The Arts > Feature
Calling All Souls
Dia De Los Muertos Special Feature
In keeping with Mexican and Catholic traditions of remembering and honoring the departed, the Current presents our First Annual Día de los Muertos issue, in which we pay tribute to a handful of the individuals who rocked our worlds, changed how we live, made San Antonio a better place to work, play, and raise our kids, and sometime in the past 12 months, left us. The young, the old, the lions and lambs, the patrons, artists, and muses.
They’re not all here, of course. Given more time and space, we’d surely include artist Marie Swartz, creator of Deco-elegant jewelry and stardust collage dreams, and one of the people we can thank for our fabulous Legorreta library; attorney Jesse Oppenheimer, philanthropist, philanthropy-enabler, and mentor to a generation of young men; the glamorous Libby Lande Oppenheimer, benefactor of local theater and Planned Parenthood; Pastor E. Thurman Walker, promoter of interfaith dialogue. Many of these folks were born with the Charleston and danced their way through the better part of the last century. A handful shoehorned a biopic-worthy life into a few scant decades, reminding us that it’s not how much time you have, but what you do with it. All of them are terribly, terribly missed.
Manny Castillo spent the last 15 years of his too-brief life helping to transform the economically moribund West Side, launching an ambitious community-arts program that produced 36 murals, provided educational opportunities for Westside kids, and instilled a sense of pride and engagement in a community often ignored by city leaders. He also established a well-deserved reputation as one of the most dynamic, exciting drummers on the local music scene, with a flamboyant, frenetic style that perfectly suited the man behind the kit: brash, sarcastic, generous, idealistic, and almost childlike in the exuberance he displayed for his musical and artistic passions.
Beyond his obvious accomplishments, Castillo possessed an intangible personal power, a magnetic pull, that drew people close to him. He always seemed to be at the center of activity: bellowing “War Pigs” or spitting out “Baby Got Back” at a karaoke bar; checking out young punk bands at Taco Land; dancing to Esteban Jordan’s conjunto at Saluté; bluntly critiquing zydeco bands at the International Accordion Festival; jamming with Snowbyrd at Limelight; and hosting the annual Huevos Rancheros fundraising gala for San Anto.
Through it all he seemed indestructible; a goateed super-vato in a gray fedora who exuded supreme confidence. In San Antonio, he was the archetypal guy at the bar whom everyone seems to know or wants to know.
“One of the things that made an impression on people was that he seemed to come off as sort of arrogant,” said Juan Miguel Ramos, a local artist and drummer for the band Sexto Sol. “When I was younger and getting to know him, the way that I interpreted that was kind of like a confidence that you needed to have, in order to be yourself in all
“His death is a wakeup call for a lot of people,” filmmaker Ian Tyler Ibarra said. “Not like, ‘Oh shit, I can die tomorrow, too,’ but ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life? What are you out there doing in your community? What are you doing to help future generations or to document the history of your people?’” — Gilbert Garcia
The news that Henry Rayburn died on January 27 hit the Current’s online social network like a lead balloon: “Our heart is in our shoes,” we Tweeted, while on Facebook, Rayburn admirers from Del Rio to New York registered profound shock and sadness.
Artist, architect, activist, volunteer, world traveller, and world-class charmer, Henry was a Renaissance Man. His memorial service at Say Sí brought together hundreds of friends, relatives, and admirers, including his next-door neighbor on Cedar Street, who described Henry’s crucial and unbounded kindness to her after she lost her house in a fire. A lovely ofrenda contained photos, mementos, and a Scrabble board upon which people had spelled out the words CALM, HEART, LOVE, and GENTLE SPIRIT.
“He was a wonderful friend,” says John Casey, with whom Rayburn shared “the love of metaphysics,” and whom he met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting more than 30 years ago. An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting? Yep, Henry’s life was a complex one, full of surprises and turns: After the Alvarado, Texas, native graduated UT Austin with an architecture degree, he spent 1970-’72 in Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer. He spent a (riotous, we hope) time in San Francisco as an out and proud gay man during the storied Milk era, then came to San Antonio for a job, put down roots, and gave up his architecture practice for full-time fine art.
“He loved San Antonio so much. Sometimes when you visit [San Antonians] they’re a little bit apologetic, like, ‘We know this isn’t New York or Houston,’ but Henry was never that way. His attitude was, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’” says Franny Koelsch of Houston, whose gallery represented Rayburn for 14-and-a-half years
“He was of the caliber to be an internationally recognized artist,” his friend Bettie Ward says. “I saw him go from those early watercolor works to collage to complete abstraction … I mean, when he went to abstraction, it was like he’d broken out of a brick building!”
Rayburn’s art lives on: A sale of his works this past weekend raised funds for estate expenses and medical debts. And this past spring, the Linda Pace Foundation mounted a memorial exhibition of “Threads,” an awe-inspring yet human-scale assemblage much beloved by the late Pace herself, a champion of Rayburn’s work. — Sarah Fisch
The Reverend Seymour Perkins left behind a little public controversy, a lot of hard times and struggle, and an ouevre of hundreds upon hundreds of blazingly original artworks. He employed mostly cheap house paint, applied to found or repurposed cardboard, plywood paneling, or vinyl window shades, yet managed to execute work that was brilliantly arresting as well as deeply felt. Perkins also carved wooden table legs into graceful and elegant portraits of African nobles and made colorful glazed ceramic heads of such disparate characters as Al Capone and Tim Duncan. Like many image-makers who are placed by convention in the “outsider artist” genre, Reverend Seymour Perkins simply made art what he needed it to be.
