A View of Reality from a Chartreuse Couch*: Susan Yerkes

Susan Yerkes, 1978. Courtesy image.

*My Own Private Alamo

Gene: Hello, Susan. I am so delighted to have you visit the world-famous Chartreuse Couch, and we have a lot to talk about: San Antonio past, San Antonio future, Cornyation, UFOs and art. There is just a world of knowledge in your brain and we need to hear all of it. Now stop searching for loose change in the sofa and let’s start with your tales about your experiences with Cornyation.

Susan:  Hello, Gene, and thanks for having me on your famous Chartreuse Couch–it’s an honor to occupy this elegant seat. And I found a quarter and two nickels.

Gene: Really? Well, sit and feel the love.

Susan: Speaking of honors, I have had the honor of appearing in a number of Cornyations over the years–for some reason always representing iconic buildings of San Antonio. When I first came back to town as an adult in the mid-’80s, Ray Chavez and Bob Jolly had recently revived Cornyation, a flamboyant Fiesta takeoff on the glam and grandeur of the Order of the Alamo’s Coronation, and it was (and still is) the hottest ticket in Fiesta. My first appearance was also the bawdiest, as the Duchess of the Naked Iguana–a nightclub on the River Walk. The Iguana was making news due to a huge civic wrangle about whether a business on the River Walk should be allowed to have the word “Naked” in its signage.

Gene: Oh My GOD! Well, I am not surprised! … Naked! That starts with N which rhymes with sin and That stands for trouble right here in River City.

Susan: A few years later, Robert Rehm invited me to be his Duchess of the Enchilada Red Library, the beautiful new main library designed by Ricardo Legorreta. I appeared as a giant bookworm. Robert’s costume was so wonderful that the city invited Robert to bring the bookworm back later that spring to ride in a downtown parade for the library’s grand opening. I rode on a flatbed trailer in the parade right in front of Governor George W. Bush, his wife Laura, and Legorreta. I believe that may be the only time a Cornyation character has had equal parade billing with a soon-to-be U.S. President, and a Republican at that.

Gene: Well, now, that is important. Do you have pictures?

Susan: Unfortunately the only photo I have of that parade is a fantastic pinhole photo by Melanie Rush Davis … but my costume was so big it effectively eclipsed W and the others in the picture. So sad …

Gene: Hahahah! Yes, that is unfortunate indeed.

Susan: … A few years after that, when the city was all atwitter about building a new venue for the Spurs, Conni Brenner and Wendy Carter of Aartvark Studios asked me to be the Vice Empress of the New Spurs Arena. That was an extraordinary court, complete with 20-foot-tall papier-mache puppets of Spurs players, an over-sized headpiece like a sci-fi antenna, and a giant rolling “skirt” encircled by a parking-garage ramp. A couple of years after that, Robert Rehm, who had been paralyzed in an accident, made his triumphant return to Cornyation designing. It was the coolest thing in the world to be in his comeback Cornyation court–as the Empress of Earl Abel’s, which had been torn down (to the dismay of many) to make way for Red McCombs’s big condo tower at Broadway and Hildebrand. With a court of dancing platters representing Earl’s most famous entrees and a zillion rubber chickens adorning my headpiece and train, I did battle with a bulldozer onstage. The whole thing was classic Robert Rehm.

Gene: You have really been able to represent good topics and imaginative artists with Cornyation. This is great to hear all this.

Susan: Each of those buildings came with such interesting stories, and they’ll always be linked in my memory to the great times we had, onstage and off, in Cornyation. It’s not only one of the most entertaining Fiesta events, it’s definitely one of the most fun to be a part of. And since it’s one of the most popular, I’ll remind you right now to make sure and get your tickets EARLY, since tickets sell out in a heartbeat. Of course, you know that all the profits from Cornyation go to support AIDS-related charities here in San Antonio, and the Robert Rehm scholarship for talented young folks who plan to study theater.

Gene: The Chartreuse is always in the know on things. And just to add: Amy Stone, Trinity professor, will have her book ready on the history of Cornyation soon, which I know will go like hotcakes, or corn cakes.

Susan: I can’t wait! Amy is terrific! She interviewed me for the book, and I was wowed by all the fine research she had done. No matter how much you know about Cornyation, you’re likely to find some new gems in her book.

