Chris Andoe learned to tell stories in his grandmother’s backyard on the north side of Tulsa, Okla.
“I’m from a family of storytellers,” he says. At 46, he’s a current St. Louis Magazine contributor, former editor of Out in STL and the author of the recently released “House of Villadiva,” a book that straddles multiple genres without following the rules of any. “My grandmother, who was part Cherokee, inherited my great grandmother’s house, which bordered the railroad tracks,” he says. “There was a huge tree, and we’d sit out there in those old, indestructible metal lawn chairs, telling stories.”
The family was a tough crowd.
“For many reasons, you had to be succinct,” he recalls, decades later, sitting on the front porch of the Tower Grove South home known as Villadiva that he shares with his husband Kage, three dogs, and a couple of housemates. As a child in his grandmother’s backyard, Andoe learned the importance of holding the audience’s attention, which was unusually challenging because trains roared by regularly and could easily derail whatever tale happened to be in progress.
“Attention is a hard thing to hold, and what’s even harder is to regain it once it’s lost,” he says in a voice that’s recognizably Oklahoman if you know what you’re listening for. “I learned early to hit them with the hook, test the waters and then adjust accordingly, either shortening the story and speeding it up, or stretching it out.”
At just over 500 pages (that’s the society edition), “Villadiva” is both stretched out and fast-paced. It’s structured similarly to Andoe’s first book, “Delusions of Grandeur.”
“When I began writing the first book, it was to document the stories I’d told friends at parties,” he says. “The concept was a catalog of my best stories. I put them together and then started filling in the gaps.”
“Villadiva” revolves around several core stories and characters, a few of which will be familiar to readers of Out in STL and the Riverfront Times. Con artist Dustin Mitchell; Maxi Glamour, the Demon Queen of Polka and Baklava; Salam Alhamdy (of sex, secrets and shame fame) and others make appearances. As does the Maven of Mardi Gras, a psychically inclined friend of Andoe’s, and Auntie M., who assembles beads sourced from around the world into dazzling strands that are highly sought after in late February and early March–at least when there’s not a pandemic. Mardi Gras figures prominently in “Villadiva;” so does Soulard, a place so central to Andoe’s interpretation of St. Louis that he sometimes refers to other neighborhoods as its suburbs. Those are the tame parts—and people—of “Villadiva”.
Then there are the parts that read more along the lines of a bat straight out of hell running with scissors. Here is a skeletal, by-no-means-complete list of a few of the happenings from the more recklessly raucous sections of “Villadiva:” People leave their lives behind and strike out for St. Louis with good intentions, but bring a lot of baggage. Trysts run their course, sometimes soberly, but often not. Relationships take shape, and then deteriorate. Spells are cast, literally. Restraining orders are issued. A priest visits Tower Grove South to bless the rooms. The managing partner of a popular downtown bar embroils himself in drag politics. COVID comes to town. Drugs wage war; in a few cases they win, and in some they do not. One of Andoe’s dogs dies, and after a fairly intense mourning period, a friend’s dog comes to live, happily by all outward appearances, at Villadiva. Spoiler alert: The story of the happily homed dog does not have a happy ending (at least not yet), but read the book for a detailed account, at least from Andoe’s perspective.
Flat on my face in the back of a U-Haul
The dog saga, like so much of “Villadiva,” relies in part on text messages, which appear in the manuscript often verbatim, and Facebook posts. Andoe clearly loves group chats and one-on-one texting, but Facebook, for better or worse, is the realm in which he is truly a maestro.
It’s also where his professional writing career took root. In 2008, Andoe was running a real estate operation in Oklahoma City, which he’d been hired to do by his mentor.
“It was an experience that might seem normal for rich kids to fall into, but for me it was a huge opportunity,” he says. It didn’t go well, and after working at it for 18 months, as he was winding down, the bottom fell out of the economy, rendering his house worth less than what he’d paid for it. Andoe, who had lived here once before, returned to St. Louis, as he recalls, “… flat on my face. I went from a big beautiful home with fine art on the walls to returning to St. Louis in the back of a U-Haul.”
Never one to accept defeat graciously, Andoe began writing shortly after his arrival. “I was driven to tell the story of how fucked up everything was,” he says. “I just felt wronged, betrayed by my former mentor, defeated, and I needed to tell people about it, and when I posted my stories on Facebook, people started paying attention.”
One of Andoe’s brothers—he is the youngest of four—was among the first to take notice. He remembers the early days of writing as laborious. Frustrated by the inability to immediately gauge the audience because it wasn’t in the same room–or backyard–Andoe recalls clamming up trying to figure out how to best express what he was trying to say.
“For me, the difference between telling a story and writing one was running down a sidewalk and running through a swimming pool,” he says. “But my brother, an artist and writer, told me something that changed my life: Write the story the way you’d tell it.”
