I had never met Nancy Novak. I’d heard her name, but our paths had never crossed. She was working at Coca-Cola. Novak’s Bar & Grill didn’t exist. Nancy was throwing parties for other people and serving drinks to friends in her modest house in North St. Louis across a short stand-alone bar too short to lie on for body shots. Although, drunken attempts were likely made by the Gayborhood/Mich Light football folks. If it could be done, they were the ones to do it!
I was working as a VJ at the Loading Zone, doing Freddie’s bar maintenance, and all of his quarterly bar remodels. Little did I know that those projects were a stepping stone into something bigger.
I was one of the three females working at the bar. Freddie had dubbed us 2 Dykes and a Lesbian. He said Cara was too much of a lady to be called a dyke, but Kim (KY) and I were definitely dykes. At some point I became Super Dyke. I’d like to think it was because of the work I did, but a part of me still believes that it also had something to do with my ability to stand shot-for-shot with KY when she opened a bottle of Jack.
Cara and KY seldom took a weekend off because that’s when bartenders make their money, but one year in late April they began making plans to spend an upcoming weekend at Carlyle Lake. It was their big party weekend. It was NBFD and “nobody misses a Nancy Novak party,” I was told. They took the weekend off and we planned for me to join them after the bar closed on Saturday night.
With directions KY had written on a bar napkin I managed to arrive at the campground around 3 AM. Cara met me at the truck when I pulled up. She handed me a beer as I climbed out and as we walked to the now quieting campsite, turned to me and said, “When you meet Nancy, you are going to love her!”
Nancy needed no introduction. Sitting around the flames were about a dozen women. Before we’d even stepped in the circle, I knew which one was Nancy. We were introduced and immediately the group drew me into the conversation. It was definitely a NSFW talk so I will spare you the details. When rain started falling, Nancy – ever the gracious host – offered me a spot in her 2-man tent. After the campfire conversation we’d just had, I politely declined. Everyone assured me that she was perfectly safe, but I was still in my 20’s and had never met anyone as forward so I stood my ground.
Later that year, Nancy took the big step. She opened Novak’s Fox Hole on Manchester. It was a big deal immediately. And from the beginning Nancy took what would become her rightful place in the community. She moved into that little leaking roofed, air conditioner dripping building and the party moved with her. And then the fun really began.
Nancy, her staff, and friends held seats at every table in the LGBTQIA community. She thrived on being number one – in everything. It was no surprise when her group participated in the Pride parade. I was still working at the Loading Zone then and since the parade was going to be passing the bar when they moved down Euclid, Freddie decided he wanted a float. He, too, liked to be best and made it clear that it needed to be “fucking great.” He didn’t care what it was. His only directive was, “build me a float, Super Dyke.”
So, build a float I did. We topped a landscape trailer with the theme from Hairspray. I pulled the fog machine out of the bar and hooked it to two 12 feet tall hairspray cans that we’d constructed. We pulled the biggest speakers we could out of the bar. We put Dieta Pepsi in the roach dress from the movie and played the soundtrack music mixed in our typically gay music rotation. We had Mary-oke, St. Louis’ top karaoke DJ at the time, walking with the bar staff and patrons in front of the float. It was the last year that Pride was held in the Central West End and we meant to make it our best. By the time we hit the judges stand we had the entire crowd singing and dancing the YMCA, Dieta and Mary-oke were both on mics and worked Euclid like only they knew how, and the hairspray cans sprayed out to the beat. We were the party before everyone went to the big party in the park.
That afternoon we and all of the other parade participants gathered around the main stage for the parade awards to be announced. Trophies were given in a number of categories. I remember Nancy stepping up to accept a trophy for her walking group. When Dieta announced that the award for Best Overall was for the Loading Zone float, we all barraged the stage. KY hefted that waist-high trophy up over her head in the middle of a huge group hug. We won!
As I was walking back with our group, I saw Nancy approaching. She had a certain look on her face. There were no congratulations, no words of praise for our entry. There was only, “next year you’re mine.”
By early May the next year, I was working for Novak’s. Well-timed on Nancy’s part, I was there just in time to start planning the entry for Pride. And so, it began.