Gene: See, we are getting off to a good start here. I am always afraid my guests will just give me Yes and No answers. So I try to ask difficult questions like: Do you think Alamo Street should be closed?

Susan: Yes and No. OK, really, it seems to me that would depend on what the city commits to doing with the Alamo Plaza area. I have never felt strongly that the “tacky shops” and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, and so forth should have to move. Some people are adamant that their existence across from the “Shrine of Texas Liberty” is a sacrilege. I don’t think that way. If we start deciding what retail is appropriate and what is not, it is a very slippery slope. Some people are campaigning to have the city deed all of Alamo Plaza to the State of Texas, now that the state has taken over the Alamo. I think that is also a bad idea.

Gene: Me, too. Why give up our vote on the matter?

Susan: A few years ago the closure of the streets around Main Plaza caused a huge uproar, and I think that would happen again if Alamo Street were closed. On the one hand, the Alamo is one of the great American icons, not to mention a huge tourist draw. But Fiesta San Antonio is also a hugely important part of San Antonio’s identity. Remember, it began as a parade around Alamo Plaza to celebrate Texas’s victory at the Battle of San Jacinto. If Alamo Street were closed, it would mean the time-honored Battle of Flowers Parade would not even go past the Alamo, and I think that would be a real shame. On the other hand, if Alamo Street is closed, I think it is vital that the city ensures there are numerous large free or low-cost public parking lots on the fringes of the city center, and that trolleys or shuttles are also available to move people back and forth. That is something that really is the key to making the new HemisFair area a success, and I think it would also be a key to improving downtown. Just closing streets won’t do it … there has to be vision and connection. If we could really achieve that kind of downtown, surrounded by ample parking with good connector vehicles and deliveries to hotels and businesses scheduled during nighttime hours, it might work. I’ve been in a number of European cities where large portions of the historic centers are closed to most traffic, and their businesses keep thriving. But Texans really love their cars.

Gene: Well, I just don’t know why they took the parking meters out from in front of the Alamo, like the DRT wanted to keep. Were you here for that fracas in the ’70s? This was when they made the current improvement on Alamo Plaza. They had parking meters then. The Conservation Society made the DRT remove them. Very funny. Also, I have talked to more people who always have a drive-by with their guests from out of town who just want to see the Alamo but don’t have any time to get out and walk. And I like the fun houses, and you know what? SO DO THE TOURISTS!!!

Susan: I hear some Alamo fans who want to clear the space around Alamo Plaza  lament that when visitors see the Alamo for the first time, they often say either, “It’s so little!” or “It’s right in the middle of downtown!” I understand that true-blue Texans like their shrines of liberty big. But I think it is wonderful that the city has grown up around this part of our history. To me, as long as Alamo Plaza, and the beautiful gardens and buildings around the Alamo, and the chapel and long barracks, are preserved as well as they are (and maybe improved in the sense of historical presentation) I don’t see a problem with having a bustling city around the Alamo. I do like the idea that in the future there will be more educational material available about the Alamo mission’s origins in the overall scheme of Spanish missions here, before the Texas Revolution.

Gene: Yes, I agree. And to all those that keep comparing the Alamo to other famous battlegrounds that are treated like sacred sites, I say: Those battlegrounds REALLY are dead. They wish they had the life in them that Alamo Plaza has. But back to Robert Rehm. He died January 4, 2015, and I know we all want to thank him for all he did for the art community.

Susan: Yes, he was such an incredible inspiration. With the use of only one eye, his mouth, and his breath, he continued to create and live such a positive, active life. Everyone who knew Robert before his accident seemed to love and admire him. And after his accident, he was even more of a living example of the power of creative passion and the will to live and contribute to life. He went directly to the hospital from his “Year of the Goat” New Year’s party and this time, after many great comebacks, did not recover. It is a great loss for all of us who loved and were inspired by him.yerkes and local  (2)

Gene: So, moving right along. What is your favorite place to eat in San Antonio?

