Prayer before the demo

The Pregnant Hookers’ Bench at the corner of South Hackberry and Nevada, known by the large capital lettering across its back reading “Pregnant Hookers’ Bench,” is gone.

I’m told it was broken over the back of a disrespectful neighbor in a street scuffle.

Even without the visual landmark, it’s easy to spot the folk-art attraction featured in Detour Art: Outsider, Folk Art, and Visionary Environments Coast to Coast.

Somewhere alongside the street hustle of Hackberry on San Antonio’s East Side, lanky, colorful characters are painted over boarded-up windows. A sentinel in the front yard draws listlessly on a cigarette beneath a row of decorated deer and pig heads protruding from the porch. Higher still, a hand-painted sign proclaims the site the nexus of the National Hispanic Council.

Welcome to the home of Reverend Seymour Perkins, likely the next San Antonio folk-art implosion, by order of the City.

On a weekday afternoon, Reverend Perkins is perched in the drive, head back, shaving gel being lathered into his neck by his “personal stylist.” As Brenda uses a comb and disposable razor to trim his grizzled white beard, Perkins describes a mythical Texas of secret tunnels, teams of black slaveholders, arcane religious events and political leaders, and (briefly) his own artistic legacy evidenced on leaning particleboard, the walls of the home, and mixed throughout the piles of trash collected inside garage and bedroom doors.

“I call myself a black Picasso, because Picasso never went to school. Like me.”

A blue, black-bearded face painted inside the garage pledges: “This is my last rock. I promise.” The image is of a former associate who delivered a message to the “General Synod of America” from the preacher/artist/comforter of young prostitutes.

The material testifies to street violence (a robbery victim suffocated with a sheet of plastic), drug abuse (the “rock”), and skin-trade turbulence (the several potential models who linger about, keeping a watchful eye on Perkins).

Before rising to give a full tour of his work, another young woman in a half shirt reading “I like to nibble” brings Perkins a glass of wine.

“She’s my prize,” he says with a bright-eyed wink.

Then, mid-shave, the wiry artist springs from his seat to conduct the tour proper.

While many see a wealth of folk art here, a pictorial history of San Antonio street life, city inspectors have instead reported: “Single story wood frame structure in need of extensive repairs … holes, cracks, and rotten studs … large amount of trash, debris, human waste, and refuse … a haven for criminal activity.”

The Notice of Hearing for “potential” demolition issued by Housing and Neighborhood Services on November 11 sets the matter for an 8:30 a.m. hearing December 10.

While Perkins is undaunted by the immediacy of the potential calamity, the “prize” approaches, saying simply: “We need help.”

Perkins’ agent, San Angel Folk Art Gallery Director Hank Lee, said the property must have fallen under some would-be developer’s eye.

“As if there’s not a thousand houses in that neighborhood equal” in decay, Lee said, obviously disgusted by the development. “You know somebody wants that land … It’s a corner lot and it’s high visibility and it’d be perfect for a wash-and-dry. I think that must be behind it.”

Back in the main house is a portrait of the serious-faced sentinel, now sitting silently on a stump out back. It’s a double-bodied nude in partial squat, a reflection joined at the ass.

“I painted him ass to ass with three faces. He can’t go forward. He can’t go back. He can’t fart,” says Perkins before half-audibly explaining the scrawl representing his child’s death.

But art, demolition, and prostitution aren’t the only themes here. There is the tunnel, said to begin beneath a hump of soil two feet over the neighbor’s property line. From this entryway, a subterranean passage leads beneath the Alamodome, beneath the Alamo itself, Perkins says. From it the excited narrator says he has access to 50 American cities. When the knowledge of this reaches the masses, our city’s leaders will declare: “Well, we’d like to have an underground city. What would it cost?”

Then, surely not only Perkins’s home will be saved, but economic salvation will radiate across the city. That’s his vision, anyway.

Perkins is well aware that some doubt his sanity. To these he says: “Free all your psychiatrists! I call them all headshrinkers. I can take the 23rd Psalm and blast ’em all.”

You know he can.

We enter the front yard, where the Pregnant Hookers’ Bench used to be.

He’s talking now of his “berries,” his “babies” who follow silently from backyard to front, protectively watching over their savior. Three keep his company each night, he says, though there is no “yum-yum” involved.

He points them out: this one’s sister murdered; another subjected to bloody incest; the inexhaustible cycles of sex work and abuse.

The Reverend Seymour Perkins is crying in his front yard, a small blob of green shaving gel limp beneath his jaw.

“These people come to me and say, ‘Before I commit suicide I’m going to stay with you,”’ he says. Many do live. They find help here, he insists.

He wants to get the girls organized into a wing of the AFL-CIO. To protect them.

“All I want to do is help.”

That’s when the tears rush the many, deep creases of his high-cheeked face and the unreality of his mental wanderings diffuse. What is left is an artist crying for his street, his city, his “berries.”

The home at the corner of South Hackberry and Nevada leans in to listen. The women mill about, unsure. And the minutes creep toward a date in December when bureaucrats will elevate structural stability over the inherent incoherence of one outsider’s art.

“Here’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to tear the fuckin’ shit down and then they’re going to want it for museums in New York,” said Lee. “What sense does that make? San Antonio’s always been so ashamed of itself.”

Already friends have put in new bright-yellow electric wiring. You can tug on it. It’s there hanging from the wall. But on Friday, Perkins said they began to lift and level the foundation. There is effort. Still, as one compassionate SA attorney put it to Perkins: “It seems you need capital.” That may be where art-loving San Antonians come into play.

The city’s code for historic preservation and urban design and Preservation Texas may offer a way out, should Perkins, or interested residents submit an application on his behalf.

What about Habitat for Humanity? Or reincorporating as a 501(c)3? Lee asks.

“It’s the real thing and it’s important stuff. He’s just got the bad luck of having a corner lot.”

Eusebio Gonzalez Castillo is working to rewire the house, fix the plumbing, and raise and level its foundation. He estimates the total costs at about $12,000, but doesn’t know who will eventually foot the bill for his work. In a tight race with COSA dozers, it’s a secondary consideration.

“I used to live in that neighborhood,” said Castillo. “We want to get as much done before the ninth of this month to save that house.”  •

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