San Angel owner and curator Hank Lee was “blown away” by Perkins’s “instinctive technique, the message he could get across in six gestures, just a few lines, using whatever color he had access to. Those gestures he had, and that scratchy, drippy surface, they were like Motherwell, and [his use of] text as an element, that was like Ed Ruscha.”
A lot of the public discourse about Reverend Perkins centered around his house on Hackberry, an ever-evolving artwork and a refuge for prostitutes and drug addicts, leading some to believe that Perkins must have been a pimp, a drug dealer, or, at the very least, an enabler of vice. Lee isn’t having it, saying that Perkins would offer what help he could muster, from kind words to a place to stay, and that those who rush to judgment over such monuments as the notorious “pregnant hookers’ bench” surely espouse a flawed version of Christianity.
At his funeral, several of us learned even more fascinating details of Perkins’s biography: that he was a combat veteran in Korea (and was buried with full honors at Fort Sam cemetery), that he named several of his children after Texas cities (including, intriguingly, “Amarillo”), and that he studied music at St. Philip’s College. The service, comprising songs and moving first-person testimony by his nearest and dearest, lasted almost three full hours. “He would have loved it,” said fellow artist and San Angel staffer Leigh Anne Lester. — Sarah Fisch
Horton Foote’s screenplays for Hollywood films first introduced me to the works of this quintessential screenwriter and later playwright. I saw these films while in the military overseas. And yes, they brought to this homesick Texan a sense of the small-town Texas I’d left behind.
To Kill a Mockingbird was my favorite, although I still have a fondness for Baby, the Rain Must Fall simply because it was filmed in Texas. Then there was The Chase, with its clash of justice and prejudice in a small Texas town. The cast was great, and one line from the film still resonates as pure:
Damon: Well, now, Sheriff, it’s nice to know that you’re out here on patrol.
Sheriff Calder: No, no, I’m not on patrol. Just lookin’ for an ice-cream cone, that’s all.
I must have been the only one laughing, for I recognized in that line my own youth in a small-town Victoria that was close enough to Wharton, where Foote grew up.
He later turned his home town into Harrison, which like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, became his postage-stamp-size center of the universe: his Main Street, his Webster Groves — if you will.
Decades later, as a budding playwright in Los Angeles, I began writing a play on fellow Texan Katherine Anne Porter. I turned to Foote’s work to find that Texas voice that he so carefully crafted in effortless, conversational dialog. By then Foote had won two Oscars (Mockingbird and Tender Mercies), but more importantly, his play The Young Man from Atlanta won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Most of Foote’s plays are set in the first half of the 20th century and are not the flashier dramas preferred by casual theatergoers, so finding a live production of his stage work often proved daunting. That struck home when I returned to Texas in 2000. I asked a local theater maven why there was a dearth of productions by Texas playwrights, and mentioned Terrance McNally and Foote. The friend said that McNally was too controversial, and Foote was so dull audiences would nod off.
Then in 2001, the visionary Nan Cuba brought Foote to Gemini Ink. I was book editor at the Express-News, and I asked in a column why many otherwise literary-minded folk still considered playwrights stepchildren to the more rarified writers of poetry and prose. Wasn’t Shakespeare, the greatest writer in the English language, a playwright? My reward? I sat with Foote at a luncheon in his honor as scenes from his shorter plays were performed. I was stunned when I turned to Foote and saw he was reciting the lines to himself in many instances.
When Foote passed earlier this year, I was sorry I’d never get to tell him how much I enjoyed The Young Man from Atlanta. Texas media gave his passing scant notice and only at theaters in the New York area were the lights dimmed.
Foote however gets the final curtain call.
His Orphans’ Home Cycle just completed a run at the Hartford Stage to great reviews; it now moves to Broadway until the spring of 2010. I plan to attend the nine-play marathon. Heaven knows it might be a long time coming to Texas.
I tip my Tejana to our homegrown Ibsen, who at 92 was still writing plays and screenplays. He lived a full creative life anyone might envy. He also left us a storehouse of riches for generations to enjoy. RIP. — Gregg Barrios
“A Bloom never gives up. Do your best and make them love you.”
— Advice from her father on
encountering anti-Semitism at college
Though she never raised a bullhorn, or shouted down a politician in public, Fay Sinkin managed to earn a place in San Antonio’s heart as one of its best-loved environmental champions.
She died in March at the age of 90.
And while she was married to another immensely popular activist, Solar San Antonio founder Bill Sinkin, a man who played a significant role in ending segregation in the city, Fay was a social-justice powerhouse in her own right.
Only five years after arriving to town in 1942, she was elected president of San Antonio’s League of Women Voters and immediately began to lobby City Hall for the appointment of a sanitary engineer. Vast sections of the South and West Sides were living with open sewers in cramped, converted horse corrals, or corrales. The city was one of the worst in the nation for tuberculosis and infant death from diarrhea.
The situation cut Sinkin to the core. Though raised in privilege in New York City, her early experiences with racism and anti-Semitism had sensitized her to abuse and created a “roaring liberal … determined to fight injustice,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir.
“It just was a very strong strain in her — a social-justice strain,” said son Lanny. “She saw things that weren’t right and wanted to make them right.”
In an oft-recounted story, Sinkin and a handful of League friends pulled on their white gloves one day in 1947 and went to ask Mayor Bryan Callaghan to create the position of sanitary engineer. Callaghan shooed the women away with the instruction, “Why don’t you go home and cook your husbands’ dinner?”