Susan: Gosh, Gene, these days there are so many great places! One of the biggest changes in San Antonio in the years I have been here is the expansion of great food culture. My top has to be the Liberty Bar. Dwight Hobart has made it a true institution, and I’ll always remember his co-founder and my great friend Drew Allen. Recently I was having lunch in the library section upstairs, and I saw a book I love on the shelf–a 19th-century edition of W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads. I was amazed to see it –and when I opened it, I found it was inscribed from me to Drew in 1992. I had forgotten all about it! And it was among Drew’s great, eclectic book collection, some of which Dwight had put there after Drew’s death. The Liberty feels like part of my life over many years. And the food is still fantastic! But Francois Maeder’s Crumpets is right up there, too, especially in its current beautiful location off Harry Wurzbach. Most everything around the CIA (I love saying the CIA!) at the Pearl is exciting. Also, El Mirador and Beto’s and Vietnam and Hsiu Yu.

Gene: That’s quite a list. Let’s talk about art education in the schools. That is a concern to the creative community.

Susan: Yes, it is. I know that many schools have cut way back or eliminated their arts programming, when study after study shows the independent and creative thinking fostered by the arts are major contributors to developing the brain, encouraging innovative thinking, and integrating children in the world around them. In spite of school cutbacks, there are many ways that families can encourage arts exposure, and community groups also have a lot to contribute–for instance, the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio or Say Si for a start. I think it’s wonderful that the major museums are very proactive with youth programs. But nothing can make up for the terrible erosion of the arts curricula in most of our schools today.

Gene: And we always need more. I ask young artists, or would-be artists, what kind of community do they want to live in: a destructive community or a creative community? This is sort of my way of curbing graffiti and redirecting their energy into more constructive activities. Well, next question: What books are you reading?

Susan: I recently finished and highly recommend Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I’m just starting to read five new books–The Future of the Mind, by Michio Kaku; In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides; James McConkey’s The Complete Court of Memory; and Bob Shacochis’s Domesticity, which was recently republished  by Trinity Press. And I’m especially excited about Alan Lightman’s new book, The Accidental Universe: the World You Thought You Knew. Reading different genres at once sometimes has a great kind of pinball effect on thinking about things. It reminds me of being back at the University of Texas in Plan II, where everything seemed to connect and inspire.

Gene: Oh, gosh! Well that just makes my head spin. But I also have found reading several different things at the same time is a good idea. It doesn’t have to be all books. Mix magazines and books and watch a movie. A creative mind really likes to jump around. I used to read encyclopedias. The Book of Knowledge–that sounds really smart and hard, but actually it was easy because you didn’t have to commit yourself to a novel or one subject. A little about aardvarks, anthrax, then astral projection. Perfect for people with attention disorder. You could jump from one topic to the next and not have to pay real close attention to those that weren’t of interest. Well let’s talk about your favorite subject: journalism. Something I know you can enlighten us about. And especially about political cartoons, now that we have had such violence in France.

Susan: Well, Gene, people have been killing each other over their beliefs for a long time, and terrorists using the guise of Islam as an excuse are part of that sad tradition. It is not the sole purview of Muslim–look at the Inquisition, and a thousand other cases of political, cultural, or religious persecution.

Gene: The French Revolution. “We Are All Marie Antoinette.”

Susan: The Charlie Hebdo murders were the worst case in a Western country in many years. Charlie Hebdo’s editors and cartoonists had been firebombed and threatened before, but they refused to censor themselves. I’ve read that for every Muslim extremist Western forces kill in the Middle East, three or four more sign up for the cause. I think the same effect is felt when terrorists try to silence journalists (or anyone, for that matter). On some fronts, editors or news directors may start to pull their punches to protect their people. But eventually the response will be to resist brutality. My favorite response to the Charlie Hebdo murders was a simple cartoon: The first panel showed a pencil. The second showed the pencil broken into pieces. The next showed each piece grown into a whole pencil–an army of pencils marching on.

Gene: And so where did this interest with journalism start? Let’s go there.

Susan: I always wanted to be a writer, but never thought I’d be a journalist until after I finished undergraduate school. My major was Plan II, which is pretty nonspecific in terms of future careers, so I went to grad school in Mass Communication. My first love was radio news, which led me into TV news and documentaries. I wanted to be an international correspondent, so I traveled around the world for about four years before my mother’s illness brought me back to San Antonio to take care of her. During my travels I had started writing for newspapers and magazines, and the Light newspaper hired me as a metro columnist. When Hearst closed the Light and bought the Express, they took me along. Now I write a monthly column and assorted stories for SA LOCAL, a really great zoned publication, and some other pieces for various publications and web sites.

Gene: I make a point to always read SA LOCAL when it comes in the mail. Well, I wonder if newspapers are going to disappear, because I hate to read off the computer.

