Best St. Louisan of 2002 St. Louis 2002 - Bob Jamerson
For some reason, the bagpipers in the Invera'an Pipe Band didn't appreciate Bob Jamerson's hijinks -- leading them down Tamm Avenue, twirling a baton, smiling and spinning, winking at strangers, turning their celebration into high-camp street theater.
Jamerson's sidewalk solo parade is free nearly every day in the Central West End, and word of his antics spread throughout the city like wildfire this year. People now cruise in the hopes of seeing the Gay Majorette, trying to inject a dose of levity into their day. They're most likely to see him along Lindell Boulevard and Maryland Plaza, where he struts daily in his biker boots -- with pompoms and tassels, of course -- drawing gawks, guffaws and, mostly, applause along the way. Jamerson works at bringing out his inner diva; with his extensive collection of ensembles, he can be Tina Turner one day, Cher the next.
"It's all about joy," he says. "Society imposes restrictions on our lives that a lot of us accept, although there are lots of reasons not to accept them."
The origins of the storyline seem sort of clichéd, but the outcome is anything but: A depressed furloughed flight attendant goes to a therapist after September 11. The therapist tells him to go out and do something that will make him happy. A year later, he's stealing the show at Taste of the Central West End, doing a torchy dance in a tutu and cop shirt.
The costumes may change, but the baton is ever present. "Baton twirling was a hobby to me," says Jamerson, "so I went to the closet and got out my old baton and added it to my walk, basically to lift my own spirits. I had no idea what the effect of that was going to have on the people watching me."
From her second floor of the Optimist International offices on Lindell Boulevard, Katie Vaughan saw Jamerson's evolution from Richard Simmons-style workout artist to flamboyant exhibitionist. "When I first saw him," says Vaughan, "he was wearing the tight jogging pants and cut-down sweatshirts, and he would go by singing to himself. Then his costumes became more elaborate, and around the holidays he would start going to the specialized costumes -- the Santa hat and red velvet skirt, the pink bunny suit for Easter." Jamerson's morning appearances became highly anticipated. "There was a code," says Vaughan. "'Pick up line two' meant Bob was coming. Anyone who had a window would go to it and see what Bob had on for the day. We love him here."
Jamerson routinely celebrates on the sidewalks of Euclid Avenue in Maryland Plaza, and it's a safe bet that certain upstanding patrons of the family-oriented Pasta House, gazing through the plate-glass windows at the sexually charged show, have had to do a bit of explaining to the kiddies. Jamerson's act is seductive and over-the-top to the point of campiness -- a pouting pompom girl with a nod to Josephine Baker, the St. Louis dancer/chanteuse who became the toast of 1920s Paris.
Another day, another stage -- morning rush hour on Kingshighway, near Barnes-Jewish Hospital -- he stands bare-chested, a faux-diamond tiara on his shaven pate and bright red-lipstick gleaming in the sun, gyrating in short-shorts for the motorists idling in their own fumes. Hoots, hollers and honking horns only egg him on.
He faces the queue of cars, sensually strokes his thigh like the most accomplished East Side stripper, then lightly slaps his fanny. Sheer bawdiness.
Whether the public views him as a performance artist, a goofball or something else entirely, Jamerson himself is quite sincere about his mission to break down barriers: "This town still has a lot of issues with race, homosexuality and a lot of other things, and for me, as a black gay male, to step out of that box on the street in people's faces forces them to deal with some of these issues." There's that, yes, but he's also trying to land a spot in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Meanwhile, he's waiting to hear from Leno's people or Oprah's people -- whoever gets to him first.
But that's not why does it. He does it for the best reason, which makes him the Best St. Louisan of 2002: "I have the courage to put on a costume, step out on the street and twirl a baton, something that the average male would never do, especially in the Midwest! And that makes my spirit free. I think my spirit is freer than any other human's in this city as we speak."