“We went home, cooked our husbands’ suppers and cooked that mayor’s goose,” Sinkin recorded in her memoir. “He was never elected again.”
After bringing reform to the Health Department as the first woman ever to serve on the city’s Board of Health, she set her sights on the Edwards Aquifer. The University of Texas system was preparing to pave over vast amounts of recharge zone for the creation of UTSA and developers were promising to bring “the largest mall in the Southwest” to the intersection of 281 and 1604.
While the campus was built, followed by more business and residential development, the mall was fought off.
After years of lobbying for aquifer protection and educating the public about the sensitivity of the aquifer, Sinkin became the first woman elected to the board of the Edwards Underground Water District, now the Edwards Aquifer Authority, in 1983.
Sinkin cycled out of the EAA in 1989, but her role was picked up by current Vice Chair Susan Hughes in 1996.
“She really felt like I was carrying her torch forward,” Hughes said. “I was a lone voice in some respects, but now, after some years, water-quality issues are kind of the no-brainers … Fay’s always a beacon there, guiding us to do the right thing.”
In her protracted fights with the various entrenched powers, Sinkin was driven by the selflessness of her core values, said friend Anita Ledbetter, director of Build San Antonio Green.
“Fay did not do these things to make a name for herself. She didn’t do it because she wanted to have a big deal made about her,” Ledbetter said. “Fay really did it truly because she had no other option. She had to do something when she saw something was wrong.”
Hers was an optimism that changed a city.
“She always believed if you tried you could make it happen. She never accepted no. She always thought, ‘Well, maybe,’ Ledbetter said. “We’re forever different because of that.” — Greg Harman
When much of America’s urban core was in flames and ruins, struggling alternately to meet and resist the unfulfilled promises of the Civil War, San Antonio smoldered, but it didn’t burn. That was due to no special quality or luck, but the actions of a few key individuals, the late Reverend Claude Black among them. Of the Reverend’s many storied accomplishments — pastor of one of San Antonio’s largest congregations, civil-rights leader who campaigned for Lyndon Johnson, the city’s first black mayor pro tem — his role in the relatively peaceful integration of San Antonio may be his
In 1966 or thereabouts, fellow civic leader and activist Bill Sinkin went into the Kress five-and-dime on Houston with Black as part of a successful stealth campaign to integrate San Antonio ahead of HemisFair ’68, one theater, store, and restaurant at a time. The waitstaff refused to serve Black, unless he stood while he had his coffee. Black declined to budge. A phone call was placed to New York; the waitress returned and served them both, seated at the counter.
“That was his style,” Sinkin said. “It was not bombast, it was persistence.”
In a moving and sobering 1994 interview with the Institute of Texan Cultures, the Reverend recalls heading off a potentially violent meeting of the Ghetto Improvement Association with a humorous anecdote, then using his growing political leverage to push City leaders to substantively address discrimination. He spreads the credit for San Antonio’s transition widely, to fellow religious leaders, civil-rights organizations, the military presence, and pure economic motive. But he is circumspect, even critical of his and his colleagues’ legacy.
Black grew up in a legally segregated San Antonio — “I can remember going into the downtown area and recognizing that all of the fountains were marked. You either had a fountain for white or fountain for colored, as they put it. Your restrooms were marked: restroom for white or restroom for colored,” he recalled. — and despite the successes of the ’60s and ’70s, he still regretted the relative cultural segregation of his ministry.
“If [my church] lays any claim on that gospel, it ought to be a different kind of church from what it is,” he told the interviewer. “It should be a church that has a capacity to minister to people without regard to their ethnic background.”
Progress is not permanent, he added. “Progress with human beings has its variables. It’s like a marriage. The excitement and the love that gets it started goes, and 15 years down the line it might require a lot of adjustment, understanding.” — Elaine Wolff
(You can read and listen to Reverend Black’s ITC oral history, online at texancultures.utsa.edu/library/blackInterview.html)
Even at 84, Jeanne Lang Mathews was hard to keep up with, warding off old-age dotage with a full dance card and an undimmed passion for the new. The longtime McNay Art Museum board member and patron had only recently joined the board of Artpace, which promotes and supports the creation of contemporary work. On the one occasion I met her, in the spring of 2008, she was holding court at a luncheon for the latest set of Artpace residents.
“She was intrepid when it came to looking at art,” said Lyle Williams, the McNay’s curator of prints and drawings, who became a close friend and traveling companion after Mathews tracked him down on a trip in New York following the death of her husband, Irving. “We had some great trips together,” which revolved almost exclusively around art, visual and performing.
Mathews usually traveled with one of a series of small dogs — Williams was acquainted with, in turn, Pumpkin Pi, Precious Pi, and Puddin’ Pi — none of whom slowed her touring schedule. (Her license plates read JLM PPI.)
“She would have an array of papers, magazines, and invitations,” Williams recalled, and they would make their daily schedule over coffee. “If it was opening and it was new, she very much wanted to be there. … She pretty much saw everything that opened on Broadway.”
Her enthusiasm extended to ballet, fine food — particularly old-school French restaurants — and wine.
“She introduced me to some very fine Bordeaux.” But when the price of Bordeaux began to rise precipitously, “she said, ‘Lyle, I think with your pocketbook, you should switch to Rhône. … So, I dutifully switched to Rhône,” he recalled, chuckling.
Mathews was also a generous and consistent patron of our local public-television station, which she watched religiously, unless the black-and-silver were on the court.
“I think her television only had two channels,” Williams said. “KLRN and whatever channel was playing the Spurs game.” — Elaine Wolff
There’s a little-known Michael Jackson recording that I’ve been flashing back to ever since MJ’s death.
