Best Of 2002

The capybara is a rodent Rorschach test. Hang around the enclosure they share with the giant anteater for a while, and you'll hear much speculation as to what manner of beast this be. Children tend to the cuddly end of the spectrum, whereas adults tend to know a brother rat when they see one. All this confusion results from the fact that the capybara, or carpincho ("water hog," see?), is a sort of exquisite corpse: giant rump, webbed feet, head shaped like a shoebox; no coherent intention could have resulted in such an animal. A good-natured if oddly formed creature, the capybara is nature's largest rodent, and semiaquatic in the bargain. So aquatic, in fact, that in Venezuela it's considered fair Lenten game. They don't do much of anything other than laze about in between bouts of nuzzling and nudging one another, taking serene amusement in arranging gentle collisions in their pond. The capybara manages to radiate a sort of detached mindfulness, even while being poked in the ass by the ostentatious, overrated anteater. The whole animal seems somehow vestigial, as if designed for a purpose of which our memory is lost.
The large man wearing fishnet tights, a pink tutu and a drum majorette's hat received a much warmer reception when he led the Pride Parade in Tower Grove Park this June than he did when he crashed the Hibernian parade in Dogtown on St. Paddy's Day.

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.

Their loss.

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."

There are so many pretty flowers planted in the Soulard Community Garden, located in the very depths of the Soulard jungle. The little rusty-cockle Spaniards are on the verge of emerging to shoot their fall fireworks; soon their berries will glow blue blue electric blue. Then they'll die -- they always die -- and turn this insane rust color, one that stains your fingers and toes when you crawl naked through them. The winding Peters have fully consumed the rosebush; its last gasp seemed to be yesterday, when a geriatric yellow rose turned a sad brown and fell to the ground with a tiny thud. The poppies were cut, sapped and scraped a few months back -- man, were they delicious. Hummingbirds are lined up seven deep at the candlestick cronololodramadums; its nectar tickles their loins, and as each buzzing birdie is sated, it joins a dancing circle that zips across the garden. There, a pretty woman, one of the Soulard community, sits, hands dirty, face clean, and tends to her trellis: jagged angular limbs constructed as an open-air teepee, tied with twine at the top. The blue-and-yellow purple pills have climbed these limbs, and purple dots are popping up all over the place. It's crazy. The hummingbirds brake just above her head, form a halo and start spinning, then race in a row toward the dangling Neutrogenas in their full late-summer glory.

The Schnucks guy? Terry Crouppen? Don Weber monotoning, "No money down!" In an audio-visual tar pit of car dealers, lighting specialists, clock-makers and personal-injury lawyers, one leader stands above this pack of personae, and she's Becky, Queen of Carpets. With a tiara that's quite obviously worth millions -- if not more -- Becky leads the pack in sincere outsider-advertising kitsch. Seen hovering over the Arch on late-night TV nearly every night (has homeland security been notified?) in a sequined ballgown, with a beauty-pageant air that would make Deborah Norville green, Becky's ads contain the most necessary element of a successful local spot: She's not obnoxious. Behold the Schnucks guy who roams store aisles (and he's a whore -- he shills his "personality" to many, many grocery chains throughout the land -- so how can you trust his opinion?); car dealers who ought to be strapped with canine anti-bark collars; the endless stream of personal-injury ads, not to mention the "cheap cheap fun fun" Dirt Cheap chicken. Where's the dignity in that? To quote Her Majesty, in her lilting tone, "Nobody beats Becky's!"

Grab the tracing paper, charcoal sticks and fixative spray and head out to the Bellefontaine and Calvary Cemeteries for some of the oldest and most ornate gravestones around. Founded in 1849, in the Walnut Park area of North St. Louis, Bellefontaine contains more than 300 acres of old tombstones, all waiting to be framed and hung on your wall. Its rolling acreage and tussled leafy trees are an inviting landscape for tombstone-rubbers. To its west lies Calvary Cemetery, an equally aged plot of 400 acres with tombstones of early city residents and luminaries. Together they are the most impressive Midwest address for the deceased. Residents include writer Tennessee Williams; Civil War leader William Tecumseh Sherman; Auguste Chouteau, co-founder of St. Louis; William S. Burroughs; and Adolphus Busch. But don't limit your rubbings to celebrity graves. Some of the most interesting designs can be found on small older stones.

Whether he's addressing the war on terror or child abduction, Charles Jaco just sounds authoritative -- he must know what he's talking about. And he does, because Jaco's been there and knows a few people there. "The man can talk about any subject," says fellow KMOX broadcaster McGraw Milhaven, "and, nine times out of ten, he's probably met the newsmaker who was there or covered some aspect of a story or has visited the country in question."

A former CNN reporter who made his bones covering the Gulf War, Jaco came to KMOX in February 1995, adding a much-needed gravitas to the 50,000-watt behemoth. Rounding out his experience, Jaco has covered riots in Miami, floods in the Midwest and the Branch Davidian siege in Waco. In March, he vacated his longtime 2-4 p.m. slot and moved to evenings; his Nightwatch airs from 8-10 p.m. Jaco's timely, detailed stories, complemented with interviews, transmit to 44 states, the station's reach by night. One recent guest was Aukai Collins -- devout Muslim, FBI informant and author of My Jihad. Night after night, Jaco provides his own valuable insights, culled from a lifetime of globe-hopping and reporting, adding luster to topics that could otherwise turn dull. As one addicted listener says, "I have yet to tune him in when he doesn't add to something I'm already interested in."

