Writer, dancer and puppeteer Rocky Wilson has had his share of trouble living in Camden, New Jersey. Of all the things his neighbors have taken from him — electricity, his typewriter, a refrigerator! — the most precious thing they stole was his heart.
Poet, dancer, puppeteer and substitute teacher Rocky Wilson has lived all over the country, but he says nothing prepared him for living with his Camden, New Jersey, neighbors. From a brick through his window to a disappearing refrigerator, he’s had his share of trouble. In this edition of a monthly series featuring some of the best storytelling in the Philadelphia area, Wilson tells a First Person Arts story slam audience how a moment of divine interention helped him to change the dialogue and make peace in his neighborhood.
Listen to his story at the top of the page. A transcription follows. [Audio production by Kimberly Haas.]
I grew up in Haddonfield, New Jersey. I lived in a commune in Vermont. I lived in a treehouse in the Berkeley Hills. I even lived in Powelton Village, but nothing prepared me for living in Camden, New Jersey.
The neighbors — it was easy to remember their names, because the kids had spray-painted their names on the wall of my house: Obie, Dyken, Gut and Mush.
Well, when I would go out, they would go up the third floor, and they’d put a board across from their window to my window, and they’d crawl across and go shopping through my house. I never knew what was going to be there when I came home.
One time I went away for the weekend, and when I came back the neighbor said, “You know, they had a plug in your house with your electricity going to their house. And they used your electricity all weekend.“
I said, “Oh my god!”
Then another time, there was another guy living in my house, and I think they had an argument and a brick cam flying through the window one night. So it was very interesting.
So one night — it was right after they took my typewriter, and I’m a writer, so that was really the last straw — I was upstairs and tired (I’d run a 5k that day) and I tried to go to sleep. It was around 11 o’clock. It was a real hot day in July. And they were all out front, and they were laughing and talking and playing music, and I was trying to sleep. And all the anger had been building up in me. And finally I jumped out of bed. I go over to the window. I lift the screen. And I’m about to yell “Shut the hell up! I’m trying to sleep!” But when I opened my mouth, I said, “Do you kids want to go to a Phillies game?”
So a couple weeks later we’re at the Phillies game, Obie and Dike. And we’re out in center field. All of a sudden, I look behind me and there are these two humongous bouncers from the Phillies organization behind us. The kids had dumped sodas over. I didn’t see them do it, but they’d dumped sodas over, and we got escorted out of the stadium.
Well, things did get a little better after that.
The sister, Mush, invited me over to her birthday party. She knew that we had the same birthday, so they invited me over, and there was a cake that said “Happy birthday, Mush” and “Happy birthday, Rocky”. So I was really touched by that.
But still things would disappear.
So, Mrs. Sumpter was going to move up to Willingboro, and she gave the house to Gut, her oldest son. Well, Gut couldn’t keep up the tax payments, and he didn’t want anyone else to have the house, so he torched the house. And when I came home, I saw they had left — and I saw my refrigerator was gone.
So, a couple of weeks later, I went to go visit Mrs. Sumpter in Willingboro. She said, “Do you want a soda?” And I looked … said That looks like my refigerator! But it was painted a different color.
I didn’t want to say anything, because … I don’t know.
I said goodbye to Mrs Sumpter, and we hugged. Several weeks later, Mrs. Sumpter passed away. So I wound up at the Carl Miller Funeral Home in front of a sea of brown faces reading a poem for her memory. After that, I’d be in the Camden schools and stuff, and I would see Mush’s kids, and they would run up to me and they would go, “Uncle Rocky! Uncle Rocky! How you doing?”
And the other kids would say, “How can he be your uncle? He’s white.”
And the little girls would stand up and say, “He is too my uncle!”
And I would say goodbye, and I would walk away. And I would wonder how I could become so rich in the poorest city in America.
Wilson says he’s been living in Camden since 1975. Moving back to New Jersey from Vermont, he was looking at rooms near where he grew up in Haddonfield.
“The room was $27 a week in Haddonfield and $17 a week in Camden,” he said. “I was going to tell the landlady no. But when I went to leave, she said, ‘Do you want the room.’ And I said yes. And I’ve been there ever since.”
He says he never tried anything special to keep the neighbor kids out of the house, no special locks on the doors or anything. “They’d probably just knock the door down,” he laughed.
He remembers the moment everything changed in his relationship with his neighbors — the night he unexpectedly invited the kids to a Phillies game. He says he doesn’t know where the idea came from.
“It was like when that landlady asked me if I wanted the room. My head was going a big beacon NO!, but when I opened my mouth, I said yes. So it was a surprise to me as well. I opened that window with the intention of yelling, ‘Shut up! I’m trying to sleep!’ I don’t know if it was God intervening or what. Those are two things in my life I can’t really explain.”
After going to the baseball game with two of the neighbor kids — and getting kicked out after they spilled sodas on people — Wilson said it started a dialogue.
“Then they invited me to a church service,” he said. “And I went over one time, and they had a birthday cake with my name on it, because my birthday is same as one of the daughters. And it went back and forth — sharing things that weren’t anything to with property or material things or anything like that. Then things started to change. Before I knew it, I was ‘Uncle Rocky.’”
Growing up in Haddonfield, Wilson says he had neighbors who he would call uncle or aunt. “Little did I know, living in Camden, it would happen to me!”
Writer, Walt Whitman interpreter, dancer, actor, puppeteer, and substitute teacher Rocky Wilson lives along the Delaware River in Camden, N.J., where he runs a monthly poetry gathering at a local pizza parlor. Many school-age children enjoy Wilson’s performances of poetry and stories with the help of his puppet friend Bongo. Rocky has often been called the “puppet laureate” of Camden.