The Long Way Home
5 Jan – New Journal:
¿Cocobrain? Name is still an alias. I have a storage unit with some possessions. I am Homeless since 30 Sep ‘011 Today started snowing at 7am—will snow all day.
He taught me to play the oldest board game in the world.
What started as vague curiosity about the game (I’d come across a flyer in a corner of the Wooglin’s bulletin that read, “Play Go Here! The oldest Chinese board game……. All welcome! Fridays 5-9 p.m.”) turned to intrigue when I’d shown up alone to find an eclectic group of men hunched over boards, 18-to-60-year-old versions of high school chess fanatics. Among them were some Colorado Springs residents, one player who’d come down from some lone cabin in the mountains, and three or four of the kind of CC kids that find the long, meditative spaces between Go turns far more captivating than going out to some party on a weekend night. They stared at their boards with quiet, intense focus and filled them with strategic designs of black and white stones.
In the middle of them all was a lumbering man, hard to miss and hard not to find immediately captivating. He wore a long, purple cape-like vest. Question marks and tri-colored blotches of paint swam across his shirt and pants. Fitted on his head was a large, velvet top hat with a green dragon glued to the brim. Long, matted grey hair reached curiously out from under it at odd angles.
“I have no idea how to play, would you teach me?” I asked him, as he was the only one waiting for a second player. His fingertips, singed dusty black, arranged the starting position with particular grace.
That first time we met, the thing that struck me most was the immediacy of his generosity. As we moved black and white clacking stones across a wooden board, he patiently dealt with my beginner’s incompetence. Whenever I encountered a strategic conundrum, he’d show me some trick to get around it. The basics: how to capture territory and play defensively, and even some of the trickier stuff that went a little over my head (a move called the monkey jump, for example). He taught me how to strike stones down with particular stylistic gusto. We accepted the thoughtful spaces between moves. I was curious about the game, curious about where he came from and who he was.
“I don’t like my last name, I don’t like my first name, I don’t like my middle name, so I invented a new name for myself in 2008,” he told me, wavering in tone. He said he went by this alias because it’s both grandiose (how many Cocobrains do you know?) and humble, acknowledging his mind’s uneven eccentricity. He can pick where he falls on that spectrum depending on the day, he said. He told me he once studied philosophy and that he knew at least some of 27 languages. His focus was measured, and he stared at the board with contemplative vision the whole time.
It’s become clear to me, in the months since that game, that Go is particularly suited to Cocobrain’s person. It is a game that rewards patience and balance over aggression and greed. It’s a game that begins with an empty board and soon fills with unexpected and striking patterns.
* * *
Gave away a wool trench coat that was too tight for me.
Will give away rubberized blanket that is too narrow and too short.
Spray painted the two deer + the crying angel. They look great.
Spray painted the boots, too. They also look great.
I came upon the sculpture by accident. Walking by the back door of Wooglins, my periphery caught what was definitely more than a pile of trash by the chain-link fence. As I approached the amalgam, I realized it was a deliberately crafted piece of art—a conglomeration of spray-painted objects, plastic flowers, metal trinkets and other small adornments woven in and out of the fence. As I examined it more closely, it appeared to be a shrine to creativity, an expression of hope and fear. Bold declarative sentences and soft pleas in black sharpie adorned the fence along with the found objects. Most touching and melancholy, almost more so than the arrangement of odd ornaments, were little notes that replaced the objects that had been stolen or vandalized: notes detailing a stolen teddy bear, a gold coin that had disappeared. Signed at the bottom was his name. My eyes traced the tangle of words to where “CC Made Me Homeless 2011” was planted in large sharpied letters.
* * *
I Spent Tue/Wed Night At an Old Spot at AFA 1984 33 Years ago. Lucky to not have stayed another night. With these snows I could have frozen to death.
Almost exactly a year later, I push a stubborn door open and start to head to my dorm when I see a lumbering apparition, a pink wig in the snow. “I have a book for you,” he says as I approach him outside. Though I’d spoken to him a couple times since that first Go game, I hadn’t remembered the severity of his limp, or how much he stood out, against the colorless freeze.
“Are you heading to Wooglins?”
“I’ll join you.”