It’s a lilting reggae ballad by Austin Tex-Mex cult hero Joe “King” Carrasco called “Don’t Let A Woman (Make a Fool Out of You).” The story goes that Carrasco, then working on his 1982 album, Synapse Gap, spotted Jackson standing in the corridor outside the recording studio, and lured him in to do some backing vocals. Jackson’s harmonies are wonderfully ethereal on this track, with none of the self-importance that we would come to accept from him over the last two decades of his life.
What I love best about the recording, though, is the story behind it. The fact that Jackson, at the same time he was constructing his monumental Thriller album, willingly lent his golden falsetto to a song with little commercial potential, made by an obscure guy that he barely knew, is somehow reassuring. It suggests that while he was never a “regular guy,” Jackson did have a small window of young adulthood when he was approachable, when he wasn’t yet obsessed with his own myth.
There’s a strange thing that happens whenever washed-up pop stars pass away (and don’t kid yourself Jacko fans; he had about as much chance for a career revival as Jermaine). After the brief, obligatory displays of mass mourning, fans start celebrating, because they’re now liberated to reclaim the version of their hero they like best. It might sound cruel to say so, but purely in pop-culture terms, Jackson’s continued existence was an aggravating reminder of his gradual descent into surgical mutilation, creepy bed-sharing with other people’s pre-pubescent boys, and musical irrelevance. As soon as media outlets announced his death, devotees could gather outside the Apollo Theater and belt out “Rock With You” or “Beat It” (notice that nobody sang “Butterflies” or “You Rock My World,” or anything else from this decade).
We saw the same phenomenon with Elvis Presley. His death was surely sad for his friends and family, but it saved everyone else from several more years of watching the fat dude, busting out of his white jumpsuit, muck up their memories of the young hillbilly cat sexing up the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.
Any attempts to make sense of Jackson’s offstage life quickly turn into ludicrous conjecture. Did he have two cosmetic procedures (as he insisted), or 13 (as British tabloids would have you believe)? Hell if I know. Did he innocently serve boys milk and cookies and tuck them into bed (as he said), or slip them roofies and fondle them (as LAPD officers suspected)? Your guess is as good as mine.
This much, however, is clear. As pop-music critic Touré has noted, the late-period Jackson became a kind of King Midas in Reverse. Everything he touched seemed to go horribly wrong. What must have confused him to no end is the fact that everything that the public loved about him at his peak ultimately became an object of ridicule or derision.
Around the time of Thriller, record buyers were charmed by Jackson’s fascination with kids. In fact, part of the reason he managed to move a record-breaking 25 million units at the time was because he tapped into the elementary-school market with a ferocity not seen again until the dark days of Barney and the Wiggles. Jackson had baby boomers covered, because they’d loved him since he’d been the adorable kid who sang “I Want You Back” with his brothers. Teenagers loved him, because “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” captured the pop moment. And little kids related to him because he was non-threatening and childlike (or childish, depending on your perspective).
For chrissakes, no subsequent displays of public weirdness (with the possible exception of his 2002 baby-dangling episode in Germany) could match taking Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis as his two dates to the 1983 Grammys — and no one batted an eye at the time.
His preoccupation with space aliens and freaks also seemed pleasantly eccentric in his heyday, but after a few catnaps in the hyperbaric chamber, it became obvious that, to mangle a famous phrase from Spinal Tap, there’s a fine line between eccentric and pathetic.
Finally, the naïveté that once made him seem so unspoiled by earthly pettiness started to look like drug-addled delusion when the 40-something Jackson could not grasp that dangling your baby from a hotel balcony, just to give cheering fans a quick peek, might be a bad judgment call.
Whatever dramas were going on in his own head at the time, the Jackson of 1979’s Off the Wall was pure grace: brimming with drive, ambition, high spirits, energy, and even sexual confidence. At that time, he seemed able to achieve everything with an economy of effort. By comparison, over the last 20 years, the harder Jackson tried, the more he screwed things up. Obviously scrambling to rehabilitate his public image after a child-molestation civil suit in 1993, he married Lisa Marie Presley, and no one bought it. When he made a dramatic show of kissing her to lead off the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, most people either recoiled in horror or giggled incessantly.
When, with the song “They Don’t Care About Us,” he tried to win sympathy for his public humiliation, he unwittingly offended Jewish-Americans with the oddball slur: “Jew me/ sue me/ everybody do me/ kick me/ kike me/ don’t you black or white me.”
When he tried to launch a comeback with a splashy 2001 concert extravaganza in New York, he was swiftly overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks. When he responded to that tragedy by organizing a multi-artist 9/11 charity record, he took heat for collaborating with a porn producer. When he sought to set the record straight about his private life, British journalist Martin Bashir made him look weirder than anyone imagined.
So when did things start to go wrong? There are several plausible culprits: the 1984 Pepsi commercial, during which he not only suffered a burn to the scalp that started him on the road to painkiller dependence (and apparently intensified his interest in plastic surgery), but inexplicably took the chorus of his greatest track, “Billie Jean,” and turned it into: “We’re the Pepsi Generation”; 1985’s “We Are the World,” in which his ego consumed all the suffering people of the world, reducing them to anonymous benefactors of his wondrous generosity; and 1993’s child-molestation case, which marred his reputation forever, and turned him into the bitter, self-pitying martyr he’d long threatened to become.
