End Is Den Spelled Sideways
"Most of the antiques I'm selling go way back to the plantation," Red Bone says. His eyes ignore the mugs on the counter in front of him (the boob-shaped ones with sippy holes in the nipples), linger over the rusty tools piled on the floor, then veer upward. "Look at that plow there," he says, aiming his diamond pinkie ring at a farm implement that hangs from the ceiling. "I used to run behind a mule with a turning plow like that."
Warren "Red Bone" Lytle, proprietor of Red Bones Den in north St. Louis, retired from the bar business earlier this month. He's back at the Den to oversee the divestment of the tavern's decorative elements, a hoard of vintage flotsam he has accumulated over the past 40 years.
"I started collecting this stuff as conversation pieces," Lytle offers, explaining his eclectic trove. "Customers feel better when they got something to talk about, something in here to look at other than the liquor bottles behind the bar or another Budweiser sign on the wall. A lot of these things people don't even know how to use anymore, because they've never been on a farm. They see what I got and want to know what it is and where it came from. And the more they talk, the more beer they drink."
Diane, Lytle's significant other, bustles around pulling items off walls and shelves. Auctioneer Eric Iman, who was hired to sell off Red Bone's collection online, works with two auction-house employees to tag and photograph each piece for the sale. Not the sparkly red vinyl barstool upon which Lytle perches, though, nor the brass stripper pole in the corner. Those are staying put; Lytle hopes to rent out the bar space and its fixtures to some young go-getter. That would bring the story around full circle, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
"I didn't really realize I had so much stuff. We've been working on this since we closed. But I feel lazy today," Lytle says, sounding it. He looks out the Den's front window. Just across Kossuth Avenue, the yellowing grass of Fairground Park crisps in the day's 106-degree heat. "This is my corner," he pronounces, then pauses to sip from a can of diet A&W root beer. "I been staying around here ever since I come up to St. Louis from West Memphis, way back in 1963. I wouldn't have wanted to live nowhere else. Really."
From this vantage point you might be able to convince yourself you're looking out at a country-club fairway, if a poorly irrigated one. But there are no golf courses on the north side of the city, much less country clubs. Three blocks to the east, where Kossuth meets North Grand Boulevard, a dozen men sit beneath a pair of parched old sycamore trees, the mingy shade likely the nearest thing they've got to air conditioning. The most ornate of the city's famed water towers overshadows the area like a faded white sundial telling the wrong time.
A Week Earlier
On the last afternoon in June, three unique vehicles converge at the crossroads of Kossuth and Prairie avenues for the Den's closing celebration: a red-and-white 1930 Budweiser Land Cruiser, a white 1927 Excalibur limousine and a red golf cart adorned with red-and-white placards that identify it as "Red Bones and the Bonette's Pimp-Mobile."
The party started early. "About a hundred cousins showed up from Arkansas at nine this morning," Red Bone reports, "and started drinking my beer."
Many of the buildings in the neighborhood are missing windows, doors, sections of roof and/or bricks by the wall's-worth, but the Den is well-kept, and intact. The exterior reflects Red Bone's favored color scheme: The cast-iron storefront columns are painted red with white curlicues at the top; snappy red awnings shade the spotless windows; a row of red stars punctuates the white-painted brick between the first and second floor.
The beer garden on the back patio features a rounded marquee that once was attached to Kemoll's restaurant, which operated for 66 years on North Grand before moving downtown in 1990. (The metal, formerly green, is now white scalloped in red.) Today it sports the Red Bones Den logo: the silhouette of a luscious, naked floozy reclining in a martini glass, her booty buttressed by a stem in the shape of a big stiff bone.
A throng — mostly men, some natty in pressed tropical-print shirts and straw hats, others more casual in T-shirts and ballcaps — gathers around the Budweiser Cruiser, the sole survivor of a fleet the hometown brewery commissioned during Prohibition to keep the marketing fires burning.
