Welcome to the Third World

Bob Harper created a universe from trash, using only his hands, his heart, and a load of imagination

The fallen machine crushed Willie Jr. into the ground. His last words were, "Get this thing off me."

When Bob remembers his oldest brother, he echoes Quincy's line that "he liked to work," but he does so without any particular emphasis. Out of the rich world that Bob Harper carries inside himself, few words emerge.

When Bob remembers the dead in his life, his voice is flat, unemotive. But Quincy brings them back to life. With his breakfast plate now pushed away, Quincy leans toward me. "You got me stirred up," he says, caught in the grip of memory.

Quincy's wife of many years died of bone cancer only this February, and after announcing that he'll marry again soon -- "man is not meant to be alone" -- he remembers her passing. "One night she told me, 'Quincy, this is the last night. We have to talk now or we won't talk at all.' I didn't want to hear that, but she told me, 'Where I'm going the streets are paved with gold. I don't need to take no gold with me. Take the gold off my teeth.' "

Quincy leans forward even closer; he is almost out of his chair. He opens his mouth and points to the golden caps, engraved with stars and other designs, across his teeth. "This is her gold," he says, then slumps back into his chair.

Quincy Harper follows me out the door as I stumble toward my car, feeling lightheaded in the face of his extravaganza of talk. When he grins, I see the gold on his teeth, and then I turn toward the house of his oh-so-quiet brother. Modest towers poke up above the back wall of Bob's house, and jazz issues softly from the radio he keeps playing at all times in front of his house, and I wish that for 30 minutes Bob could talk like Quincy, and tell me everything.

That never happened, but Bob became almost talkative on his front porch one morning when he remembered running off to join the "circus."

Bob was 17 when the Bob Hammond Show, a traveling carnival (which Bob habitually refers to as a "circus"), hired him to "help them tear down" when they were getting ready to leave Houston. Impressed by Bob's work, the carnival's managers asked him to stay on, and they took off "traveling all around the country. We stayed out all year." Bob helped assemble and tear down the rides, and he operated some as well. The bumper cars were his favorite, and he would like to install such an attraction, or a ferris wheel, in Third World.

When Bob would return for the winter, he worked construction, though he never took to building "what other people wanted me to build. I wanted to build the way I wanted to."

He combined the carnival and construction for almost 15 years, then became the Hot Tamale Man. A friend of his was making and selling tamales, and "he tried to hide the recipe from me. But I'd go through the garbage and find what seasonings he used." From such research he constructed his own recipe; now he figures that he sold "three or four hundred dozen hot tamales" out of his car on a good weekend. In the mid-'80s, however, city health officials shut his tamale operation down.

Bob went to work for a small grocery, supporting himself and his mother (with his brothers' help). But the best part of his imagination went into developing Third World, which he had begun around 1980.

He had been thinking about building something ever since his days with the carnival, and after moving into the house on Sampson and carrying out a massive cleanup of the yard, he began.

First he built inside the house itself. He put panes of glass together, with posts in between, and stuck pictures of various leaders, religious and political, on the glass. He set up two such walls of glass that ran into the house from the door, making a grand entrance. He then began covering the walls with every imaginable artifact, mostly items he saw on the side of the street while driving around in his old pickup. After the house had been almost uncomfortably filled, he began building in the yard, setting up his towers and little rooms, with carefully designed walkways connecting the various corners of Third World. He covered the original rickety fence with various signs and, above all, with electric fan blades. Because of the fans, he became widely known as the Fan Man.

At first, neighbors weren't sure what to make of the Fan Man. He had some trouble with break-ins, and there was some talk that he was up to no good. When his house burned and his mother died, one rumor had it that Harper had planned the fire. This bit of gossip is now scornfully dismissed by Bob's neighbors, most of whom say they have never gotten to know him very closely, but that they appreciate his creation. "At least he's building something up," says a young man who lives across the street. "We got too many houses that are coming down."

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