I would cast my vote, however, for one of Jackson’s most beloved, iconic moments: his John Landis-directed “Thriller” video. This inane, horror-movie pastiche marked the moment when Jackson succumbed to the hype, became convinced of his own genius, and decided that he needed to prove it by topping himself with longer, more elaborate productions. The man who viewed himself as the King of Pop did not understand that grandiosity and good pop are natural enemies. From this point on, we suffered through grating indulgences like the repetitive a-cappella chanting at the end of the “Bad” video, and the endless, crotch-grabbing, windshield-shattering coda of the “Black or White” clip. For a while, we cringed our way through it, and convinced ourselves that such drivel was the price you had to pay for being a Jackson fan.
It’s telling that E.T. and Thriller were released the same year. One was the ultimate popcorn movie, and the other was the ultimate popcorn album. Like E.T., Thriller was slick, flashy, and light on its feet. From then on, Jackson kept the slickness and flash, but became buried under the weight of his own pretensions. If his last video was 13 minutes and cost a million bucks, the new one had to be 15 minutes and cost $2 million. If Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson were in the last one, he needed Michael Jordan for the new one.
All these years later, the simple, low-budget videos for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” remain a joy to watch, while the lavish clips for “Scream” and “Earth Song” are about as fun as a court summons.
So, rather than dwell on those downers, I’ll remember the time before MJ guarded his talent to death, when he was willing to toss off a few moments of brilliance for Joe “King” Carrasco, without regard to how it would impact his legacy, just because it sounded like a good time. — Gilbert Garcia
Gertrude Baker was born in Brooklyn, educated as a nurse, and battle-tested in the Army Nurse Corps, healing wounded soldiers at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vietnam. For this and other service, Lieutenant Colonel Baker was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation, and the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal, First Class.
Her distinguished military nursing career brought her to BAMC, after which, in the late ’70s, she retired from military service and embarked on that supposedly nonexistent phase of American Life: Act Two. Baker’s Electric Boogaloo serves as a clarion call to anybody lacking audacity: She got a theater-arts degree from Incarnate Word and began performing (while virtually always wearing a wig; her signature natural hair was exposed only while La Gert was being herself) on every local stage from Jump-Start to the Guadalupe to the Carver. Baker originated roles in her friend Sterling Houston’s Black Lily and White Lily and High-Yello Rose, but performed also in pieces as diverse as ’night, Mother and even, as a spry UIW student, a 1983 production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
There’s a wonderful clip of Baker singing and dancing in that production, which you can find on a Jump-Start memorial page devoted to her. You can also watch the touching and hilarious video made by Jen Simmons for a 1997 Esperanza tribute to her, in which local luminaries such as Sandra Cisneros, Mike Casey, Susan Yerkes, and (of course) Sterling Houston — who finds it “weird” that Gert collected dolls and kept them in their original boxes — pay her affectionate and occasionally bewildered homage.
Baker was a force of nature, a tireless fighter for the underdog, a mother- and mentor-figure for artists and the LGBT community, and a bedeviller of expectations, who could by turns go recalcitrant and combative, or profoundly supportive and generous. She sat on as many boards as she trod, almost, gracing the McNay and the Witte, the Carver and Esperanza with her spirited support. Fuelling her continual energy, her (often good-natured, but not always) griping to institutions and their leaders on behalf of those they serve, was this ferocious audacity.
Annele Spector, education program manager at Jump-Start and a company member since 2000, says of her friend, “I learned a lot of things from Gert. My favorite lesson was, ‘If you like something, just ask for it! What’s the worst they can say, besides no?’ She more or less demanded things. That was her style. One night at an after-party at Penny Boyer’s pool, I was flirting and using her technique to try and score these amazing, over-the-top hoop earrings she was wearing. Gert played along and let me ‘borrow’ them. But wouldn’t you know, she tracked me down at Jump-Start a week later, whining about her missing hoops. Ahh, she was a gem!” — Sarah Fisch
“Men should be judged by their most important qualities,” my mother used to say. She would tell me that it didn’t matter if Jorge Luis Borges, for example, never stood up against Argentina’s military dictatorship. “What matters is that he’s a great writer.”
That’s why she didn’t care about John F. Kennedy’s reported infidelities; she adored him for the same reasons millions in and out of the U.S. loved him then and love Obama now: He gave them hope. When Kennedy was shot in November 1963, she was six months pregnant with me. My grandfather, also a Kennedy fanático, yelled from the other side of the corridor: “¡Le pegaron un tiro a Kennedy!” Mom cried inconsolably, as she would do again when Bobby met the same fate.
Ted Kennedy was another story.
“You see? Good intentions mean nothing,” she told me in the ’70s, after one of the anniversaries of 1969’s Chappaquiddick incident. “You have to be careful in life. This guy blew it!”
After I left home in 1984, we never spoke about the Kennedys again. But I think she would’ve been impressed by “The Lion of the Senate.” Only an idiot would dispute that Ted was our greatest senator and the greatest Kennedy. Not only did he fight for the interests of the common man (Civil Rights, Americans with Disabilities Act, immigration reform, children’s health care, Family and Medical Leave Act, overall health-care reform), but he was the common man’s role model when it came to finding strength in the midst of calamity. He survived much of the worst life can throw at us — the deaths of four brothers and his nephew, JFK Jr.; his own son’s bone cancer and subsequent leg amputation at age 12; a divorce; alcoholism; the Chappaquiddick scandal — to become a symbol of democracy in action. He may have been a dog, but he also worked like one, as allies and foes alike could tell.
