Photo by Abbey Meaker
Poppa Neutrino was one of those real life characters that, if you heard even one his stories, you'd simply believe was a protagonist in some Great American Novel. Poppa was the living embodiment of that anti-american spirit of material abandonment and freedom....a great wanderer and a true vagabond. He was the first person to sail from the Atlantic Coast to Europe on a raft made entirely of refuse - with his wife Betsy at the helm. Poppa's journey and life was examined by the New Yorker in 2005. In March 2007 Random House released a biography of his life entitled The Happiest Man in the World. Inspired by a documentary he saw when he was a child, of Australian Aborigines who burn their homes and walk away naked, never looking back without a soupcon of regret, Poppa's fate was sealed - he decided to spend his entire life with just that ethos in mind: to live life on the raft on your own free will, leaving all your stepping stones behind you, and never looking back. I was in Vermont recently, just after New Years, visiting a friend - one night we were sitting in a booth at a restaurant when an old man came through the door and sat next to us. We were strangely drawn to this old man's presence. My friend took photographs of him in the darkened room, as a band played and a tango lesson was in progression on the dance floor, trying not to disrupt this old man with the flash of the camera. Turns out this man was none other than Poppa Neutrino. Real name: William David Pearlman - who had a life full of adventure, was a friend of the beat poets, and became an unsung legend through it all. Poppa passed away yesterday in New Orleans on January 23rd. He was 78. After the jump is a fascinating, beautiful, and touching memorial piece written after his death by someone very close to him named Kimberley Hannaman-Taylor of Burlington, Vermont......
Intro Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” - Leo F. Buscaglia
I met Poppa about three years ago at a birthday party for my friend Elliot. He was sitting in a back room playing the piano surrounded by a few folks that were singing along with him. His little Boston Terrier “Betty Boop” was curled up at his feet and I was immediately curious about him. I don’t think we talked much that night – I was there for only about an hour; but I remembered him the next time I saw him around town and over the course of those chance meetings began to get to know him. Rumors had circulated that he was famous and his story unfolded by degrees – dramatic tales of sailing the North Atlantic on a junk raft and whisperings of the films and book et al. The first time I really sat down with him was late one winter’s night at the Radiobean. The café was otherwise empty but for the one booth we shared with two or three others and we began a long conversation that carried on until the barista finally asked us to move on so he could close up. It was that night that I first heard his theories of “triadic thinking” and some of his stories about how he arrived at this unique philosophical bent. He asked me (us) about our “three deepest desires” and that moment I realized I had no idea about my own.
“How can you achieve your desires if you don’t know what they are?” he asked.
“Good point.,” I thought as I struggled to imagine them.
They didn’t come to me right away nor did I arrive at them for at least another year despite this predictable question nearly every time we met after that. At that time I was in a transition emotionally, spiritually and financially – a true crossroads in my life’s journey and meeting him just then, in retrospect seems eerily destined. It was about that same time that he started “The Owl Party” and began trying to draw the Burlington community into his latest raft project. Honestly, I wasn’t that interested in the raft other than as a passive observer, and although I attended many of the meetings, to me they were just a fun way to get together with a diverse group and make some new friends in town. I preferred our private talks. Those days, everyone wanted a piece of Poppa, and trying to have a meaningful conversation with him out in public was nearly impossible with its constant interruptions. He was very good at setting boundaries however, and I learned a great deal about that through observing him. Also, he disliked talking about fluff. Gossip was only benignly interesting to him in that it kept him up to date on the well being of his friends and he was only really interested in it when he was not in town. Mostly he strived to keep the conversations on meatier, philosophical topics almost always returning to the deepest desires motive and his possibly self invented social methodology of “participate, redirect or leave.” – the latter he claimed kept one’s life choices firmly in one’s own realm of responsibility – removing all chance of blaming others for our troubles as we could choose any of those three at any time and if not, it was through no fault of anyone’s but their own. I was hooked at this point, as these were brand new ideas to me. Just realizing I had no idea what my deepest desires were changed my life forever. We met infrequently but not uneventfully on several occasions to discuss these ideas further. One day while he was staying nearby, I took him up on his invitation for breakfast and the meeting lasted until after dinner time. It was a glorious day with few interruptions and we really got to know each other. We shared our life stories – in as much as two can fit a combined 110 (or so) years into a day’s worth of confession. I was most curious about his history before he became the famous “Poppa Neutrino.” He told me about his youth, growing up partly in San Francisco and that he and his mother moved around a great deal. He also mentioned his father, who was a