He started a blog. He began to develop a following on social media. He became prolific.
Then one day, out of the blue, Darin Slyman, publisher of now-defunct Vital Voice, left him a voicemail. “I thought, what in the world is the biggest name in queer media calling me for?” Andoe says. “It never occurred to me that he wanted me to write.”
Andoe contributed to Vital Voice for almost a decade, even during the three years of his second stint in San Francisco. “I was given permission to be controversial,” he says. “If two drag queens fought I covered it like it was Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.” Then, like now, Andoe was loved more by some than by others. “St. Louis is such a risk-averse place,” he says. “Boards of directors called for my resignation, but Darin always stood by me, which I really appreciate.”
In 2017, Andoe was named editor of Out in STL, a role he says reinforced his dedication to saying things that need to be said but that others won’t say. “We were young and new and wanted to introduce the community to people it hadn’t met,” he says. “And it caused constant tension. I wasn’t covering enough A-list people.”
The tale of Andoe leaving the publication in 2020 to become a St. Louis Magazine contributor is a complex one, the “Villadiva” rendition of which is titled: The Senators Greet Caesar. He compares the maneuvering that paved the way for his departure to the handling of a missile crisis in North Korea from the dining room table at Mar-a-Lago. “In the end, I needed to get out of the way so the magazine could go on,” he says.
Plus, he had a book to work on. While time consuming, he hasn’t found book writing nearly as difficult as he’d expected it to be. “You can’t overthink it,” he says. “You can’t worry about where to begin. Just start creating the content, starting in the middle if you have to. Open a Word document and get to work.”
Stirring the pot
“Stirring the pot is fun if I’ve had a few drinks,” Andoe says, laughing heartily. “Drunk Chris!” Regardless of how many drinks he’s had, he sees humor in almost everything. “And a lot of times, something is just stuck in my craw,” he says.
One of the many group chats Andoe maintains serves as a breathalyzer of sorts, not to prevent potentially deadly driving but to keep social media activities in check. Known as the board of directors, the group of six or seven debates and then votes on Andoe’s posts before he hits Post. “A lot of times there’s dispute in the group,” he says. “People think whatever I’ve written is funny, but they know it’ll start a whole lot of shit.”
While many are deterred by the prospect of making a scene on Facebook, Andoe marches into battle fearlessly. “What makes stirring the pot work is people’s inconsistencies,” he says. “You call them out on a double standard, and you touch on that and you get a big reaction. There are a lot of falsehoods—people saying someone is chasing them down Arsenal Street, for example.” He pauses for a moment, sips his ice water thoughtfully: It’s the end of April, one of the first truly warm early evenings of the year. “But then sometimes I wake up with a sense of dread,” he says. “Everyone in St. Louis has a constituency, so the unintended consequence is that someone you really like may be pulled in overnight.”
For a time, Andoe got around the next-morning regrets issue by posting what he calls blue light specials—posts that would be up for 30 minutes or less, named after the brief sales on select items at Kmart. For example, once, when a community leader reduced interns at Vital Voice to tears, Andoe posted the offender’s legal name along with instructions on how to locate his criminal record. “A good friend who was delighted by the move nevertheless advised me that I might regret wading into all that, so I pulled it,” he says. He retired the blue light specials, however, when he acquired an adversary with an impressive screenshot game. “I still may remove a post now and then,” he says, “but I no longer assume the removal on my end means the turmoil is over.”
A city of intertwined, intersecting stories
For Andoe, the ongoing, seemingly eternal nature of so many aspects of St. Louis—including turmoil—is a draw. Smaller places simply have less material, he thinks, and it can be almost impossible to get hooked into the narrative of larger cities, which are almost always more transient. St. Louis, for Andoe, is that perfect bowl of porridge, and his love for it, which runs through “Villadiva” like blood through a body, is of the variety that few express, or admit to publicly. “I’m kind of past wishing St. Louis would become something different than what it is,” he says.
In sharp contrast to those who are often quoted on matters of civic comport, Andoe doesn’t reference corporations or professional sports teams and championship titles. “I would like to see people own that there’s a culture here, that there’s something unique—the mysticism that’s fairly common, the backstory,” he says. “So many places are parodies of what they once were thanks to gentrification, but where’s the imagination? Everyone crams into five cities, and they’re not particularly interesting people.”
Andoe believes, as many here do, that St. Louis’ brand of eccentricity is unintentional, earnest and unselfconscious. “Other cities like Austin or Portland, that’s their brand,” he’s says. “We’re just authentically weird, and we don’t even understand it.”
There is so much that contributes to the unique flavor of the place—a flavor he says keeps him engaged and intrigued as a writer. “There are so many great stories, and I’m always amazed at how everything intersects here and is intertwined,” he says.