If health-care reform passes this session, it’ll be a perverted reflection of a more comprehensive original idea. But one day the United States will join the league of industrialized nations who enjoy a health system that — flaws and all — is better and more humane than the joke we’re condemned to live with for a while longer. And true change will have been possible, in great part, due to the lonely fight Ted Kennedy started in the early ’60s.
Kennedy survived “personal failings and setbacks in the most public way possible,” said President Obama in his eulogy, “ … a string of events that would have broken a lesser man. … It would have been easy for Teddy to let himself become bitter and hardened. … No one would have blamed him for that. But that was not Ted Kennedy.”
“What we face [with health-care reform] is above all a moral issue,” wrote “Uncle Ted” in a letter to Obama, read posthumously by the President. “At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
The same things he’d been saying since 1962. It’s time we listen.
— Enrique Lopetegui
Rhonda Kuhlman — San Anto’s one-woman Fabergé of vintage bottle caps, comic-book images, and scrap metal — was a crafting revolutionary, sure. Her hair ornaments, earrings, and bottlecap people featuring tiny, awesome likenesses of Elizabeth Taylor or James Dean were, frankly, more gorgeous, witty, and ingenious than they needed to be. But she had deep high-art roots, too, with massive academic cred and an unsurpassed sense of aesthetics and personal mission. She studied at the Chelsea College of Art & Design in London and at Parsons in New York City before she and husband Chris Ake (himself an artist of recycled materials, particularly tin) opened Recycled Works and RC Gallery here in SA.
“We moved to San Antonio from Austin after we came to visit and met so many amazing artists,” Ake said. “This is the only place we ever lived where she felt inspired by so many different people, and we stayed here because of the great arts community. Everyone here was supportive and helpful and genuinely seemed happy when someone succeeded. Unlike the art scenes in some of the other ‘cooler’ places we lived. She also loved that in SA we could afford to open a space where we could show other people’s work and contribute to the community.”
In the last years of her too-short life, Kuhlman showed Early American embroidery samplers fashioned from candy wrappers at Unit B Gallery, and exhibited a collection of black-and-white drawings at Cactus Bra. True to her credo, “Recycle, Reuse, Redeem, Reborn!”, Rhonda donated her body to the University of Texas Health Science Center, and stipulated that there should be no funeral or memorial. Ake suggested to friends via email, “If you still feel the need to make a gesture, take the money you would have spent or donated and spend it on your loved ones, donate blood, become an organ donor.”
Despite a couple of final years spent enduring cancer treatment and heart surgery, Kuhlman remained ferociously upbeat. Her friend Diana Kersey says of her, “When I think of Rhonda, I hear her amazingly loud, head-turning, honking laugh. I see glitter, shiny plastic, bottle caps, candy wrappers, pig tails, cute shoes, and bright blue eyes. She faced her medical difficulties with humor and grace and refused to be defined by them.”
“Rhonda survived cancer when she was 19 and always knew she would die young,” her husband reflects. “I know it’s kind of a cliché, but she really tried to live every day as if it were her last. I have never met anyone who had more of a lust for life than she did. She wanted to go everywhere, see everything, and meet everyone. When we moved here we already had a wholesale jewelry business that kept us busy, and already knew lots of people, but Rhonda wanted to meet even more people ... ”
Her desire to meet more people led Rhonda to collaborate with a local family in transforming their modest house on Theo into a recycled artwork. “She was especially proud of it,” Ake said, “having worked with the family in the house and being able to incorporate a recycling aspect to it. After art, the thing most important to her was recycling and the environment. The fence is still there and has been painted and repaired by the people that live in the house.” — Sarah Fisch
It’s tempting to look for some kind of irony in writing an obituary for an author and musician whose most famous song is titled “People Who Died,” but there isn’t any. That’s sort of the point of the song, in fact, that eventually all of our names — whether we’re users who beat a possession rap by snitching on a biker gang, junkies who contract hepatitis from dirty needles, or just unlucky 14-year-olds with leukemia — will be added to Carroll’s panicked laundry list. The trick Carroll pulled off through his nervous, heartfelt delivery was making you care about each one: “They were all my friends, and they died.”
He did the same thing as a writer, making the extremely personal into something not exactly universal but at least recognizably human. His memoir The Basketball Diaries (which he started writing at age 12) earns its spot with Trainspotting and Naked Lunch in the holy trinity of heroin literature by being the most emotionally affecting of the three books. Carroll’s straightforward, shooting-the-shit prose lacks Irvine Welsh’s sick humor and linguistic acrobatics or William S. Burroughs’s melted-brain genius, but Carroll’s stories of drug-fiend desperation are all the more moving for his undeveloped, matter-of-fact style.
Like most every tween fuckup on daytime talkshows, Carroll gets a huge headstart on a ruined life from the adult world — he’s molested by a coach at the book’s start —but he’s mostly a victim of his own terrible choices and self-sabotaging defiance. He pisses away an academic scholarship to a high-dollar private school cutting class to huff glue with the basketball team, gets hooked on heroin at age 13, runs away from home and robs and prostitutes himself to support his habit — but it’s hard to fault him for having the misfortune of discovering so early that a lot of the world’s authority and order is based on meaningless bullshit. Some of us live for close to a century without ever having to acknowledge that.