"When I heard Red Bones Den was closing, I came back from vacation early so I could drive the Bud Boat up here," says Greg Rhomberg, owner of the snazzy crowd-pleaser. Rhomberg and artist Bill Christman, co-curators of The Art of the Sign exhibit at Ars Populi gallery, came across this watering hole a year ago while scouting the north side for old neons. "Red Bone made us feel welcome," Rhomberg says, "so we kept coming back."
"I can tell you a little story about that," Red Bone says from his barstool and adjusts his broad-brimmed straw hat. He has just been asked how this corner came to be his corner.
"I used to have a car wash across the street — I washed cars by hand. There was a water line in an abandoned Phillips 66 service station right over there. I started my car wash because water didn't cost nothing, soap didn't hardly cost nothing, rags didn't cost nothing. That's the only way I could start. I didn't have no money, you know? I didn't have a quarter. So I used all the free water I could get.
"I was always doing something to that raggedy old gas station. Messing around — painting, fixing the windows, making sure there wasn't no debris laying around over there. I never let a bunch of guys hang around me, either, drinking beer. I just worked. Because I knew people were living over here, I tried to be respectful of them," Red Bone says, gesturing up toward the Den's second floor. "Old lady named Miss Beech lived here in this building, and Old Lady Miss Beech was looking out the window at me all the time when I was washing cars.
"I used to wash cars in the winter. I had always worked outside all the time, so the weather didn't bother me much. Where I grew up in Arkansas, the only work was cotton. Picking cotton, chopping cotton, plowing behind a mule. I came out of the cotton field. That's working hard, all the time. Growing up the oldest of twelve brothers and sisters, I was a workaholic, that's what I was. I didn't have any fun at all during the week till come Saturday. Then we'd go into town, West Memphis or somewhere, and just walk up and down the streets and eat candy and popcorn. Nothing much, but it was better than being bent over in the hot sun with a hoe from sunup to sundown. So I was used to bad weather, hot or cold.
"When the cold weather broke one Sunday, Miss Beech called me over here and said, 'Hey, how could you wash cars in the wintertime? How could you wash cars when the water just freezes up on the windshields?' And then she said, 'How would you like to own this corner?'
"I'd been over there for a few years by then. That service station was slung low, and the bricks over here looked high. When she said, 'How would you like to own this?' I said, 'Ma'am, I don't have any money.' She said, 'I would like for you to have it. I think you would take care of it.' She wanted me to have this corner, so I got it. Nobody gives you nothing like that."
Red Bone shakes his head when he says this, more than 40 years on, still amazed.
"She didn't just give me a break, she gave me a gift, straight-up."
Diane, Red Bone's woman for the past seven years, stops pulling piles of purple flannel Crown Royal bags out of a cabinet behind the bar.
"He put $12 down, and she took care of all of the financing," Diane says. "Understand, this is a white lady who owns this corner. There's only been one big race riot in St. Louis, and that happened right here, at the Fairground Park pool. This was an all-white neighborhood then, and the whites didn't want black people swimming in their pool. Then in the 1960s, when R.B. was washing his cars, there were race riots and burnings all over America, and Martin Luther King was having his walks. But even with all that going on, that old white lady looked at this black man working hard out there and trusted him.
"The timing makes it even more significant to me — that she was able to see him as a person, not a skin color."
A Bonette Moment
A photograph of Lytle, dated June 30, 1974, hangs on the wall at one end of the bar. He's reaching an arm into a brown convertible, where his slim blond ex-wife sits. They sport matching aviator shades and the funky fashions of the era, and both are grinning as wide as the iconic smiley-face decal on the car door. Beneath the image a caption reads, "The Bonette Diane & Warren Red Bone."
This former Bonette, still slim, still blond and still, like Lytle's current lady, named Diane, turns up at the Den's farewell bash along with her husband, who, Lytle says, is a doctor. "I only found out the place was closing two days ago," the original Bonette Diane explains to an old acquaintace, while making a beeline through the crowd toward her host. "But there's no way I could miss this."