“I’m always thinking of a story I can tell Katie,” he says as we sit down, and he first slumps his weighty backpack, then his own build onto the booth seat. Whirs of the espresso machine, dishwasher, and blaring pop music all but completely drown his words. Pulling out book after book, laying them on the table (four about China, one about dogs, one of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry collections and some reference book) he says, “I thought ‘When I come here, I’m gonna stack ‘em up on the table so it looks like I’m very academic.” He also pulls out four wigs—one white, one pink, one blue, and one multicolored clown wig. “It’s in support of the LGBT community,” he says, nodding to the last one. “I don’t know if people see it as a clown wig or if they see it as a rainbow flag.”
I consider Cocobrain and then I consider his sculpture. What they have in common is that they’re each colorful miscellanies of symbol. While Cocobrain is the display in motion—his clothing, his phoenix-and-dragon-covered medallions, decorations creating an intentional walking exclamation of value—his sculpture is a static, more private, more anonymous expression of his essence.
“It started off as something, and then it got to where it was going to be really cool,” he says. “There was an elm tree behind the fence, and I was doing like a synthesis between the natural and the man-made, synthetic. But then they decided to paint the fence and use it as a pretext to go in there and take everything out of the art exhibit. And then to compound the matter, every time I try to put something really good, or made out of metal, or beautiful, it disappears. Someone goes in and vandalizes it… Oh well. I call it, “Art Destroyed.” And maybe like the phoenix it will rise out of the ashes.”
* * *
I will be 60 yrs old 18 Mrch 17 just over 2 months from today!
60 years old. I spent over 9 years being homeless altogether.
In 1977, Cocobrain liked being a dish washer. Even when the restaurant tried to bump him up to chef, he was really comfortable just where he was, because he could just do his job, come home and take a load off. The methodical warmth of the dishwater was repetitive, and good enough; he could be unobtrusive. Eventually, though, it began to wear on him. After a while of working at the restaurant, he quit, because he felt kind of like a slave. “But then I realized I’m not a slave,” he said, “I could just walk out. So I walked out. But I realized after about three weeks, that I really kinda needed work…. and I realized I could eat a meal there. And it was such a good meal I didn’t have to buy groceries. I didn’t realize that until after I stopped working.”
A while after he quit, he was watching a show on PBS that captivated and inspired him. It pushed his mind into an area of thought that seemed, at the time, almost like a vision. He realized with abrupt clarity what he could go do with his life. With a burst of energy the next morning, he walked his 20-year-old legs down to the unemployment office at seven o’clock, as soon as they opened, thinking he’d be one of the first people there. Seeing nearly two hundred folks in line, anxiety started to build in his stomach. He thought they probably all had the same idea as he did, and they’re all going to say the same thing and by the time he would get to see someone, well, it would be too late.
So he walked in and the unemployment guy said,
“Okay, what can I do for you today?”
“I want to work on the moon.” Cocobrain said confidently. The unemployment guy started to laugh.
“Did Frank put you up to this?” he said, and Cocobrain didn’t know what to say, he just kind of stared down at the ground. And the guy realized that Frank hadn’t put him up to this, that he was actually kind of serious about working on the moon. So the unemployment guy quieted and said,
“Well, the thing is we don’t have any openings on the moon at this time. Would you like to work somewhere in Colorado Springs?” Cocobrain hesitated.
“See, I saw this movie, this program on channel eight about a new invention by MIT,” he said, and the unemployment guy shuffled some papers.
“Well, I didn’t see the movie on channel eight” he said, and Cocobrain looked at him like he was a complete moron, intimating, “what do you mean you didn’t see it?”
“You didn’t see the movie on channel eight?”
“No, I was watching the Broncos.”
“Well, what was the movie about?”
“It was about this brand new invention called the Mass Driver, and it works with electromagnetism. And because of it there’s going to be a city on the moon.” The unemployment guy, shuffling awkwardly again, didn’t know what to think. He paused, shifting his expression, and to Cocobrain’s surprise, got serious:
“Do you have a degree in electromagnetism?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Um...Do you have a degree at MIT?”
Searching for something to say, the guy offered: “….Well, you could work in Cape Canaveral, so that way when a spot opens up on the moon, you can be right there to take it.”
“I don’t want to work in Florida, it’s too far away. I just want to work in Colorado Springs or on the moon.”
“Well, what is it you want to do on the moon anyway?”
“I want to wash dishes.”
“Well, if they use a mass driver to mine minerals out of the moon, there ought to be a city there too. And if there’s a city, they are going to have some restaurants, and then at the restaurants they’ll need a dish washer. If I could only get a dishwashing position on the moon and work there for one year, the entire world of dishwashing would open up to me.”
“You know what? We don’t have any openings now.” And Cocobrain said he knew. He knew that.