Susan: I would say not in our lifetime. Ever since I was in college I’ve been hearing dire predictions about the demise of one medium or another. With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, I’d say the message far transcends the medium …

Gene: Well, the Chartreuse Couch is the medium with the message.

Susan: Years ago when I was on the board of Texas Public Radio, we used to talk about dropping the term “radio” because the information we presented could be delivered in other ways or across a variety of platforms. Today, that is spectacularly the case. Who knows, pretty soon we may be reading or listening to the paper via wristwatches, Google glasses or subcutaneous chips in the future.

Gene: No, no, NO! Don’t take the chip. No one is to take the chip. Bad idea. Very bad idea.

Susan: It took me ages to drop my paper newspapers in favor of a digital edition, but I’m happy to be saving trees.

Gene: But being an archivist, I am very much in need of those newspaper articles for the HAPPY Foundation files.

Susan: Yes, exactly! And therein lies the rub when it comes to independent, individually generated news. While independent sources allow for maximum diversity, it’s very difficult to assemble as complete a journalistic record of the overall community, or state, or nation, if there are no mega-sources that compile that information, the way, say the Express-News does in San Antonio.  I was interested to see Time Warner start up a 24-hour San Antonio news channel, for instance, after years of hearing that TV news was doomed. And SA LOCAL is primarily a print-based paper that has different content in its six different monthly editions, tailored to individual neighborhoods, but all the issues are also available free online. Everyone is trying to figure out the New Big Medium in which to deliver their message.

Gene: The Chartreuse Couch is the New Big medium to deliver our message.

Susan: … and, of course, their advertising. Gosh, Gene, that’s an awfully academic-sounding answer.

Gene: That is what we expect from smart women. Well, back to books. I just finished reading No Place To Hide by Glenn Greenwald about Edward Snowden, and let me just quote something. “The Obama administration, which has brought more prosecutions against leakers than all prior presidencies combined, has sought to create a climate of fear that would stifle any attempts at whistle-blowing. But Snowden has destroyed that template. He has managed to remain free, outside the grasp of the United States; what’s more, he has refused to remain hiding but proudly came forward and identified himself.”  Glenn is not happy with President Obama and his persecution of Snowden. Now there is a big question for you: What do you think of The Guardian and the state of journalism?

Susan:I think The Guardian is a great newspaper in the  proudest tradition of investigative journalism. And I also think it’s interesting that Glenn Greenwald chose to continue his career with The Intercept, which is focused almost entirely on investigations into the kind of powerful institutions that are difficult to investigate because of their reach and power. The Watergate investigation was the classic example. The Pentagon Papers, and so on. There has always been an interesting balancing act between politics and journalism, and I do think the internet has made it more difficult for the powerful to put a lid on a story like the WikiLeaks revelations. For an incredibly thoughtful treatment of this issue I would highly recommend a lecture that Alastair Campbell gave at Cambridge University on the state of modern journalism. It’s available on The Guardian’s website, at http://www.theguardian.com/media/media-blog/2013/nov/14/alastair-campbell-journalism-lecture. It’s pretty good food for thought in this regard.

Gene: OK, then. “We are all San Antonio.” How about some local color? City Council. The mayor’s race. Downtown politics. What do you think is interesting there?

Susan: Short answer: A lot!

Gene: And the long answer would be?

Susan:  To start: The mayor’s race is just fascinating to me. We have this interesting situation where a State Rep. and a State Senator, both strong Democrats,  have voluntarily left their elected offices to run for mayor of San Antonio–that’s a first, and gives you some idea of the kind of “catbird seat” a San Antonio mayor sits in–and one that’s only nominally paid, at that! Of course, the way things turned out, with the GOP so thoroughly dominating the legislature at this point, there’s some reason to it … but still, it’s a fascinating phenomenon. And then we have Tommy Adkisson. So it’s going to be very interesting.

Gene: Yes! Very interesting!

Susan: … Then there’s the City Charter review. It will be interesting to see what comes up this time around. I think that the Council is looking at lengthening the terms of office, since right now they’re basically campaigning for the next election the minute they win one. And  there has been such an incredible revolving door on the Council in the past year alone! I remember back when most folks actually had time to figure out who their Councilperson was and something about them.

Gene: Yes, that is a problem. It keeps everyone uninformed.