A few hours from now, blues harmonica virtuoso Big George Brock will play a set to kick off a late night of partying, but for the time being the mood is desultory. Red Bone's visiting Southern kin chat lazily in the warm barroom, which no amount of air conditioning seems able to cool, as the lovely Bonette cocktail waitresses, attired in the Den's signature red and white, ply them with ice-cold beer.
Lytle's sister-in-law Carliss and her lifelong best friend Sylvia Thompson avail themselves of the buffet: ribs and corn on the cob grilled in the husk. The two women are St. Louisans now, but at one time they both lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
"Thirty years ago we'd abandon our families on the weekend and come up here to see Red Bone," says Thompson. She sips from a glass of moscato garnished with two maraschino cherries. ("I like it sweet," she says.) "That man is so nice. He used to let us two crazy women drive his car. And he loved his car! Back then he had a red Fleetwood Cadillac. He'd see us coming and just reach for his keys. He'd hand them over to Carliss and say, 'Don't get in an accident, and bring it back.' We'd be so scared of messing that beautiful car up, we'd park it way far away from any other vehicles so it wouldn't get scratched. We'd always bring it back — just maybe not in the time frame he expected."
"I've got a little story about that," says Lytle. This time the question is how Warren turned into Red Bone.
"When I was born, I came out red. I was this little red baby — really red. So I grew up being called Red: 'Hey, Red!'
"Red Bone came later, when I was about twenty. I had gone down to Carbondale, Illinois, to work on a construction job and would go back to St. Louis on the weekends, where about four of us was living in a house together. So we all ate in the same kitchen and everything.
"While I was out of town on that job, my mama sent a ham to the house, from Arkansas. I came back up from Carbondale on the weekend, and they had eaten all my ham. There wasn't nothing in the box but a bone. Nothing but a bone. All the meat was gone. They ate all that meat up, there wasn't even a scrap of it left. I didn't get one bite. So I was walking down the hallway in the house and one of the guys called out, 'Red Bone!' Because there wasn't nothing but a bone in the box.
Red Bone started when my mama sent me that ham from Arkansas. It stuck. I let it stay just exactly as it was. I thought it was fantastic."
The $6 Beer
Freeman Bosley Sr., the 80 year-old firecracker of an alderman who has been overseeing the Third Ward for nearly as long as Red Bone has been running the Den, says, "I haven't touched a drop of alcohol since 1955, so I don't spend a lot of time in taverns, but we have had some neighborhood meetings in Red Bones Den. Red Bone has been a solid character in this community for a long time now. I helped him tap into some city money to rehab his back patio with that old wrought-iron fence and such."
Man-about-town Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, who owns the Royale Food & Spirits, one of the south side's most popular pubs, has frequented Lytle's bar since he was in his late twenties. "Local taverns are a great way to see and feel what a neighborhood is really like," Smith says. "You can't get to know the north side just driving through it. I kept going back to Red Bones Den because there was always something interesting happening inside. I'd often see union guys, tradesmen and boxers at the bar. St. Louis icon Lee 'The Rose Man' Nixon hawked his wares there. It was a lively place, and diverse not just in terms of personalities, but also in terms of skin color. Even in that nearly all-black neighborhood, mine wasn't the only pale face in the crowd. As a special bonus, the Bonettes, Red Bone's cocktail waitresses, were some good-looking and wild women. That dance pole definitely spiced the place up.
"I consider R.B. a friend now, but he does like to make people squirm," Smith goes on. "For instance, he calls his farm over in Illinois 'Porch Monkey Headquarters.' If he sensed that politically incorrect name made you uncomfortable, he wouldn't rest till you repeated it out loud."
Fellow tavern keeper James Gurin, of Marsha's Limited Bar and Grill four blocks east of the Den, says he and Red Bone have been friends for most of the 32 years Gurin's bar has been open. "We always go to each other's parties," Gurin says. "He and Diane both eat at our place; sometimes they come to the Sunday soul-food buffet, but R.B.'s favorite thing on the menu is probably the honey-glazed chicken wings. You'd think we'd be rivals, but we've always been supportive of each other. I'm not planning on getting a Chill Chamber and charging $6 for a beer anytime soon, though — our old-school iceboxes are working just fine."
