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Daniel Rubin: Free spirit spins yarns in Camden

Not everybody knows what to make of the monkey. Guy in a suit walks down Penn Street in Camden when Rocky Wilson approaches - all tie-dye and twinkle - a monkey puppet named Bongo perched on his shoulder.

Rocky Wilson, poet, performer, and substitute teacher, with some of the many monkey puppets he has collected over his years of entertaining. (Juliette Lynch / Staff Photographer)
Rocky Wilson, poet, performer, and substitute teacher, with some of the many monkey puppets he has collected over his years of entertaining. (Juliette Lynch / Staff Photographer)Read more

Not everybody knows what to make of the monkey.

Guy in a suit walks down Penn Street in Camden when Rocky Wilson approaches - all tie-dye and twinkle - a monkey puppet named Bongo perched on his shoulder.

"Hey, how's it going?"

It's the monkey talking, its voice bright and childish.

The man in the suit smiles quickly, then picks up his step.

But not a minute later, a woman leans from her car window and hollers across the street, "Hey, Rocky! What's going on?"

"Nothing much," the monkey replies for its handler. "How are you?"

Spend enough time in South Jersey - at music festivals or poetry readings or in the hallways of Camden schools - and you're bound to run into the sweet-spirited adult of the '60s who relies on a plush monkey to break the ice with strangers.

If only Bongo could help Rocky Wilson on Saturday.

This weekend Wilson stars in a one-man show at the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe. He's performing a 90-minute pastiche of poetry, song, dance, and PowerPoint. Titled Seal Moon, the piece digs into the memory of a brother Wilson never met.

Wilson is jazzed about the gig, but not the room. He'd rented a 100-seat hall at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia for his performance. Then the Y discovered it had a conflict, so it bumped him up to the larger theater.

Now he has 900 seats to fill.

"Bring your friends, acquaintances, and people off the street," he says and laughs nervously.

Bongo's not on the bill Saturday. Instead, Wilson will weave pieces from his own experiences, which are varied, to say the least.

He's been a journalist, Teamster, teacher, lifeguard, apple picker, and maple-sugar tapper. He's a published poet and a Walt Whitman impersonator. He's lived in a tree house in California, on a commune in Vermont, and for the last three decades in a ramshackle rowhouse on one of Camden's premier blocks.

His stories are a trip. As we sit under a Peter Pan statue by the Walt Whitman Arts Center, I ask how he found the house on Penn Street. He tells a tale of cars and karma, how he gave away his MGB convertible when he left California, only to be given a house for $1 when he returned to New Jersey.

One morning he was heading to his substitute-teaching job in Camden. A friend stopped him and announced he was moving to Italy. The house was Wilson's for $1. But Wilson didn't have $1 on him, so he had to borrow the money from the friend.

Wilson's parents owned a gift shop in Haddonfield, where he graduated from high school in 1961. He studied journalism at Pennsylvania State University and nearly completed a graduate degree. The problem was that instead of a thesis on air pollution, as expected, he wrote an "anti-thesis." The subject, word pollution, didn't move his masters.

He covered several South Jersey communities for the Courier-Post, then left the paper dramatically. My former colleague Beth Gillin once told me how she had quit the Camden paper in solidarity with a coworker who'd been fired over the length of his hair. Turns out that was Wilson.

As Wilson explains it, he'd been warring with the publisher. On his way to work one day, he decided to have a barber buzz his head. He collected the clippings in an envelope that he left with the publisher's secretary. Wilson's newspaper days ended within minutes.

He took a variety of jobs after that, the only constant being substitute teaching. The puppetry helped.

A boy he'd met while picking apples in Upstate New York made him a lamb puppet. So on his teaching assignments, needing to draw his kids' attention, he'd pull out the puppet. "That," he says, "bought me about 10 minutes of peace."

He started walking home with the lamb, making conversation with people as he went. "I'd take it with me when I was paying bills. Sometimes I'd see a kid crying and I'd say hello and they'd stop crying.

Then people started sending him more puppets. He must have 100 of them in the apartment he shares with a gray cat, Gretta.

"A guy called me a freak, but for every one of those, there are another hundred who ask, 'Where's the monkey?' "

The next voice I hear is Bongo's.

"We've used up a lot of your notepad. You talk too much, Mr. Rocky."

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