He believes the tragedy that goes hand-in-hand with the city’s rise and fall in national and global prominence is something that’s felt to this day. In 1900, St. Louis, with just over 575,000 residents, was the fourth largest city in the nation; by 1940, the city had fallen to number eight, but its population had grown to 816,000. After peaking in the 1950s, the city began its stunning decline, and according to the most recent census (2020), St. Louis, with less than 300,000 residents, is barely half the size it was in 1900.
“Interesting things happened here because it was such a major city at one time,” he says. “There were night clubs here in the 1940s that welcomed gay people and straight people, people who were Black and people who were white. I’m drawn to that history.”
He believes people in St. Louis have a healthier relationship with death than they do in most places. “It seems like nobody in L.A. wants to even acknowledge that they’ll ever be dead,” he says, “but here I was able to go to a funeral for a drag queen who died in her 80s who I never met. And there’s a cemetery in Affton that’s selling off part of its land for new houses. In most places people wouldn’t want any part of that.”
He thinks one of the main reasons St. Louis isn’t ‘most places’ is its connection to New Orleans. “I think St. Louis and New Orleans are sister cities,” he says. Both were founded by the French, they’re lined by the river, both have a strong blues tradition, the pageantry and Mardi Gras celebrations. “But that’s just what’s on the surface,” he says. “Underneath a thin veneer, you’ll find strong veins of mysticism and the occult.”
All of the influences contribute to a place that feels, to him, deeply rooted. “People go to other cities and reinvent themselves, but here everyone knows who you are,” he says. “There’s a lineage.” That lineage is made possible in part by the lack of significant numbers of people moving here from other places. “You need a critical mass of transients arriving in order to have clean slates,” he says. “We have the opposite of clean slates.”
Slates that are not clean are problematic in many ways, of course, but Andoe sees lots of positives as well. “This is a place where people are going to care for you,” he says. “Friends in St. Louis are ride-or-die—they’ll be with you until the end.” As is evident in almost every paragraph of “Villadiva,” Andoe may be committed to controversy, but he’s even more committed to friendships. “I think friendships are why so many St. Louisans move to other places, have their adventures and then come back,” he says. (So far, he’s moved to St. Louis three times himself.) “Friendships in other places can feel like diet friendships compared to what you have here.”
Like everything in St. Louis, the friendships at the heart of it strike Andoe as more layered than they may be elsewhere. “As much as I love San Francisco, there was always a sense that it was ephemeral,” he says. While ageism is an issue throughout gay society—and society in general—regardless of location, Andoe sees St. Louis as a place that skews older. “A lot of places, you’re over a certain age and it’s over,” he says. “But I see people here of all ages having really vibrant social lives. I think that’s because people come back. It’s a place people live more than once, a home base with a critical mass of ‘older’ people. People buy big old houses and have parties and barbecues. I love the rootedness.”
The bottom line for Andoe is that he feels connected here. “I’ve been the least lonely in St. Louis,” he says. When asked why that is, there’s an uncharacteristically long pause. “I think people here connect on a psychic level,” he says at last. “My friends call to check on me because they had a premonition.”
Midnight Annie’s Final Performance
Andoe isn’t sure what’s next. “Villadiva” consumed the last six years, with the last being the most intense due to calendar-clearing power of COVID. He also has a prequel to “Delusions of Grandeur” in the works, set in 1990s Oklahoma, that he actually started writing before “Villadiva” took center stage. “I’ll most likely go back to that,” he says, “but who knows?”
One thing that captures his imagination these days is the thought of returning to his oral storytelling roots. “I appreciate the opportunities social media has presented for me,” he says. But as attention spans are getting shorter, it seems to him that people are more drawn to Instagram and TikTok.
While he thinks Facebook exerts too much influence over what users see, he is drawn to the platform’s video function. “It’s a different way to reach people, for people to get to know me,” he says. “Even people who love my writing say they like hearing me tell stories more. It’s a strength I haven’t been tapping into for a long time.”
Andoe is indisputably a compelling presence on video, and in person. “A lot of authors are quiet, but I project,” he says. “I’m the youngest in the family by far, so I always had to make my presence known in order to be heard.”
One warm evening a couple of summers ago he did just that, at a cavernous brewery on Cherokee Street, an exposed bricks and beams sort of place with horrible acoustics. The gathering was to celebrate the publication of an anthology of St. Louis stories that included a piece Andoe had written about the closing of Clementine’s, a legendary bar in Soulard. Before a standing-room-only audience, with a sound system that was either working poorly or not at all, Andoe stepped up and read his piece about Midnight Annie (a story that’s included in Villadiva) as only someone who grew up competing with freight trains could. He certainly has the voice for it.