Susan: There will probably also be a move to change the way we select interim mayors, from Council selection, which was sticky this last time, although it worked out, to a public vote. And I know the Council has talked about amending the Charter to offer somewhat better pay for Council members–perhaps along the lines of the County Commissioners–so they will actually get a living wage. That might open future Councils up to a wider range of potential participants. In my opinion, the most important issue right now is making sure that the tax dollars designated to protect the aquifer in past bond elections be retained at their current or higher levels, and thankfully, I believe there is support for that. And then there’s all the development on Broadway, and the Museum Reach. The City has given some pretty hefty incentives to build those long blocks of high-rise apartments that have sprung up like mountain cedar trees … I just hope they don’t suck us as dry as cedars do the Hill Country! Seriously, it’s great to create urban neighborhoods, and the Pearl has been an amazing example, but the fact that almost every bit of the current building is high-rent concerns me. You want a good, diverse mix of people, so I think an affordable-housing component needs to be included. We’ve talked a bit about Alamo Plaza, and I think HemisFair Park is going to be interesting, too. I worry that there is just not the parking downtown to make it a real park for the people, which I think was the original idea. But with all the new housing in that area, if it’s modeled after the kind of city squares around New York, it may turn out to be workable and good.

Gene: Oh, let’s just face the facts. There are too many people on this planet. And we can’t take care of them all. And they won’t provide art in the schools …

Susan: … And it’s all about money, money, money! Speaking of which, we have the ongoing police and fire union issues, which will probably go to mediation–if the unions will go. I love having great police and fire departments, and I think San Antonio’s are the best, but I think the benefits are just out of hand, and as more people age into the benefits, which continue after retirement, there has to be a stopping point.

I have to say I do love the new Tobin Center, and the Briscoe Museum is another great addition to downtown. Up the road on Broadway, Marise McDermott’s leadership is doing great things for the Witte, and the new Children’s Museum is absolutely STUNNING! I drive down Broadway just to see it all lit up at night. It looks like a UFO.

That was the long answer, Gene…

Gene: Well, that was exciting, too. And have you ever seen a UFO?

Susan: No, dagnab it! I have looked and looked, and even stood for hours at night in the deserts of South Texas, just hoping to see a UFO. (Or a USO, as my friend Billy Mayo calls them when he’s in Tuna Texas mode). But they don’t seem to be interested in making contact with me. So if  any aliens are reading this (and if they read anything, I am pretty sure the Chartreuse Couch would be high on the list): Hey, there, space, um, friends! I wish you’d show yourself. I’m a GOOD Earthling, by the way, please don’t incinerate me.

Gene: And now you get to ask me the last question. So I can have the last word.

Susan: What’s the most AMAZING thing that has ever happened to you? Be honest, now.

Gene: Oh, I don’t know what would be amazing at this point. I am such a boring person, really. But I do know that having had the opportunity to serve in the gay civil-rights movement has been the most eye-opening and educational aspect of my life. I would not trade this time in San Antonio for anything. I love gay humor and living during this time of equal-rights struggle. And even though San Antonio has been slow to change, it hasn’t been an ugly city about the gay issue, for the most part. Injustices have happened, but look at the world!

I am amazed at how lazy people are when it comes to entertaining a new idea. I recently sent out a very innocent message about chemtrails on Nextdoor, a neighborhood website, to several neighborhoods and it was really shocking how I was attacked as a conspiracy kook. I would respond with various proofs from the internet and they would not even look at the evidence, BUT would still hold to their opinion that had no proof. And the very next day the sky was filled with these white smoky trails until a beautiful blue sky turned into smog. And I am sure no one looked up and questioned this.

The other aspect of my life that I am grateful for is having learned how to be a creative spirit. This started at Trinity University and then over the years continued as I socialized with artists. It is absolutely imperative that there be non-stop creative-thinking classes going on at all times so we can direct all those destructive energies that go into gangs and graffiti into constructive behavior. And, you know, Cornyation is a perfect example of this. What a terrific activity that is for San Antonio to have. It is always an impressive showing of how much fun adults have letting their child show through, and it is a fundraiser with political commentary. It is just a wonderful event.

The truly amazing things that happen in my life cannot be put in words and I don’t think I want to share them, anyway.

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us here today on the New Big Medium.

Gene Elder is the Archives Director for the HAPPY Foundation. [email protected]

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