Red Bone takes pride in those $6 beers.
"We only started charging $6 a beer three years ago. I wish I could have charged that much all along!" he says. "I didn't know it was so sweet — the Chill Chamber, it holds 30 cases, and the beer doesn't freeze because of the aluminum bottle, even though it's set at 21 degrees. The chill and the sixteen-ounce size, that's what let me get away with charging $6 for a beer," he says, looking at the wide, glass-fronted super-cooler whose stock took a serious hit at the big bash. Post-party all that's left are two cases of Bud Light Lime and a bottle of Jägermeister.
"I can say I sold a $6 beer for three years. I think I was the only one doing that out of all the bars in town," Lytle says. "Charging that much made my clientele better. Everything was just better once we started doing that. People complained and hollered and screamed — but they bought that beer. Every time I looked down the bar at someone holding a beer, at least I knew I was getting a little back. Some people will sit all day long with one beer! You can't make any money that way."
Lytle looks down the length of the bar, now heaped with slave shackles, watermelon-eating figurines and the skulls of unidentified animals, and reminisces about customers from years gone by. "When I first opened up, I had a lot of people come in here who worked in factories and plants. They'd spend money. But you know, all that's left: no more General Motors, no more nothing. No more money. I've had enough of trying to run a business in this town. It's time to head out to the farm."
During the closing festivities, as Bonettes, Arkansas cousins and other visiting dignitaries take turns posing for photos next to the Bud Boat, the current Diane explains the origin of the long white limo parked across Kossuth on the Fairground Park side."Two years ago we drove all the way up to Minnesota to buy that pimpmobile," she says. "It's a 1927 Excalibur, tricked out with a lot of custom details — like his name, 'Red Bone,' done in chrome on the hood.
"It's a toy, really," she adds. "The man has worked hard all his life, and when he turned 65 he decided to reward himself. But except for special occasions like today, we just drive it around the farm."
On his barstool a week later, as the categorizing of his collectibles goes on around him, Lytle says of the Excalibur, "I have just always wanted my own personal limousine. It's got a bar and leather seats and room to stretch out your legs. The hood makes it look bigger than it really is. It only holds about five or six people inside.
"The first nice car I was able to buy after getting this place going was a yellow deuce-and-a-quarter convertible. A Buick Electra 225. Then I had the red Fleetwood Cadillac in the 1980s. Right now I'm driving a black Lexus. I don't drive the limousine anywhere, really. I think it's going to leave with all the rest of my stuff. I think we're going to put that on the list, too.
"Once you start to let some of it go, it gets easier to let all of it go."
Or not. On Sunday, July 22, Red Bone canceled the sale of his "American Heritage" memorabilia collection. Lytle's accumulation of conversation pieces is now going into storage, to either be sold at a future date, or rented out along with the Den — if new management wants to offer customers something to talk about.
The online auction fizzled from the get-go when auctioneer Eric Iman listed the white Excalibur limo with an opening bid of $750 (or 10 percent of what Iman believed the vehicle could garner on the open market).
"We paid $32,000 for that car. It has not depreciated to $7,500 in two years, let alone $750!" snaps Diane. "The way this auction was set up, the prize goes to the highest bidder. Risk selling that car for $750? No way."
The "pimpmobile" was withdrawn from online bidding a day later.
Iman, who spent many hours tagging, categorizing and photographing 243 listings for uploading onto the Web, expresses equal frustration.
"We're not going to legally fight the fact that Red Bone's breaking the contract," he says. "It's out of my hands now. I spent two hours on the phone trying convince him not to cancel."
According to Lytle, that two-hour conversation only cemented his dissatisfaction with the online sale.
"I've spent years buying this stuff, and I know what it's all worth. More than a dollar," says Lytle, balking at the idea of his things being sold for a fraction of their value.
"When the auctioneer asked me how I was going to pay off my Lexus if I didn't sell up all my stuff, I knew it was time to get off the phone. That was getting too personal.
"I may be a black man living on the north side, but I paid for that car with cash."