“-colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization.”
— Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums)
What can definitely be said about William Coleman was that he was his own man. He was a cook – though with no official training – an ex marine and a former bookmaker from Brooklyn amongst much else. When meeting a person for the first time he was notorious for grabbing a fistful of oregano and commanding that the newcomer “find some paper so that we can smoke this weed ma’ man.” Once, when I was leaving for Mexico and some mountaineering, Willy, in passing, mentioned that I should be sure to put some stones inside my cheeks. Not one to let an opportunity for a good story pass me by I asked Willy where he came by this little tidbit of information. “When I was a Marine in the Philippines ma’ man,” Willy replied with a haughtiness that showed his disappointment at my youthful inexperience, “when we was over there we used to do that to stop us from going crazy with thirst.” As if this moment was not good enough for my young eager mind, Willy chose to leave me with a quote that I will remember to my dying day, “We also tied our guns to our legs while we slept ma’ man, in case the locals crept in to steal my 60.” What can one say in response to that?
Willy had worked as a cook for the summer camp for as long as anyone could remember. He lived in a small cabin behind the kitchen, led such a reclusive life, and had been there for so long that no one on staff could remember what the layout of his cabin was (Were there two rooms or three? Was there even a bathroom?). Rumor had it that he was on the run from something in the city. We all joked that one day we would all be sitting in the office when a dark sedan would pull up outside. Some large men would alight, accompanied by a swirling drift of thick smoke, and walk slowly into the office to ask one simple question, “William Coleman?” Our only reaction a slight look down the road to the kitchen, whence the gentleman would walk to the car and slowly drive towards the Dining Hall. A few seconds later a single gunshot would be heard and we would all know that Willy would not be at work the following morning.
Once, after attending a Southern wedding, Ash and I brought back Willy some genuine Moonshine. Standing there in the dry storage pantry in his chef whites he carefully unscrewed the cap and took a long, lingering pull on the jar. After finally coming up for air he announced, “Whoooo doggie, white light’nin, that shit is smooooooth.” And this was all at 10:30am on a Tuesday, God knows how he managed to cook spaghetti and meatballs for 250 people after that.
Everyone who ever knew Willy has a handful of stories like the ones that I have recounted here, some of them true, some not, but all of them filling in a piece of the ultimate question, who was this man? Rumor has it, that on his 60th birthday, Willy repaired to a motel of some note close to New York City. There, with too much money and free time, Willy rented himself the jacuzzi suite for 52 hours and invited three Caribbean prostitutes to join him in polishing off an 8-Ball of coke. Now, I have no way of corroborating this story, but having known the man I don’t doubt that some of it is at least a little bit truthful. Images of a 60 year old black man with a coke mustache, rubbing his gums with a dab of powder from the glass coffee table while a Puerto Rican working girl yells, “Ayiiiii Papppie” haunt my subconscious to this day.
Willy is, unsurprisingly, dead. He died in the wintertime from what I can only assume was a long overdue case of too much living. As well as finally getting to see the inside of his cabin, we also discovered that Willy had a whole family in Brooklyn. No kidding! He had a wife, son and several daughters who had been wondering where Dad had gone to that day in 1985 when he went down to the corner store for smokes and never returned. It seems that Willy did indeed have to hightail it out of the city after all. Too much fraternizing with the girlfriends of the Puerto Rican mafia in his neighborhood, naughty boy!
Why is Willy an enlightened being? To that I must return to another Bodhisattva who can explain it much better than me, “because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”