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Coconut Rob: Mystically Delicious
By Ash Hoden
Some people aren’t cut from the same mold as the rest of us. They operate by entirely different notions of what it’s all about, inhabiting a space largely beyond that of contemporary customs and culture. It’s not that they’re odd or quirky. It’s something deeper and more nuanced than that, possessing a spiritual quality. I see them as mystic outsiders — those who were never indoctrinated, or were indoctrinated but fought their way out. Precisely because their minds are not molded by bourgeois propriety, mystic outsiders have clarity. If you happen across one it’s a special day. You will be seen for who you are. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a handful of such people. One of whom is Coconut Rob.
I have a certain indifference to titles and those who value them. All too easily they serve as placeholders for an individual’s worth, effectively masking the reality of how somebody functions in the world, or how they treat their neighbors. Yet despite their inability to capture the complexities of a person’s character many of us fail to look past these signifiers. We fail to recognize the person standing before us — only seeing titles or a lack thereof. In that sense accomplishments can become barriers to the truth, particularly for the accomplished.
Coconut Rob and I recognized each other right away. I told him I write about artists and he told me about his art, attributing its merits to the limitlessness of The Creator. Then he gave me a taste of his labor, freshly manifested. One of the traits I’ve found to be common among mystic outsiders is their ability to embody ancient values that, in the contemporary context, are supremely radical. Fully embody the imperative to love your neighbor as you love yourself and see how long it takes before you’re ostracized by the church and imprisoned by the state. (Not to imply that the opinions of the church are of any significance to begin with.) Coconut Rob possesses this ability to carry forward the substance of tradition while filtering out impurities, such as condemnation or conquest.
Another commonality among mystic outsiders is their capacity for rebirth, exploring multiple paths and trajectories and repeatedly starting anew. Mystics do not cling. Buddha left the comforts of his father’s kingdom in order to know reality. Coconut Rob had to reinvent himself several times in order to delve deeper into the limitlessness of The Creator, bearing witness on a daily basis in the form of the most superb juice concoctions you will find. He is both a vessel and a fixture. During our hour-long conversation at his street-side post in Fort Greene, Brooklyn he greets well over twenty familiar faces.
I press record and tell him we’re on:
“We’re always on, Ash. Always. Absolutely. With or without recordings — it’s not something that you can take back. When you’ve done something, you can either correct it moving forward or just accept it for what it is and evolve. That’s probably part of correction as well — just moving forward with the idea that you can choose to change it. If it is that you choose to change it. So let’s go.”
“I was born in the Caribbean. In Trinidad. My father is from Trinidad. My mother is deceased now. She was from Grenada actually. It’s a long story, but I never grew up with my mom. I always thought you can’t miss what you don’t know but this experience right here, actually going back and burying her and doing all of that stuff — and not having seen both of my parents for over thirty years — was a really strange situation. I grew up with my grandparents. My father was incarcerated and my mother was institutionalized. I don’t necessarily say those things for people to feel sorry for me but I say it to let people know, for the most part, that the darker the room the brighter the light. Some of the brightest lights come from the darkest places.”
How did that work for you?
“I don’t know it any other way. I had to teach myself [from] what I saw of how other parents interacted. I also became a parent. So in essence it was a drawing board for me in which the things that impacted me that were of a positive nature, I tried to make it part of my character. And the things that were fear that affected me — try to make sure that that doesn’t enter into how you interact when you are responsible for someone else’s life.”
Did you feel that way from a young age?
“From a very young age. Very very young. It’s interesting, because when you’re self taught it’s a very different thing. (Rob calls to someone on the street, leaves and returns.) I heard James Taylor say this many years ago actually. I don’t think he is formally trained in music, based on what I heard him say in this interview. He said it’s interesting for him when he sits with people that’s been classically trained and then asks them to improvise. It’s almost like it’s impossible. So I think it’s the same thing to some degree when there’s a self-taught process. Make no mistake about it, if it’s not the right mindset self-taught can be destructive as well. It’s not all positive. I can be destructive too. It’s a constant battle. Even at my age. At 50 I’m a little more mature and the mindset is a little more embedded, where you can just see, ‘Ok, that’s going to be foolish.’”
What were some of the negatives you had to work through?
