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- THEO WELLING
- Beads that Auntie M created for the Coney Island Mermaid Parade intertwine with ones he made for New Orleans' Boheme Parade.
Every tribe has its corner for Soulard Mardi Gras. Ninth and Barton, around D's Place, is the single & mingle tribe. The bottom of Russell near Hammerstone's is where many of the most serious drinkers gather. Auntie M posits it's because they lack the ambition to climb the hill after the parade since the drinks are right there anyway. Frat bros love 12th and Russell around McGurk's, and 12th and Allen is a more relaxed mix of Soulardians, hippies, hipsters and drag queens.
After Clementine's closed, the center of gravity for the LGBTQ community shifted one block south, from Menard and Allen to Menard and Russell. That's where Bastille, the block's other gay bar, is located, as well as Remember Me Vintage & Costume. I've been close friends with shop owner Diane Baklor since I first moved to Soulard from Oklahoma City in 1997. We became acquainted when I purchased Art Deco chrome furniture from her, which she conveniently allowed my 22-year-old broke ass to pay for in installments.
Baklor graciously offered my crew the use of her iconic second-floor turret so the bead-throwing tradition could continue. Auntie M invited a group of elaborately costumed clown entertainers to join us and I invited several colorful friends, including one who peeks at the crowd through a mock glory hole, and the Krewe of the Tawdry Turret was born. The turret has also been dubbed "the Opera Box" because of its sweeping view of the intersection, which is packed with thousands during the height of the revelry.
"It's the ideal location to continue the Clementine's tradition," Auntie M enthuses. "Such a crossroads with so many people moving around. New Orleans has Bourbon and St. Ann, and St. Louis has Menard and Russell. And being above a costume shop is perfect."
Auntie M has been in the Grand Parade many times, but preferred the intimacy when the parade used to snake through the neighborhood rather than march down Seventh Street. After twice being mobbed by the crowd, he understands why they had to move it. Still, he finds the enthusiasm lacking on the newer route. "It's like many of those watching the parade here don't know they're at a parade. They're just kind of standing there." The colorful crowds below the Opera Box are more his speed, and between stints at the turret windows, Auntie M descends to street level and mingles with the people near Bastille's drag stage on Russell.
Mid-afternoon during Soulard Mardi Gras 2017, Auntie M mingled with the crowd beneath the Opera Box. "C'mon, just flash it," a twenty-something woman said to her boyfriend while lusting after a luscious strand of Auntie M's glass and wood beads, which he was gently twirling off the end of his pink skull-capped scepter. With very little prodding the sculpted man complied, the gallery of huddled onlookers was impressed, the beads were awarded, and Auntie M moved along to find the next lively exchange.
More often than not it doesn't involve any forbidden flashings, yet still results in the awarding of beads.
"It used to be everyone would flash everything. They'd be flashing right and left. Our culture is not as debaucherous as it used to be," Auntie M says. "I think a certain amount of debauchery comes from oppression. People felt oppressed all year and then went wild when given the opportunity."
While Auntie M doesn't talk a great deal about his other life, which involves a job in the mental-health field, he does have many observations about psychology and our ever-evolving culture. In the case of Mardi Gras, he says people seemed anxious in the George W. Bush years, like they felt somewhat guilty about partying (although both men and women did flash more than today, which he thinks was in part due to fewer cameras). In the Obama years people seemed happier, but that's only increased with the new guy in the White House. "The new generation is just happy, and the women party hard, which is new," he says. "It used to be more the guys doing that. I think it's part of the women's empowerment we've seen in the face of Trump."
Auntie M is interested in the symbolism behind the party. Of his famous king-cake baby beads, which consist of one-inch plastic babies varying from creamy white to brown to jet black, separated by colorful glass or by wooden beads, Auntie M says, "In modern Western culture we see any baby symbols in this wholesome light, but like the penis beads, these were fertility symbols, symbols of spring and bounty and partying and sexuality. Mardi Gras, Bacchanalia.... these were times to cut loose from the ongoing catastrophe of life."
He also notes the environmental component to his artistry. Auntie M's hope is that he's crafting beads people will actually keep rather than discard. In that one small way, penis beads could help save the planet.