Family Portrait: Ashley Clarke

If you’ve ever been served a drink by Ashley Clarke, you may have noticed a certain gentility about her.

Or perhaps during conversation, she may have let a y’all (or its plural, y’alls) drop here or there. Yes, Clarke comes from below the Mason-Dixon line: Alabama, to be exact. These days, she can be found bartending at Local 44, 4333 Spruce St. in West Philadelphia, and at various women’s parties, such as the Vinyl parties at Pure or at her girlfriend Michelle Pollino’s events at The Ugly American.

PGN: When did you leave Alabama? AC: I was only there until I was about 8 years old and then my mother remarried and we came up north to New Jersey, the Trenton/Hamilton area. We went from life in slow motion to typical middle-class suburban surroundings.

PGN: What do you remember of Alabama? AC: I remember quite a bit, actually. My dad and my grandparents are still there and my mother and stepfather moved back there a couple of years ago, so I go back pretty frequently. We’re from the area along the Gulf Coast, which is really beautiful. We were really close to Mobile Bay and Fairhope. I remember it was filled with huge, mossy trees and had a cool, creepy vibe to it. The area also had that unmistakable Southern ambiance: sweet tea and big front porches, fried catfish and laidback attitudes. It’s humid, so things linger. To this day, it’s still my favorite place in the world.

PGN: It must have been culture shock to move. AC: Oh yeah, I was very aware of the difference. For one, I had a thick accent and the other kids definitely pointed that out. It was also hard for me to understand people. I remember coming up and talking to one of my parents’ friends. I didn’t respond to him, so they thought I was being rude, but the truth was I just couldn’t follow what he was saying!

PGN: You don’t have an accent now, but I had an ex from Louisiana and whenever she got mad or tired, her accent would come back. Do you ever lapse back into it? AC: Oh yeah, I’m never going to give up my “y’all.” I think there’s something to be said about Southern hospitality and the mentality of it. It allows you a certain freedom, especially behind the bar, to communicate with your guests. When I’m in that mode, it tends to slip out more.

PGN: How many kids in the family? AC: Just me and my big brother.

PGN: Did you two get along? AC: Yes, for the most part. I think I could be a tad bratty and he could be a little bit of a bully, but at the end of the day, he would always apologize.

PGN: That’s unusual in a sibling. My big brother still tells me he was always in the right when we were growing up! AC: Yeah, he was a sweet big brother. He’d walk up to me at school and say, “Ash, I’m sorry about the fight we had earlier … ” [Laughs.] And I’d usually say something snotty back like, “Hell, it was your fault anyway.”

PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? AC: We liked playing in the woods. My brother and I would run around and go fishing and crabbing, set things on fire, that sort of thing. [Laughs.] It was always his idea!

PGN: Were you a big reader? AC: I don’t know; I think I am different things at different times. There’s one side of me that’s really shy and then I have another side that really likes to get involved in things. So there were times when I was more of a reader and times when I broke out of my shell, like when I was in fourth grade and became the captain of the safety patrol. Or like when I got to be the lead in plays and things like that. It depends on what is motivating me at the time.

PGN: What’s your astrological sign? AC: I’m a Cancer, June 29.

PGN: So where did you go to school? AC: I went to a few different schools. I started out at a community college and I was supposed to transfer to Tulane University in New Orleans, but then I met a woman and first came out, and then dropped out. I lived with her in Cape May and took some courses at Stockton College before the relationship ended. I later went to school at Kutztown University and studied cultural anthropology and English.

PGN: What’s something memorable about college? AC: When I was at the community college, I played tennis and became a national champion, which was a really positive experience. It really gave me a boost and taught me a lot about myself. In high school, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and didn’t really apply myself. With the tennis I learned what I could be capable of with a positive attitude.

PGN: When did you move to Philly? AC: After I graduated, I stayed near Kutztown for a while before moving to Philly. I was working on an organic farm and I never had any thoughts about moving to Philly — I wanted to go out to San Francisco after school — but I had a friend who lived in West Philly and I really liked the area, so I decided to come here. Now I love it.

PGN: What are your thoughts on the environment? AC: I think that we really need to start from the ground up. Literally. We need to learn where our food comes from and how that affects us. We have to learn to be more sustainable, and not just in terms of the environment: We have to learn to sustain our relationships, our energy, our personal resources. We need to start from the roots and build things that last, not just go for the short fix. Otherwise, it’s like scooping water out of a sinking boat rather than fixing the hole.

PGN: And what do you enjoy about the bar business? AC: I’ve been in the restaurant business in different capacities since I was 15, but what I like about bartending is that you kind of get to run your own show. You get to socialize with people and help them out. You can end up being therapist, tour guide, matchmaker, you name it. It definitely beats sitting in a cubicle all day.

PGN: Where did you get started? AC: I worked at a small tavern near school called Basin Street Hotel. It was a great experience because it was a real mix of people. I had townspeople, professors and students all at my bar. And I definitely spent a good amount of time on both sides of the bar, which I’m glad for. It was pretty nuts at times, but had I gone to Kutztown before I was old enough to go to bars, it would have been a totally different experience. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half as much — from being able to go out and party and submerse myself in that side of college life to being able to hang out at the bar with my professors or local artists. I became friends with older people, younger people, hunters, vegetarians, you name it. It was a really interesting place. I actually lived in an apartment above the bar.

PGN: What would people be surprised to know about you? AC: Well, I work mainly in a straight bar now, so a lot of people are surprised to find out that I’m gay. Sometimes I just forget about it: I know that I’m gay and I forget that everyone else doesn’t know it just by osmosis. I’ll say something that shocks them without realizing it. But it’s a great place; I’ve been there since they opened in January.

PGN: So what was coming out like? AC: I remember having a crush on Supergirl when I was about 6. It’s kind of funny: I think in some ways, it’s easier for women, because it’s more socially acceptable for us to idealize other women. We can say someone is beautiful and it’s totally appropriate, whereas men or boys would not be allowed to comment on the appearance of another man without repercussions. In that way I was lucky. On the other hand, because of those freedoms, it might have taken longer to really acknowledge it as homosexuality. I fell in love with the first woman I kissed and, while it was bound to happen and though I yearned for it even before I’d met someone, it took the event to bring it to the forefront.

PGN: How was the family about it? AC: I think I needed some room to figure it out for myself, and so I dropped out of school and moved with her to North Carolina to live in her mother’s trailer. I think they were more concerned about that than specifically about me being gay.

PGN: Let’s get to some random questions. When was the last time you laughed out loud? AC: The last time I laughed out loud was while reading “Rubyfruit Jungle.” The main character is so curious and unashamed as she charges headfirst into adulthood, it really tickled me. She wasn’t afraid to look foolish in any way, which is great: That’s how we learn. The book was simultaneously inspiring and hilarious!

PGN: Name three sounds you love. AC: I love the sound when water and wood meet as the ocean waves lap against the bottom of a pier, my best friend’s 9-month-old as she tries to form her voice into words, and my girlfriend’s laugh. It seems to come from a place of true depth and soars into the air like a weightless bird.

PGN: And what is your favorite section of the museum? AC: I love the early modern-art section. To me, it signifies freedom to critique an enforced collective consciousness, or at the least it allows for a self-awareness and self-exploration that was previously unpermitted. That type of art for me is formed from the fruits of labor from those individuals who sacrificed so much through their involvement in political revolutions.

PGN: Do you play any instruments? AC: Two friends that I’ve made from working at Local 44 gave me a guitar for my birthday. It looks and sounds beautiful … so I’ve recently taken up the guitar.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].