I was with Novak’s for well over a decade. I worked at all of her bars in some capacity – DJing, maintenance, whatever Nancy needed, and mostly behind the scenes where I preferred. But all my other responsibilities were in part a way to keep me around during Pride season. She knew it and I knew it and it worked.
That first year Nancy moved from her previous Most Colorful and Best Use of Theme awards to Best Overall. And she wasn’t about to go back. First, we focused on being more elaborate and bringing in more people on and around the float to make the entry appear bigger and better than the others. That wasn’t enough. After we’d exhausted what we believed we could pull off on a landscape trailer and flatbed truck, we knew we had to go bigger. We brought in a 35 ft. flatbed trailer and a semi. People thought we were crazy. But when you throw enough buckets of beer and free Novak’s burgers into the world it’s not difficult to find enough people to get the job done.
Nancy wasn’t satisfied. Sure, she walked away with the Best award every year; but “bigger” was the first thing she said to me every year the minute the awards were given. After two years, 35 ft wasn’t going to cut it. That second year we had done the most we thought we could and after Kim Couvion and I had to repaint the detail work on the entire float in less than 24 hours – because beer and painting don’t always mix; Nancy and I had a serious conversation.
I agreed to go bigger the next year with one rule. No more beer during building and painting. And let me pick the crew. She agreed with her one rule. I had to promise her another win. The other bars were stepping up their games each year, just like Nancy; but I made her that promise. Yikes!
Every year in January Nancy and I would begin the float design and she would have a drawing by the end of the month. She liked to look at it and plan the peripheral pieces to her entry. We moved on to a 53 ft. flatbed trailer, a designated crew for the major building, and just kept growing. At one point we couldn’t add anymore height – we maxed that out at a little over 18 ft. high with Nancy riding as close to the top as she could safely get. It wasn’t enough. We added people and vehicles and soon we had our own parade within the parade. And we kept winning.
I don’t remember what year I left Novak’s – probably because as anyone who’s ever worked there will tell you – once a Novakian, always a Novakian. Me leaving her meant she was on her own for Pride. I didn’t attend Pride the first year after I’d left. I didn’t want to see Nancy. She’d been trying to guilt me through texts for months. Around 4 that afternoon I’d received a text from someone who did attend. They wanted me to know that Novak’s did not win anything that year. My heart sank because I knew what that meant. I received another text a few minutes later. It was from Nancy. It simply read, “This will not happen again.”
She never let me off the hook again. I was not able to devote the time to building because of my job but I made time to meet her every January to talk parade. She kept me aware of the building schedule and I made sure that on every float she entered I touched it in some way. She wanted me to paint a small detail or cut out part of the design – anything so she could see that I had had a hand on it. I thought it was crazy, but she believed that was her little bit of good luck. Well, the bar started winning again and when Nancy was happy, everyone was happy. That went on until the end.
A couple of weeks ago Nancy sent me a text. We’d texted on and off and even spoke on the phone a number of times since the bar closed. But this text was different. I went to see her. I’d been prepared before I got there that she may or may not be lucid. We had some time alone and she was her old self. Her eyes and her laugh were all Nancy, the Nancy we all remember and should remember. That vestige of her vibrancy and boldness of character continued to grow as we spoke and talked of our history and as a few other friends arrived to share space. People made her thrive. Nancy had a way of making every single person in her life believe they mattered. Her amazing recall of so many memories kicked in and for a while we spoke like there wasn’t a hospital bed just a few feet away. We spoke like January was just around the corner and it was time to start planning for the next parade.
Nancy showed me a photograph of her family. She pointed out her grandparents who clearly were put here to have a good time. She talked about her sisters and her beautiful mother. But she talked most about her dad. She put the photo in front of me and shared her connection to her father. She said that he gave her his sense of humor; that her love of people and community came from him. And although he, too, was gone far too soon her gifts came from him. He taught her to live life to the fullest.
I don’t know what happens to us when we die. I don’t know if there is an afterlife or heaven, but Nancy believed it. She said she knew that the first person to meet her at the gates would be her dad. I looked at the photo and at Nancy and instead of being sad she was smiling. She asked me what I thought.
I looked at the photo again and addressed her dad, “Mr. Novak, I do hope you know what you’re in for…when you meet Nancy.” And she laughed that full, deep Nancy laugh.