sailor that he never met, and that he’d never had a proper home as he attended innumerable schools. He also talked about his relationships to his children; about a son that was extremely disappointed in him for his non-conventional style and how the son felt it had shaped his own life negatively. He recalled his years on the road raising his family of natural and adopted children alike and he described his various wives and lovers. He told me about Betsy, his longest marriage and current wife whom I had not yet met, and how she had after many years of living on the streets with him, moved to the relative security of a Tibetan Nunnery. I imagined her living in orderly, veritable silence after so many years of struggling in what must now seem like chaos. That day he confessed to me, “I don’t want to offend you, but I must say you are the living embodiment of my mother’s spirit.” He went on to say that the moment he met me he recognized it and that being around me brought her back to him somehow. I was a little terrified at this prospect as I do not get along at all with my own mother and I asked meekly, “Did you love her?” “Of course!” He said. She was unique. She loved to party and she never could be coerced into behaving according to the status quo. He admitted it was not easy to be her son, but that it was through her free spirit that he learned to live to his own calling. “A gift” he called it and one that he was determined to hand down to his children and the many others he met along his way. At some point during that conversation – perhaps just after the confession about his mother – we fell naturally into a silent meditation that lasted some time. Facing each other, we stopped speaking and closed our eyes and I felt as if my back were being straightened by some force outside of myself, while a palpable, wordless energy filled my mind. I felt as if it extended up through my crown stretching to connect with his across the void between us. It felt gluey, and tangible and I’d never before experienced such a powerful meditation. My mind was entirely cleared of thought other than focusing on the energy beam. Eventually, the moment gently passed and we opened our eyes to wordlessly acknowledge each other, and after a short while conversation began again almost as if no break had occurred.
Over the next two years, he called me often especially when he was out of town – he travelled to warmer climates when Vermont became inhospitably cold. His health began to decline. His teeth (tooth) bothered him. His heart was giving out; but for the better part of the first of the three years I knew him, his mind remained relatively sharp. It slipped here and there. He would repeat himself. He often became impatient with loud music that was not to his liking. Obnoxious people rankled him and he gave a few Burlingtonites more than they bargained for when they stopped by to feed him “BS” as he referred to it. We said “goodbye” many times leading up to his departure which was riddled with delays. One of the last times we visited, I brought a homemade pie and we propped ourselves up in his bed surrounded by his dogs and chatted the evening away. I showed him a special video from TED talks featuring Jill Bolte Taylor – a neuroscientist who had a stroke many years ago through which she felt she’d found enlightenment – the video is special to me and I strongly wanted to share it with him on this, possibly our last evening together. He loved it and we marveled together at the miracle of technology – both grateful for our timing on this earth where every man could have access to “all the knowledge” instantly and at the touch of a button. It had been very difficult this last year to watch his struggle. He wanted desperately to embark on his “Viking Voyage” (as I referred to it) – his last raft and final attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The night of the pie, I dared to ask, “You’re not coming back to Burlington after this, are you?” He looked at me very tenderly, and replied, “No, I am not.” Followed by, “You’re the first person to recognize that.” Sadly, I didn’t believe anyone really thought it would happen (the world voyage), but it was touching to see his determination through it all. Even after the raft crashed – taking all of his belongings and nearly killing him and the rest of the crew – he rebounded with hope. “Next time, I’m going to make a paddle boat casino!” he declared, admitting it was going to be extra hard after such a huge set back - yet he refused to give it up. He called the crew together for a few last meetings but it was clear he was in decline. I was terrified he was going to die in my living room last Christmas eve. He came directly from the hospital to my house. He looked awful. I put him in a comfy chair and served him the tea and bread with peanut butter he requested. He mostly dozed and he left unceremoniously after a short while. The last time I phoned him was on New Year’s Day. He called me back but I missed it and he left a message thanking me for remembering him while wishing me well and sending his love. I still have it in my voicemail. By chance, I happened upon him at the Radiobean the last evening he was in town. He was sitting at the bar while this horrible noise band screeched from the stage. I approached him fully expecting to hear an earful about the band, but he just smiled and told me he was leaving for NOLA in the morning.
“Are you coming back to Burlington?” I asked as I hugged him deeply.
This time, he answered without hesitation, “of course.”
And so he has. Forty days the Buddhists say – forty days to wander and observe the life he had. What a life indeed. I’ll never forget you Poppa and by the way, I know and am actively seeking those desires now. I owe it all to you.
text by Kimberley Hannaman-Taylor