(Robs phone rings and he answers, “Miss Lisa, how are you?” Before Lisa can respond another woman walks by and he greets her, “How is it going love? Did he enjoy it?” Then back to the phone, “Lisa, how are you? I’m quite well actually. I just finished up your juices and I’m in the middle of conducting the interview with Mister Ash, the one you looked up on the website. So I left little pieces of ginger on the inside of it; just a piece of ginger I cut after I finished it, just to let it kind of marinate in it. I mean you deserve it. I know you know as well.”)
“Sorry about that Ash.”
No problem. She looked on the website?
“Yeah, she said, ‘He has some really cool people. You should do it.’”
“It’s all good, but I move on what I feel in my gut. If I didn’t feel it in my gut I would not have done that. So where were we?”
We were talking about some of the negatives that age has kind of—
“I think there was this strong influence because my father, when he went to prison, it was for murder. There was a part of me as a youngster that felt, like any other kid, as destructive as it sounds, ‘I need to fall in the footsteps of my father. This is how you get respect. This is how people will respond to you.’ Not necessarily going out and killing anybody, but felt the need that, ‘Ok well, maybe I’ll have to go to prison. Maybe I’ll have to do stuff that’s going to get me there in order to earn that level of respect.’ You know what I’m saying.”
It’s a manhood thing.
“Yeah. Quote-unquote respect. Very strange, but destructive. To some degree, sadly, some of us replicate it. You see it all day. You look at the system that we’re in and you look at a particular demographic of people and you investigate their background and you will see the household. This is really where it all starts.”
The structures that they’re responding to and learning their behaviors from. How was it with your grandmother?
“Oh, my grandmother impacted me in a way that I was not even conscious of. Even what I do now, it’s the influence of my grand-mom. My grandmother and grandfather had a huge estate in the Caribbean. She always felt that a young man should be skillful with his hands. She comes from that time.”
I agree! Even to this day. Now it may be more important than ever.
“Yeah. I think there is a predisposition, if you want to call it that, to be like, ‘Ok well, this is what grandma wants.’ So she took me under her wings and when I’d go to the estate with her — I remember my first job that she gave me was to open coconuts. Dried coconuts. She showed me how to do it first with a hoe, I think it was. You turn the hoe upside down and you go to the edge of the hoe and you open it. After I became good with that, I think the next summer — I was way too young to remember — she showed me how to open it with only a pick axe. You stick the pick axe in the dirt, you have the pointed end up, and then you do it. After I became pretty good with that then I graduated to the machete. I’d put it between two pieces of stone, not have it in my hand at all, and come down with the machete and split it and then take the shell out and put the dried coconut to the side. It evolved from that, with my own imagination, into all of these things here.”
The different concoctions that you make now.
“The different concoctions. Taking it and putting it in my hand and opening it up. As I told you before, I have no formal culinary training at all. It’s almost like it’s a divine source of inspiration that I myself is not necessarily able to explain, but I know that I’m able to execute it. Does that make any sense?”
100 percent. When I sit down and write it’s the same thing. You have a blank slate and something comes through and who knows where it comes from.
“There you go. It comes from that creative source.”
But you have to take the action of doing it. Sitting down to do it.
“Correct. So what you see me do as far as the juices and smoothies and all that other stuff — that you’ve tasted and you expressed that you liked — it comes from that place. It’s a talent given to me by The Creator. I almost always try to keep it in the back of my head — the humility of knowing that I don’t own it. I’m just a vessel that it’s being manifested through. For me, that approach to it is what allows more inspiration to come.”
That sounds like the positive side of learning your own way.
“Of course. I think that expression of the juices is a mutation of being self taught. Based on the things you’ve been exposed to and then grabbing on to those things and attempting to bring it to fruition.”
When you were young were there other places where you used your hands? Or was it typically food related?
“It wasn’t food related at all. I didn’t even recognize that I was able to do this until I look back in retrospect. Coming up, the word organic was almost non-existent. There were juices that was pretty common among Caribbean people that my friends made. And for whatever reason, whenever I was given the opportunity to make it I would be asked to do it over and over again. In retrospect it’s only into adulthood when this Coconut Rob stuff came into existence. I just treated it like, ‘Well they’re too lazy to do it. They just want me to do it.’ But then I recognized, ‘Wow. The reason why they asked is because I was making it good.’”
It came naturally.
“It came naturally. I didn’t pay it too much attention because I also like doing other things.”
What other kinds of things were you doing when you were young?