“But when you do get a list,” he said, “put my name at the top.”
* * *
New joke: If someone loses credibility are they then instead of being credible, incredible? Not (not credible)
He tells me about getting a job at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. He tells me about a guy he stood up for who then became a mentor. He tells me about Rudyard Kipling and his favorite poem, “If.” The music’s so loud—or maybe it’s that his voice is so soft and raspy—that I have to lean in to really hear what he’s saying.
“I could tell you about my spiritual mother and father,” he says, “But first let me get a cup of coffee.”
They had a son his age, so that’s how he’d met these people. It was three in the morning, and he’d come back with their son once in pitch-black air, the mother standing outside of the house. She’d yelled at them both, telling Cocobrain he had to convert to Christianity or else he was gonna go to hell.
Well, a few months had passed and then later on he did convert to Christianity, so he’d written a letter to the mother, whose son was then in basic training for the marines.
At the time, Cocobrain had been living in an apartment on Weber St., across the street from the liquor store. It was a nice room. He had a hot plate, and it was just $50 a month. But when his friend’s mother had gotten the letter, she’d been so happy that he’d become a Christian that they had to bring him into the family, saying, “We just converted our garage into an apartment. It’s one room, but it has a kitchen and a living room and a bathroom attached.”
“Well, it sounds nice but I only pay $50 a month right now, and that’s really good.”
“We’ll give it to you for $50 a month.” So he said okay. But as soon as he’d moved up there, they told him they’d have to charge him twice as much in exchange for becoming his spiritual parents. And he thought well, okay.
Cocobrain had no clue what it meant to be a spiritual mother and father. But as soon as he moved in, the mother asked,
“Are you a compliant child or are you a rebellious child?” And he thought, well, how the hell was he supposed to answer that? No one had ever asked him that. He did have a friend who was rebellious, one who rollerbladed and played the devil’s music, rock and roll. And his parents were really strict. So there was only really one answer.
So he said he was a compliant child; he didn’t want them on his back. But in doing so he had set the task for himself of constantly making them remember that he was a compliant child. When they would tell him that this apartment was a mess and that he had to wash the dishes, he would walk into their half of the house and do the dishes. Even though he was very much an adult and paying his own rent, they seemed to harbor a strange need to hold him to arbitrary responsibilities. On top of everything, when his friend came back from the military, the couple told him they could no longer be his spiritual mother and father, and kicked him out of the garage.
Most places I scavenge for food are already searched through by others. I find very little now + frequently hungry.
Cocobrain lived in his car throughout October, November and December of that year, 1978. His father sent him a check for $200 for Christmas. He’d pooled all of that money into an apartment on North Weber, third floor. “It seemed so big to me at the time… and I was envisioning having six people living in this apartment, I started thinking well, $200 a month divided by six has got to get close to $50 a month, what it was before.”
It worked out that he was able to find five other guys around his age who would live with him, and all six of them ended up going to the same church.
It was a Charismatic church, a brand of Christianity that emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts and modern-day miracles. It was new at the time and not very many people knew too much about it. The six of them stayed with the church for a while, but the strange misogyny of the preacher, among other things, started to wear on them. He remembers this other guy from the church, too, who everyone else seemed to like a lot. He seemed like more of a salesman than a holy man to Cocobrain, and it was probably for that very reason that everybody liked him. The man had told him, “Stay away from Poor Richard’s,” referring to the bookstore and coffee shop that he’d most frequented at the time. “They got lesbians there.”
Everyone knew, at the time, that people who hung out at Poor Richard’s were (purportedly) either gay or lesbian. Or bisexual. Or something. “But it wasn’t really a big deal,” he says. He just went there because it was a place to hang out, and it had pretty cheap coffee, all you could drink. He was always recommending it to people he was taking classes with at UCCS, telling them how cool it was. He’d go there all the time, playing spades or hearts or chess or whatever other game with the other patrons who all knew him by name. They’d play for hours at a time, laughing and holding meaningful conversation.
* * *
4 CC students came into Wooglins and ordered food to go—3:30 pm. They glanced over at my tiger. Then they left.
Reading books at Poor Richard’s and studying philosophy at UCCS, Cocobrain fell in love with Nietzsche. “And if you fall in love with a dead white German philosopher of the 19th century, you can pretty much kiss your social life goodbye,” he told me.