“Genius is not a generous thing,” Carroll wrote in his “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain,” “…Pills and powders only placate it awhile.” And maybe that’s why Carroll — who began his teenage years shooting up, ended them, well, still shooting up, but also hanging out with Burroughs, Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe; appearing in Andy Warhol movies; and holding the microphone for the Velvet Underground — never seemed content. Carroll survived a prolonged battle with addiction and a gig as an underage male prostitute long enough to receive a Pulitzer Prize nomination at age 22, record a seminal punk album in 1980, read poetry on MTV, and watch Leonardo DiCaprio play him in a major motion picture. He died of a heart attack at the age of 60, reportedly while writing at his desk. Good for him. — Jeremy Martin
An aptronym is a name particularly suited to its possessor, and William Wayne Justice, like tennis star Margaret Court, botanist Michael Pollan, and neurologist Walter Russell Brain, grew up worthy of his majestic moniker. By the time the boy was 7, his father had already inscribed: “William D. Justice & Son” on the door of his law office. Born in Athens, Texas, in 1920, Justice had to wait until graduation from the University of Texas School of Law and then service in World War II before officially joining the family firm. He later served as Athens city attorney and then United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. He made his most lasting contributions to the rule of law from the bench of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, to which Lyndon Johnson appointed him in 1968. Justice was still administering justice, as a senior judge for the Western District of Texas, until a few months before his death, at 89, in Austin on October 13, 2009.
In principle, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ended school segregation in 1954. However, as late as 1970, public instruction in Texas was still separate and unequal, until Judge Justice, in United States v. Texas, ordered more than 1,000 school districts to end educational apartheid. His 1971 ruling in Morales v. Turman mandated sweeping reforms in the treatment of incarcerated youths. In the 1972 Ruiz v. Estelle case, he eventually compelled defiant Texas authorities to reform the horrendous conditions and practices in a penal system in which mere imprisonment constituted cruel and inhuman punishment. Convinced that education is a universal right and a necessity for a stable, prosperous society, Justice was proudest of his 1977 ruling, in Plyler v. Doe, that Texas public schools cannot impose tuition on the children of illegal immigrants.
In 2000, after Justice ruled that denying 1.5 million Texas children their rightful access to medical care was unconstitutional, Governor George W. Bush called him “a typical liberal judicial activist who legislates from the bench.” Months later, Bush did not denounce the activism of a Supreme Court that interfered with the vote count in Florida and installed him in the White House. And he applauded when, legislating from the bench, the Roberts Court ignored the Second Amendment’s link of the right to bear arms to “a well-regulated militia,” two centuries of judicial precedent, and the wishes of an elected legislature by concocting an individual right to own guns. Judge Justice was active in reversing the inertia of a system that favors the wealthy, privileged, and powerful. If he were as “typical” as Bush’s epithet suggests, courage and compassion would not seem so unusual.
Widely admired for his fundamental decency, Justice was also widely despised for forcing changes in the Jim Crow status quo. More than 10,000 of the 65,000 residents of Tyler, where his federal court was based, signed a petition urging his impeachment. But, calling him “a secular saint,” the late Molly Ivins wrote that William Wayne Justice “brought the United States Constitution to Texas.” Justice will be served when the citizens of Texas read it. — Steven G. Kellman
Last month I left Liberty, but not as a wobbly customer, though we’ve had more than a few of those. Some blame the cocktails; more blame the floors. The standard joke is that the floors level and the walls straighten the more you drink. Me, I didn’t even notice the unevenness anymore — except with the service (another running joke). I left as an employee of what some would consider the “old” Liberty — the Liberty of Drew Allen. Drew, leaning against the wall, fingertips pressed together, assessing the clientele; Drew, whose ashes ascended Liberty’s grill vent alongside the mesquite smoke, an offering to the gods of self-imagining.
Not that his death was a clear demarcation. Like many things in San Antonio and South Texas, borders are blurred. Where does downtown start? Or when did old San Antonio become new San Antonio? Many mark that transition with the opening of 281— the halving of the heart of the city, with just a few arterials like Broadway left to keep it pumping; older residents might mark it with the Loop. The Loop is all about getting around a city without actually touching it, getting dirty. My wife maintains a kind of navigational muscle memory from the days before the interstates fractured the old neighborhoods. She calls it “the purple way” — fans of Harold and his crayon know that route.
Liberty squats squarely and crookedly where old and new overlap, spatially and culturally. Grizzled veterans of the bar recall the ball fields and wrestling arena chewed up by the progress that zips a short ball toss away on 281, where it makes its bend toward downtown. Liberty sits where downtown becomes uptown, where the re-emerging businesses of Broadway ease into the rehabbed neighborhoods of Mahnke Park. Space is more than architecture, and Drew and owner Dwight Hobart brought something novel to the old building and the sketchy neighborhood it occupied: a unique blend of food and people and a safe place for them to enjoy it and each other.
Many of those people I wanted to see my last night made their appearance. Some that I would have liked to see, like Drew, we’ll never see again, but were special to my early days at Liberty and to the construction of Liberty’s quirky identity and central role in the Venn diagram of social networks in a maturing San Antonio. Drew was the catalyst for that chemistry of wealth, art, gayness. Alamo Heights matrons and the powerful men around them, finger-snapping Chilangos, starving (and not so starving) artists, blue-eyed, Spanish-speaking border refugees, coffee-swilling taxi drivers and Vietnam vets, thick-fingered Pearl Brewery employees, and the whole mezcla of sexual and intellectual preferences found space at Liberty’s closely packed tables and eight-stool bar.
