Vincent Johnson was one of my best friends. He passed away in 2009. Half black, half white, raised in Watts in the 60s. All the black guys hated him because he was white. All the white guys hated him because he was black. So he came to Berkeley to be a hippie (Berkeley used to get all the ones who didn’t fit in anywhere else. That’s how I ended up there.)
For years Vincent lived in his ’57 Chevy — this bomb of a car painted in psychedelic colors with the Grateful Dead skull, the “Steal Your Face” logo, painted on the front hood. For about 5 years Vince lived with me as my roomie. Every night we had a ritual where we’d watch “Perry Mason” re-runs before we went to bed. I just happened to stumble on this old photo of Vincent today, doing gardening at Peoples Park in 1982. Which reminded me how much I miss him. Miss ya, bro. If anyone is in heaven its Vince. He was one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met.
One of the most amazing things about Vince: he was one of the most purely idealistic people I’ve ever met. He never once wavered in his idealism. Never got cynical or bitter. Never stopped trying to make this world a better place. Even as he had a realism to him. He was never surprised — or even very disappointed — when everything went wrong. He accepted that that was basically how life worked on planet earth. Yet he never stopped aspiring toward the heavens. A rare guy.
Its weird that we even became friends in the first place. Because he was 10 years older than me, and we were complete opposites in every way. Vince was even-tempered and laconic. I was frantic and mercurial. Vince was peaceful. I was combative. Vince never had a bad word to say about anyone. And, well, nobody ever said that about me. Ha ha.
In the late-80s Vince bought 40 acres of dirt-cheap land in Modoc County. Way out in the boondocks of northern California in this little town of about 300 people. It was a cow pasture, basically. It was so far out there in the middle of nowhere, you couldn’t see another house, or even a road, from his property. Vince bought a big, old school bus and had it towed up to his land, put in a little wood-burning pot-belly stove for heat and cooking. And spent years trying to start a hippie commune on his land, which he dubbed Rainbow Junction.
One of the problems was, he’d get about 3 feet of snow in the winter. One winter Vince was up there all alone in his school bus and he had an epileptic seizure. He laid there unconscious, in a coma, for god knows how long, in sub-freezing weather. When he finally managed to get himself to medical attention, his health was never the same. Shortly after he was diagnosed with lung cancer (go figure, Vince who never smoked in his life and me smoking a pack a day). They had to remove a lung and he almost died. I visited him in the hospital, shortly after the surgery. Gave him a framed picture of the Star Trek cast to cheer him up. Vince was a total Star Trek fan, found nothing corny or hokey about it, reveled in its heroic and idealistic themes. Vince was very weak, but, as usual, he had a smile on his face, and never once complained about his lot (another big difference between me and Vince).
When he finally got out of the hospital, Vince had to carry around a tank of oxygen for awhile. But he made an amazing recovery. And even began working out regularly at Gold’s Gym. Lived another 10 years.
Vince almost never talked about his spirituality. He wasn’t one of those guys who expounded on his spiritual philosophy or made spiritual speeches. He mostly expressed his spirituality by how he lived his life. But if you pressed him on the subject, he would say he was a follower of Eckankar, a relatively obscure religion. The one Eckankar line I remember Vince saying was: “Life on planet Earth is the garbage pail of the Universe.” But, strangely, Vince didn’t take this as a cynical message. In fact, it gave him peace and equanimity, and a way to cheerfully accept his often-grim lot in life with a “thats-just-the-way-it-is” shrug. For he felt this earthly realm was just a small part of his true cosmic identity.
The last time I saw Vince was at B. N. Duncan’s memorial in 2009. He was very weak at that point, and rarely got out anymore. Was living a quiet, reclusive life in a little room in a boarding house off of Ashby Avenue. So I knew it meant a lot to him to drag himself up to Duncan’s memorial. I don’t remember anything Vince said at the time. He was quiet and short of breath. And it didn’t occur to me that this would be the last time I’d be seeing him. But I remember his cheerful smile of amusement on his face. As usual. He often had a bemused smile on his mug, re the doings of human beings. He never once said anything critical about me. But I could tell sometimes, by this bemused smile he’d be flashing at me, that he was secretly sort of laughing at me and my latest foolishness.
When Duncan died, there were big articles in the newspaper about it, and a CBS News feature about his memorial. When Vince died, they quietly packed up the meager possessions in his room and that was it. But you can bet that many, many people across Berkeley had their own silent, private memorials for Vince.
Vince, Duncan and I spent a lot of time hanging out together in the 1980s. I wasn’t a drinker then. It was mostly a coffee shop scene. Endless refills of coffee at IHOP as we blathered on for hours about our lives, our hopes and dreams for the future, and whatever madcap action we were in the middle of at the time. We were young and strong and into all sorts of madness back then. We were the Three Amigos. And now I’m just the One Amigo . . . . And I still can’t get used to it. It’s like our lives were just getting started. And then I blink my eyes and its almost over.