for modern men, to sit on the top of Monk’s Mound and look back at St Louis and the Arch and the Great Rainbow Gate we raised up. What drives men to raise up these monuments? It tells us our end will come as well, and all our glory will be lost. It’s a window in time.”

Baker also thinks this storied ground feeds who we are to this day.

“There’s something spiritual about this place. Cahokia is a sacred site and we are right on top of it. Maybe why we are such a haunted, brooding complicated bunch of humans.”

While there’s so much we still don’t understand about prehistoric St. Louis, thanks to Baker we can begin to picture it.

“Strange, but in a way I traveled back in time. There it was, this enormous lost city, the very center of the world, and a sacred place which exerted tremendous power of over the whole of what is now the Eastern United States. In my mind I see it. The first thing you would have seen in the distance is the smoke rising up from it, then the mounds and the villages, the cultivated fields, the fleets of canoes, the great causeways and roads thronged with crowds of people, the vast walls that enclosed it. It was painted with gaudy colors as where its citizens, then at the center is this huge pyramid that rivals anything on Earth, the sheer power and glory of it, a whole lost civilization, not in Central America but here in our back yard. I hope my drawings let others to see what they never knew existed here, that when they see them they are filed as I am with the same wonder and awe.”

The love Baker has for this place is profound, as are his gifts to us all.

“I have put in my will that if I die here in St Louis, I want my ashes spread on the wind from the top of Monks Mound. I’m very romantic.”