A thousand nights out for coffee with Vincent Johnson

 

Every now and then I’ll think of my old friend Vincent Johnson. He’ll pop into my head like a barely-remembered dream. Even as it seemed so very real at the time.

I was pretty close to Vince for about 15 years. And for several years he was my roommate. So I got to know him pretty well. I’ve never met anybody quite like Vince. He had a purity of spirit and a basic goodness that was rare. I’d call him a very spiritual person. Even as he rarely talked about his spirituality. Never made speeches about it. He expressed it with his actions and how he lived his life. He had this other-worldly quality. It was like even when he was immersed in the dirt and grime of this world, he always had one eye on the heavens, on the next life, this cosmic realm.

Vince came to Berkeley in the ’70s to be hippie. Had a big tan afro. And wore street-hippie clothes. For many years he had this bomb of a ’56 Chevy with a brightly-colored psychedelic paint job, and the Grateful Dead skull logo on the front hood. The car rarely worked, but he used it mostly to sleep in. And he had a deep admiration for the idealistic aspect of the ’60s hippie movement. “Peace and love” wasn’t a cliche for Vince, but the way he lived his life. Though he was dismayed at how drugs had had such a destructive affect on so much of the hippie scene (the only drug Vince ever did was coffee).

Vince’s biggest dream was to start a hippie commune. To that end he bought 40 acres of land in the middle of a cowfield in the middle of nowhere (technically Modoc County in rural Northern California). And plopped his school bus down in the middle of it and dubbed his commune Rainbow Junction. Over the years a couple people would join him for a few months here and there, but alas it never really caught on.

And that was Vince in a nutshell. He was a dreamer who’s dreams were never quite realized. But the dream itself — the ideal in his heart — was so real, that it didn’t seem to matter. He never got discouraged or defeated, and never gave up on his dogged strivings to attain his dreams and visions. (My friend Duncan once wryly described Vince as “a combination of persistence and ineffectuality, with persistence sometimes winning out.”)

I would get long, handwritten letters from Vince from Rainbow Junction, always written from the local Dairy Queen — he would walk several miles to this small downtown area (basically the Dairy Queen, the Post Office, and a couple of small stores) to have his coffee. And I could tell he was lonely — the letters were a substitute for not having anyone to talk to.

The winters could be pretty tough up at Rainbow Junction. You’d get several feet of snow and freezing temperatures. And all Vince had to keep warm was a small wood-burning stove. One time he came close to dying. He had an epileptic seizure in his school bus and was passed out for quite some time. Came close to freezing to death. When he finally came back to earth he somehow made it to a doctor. But his health was never the same. And that was pretty much the end of Rainbow Junction.

He moved back to Berkeley and then he got lung cancer. They had to remove one lung. Was in the hospital for some time, close to death. When I visited him in the hospital he was much frailer than he had been. But he still had his beaming smile and a twinkle in his eye. He never lost that no matter what the circumstance. I brought him a framed photo of the Star Trek crew to put on his bedside to aid in his recover. Because Vince was a big fan of Star Trek, and an even a bigger fan of the Star Wars movie. “May the Force be with you.” And he didn’t see anything corny about it. But saw it as an enactment of this heroic vision he had of human life — of goodness and light ultimately triumphing over the forces of darkness.

When Vince got out of the hospital he had to carry around a tank of oxygen for awhile. But eventually he recovered and even started working out regularly at Gold’s Gym to build himself back up..

Vince got a little room in a boarding house near the Ashby BART and we kind of drifted apart. The last time I saw him was at Duncan’s memorial in 2009. For many years we had been the Three Amigos — me, Vince, and Duncan. And now we were down to two. Vince was in poor health at the time and didn’t get out much. But it was important to him to show up for Duncan’s memorial. He had the same amused smile as always. And I can still see the look on his face as clear as a bell in my mind. We spoke softly about Duncan and the old times. Which had gone by so fast. I can’t remember anything specific that he said. And then he left. And I didn’t realize at the time that that would be the last time I would see him. He died shortly after. They packed up the meager possessions he had in his room, and Vince quietly departed from this life without any fanfare.

In retrospect I wish I had gotten Vince to talk more about his life, for he wasn’t the type of person who talked about himself much. There’s a lot I don’t know about him. I know he grew up in Watts, had a black father who he never knew, and a white mother who was cold and angry and seemed to hate him. How Vince developed his uplifting spiritual vision from that background is one of the great mysteries. I guess he was just born with a highly developed soul.

I think now of the countless times we went out for coffee together. For that was one of our bonds. We were always in the middle of countless adventures, misadventures and soap operas back then. And that’s what we mostly talked about. Oddly I distinctly remember how he fixed his coffee. He’d put some milk and sugar in it. Taste it. Put some more sugar in. Taste it again. Put some more sugar in. Taste it again. He’d repeat this ritual 6 or 7 times until he got his coffee exactly right. Ha ha. I have no idea why I think of that now.

And I remember one of the few times he talked about his high school years. Which was an unhappy period for him. And he told me about how he developed this huge crush on the most beautiful girl in his class. Talking about her I could tell he was still overwhelmed by her beauty. And that was so Vince. He was always getting these crushes on different women. Who he’d follow around like a puppy dog. That was another one of his big dreams, to find The Girlfriend. The Soul Mate. Something he never quite did. And that was another one of the things we had in common that bonded us.

And he told the story about how he finally mustered the courage to tell the girl, his high school crush, that he was madly in love with her. Hopelessly in love with her. And how he doggedly pursued her for many months. Only to be rejected. She was way out of his social class after all. Vince was frail, skinny, nerdy, and spoke with a pronounced stutter. While she was the most beautiful girl in the class after all. But Vince told the story with a beaming smile on his face, and a bemused affection for his younger self. And he said that him and the girl even ended up as sort of friends, or at least friendly, if not lovers. And that was so Vince. Never defeated.

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