The United States attorney general, the sword of the Lord leading the charge against al-Qaida and our Bill of Rights, is a genuine Missouri product, through and through. He's as much a part of our indigenous culture as mule-ass stubbornness, corncob-pipe-makin' and roll-throwin'. He was our auditor. Our state attorney general. Our governor. Our U.S. senator. Even when we finally voted him out, he popped back, bigger than Christ of the Ozarks! He is our legacy. And gee, America, we're sorry. But we've had trouble figuring out an explanation. How'd he keep getting our votes all these years? Then it hit us -- like a hunk of lead concentrate flying off a tractor-trailer in Iron County. It's in our blood. Lead mining. Lead smelting. Lead polluting. Lead poisoning. For more than two centuries, Missouri's been the nation's primo spot for lead production -- and with all that heavy metal in the ground, in giant piles, on the streets, in the streams and rivers, on the walls and in the children, surely we Missourians have lost a brain cell or two. What better excuse can we offer up for John Ashcroft? We're as steady as rocks and twice as smart.
Although Mayor Francis Slay's favorite poison-pen PR assassin never gets a byline, it's impossible to read a Jerry Berger column these days without stepping into item after item shoveled into the maw of Bergermeister's prime newsprint pit by none other than the Callow One. Truth is, spotting the items ghosted by Callow has become a bigger sport among the city's political cognoscenti than tallying up the bold-faced name droppings or the dings and darts der Berger throws at his critics. The learned reader knows that shamelessly one-sided and often inaccurate fawnings over the programs and policies of Mayor Francis Slay come directly from the brain of Callow, the live-in boyfriend of Barb Geisman, Slay's deputy mayor for development.

Callow's well-known position as Berger's ghostwriter is one of the prime reasons people fear him and put him on the payroll -- even if it otherwise isn't in their best interests to do so. Why this is so says more about this town's fear of the truth and its preoccupation with maintaining appearances than it does about the efficacy of Callow's Simon Bar-Sinister act. It also says a lot about a Post-Dispatch environment that allows Berger and his ghost. Callow's power hinges on perception, fear and the knowledge that he's Jerry's stringer. Apologies to Bill McClellan and a number of other top-flight pros who practice an honest craft.

Another sweltering day at Delmar and Kingshighway. People wait on buses, cars stop at traffic signals, an ambulance screams by. Above this din, one voice rises, the voice of the Reverend Cecil Rogers, fervent and booming. There's no ignoring him -- this man is broadcasting. Moved by the spirit and bathed in sweat, he spouts into a microphone, his words gushing from a scratchy loudspeaker -- he's half-unintelligible, but the message is clear: "Mend your ways. Turn toward God. Repent and be saved." It's a message Rogers has been delivering since 1981, when he began to recover from a stroke.

A guest preacher at the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, Rogers prefers to evangelize on the city streets. "Anybody can preach behind walls," he offers, "but to be called out to the highways and the hedges -- that's a special call." He never solicits donations, yet preaching has earned him taunts, even arrests for peace disturbance. It's the thank-yous that make it worthwhile. "Two young men recently came to me," says Rogers. "They'd decided to give their life to the Lord, and they told me they're glad I'm out there doing the good work, don't let nothing stop me, keep on lifting up Jesus, 'cause if ever there was a time we need to lift him up, the time is now."

If Dick Gephardt is good enough for everybody else, who are St. Louisans to argue? The House minority leader and presidential candidate is often the go-to guy for the Sunday-morning network chat shows as one of the talking heads who does most of the talking for the national Democratic Party. Yeah, he's also the guy who's the subject of those "Dump Gephardt" bumper stickers you see around town, but don't hold your breath on that one. There's a core of locals who can't stand the guy, but apparently not many. When real-estate whiz Bill Federer ran against Gephardt in 2000, the Republicans finally had a candidate with lots of money to finance his campaign. Despite spending more than $1 million and running as a nonpolitician, Federer only mustered 40 percent of the vote. How does Gephardt do it? He was a speech major in college at Northwestern University before getting his law degree at the University of Michigan. He's big on eye contact and communication. In small groups, that works. He's a details kind of guy. Constituent service is big. And don't forget his, well, organization. Joyce Aboussie is his national political director. With her background in polling and her local connections, few trends in the district go unnoticed. Rumors circle that if Gephardt doesn't become speaker this go-around, he may hang it up. Who's next in line for that congressional seat? Francis Slay? Tom Villa? Lyda Krewson? If only Peter E. Parisi hadn't died.
The marble pedestal has crumbled, the pulpit's sunk below pew level, the flying buttresses can no longer support the weight of conscience. Truth tumbles down all over the Archdiocese of St. Louis: Our Roman Catholic priests are mere human beings -- a few of them outright criminals, others no more capable of disciplining their sexual urges than the most wanton prostitute in the Bible. Many of these men have used their power -- both sacramental and institutional -- to protect themselves and each other from consequences. Now we want only to expose, punish and banish them. Yet they, broken and humbled, are the ideal confessors, keenly aware of the twists of sin and the desperate need for a forgiveness that at first seems impossible to grant. They will not mumble mindless litanies; they will not swell with their own power as judge and divine intercessor; they will not fall back on smug religiosity. Keep them from children, by all means -- but find one for yourself and, together, pour out your sins.