“I liked reading a lot as well. Love, and still to this day do. Reading for me is an escape and it allows my imagination to go places where I’m not physically. So reading about New York as a youngster, reading about London… (How’re you doing Mister Jay?!) It allowed my imagination to go into places that I myself was like, ‘Wow! So this is what it’s like.’ You know, just dreaming big I guess. Sometimes the imagination is much more exciting than the reality. You can re-imagine stuff that you’ve read, and just take that and run with it in the direction that would be limitless. Limitless. Yeah, I think reading allowed my imagination to flow into places I couldn’t be physically. It also acted as a springboard for me to want to experience it in reality.”
To go to new places—
“Just to to see if what I experienced in my dream and the reality sort of enmeshed each other. Sometimes, even with people, it can be disappointing. Let’s say, for instance: music. You listen to somebody and you hear the words that they’ve written in a song and you kind of box everything else out and measure that person just based on those powerful words. Then when you meet them it’s like, ‘Shit! This is fucking major disappointment man. You’re nothing like the words that you’re singing at all. You’re human too. Shit, maybe I can do what you do!’ But um, I was able to separate the expectation and the actual experience. If that makes any sense, again. I always have to keep asking that because sometimes how it’s meant to be said and what I’m saying in my head might be two different things.”
It makes sense. Did having that type of mindset enable you to go to new places or experience life in a way that maybe other people aren’t?
“I think what it did for me, just like the imagination of the juices, it created something that I like to categorize as limitless. I’m able to go places, and especially in the United States which is huge and cultures are all over — I mean we come from two different backgrounds. What’s the possibility of us meeting in a place other than New York? Not impossible, but this is a melting pot. I think it allowed me to be able to accept places for what they are. Without bringing, and I’ll use this word here a bit loosely, an infectious thinking alongside with me. Like for instance you’ll speak to a lot of New Yorkers that will say, ‘I can’t live anywhere else.’ You hear that a lot. And I find that to be an absurd statement, Ash. Because it’s like, ‘How do you not know?’ Or, ‘How do you allow this place to infect you in such a way that you measure everything else by it?’”
That’s such a good way of saying it.
“’Come on man. It’s so disingenuous to your own self to not look at where you are outside of New York, if you do venture out. And measure it for what it has. Okay, New York has 24-hour access. At the same time it also has 24-hour noise. So let’s now look at another place that’s not as accessible but at the same time you experience some level of tranquility. How about that? You know what I’m saying — just measuring it based on what it is. So for me, I’m sort of a frequent in the state of New Mexico, and make no mistake about it, it’s quite the opposite of New York. Where you go downtown in a busy quote-unquote city and there’s nobody.”
Why New Mexico?
“Well there’s a friend of mine that has a biomedical waste disposal company that’s set up there. For whatever reason he deemed me as charismatic, so I go out there sometimes and help him in terms of customer relations and recruiting customers or whatever. And I’m able to handle myself in the Spanish language.“
Did you grow up with that?
“I have a little bit of a predisposition for linguistics, but in school I never really payed attention to it much. I think language is a connection that bridges a lot of differences because the minute that you start communicating to someone in their language, it takes down a wall completely. There is an invisible wall that comes down and there is a level of acceptance that’s expressed that is almost unexplainable. There’s a trust factor. I think that’s the best way to describe it. I was also married to a Dominican woman but Dominican Spanish is a little bit different.”
How did you guys meet?
“I worked at the VA for the same guy that has the medical waste company. This was probably eight years ago. He was looking for somebody that, again, charismatic, and would be able to speak to people and navigate their ground transportation. I never did this before but I used to be a bike messenger so I have a pretty good idea for how this city is. My memory combined with imagination and all that other stuff — I guess people skills — allowed me to go in there and kind of dominate. It was fun. And then I care about people too, so I was put in a position where I dealt with terminally ill people, which was a little heavy. Dialysis and chemo-therapy, so you’re looking at situations where people miss the appointment they can lose their lives. Then also it was veterans. It taught me that I love the veterans but hate the wars. Because I met some very very unique and special people. Some of them lost, some of them still with us, but I found them to be fascinating. And as an immigrant to this country, to some degree I must owe whatever liberties that’s here based on the backs of the work that these people have done. So for me it was nothing to put myself at a place of use or disposal for them.”
That’s wild. And you met your wife there?
“Well we’re separated now, but yeah, I met her there. She was actually one of the drivers. I interviewed her.”
For the VA system?
