A Man on a Mission
The masculine and attractive native of São Paulo, Brazil, Adi de Souza flew to St. Louis from Fort Lauderdale on a recognizance mission. A former employer who’s one of the owners of Club St. Louis wanted to recruit him to take over the operation, but first, he wanted him to experience the Club as a customer.
De Souza’s story is filled with threes. He’d previously worked at the flagship operation, Club Fort Lauderdale, for three years. He visited St. Louis for three days. He then had three weeks to relocate, and I interviewed him during his third month on the job.
During his secret mission, de Souza found a property he described as “sad and dated.” There was a lot of deferred maintenance. Some staff members were less than welcoming, and he mistook one for a customer because the guy was sitting around the lounge the entire time. What troubled him most, however, was the way customers were sometimes treated.
“I went up and told the guy at the counter I needed a new towel and he just said ‘Ok’ and looked at me. I asked, ‘So, are you going to give it to me?’ and he replied, ‘I can’t give you a new towel until I get the old one.’ I took off my towel and handed it to him and he laughed and said he just wanted to see me naked,” de Souza recalls.
“That’s no way to treat people, some who might have issues with the way their body looks. Guys come to the Club to relax and have a good time, and we need to make sure they have a positive experience.”
Back in Florida, he told the investor working to recruit him, Wayne Schrebe, that he was willing to take the position, “but you’ll have to open your checkbook,” de Souza warned, in reference to all the improvements that were needed.
Sink or Swim
Raised Catholic in São Paulo, de Souza became interested in America after a high school trip, and once he graduated he made the bold decision to leave Brazil and move to Connecticut. He spoke Portuguese and Spanish, but absolutely no English. His sister said he’d never make it and would be back in three months, and while his father was supportive, he made it clear the five hundred dollars he gave him would be the last money he’d see from family.
“From day one I had to bust my ass,” de Souza recalls. “I kept telling myself ‘I can’t go home. I can’t go back,’” he continued, explaining that while his family would’ve welcomed him, it would have been seen as a failure. “I’ve always pushed myself hard, and have been my own harshest critic.”
The only job he could find as a non-English speaker was bussing tables, but as time went on and he learned the language he became a waiter and then moved to Florida, landing jobs in the corporate world. At Club Fort Lauderdale, he made a name for himself and impressed the corporate office, but at the time there were no opportunities for advancement, so he moved on. When it became clear Club St. Louis would need new leadership, de Souza got the call.
Running the Show
De Souza arrives to work with his pug Monkey before eight each morning, and he’s in the middle of a ten day stretch as the Florida based tech crew revamps the sound system, going from fourteen speakers to seventy five.
“Everyone on the crew’s gay, but the company motto is ‘No cock on the clock,’” he laughs.
$100k in upgrades are under way for the first phase of his master plan. Once winter ends he’ll move on to beautifying the pool area with new landscaping, and will make changes to the poolside buffet. De Souza’s aim is to broaden the appeal of the Club with locals and tourists alike.
Club Fort Lauderdale is planning a “black towel event” which will be a party based on New York’s famed Continental Baths, where Bette Midler got her start. De Souza would like to see similar events in St. Louis.
“I know the stigma the Club has, but it’s really like an affordable country club. There’s the pool, Jacuzzi, gym…in the lounge we have movies and there are computers so people can check their email,” De Souza says. “There are guys who come here to work out and then leave, and there’s a lot of socializing.”
An Opposing Agenda
One man in St. Louis has been fighting to see that the stigma associated with the Club stays in place, and for several years has posted derogatory comments to Facebook event pages including HiBearNation, and has generated countless craigslist ads with unsubstantiated claims of meningitis outbreaks, scabies infestations and rampant drug overdoses.
This man, who I’ll call Max because he asked that I not use his name, is a Facebook friend of mine, and I struggled to understand his motivation. I felt I was missing something because while he was vehemently opposed to the baths, he was a huge proponent of sex parties, including the one I’ve written about in Ballwin.
He repeatedly claims that Washington University did a study about diseases at the Club, but that the Club somehow kept the study from being released. Of course it’s preposterous that a bathhouse could block a major university from releasing a public health study.
He made these claims on one of my threads, so I sent de Souza a friend request and invited him to respond, which is how we became acquainted. My threads are where I flesh out stories, and are often like soap operas. De Souza took his cue and dropped a bombshell worthy of a Friday afternoon cliffhanger: Max is a disgruntled former employee.
Max reluctantly admitted it was true, saying he took the job when he was unemployed and desperate, and said he was upset about a few friends who had been terminated.
“I’m done with the baths. I hate injustice and wanted to see my friends get their jobs back, but it’s out of my control.”
He still maintains the phantom study exists, but said he would stop his campaign. Reiterating his other points, he said bathhouses are “passé” and private sex parties are preferable because they attract professionals.
De Souza’s always had the soul of an independent loner, time and again scouting out new territory where he doesn’t know a soul. In addition to his recognizance mission, de Souza spent that three day visit deciding if St. Louis was a place he could call home. His visit to historic Lafayette Square is what sold him.
“I went to the park and then walked all over the neighborhood. There aren’t many walkable areas in Florida, you have to drive. And everyone I spoke to was really warm and friendly.”
Time will tell how de Souza’s plan plays out, but the numbers are already up, and if anyone can turn the operation around, it’s him.
He’s getting more work-life balance, allowing him to enjoy his Grove apartment, spend time with new friends and he even joined the St. Louis Crusaders rugby team.
He also had time to spend half a Sunday with me, which included brunch at Soulard Coffee Garden followed by one of my east side tours.
While walking through the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center he stopped to read a plaque on an exhibit about sweat lodges. It read, “Enjoying the communal sweat lodge, two high status men relax in steam from water poured over heated rocks…Sweat lodges for men were common in Cahokia and in almost all historic Native American communities.”
“Hey! It’s a Native American bathhouse!” de Souza exclaimed. V
WRITTEN BY CHRIS ANDOE