He read every single one of the his books as a way of trying to figure out how to live his own life. He was looking for personal guidance. What he found instead was that Nietzche wrote that “we should basically take Christians and put ‘em all in the nut house because they walk around claiming they know the truth, which is absurd.” He wrote that God is dead. God does not exist; he never did exist. He wrote about the strong and the weak, and that the more powerful you are, the better your world is. The more Cocobrain searched for some prescriptive advice, the more he found at the bottom of it all was the importance of rejecting anything you read, to come to your own solution and not adopt other people’s ideas at all. So he took all of his books written by Nietzche (who he calls “Nit-wit”) and sold them. That’s what he did.
* * *
Fay said “Maybe you are putting more into the universe than everyone else” (about my excessive tips)
Yet the bible says Give + it shall be given unto you!
You can’t give too much.
It’s often without reciprocation that Cocobrain invests a lot of faith in people, ideas, and religion: faith in his spiritual parents who kicked him out once their biological son came home; faith in a church that left him more confused and disillusioned than spiritually whole; faith in a German philosopher who told him faith was stupid in the first place.
“Did you say you were in the military?” I ask him.
“Yeah that didn’t turn out too well, I wasn’t there very long. I remember I had this interview, and this guy’s like a major general and he says after the interview, he says very formally, ‘Don’t be sarcastic.’ And I really wanted to say, ‘Oh, well who died and made you the major general anyway?’ or ‘Who do you think you are, major general or something?’ But I didn’t say that. And there were times all through basic training where I could have been sarcastic, but I took what he said very seriously because I was like, private, and he was like major general? So when he said ‘Don’t be sarcastic’ I took it as an order. I realized that sarcasm is a way to deal indirectly with some type of a problem, and that instead of dealing indirectly with it, that I could actually deal directly with it. It just isn’t as funny. Sometimes, it’s just more funny to be sarcastic.”
“Yeah, sometimes I like being sarcastic,” I say. “Especially when you know that being direct is still not going to change a certain person’s mind, you might as well.”
“Or you know what else can happen? You can be direct and change your own mind.”
* * *
I am lonely.
I’m so proud and happy with myself, today is the 7th day I did not use the bus. I ate 3 slices red velvet cake, 3 ½ stalks celery 1 ½ garlic bread, 3 cups coffee. I find food in dumpsters
Accidentally left ½ can beans and ham in their pack at storage.
His body begins to stretch and he looks to the arriving old men in sweater vests, the young, mostly exchange students sitting down to boards. It was Friday, Go Club day, I almost forgot.
“So anyway, I was thinking about saying ‘How about we do this maybe again, next Friday at like three o’clock?’ I was really looking forward to meeting you, but it’s looking like it’s time for me to play.”
“Can I just ask for one more story?” I say, thinking suddenly of the sculpture.
“I um… I’ve been looking at your artwork. And I noticed that recently you wrote that CC made you homeless? Well, I guess I was wondering about that story.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s like a soap box, I shouldn’t be using art as a soap box. It’s kind of a long one…” And he settled back into the booth.
* * *
CC stole my home at 116 East dale street #2 in the rear with everything in it so they could rent it to somebody else. I lived there + paid rent every month from July ‘92 – Sep ’11. 19 years
He’d moved into the building on East Dale in 1992 when Mr. Whitney of Whitney Electric owned the building. Once there had been a problem with the kitchen light, so Mr. Whitney sent an electrician who said it was the most complicated tangle of wires he’d ever seen. The apartment was quite backwards: The front door to Cocobrain’s living space was the back door of the house. His front windows looked into the backyard. It was an apartment in reverse. He was one of the only two renters in the building, and his rent was so low that he was able to pay every month on time for nearly two decades.
A cartoon television program in which renters were terrorized into fleeing so that the owners could build up higher equity suddenly caught Cocobrain’s attention. His suspicions began to grow that perhaps his next door neighbor was a provocateur, from CC most likely, trying to frighten him out of his home. He had a good hunch that this neighbor was into voodoo, and had built a six-foot voodoo pulpit which stood for 55 days in front of his house as an attempt to work some black magic against Cocobrain. Also, there was this weird thing that happened July 14 of 2010.
