Daniel Rubin: After an assault, Camden's Rocky is on the mend

Rocky Wilson (second from right) and friends (from left) Joe McCullough, 36, of Deptford; Michelle Caporale, 32, of Blackwood; and Annie Fisher, 45, of Collingswood, take turns reading a poem during Poetry and Pizza at a Camden pizzeria.
Rocky Wilson (second from right) and friends (from left) Joe McCullough, 36, of Deptford; Michelle Caporale, 32, of Blackwood; and Annie Fisher, 45, of Collingswood, take turns reading a poem during Poetry and Pizza at a Camden pizzeria. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 05, 2012


 The poets took their autoharps, their berry cobblers, and bottles of burgundy to the Camden pizzeria Tuesday night, but the mood could not be called festive. They were meeting for the first time since Rocky Wilson got rolled.

Rocky - wearing a jester's hat over his graying Endless Summer hair and holding a monkey puppet on his right arm - called the session to order.

"Some people have heard I had a mishap on Sept. 5."

He told the fanciful version, the one that chronicles Bongo's wild ride. At the first sign of trouble, the monkey managed to jump from Rocky's bicycle and dive into the Delaware, where a floating log and a kindly whale ferried him to safety in Cape May, where a friend found him at a gift store, looking surprisingly fresh.

The version in a Camden police report is grittier. Three men were witnessed stalking him that night. Rocky saw just one of them.

"I was riding my bike along the river," he says. "I had watched the sunset. It was beautiful. All I remember was seeing the one guy running next to me, and asking "What are you doing?' "

What they wanted, Rocky doesn't know. He had some money on him, but they took nothing. "Either they knew me and said, 'There's the guy with the monkey,' or it was some impress-your-friends thing."

From the blood on the pavement, and the pain that gripped him when he awoke, Rocky figures he was kicked in the face and fell backward, smacking his head.

Camden can be a most frightening place, but I've felt nothing but peace during the times I've spent there with Rocky. He seemed charmed.

Under that jester hat, he's wary now. "Yeah, you start looking at people. You think, 'Are they going to jump me?' I used to bike in different neighborhoods. I'd see a group of guys and wonder if I should go in another direction, and one would yell, 'Hey, Rocky. You were my substitute teacher in third grade.' "

Spend some time near the waterfront and you're likely to run into this free spirit from Haddonfield High's Class of '61. He's a poet, performance artist, and Walt Whitman impersonator. He used to be a Teamster, a teacher, an apple picker, and a newspaper reporter. For the last three decades, he has lived in a ramshackle rowhouse that stands out in a gentrified block.

One night a month since 1994, he's biked to the Little Slice of NY on North Third Street, which owner Peter Toso turns over to an event called Pizza and Poetry. Rocky serves as emcee.

Tuesday night, his fans came bearing gifts. They told him how they'd seen the article in the local paper, the one with the headline "Attack Victim Remains Upbeat."

Maureen Simmons brought two books, a Chicken Soup for the Soul edition and The Tao of Willie. Rocky smiled at the thought of Willie Nelson sharing life lessons.

He started the readings with a couple of poems by Wallace Stevens, born 133 years ago to the day. With the wine flowing, others stepped up to read Dylan Thomas and recite Emily Dickinson.

Concetta Risilia of Collingswood shared her own works, from a collection called Surviving Love, Sin and Meatballs. Adele Bourne of Moorestown wrote her poem after encountering a turtle at the Rancocas Nature Center. Applause followed all.

After two hours, Rocky announced the evening's end by popping a Terry Rivel song into his player. As "That Old Clock on the Wall" began, he looked around for a dance partner.

Sue Hitchcock of Palmyra took his cue. She stood and he grasped her hand, gently leading a two-step around the room as these words filled the pizza parlor:

You were kind to strangers

And gave your money away.

Even though you were hurting

You put up with the pain.

 One after another, women left their seats. When I left Rocky, five women were dancing around him, hugging him, laughing with him. Rocky was on the mend.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin

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