“For the Harbor Healthcare System. So the Harbor Healthcare System consists of the Brooklyn VA, the Manhattan VA, the Queens VA, and the Bronx VA. That’s a lot of veterans, and a lot of moving parts. You’re talking sometimes maybe 800, 900 people being transported on a daily basis — coming in and going back out. So you have these things inside of your head and knowing where everybody is at the same time. Outside of a computer system it takes a little bit of a—”
You didn’t have a computer system?
“They had a computer system but I didn’t need it. I have a pretty good memory. It’s a little bit weird, how I’m able to remember stuff. I had a supporting cast as well. The computer stuff you leave that to the computer people, but the knowledge of the streets… The computer doesn’t tell you, ‘Ok, this particular part of Brooklyn that you’re going to at 7 o’clock is going to take you five minutes to get there but in exactly half an hour it’s going to take you about 45 minutes to get there because of the consistency of the traffic. Whether it’s the BQE or whatever happens that you’ve observed over and over and over that a computer can’t tell you. So that’s where the memory comes in.”
How did you get into all of this work?
“Um, well when I came to this country, you know, had to survive and became a bike messenger as a youngster. And I enjoyed it. What I didn’t realize while it was going on was how much it taught me. Again, I never used a map. Nobody ever taught me the city. I had to learn it through trial and error. It taught me that I have what they call a photographic memory. I didn’t even know what that is. When you start seeing other people try to do it and they can’t then you’re like, ‘Ok, so there is something different about it.’ I ended up learning that and… What’s up sister? How are you doing?”
You mentioned before that you went to the UK before coming here?
“It was almost simultaneous, coming here, then going there, going there, coming back here. Because it’s a natural migration for most Caribbean people that’s colonized by the British, to go there. Encouraged by my grandparents I guess, and aunties, because of my disposition — you know father going away. I had like cousins and aunties that always stepped in, wanting to take care of me or steer me in the right direction.”
When you were growing up you were going off in certain directions and they were trying to—
“To prevent me from going off in certain directions, which of course sometimes you find yourself perpetuating the things that you see, but it was always to some degree that support system. Where there was an aunt or uncle of some family member that always wanted… ‘Well lets get him in this environment and see how he’s going to function. Or let’s get him here and let’s see how he’s going to do.’ So I was exposed to a bunch of different things that allowed me to be in different places geographically — the England stuff, America, and see which will stick.”
What were you doing in England?
“Well, actually, I like studying as well. There was a short time that I had a real keen interest in law. It’s interesting right, to be a guy that’s swinging a machete and at the same time law. There was a very small window where I began to explore the possibilities of medical malpractice. I worked at a medical malpractice law firm for a period of time in Baltimore. (Speaks with several people on the street.) The academic aspect of school: that’s me just being drawn to things. I always wanted to know how the body works, and to some extent what I do now is an extension of all of that. The choices that I make in terms of what ingredients I use is meant to benefit your body nutritionally. Let’s break it down a little bit. If your heart’s an organ, your liver is an organ, your kidney is an organ, it’s not that far-fetched to understand that your brain is an organ too. And if how you eat affects the way your organs work, then how you eat and your brain being an organ — how you think — affects the way you act. How you act affects everything. So change the way you eat, change the way you act.”
That was clear to you when you were starting this?
“Yes and no. Yes, I think it really really hit me when I was in the law firm. Because I looked at people that were paralegals for years and was just content. That blew me away. Because, how do you find yourself in an occupation that benefits from somebody else’s misfortune? It gets really deep for me. I dealt with Erb’s palsy and cerebral palsy, so this is heavy stuff. It was just bizarre, how you would have experts, and depositions, testify and do all that other stuff, and at the end of it you find a law firm and its partners — and you being a part of that — benefiting from somebody else’s stuff. In some cases the firm walks away with just as much or even more than the person that suffered the infraction! That is crazy to me. It may not necessarily change Erb’s palsy or cerebral palsy, but part of what I do is the attempt to be proactive rather than reactive. Medical malpractice is a reactionary career. What I am attempting to do through nutrition is a proactive career.”
What originally inspired you to do this?