He was in his garden. His neighbor was whistling this song, that same song again and again, what was it? He was always trying to provoke him. Every time he saw Cocobrain he would whistle that song, the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme song. This particular time, it was 3:00 p.m. and Cocobrain had been drinking lots of high-percentage alcohol (this was before he realized he had to be careful drinking) and his neighbor was outside with a hose. His neighbor said, all of a sudden, “Oh, I remember now.” And then his hose twisted, snakelike in his hands, writhing and slithering like death itself toward Cocobrain.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Cocobrain blacked out for hours. At three o’clock in the morning, he woke up in his bedroom in a cold sweat. He didn’t know who he was, didn’t know where he was, and was calling in desperation, “Mommy! Help me!” because, he said, he’d regressed. He heard himself saying, “Thank you, Xochipilli for helping me through this ordeal. Without your help I would have died.” He had no idea who or what Xochipilli was, and no memory of what had just happened.
He went to the bathroom and looked deep into the mirror. As he stared at his face he saw that one of his teeth was missing, replaced by a thin red line of blood. He thought to himself, “I don’t know what happened but somebody stole a tooth out of my mouth. Out of my screaming face.” Deciding he had to get this on record somehow, he called the cops, telling them, “I blacked out, and somebody stole my tooth.” They’d replied, pithily, “Well, take an Asprin.” Click.
In that moment, Cocobrain suddenly remembered something he’d seen on TV. It was an image of a woman calling 911 and she’d been distraught, screaming and crying. So, thinking that might get the cops’ attention, he’d called back, this time yelling, “Help me! Help me! You have to help me! Someone stole my tooth!” in a kind of hysteria; so much hysteria that the cops came within minutes.
They took him to Penrose hospital and put him in a room under constant surveillance, though at the time he didn’t know. All he saw was a mirror, so he had a long conversation with himself.
A few days after the incident, he saw his neighbor watering his garden again. His neighbor said suspiciously, “What are you looking at?” In response he just turned away, cowering in fear.
In 2011 Sunshine Real Estate bought the property from Mr. Whitney, knowing that due to the building’s proximity to Colorado College, they could hike up the price of rent, appealing to college kids who wanted to live close to school. Cocobrain’s fixed disability income being equal to the new cost, he was left to the elements.
* * *
As a protest I am homeless. I don’t go to soup kitchen. I don’t go to missions. I don’t get food stamps.
10 Feb: Go to Wooglins. Talk with Katie 3:30-4:30.
She tentatively gives me the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance. Her 2nd Aunt is Editor of the O’Henry Award Short story collection #1- 1915
Are we lying to each other.
Walking downtown after talking with him that afternoon, I started to doubt my intentions in writing this piece. I remembered that last thing he’d said on my way out, “Maybe next time, you can tell me some of your stories.”
While he’d graciously offered up his personal history, I’d failed to offer up any of my own. I wondered if I was any different from the so many others whom he’d entrusted with his absolute vulnerability, as though I was somehow taking advantage of his willingness to share it. What made me think it was entirely okay to believe I could enter the impenetrable realm of someone else’s thoughts without offering some of my own? Why was I really writing this piece? Was it really to listen, to portray him as a three-dimensional artist and poet? Or had I been looking for a spectacle?
Perhaps, deep down, I’d been looking for a tight narrative, an answer of sorts. I’d been looking to understand, to get to the bottom of something—homelessness, maybe, or at least the bottom of his personality. What I’d come to instead was a story that had no bottom, something complex and permutable that I could never be understood in its entirety. I had to allow him that.
* * *
The next time I see Cocobrain, it’s seven in the morning before class, and he’s sitting in a booth table, hunched over a pink composition notebook. His closed mouth is moving ever so lightly as he formulates the words in his mind, translating them onto the page. He looks up for a moment and the clarity and vulnerability of his dark eyes cuts through his decorative outfit and roughened features. They’re the eyes of a young boy.
“Mind if I sit here?” I say, sliding into the booth across from him.
“Not at all.”
He tells me about the green trees of his childhood, his free-spirited mother named Gypsy who died of cervical cancer, and other acutely personal stories. I tell him some of my own personal anecdotes and soon we’re exchanging thoughts, laughing, him looking into the right corner of Wooglin’s as though that would bring back some fond memory with more clarity.
“You don’t have your recorder,” he says after a while.
“I thought this time, we could just talk.”
We talk about our journals, agreeing that even though we’d never share them with the people closest to us, that it would be nice to have a stranger bear witness to our humanity, or something.
“How about we trade?” he asks. And I think, with sudden nervousness, about the intensity of the thoughts scrawled there, the documentations of precious moments and realizations, of my relationship, of times I’ve felt genuinely insane.
“Okay.” I say, and with trepidation I slide a piece of my life across the table as he does the same.
Part of the Ritual Issue