Drew also hired some of Liberty’s early and idiosyncratic waitstaff. Paul Hannusch was flitting around the bar in impossibly pointy shoes long before size mattered (that has to be what that thankfully fading trend was all about; it couldn’t be because it looked good — maybe on Europeans. But not everything travels well. Cowboy boots are the only pointy footwear that looks good on American men). When I remember Paul, I see scarves and boas (granted our winters were a lot colder then, but Isadora Duncan scarves on waitstaff? How did he keep them from dredging through the pot roast?). I see giant rings and stringy hair and, during the lead-up to Halloween, Paul hawking his beret-wearing, rhinestone-staring, papier-mâché skull pins. Paul of the thrift shop, garage sale, flea market; Paul whose idea of paradise was the ceramic head of a flower-wearing Tahitian beauty, preferably viewed from the comfort of a faux-leopard chaise. His good heart deserved a kinder death.
As did Debbie Webb’s. Debbie Webb was probably singlehandedly responsible for the trope of uneven service. It was always a crapshoot and a blessing if you got what you wanted. And if you couldn’t find her, it was because she was out on the patio reading her Buddhist text in the middle of the rush. And the hair and the bustline. But Debbie was also responsible for the one piece of art that has been at Liberty from almost the beginning — the cow picture over Table 10, whipped out by Debbie to cover an intake for a defunct ventilation system. I wonder if it will make the move to the new, new Liberty? I wonder if any of Drew’s ashes are left to make the trip? Debbie raised a magnificent child by herself, working two jobs and, after looking up one day to notice her daughter had graduated, moved and married, summoned the courage (or as I thought at the time, the insanity) to reinvent herself as a stand-up comic. And she was doing it when a run-in with a car ended her days at Liberty and an unpleasant spot on an MRI ended the rest of them way too early.
And then there was Rudy. What can be said about Rudy that he hadn’t already said about himself (and I might add over and over again)? He packed a lot of living (and scotch and cigarettes and heat) in his time. College graduate (East Tennessee State), jazz musician (better than he allowed himself to admit), soldier (with the band), railroad engineer (the Houston route), waiter, hustler, serial husband, proud father, good Catholic (thanks to Arcey, and at the end, when it mattered). Each identity created a rich watershed of tales. Narrative defined Rudy, and his muteness in his waning days at Liberty hinted that time (and scotch and cigarettes) might be catching up with him. His end came quickly and ferociously.
Those were the faces I knew I would not see on my last night. Others happily did show. Jannette Morales, Nate Cassie, Karen Mahaffey, Michele Monseau, and Hawthorne Farr link to a time in Liberty’s history when it was voted the bar where you were most likely to have an intellectual conversation. I remembering looking up one night and every waiter had an MFA. At Liberty, Giuseppe Luciano, Elizabeth McGrath, Mark Hansen, Calida Borgninio, and Alejandro Diaz (Alejandro appropriated the mesquite ash from Liberty’s hardworking grill — the same one that gave flight to Drew’s ashes — to use in his series of ash and turmeric paintings) found refuge, income, and inspiration. Peter Glassford, John Navarro, and Mat Wolff worked the bar (among other positions) while working on themselves. Rhonda Kuhlman (what a bright and tender light; rest in well-deserved peace, Rhonda) and Laurel Bodinus brought their hair and unique sense of style and special love of life. Even Ethel Shipton survived a brief and sweaty stint in the kitchen. It was a time when independence mattered more than conformity, flexibility ruled over rigidity, and personality and the ability to carry on an interesting conversation trumped all. It was a moment, and one that I was fortunate to share in.
That last night, I also saw many of the faces that came in over the years to enjoy that space. I want to thank all those wonderful and generous customers whom I’ve met over the bar. It was my sincere pleasure to serve you, and I will miss you. I may not know all your names, but I remember your faces (and your drinks). I also want to thank Dwight Hobart, a most giving friend and employer, who struggled mightily with the decision to move Liberty. I hope it travels well. — Michael W. Campbell 1992-2009
Until this year, the Hermann Sons Ballroom on South St. Mary’s operated a bowling alley. It was an intimate affair, they say, the pins hand-set, and the beer on offer of the domestic, longneck variety. The Ballroom and Rathskeller are still available for rental, and business meetings (after all, Hermann’s Sons is an insurance company) still take place within its venerable walls. And, come to think of it, for all we know, the bowling alley’s still there. However, their website proclaims, dishearteningly, “BOWLING LANES ARE CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE!” Well, damn. Note exclamation point, there. How emphatic … Prussian, even. What with the closing of Cool Crest, too, it seems that San Antonio’s indie-flavor amusements are endangered. (Watch out, Kiddie Park …)
So what is Hermann Sons, anyway? All I knew about them growing up was that there was a steakhouse in Hondo called Hermann Sons that had fried pickles and peach cobbler, a must-do lunch stop on the way out of town to Big Bend or Marfa or somewhere. Turns out it’s a German fraternal organization which originated in New York in 1840, founded by German immigrants to “provide aid to each other, aid to the sick and aid to widows and orphans.” Aid, aid, aid. Wherefore bowling?
The Sons of Hermann grew, establishing lodges all over the U.S., including an initial San Antonio chapter in 1860. In 1875, purchasing life insurance became a requirement of membership. Local chapters also added retirement homes, as well as dance classes and kids’ summer camps to its roster of benefits. I guess that sort of recreational-arena where the bowling fits in (phone calls to the SA Lodge were unreturned as of press time).
Color us intrigued. A German fraternal organization dedicated to widows and orphans, that has since branched out into insurance, dance, and bowling, then had second thoughts … about the bowling. Oh, and, it turns out, the Hermann Sons Steak House, while originally founded by Sons of Hermann members in the ‘30s, isn’t an official wing of the fraternal organization, either. But the onion rings are excellent. — Sarah Fisch