“Oh, my. That’s another story. There’s so many facets to my life, actually. For about two years I lived in Washington D.C. I have a cousin down there that has done quite well for himself; that has a tow truck company and he ventured off into a recycler-ship. If you take a car now and chop it up into pieces you get more money selling it in parts than the whole car itself. Alright so, I had a vested interest in a recycler-ship. I was invited to come out there and participate with it. This is where the story changes a little bit. Lost a lot of money out there and as a result, I think it’s safe to say, I had a bout with depression. Eating habits changed drastically, exploded in terms of my size, my ability to move… The next thing you know I was finding myself walking one block and panting for breath. Yeah, that wasn’t good at all. What happened with me there, I think, being in a stationary place, answering a phone, and just eating rubbish — I mean, vegetarian still, but eating french toast and all of that other stuff with syrup. So anyway, when that happened and the combination of losing an enormous amount of money, coming back to New York, I was like, ‘Man! I can’t fit in these jeans.’ And New York is a place that requires you to be able to move. This is not a place that caters for someone that’s physically or mentally impaired. It’s an unfriendly city when it comes to that. And it’s not necessarily a place that’s open and welcoming to older people. If an old lady or an old man needs to get to the grocery store — you see it sometimes when you stop on a traffic light, people just whoosh, whoosh… Nobody’s stopping to allow this person to cross. It’s just the nature of this city.”
And the stairways and the trains and the…
“Correct. It’s not conducive at all. So I said all of that to say this: when I came back here that forced me to get in shape. What did I do? There was one night in particular that I got on my knees. It was around Christmas-time. It was very cold. I got on my knees and I started praying. I asked the creator, ‘If you can help me get out of this situation I will never again punish my body through nutrition.’ That’s the short version of it. I stayed on my knees for quite awhile. The next day I got up, immediately I began — I’ve always been a research buff and I always kind of had an idea of how the body worked, so I started researching more. Alkaline foods, foods that would allow my body to function with nutrition and cut out all of the other roughage…”
You’ve always been vegetarian?
“I was vegetarian for the last 38 or 39 years. My grandparents were Seventh-day Adventists, so that is where this started. I started making juices on my own and I started implementing fasting — juice fasting. Before you know it, just like the youngster in the Caribbean, people started asking me for the stuff that I make. That was the prayer being answered that you see in front of you today.”
“It’s the true story.”
And you noticed a rapid change in your health?
“Oh! Quickly! Quickly. Fast.”
Mental health too?
“Of course. Because what happens is, and I’ve heard the veterans say this… It’s kind of sad sometimes, you know, not segueing off into the VA but to bring my point full circle — you see people with their minds still very sharp but their body unable to accommodate the sharpness of their minds. I’m in no way measuring myself to these people but I think that’s the circumstance that I kind of found myself in. ‘Wait a minute. I could still have the ability to think but I can’t mobilize my body with my mind? I need to find a way to mesh these two together.’ Nutrition helped that. It even helped me in thinking differently, because when your mind is completely clear there’s a lot more space to become creative. There’s a lot more space in your mind to do things that can be productive.”
How long have you been doing this?
So it was at the end of your 30s when you went through this experience?
“Um-hm. When I went through that experience and began to really harness it; practicing it and getting to the point after it’s been practiced and proven to now give it to the masses. Lets change the way we act through nutrition. I think it’s not that far fetched. I think it’s possible. How are you doing good sister?”
“I’m well. How are you brother?”
“Doing the best I can with what I’ve got. (chuckles)”
How about being a parent?
“Ooh. It’s so weird man, because there’s no blueprint of how that should be. I have gotten all of what I asked for. I asked The Creator for girls and I’ve gotten girls. Very different, because to some extent you see yourself reliving again through a child. And in this case it’s now the opposite sex. Then you see characteristics of yourself in there and then you see things that’s just completely like, ‘What? Where did this come from? This is so not me.’ My daughters are young women now — 23 and 26. What I’ve attempted to do as a father was plant seeds and hope they can germinate. Much more so in terms of what they see me do rather than what I say. With the hope that what I did would have much more of an effect than what I say. As a parent I think what happens is, especially with girls — you don’t have any kids of your own, do you?”
“Well when you do, if you choose, and it’s girls, you’ll realize that the first man that your daughter knows and measures everything by, is you. That’s what is going to be in place for the rest of their life. If it’s a good example they’re going to emulate and look for that. If it’s a bad example they’re going to be looking for that too. So the importance of how one governs themselves — and even when mistakes are made, you attempt to correct it. ‘Ok well, if my daughter didn’t have a parent like this how would she function?’ I remember one time when she was coming home as a way younger girl, and crying, ’Some boys were making fun of my nose.’ And I remember having to sit her down and tell her, ‘They’re just saying that to you because they are jealous. You’re beautiful, and your nose is what differentiates you from them. Embrace that.’ I remember how she dried up her tears and looked at me and smiled. I guess if those are the stories of parenting it’s about being there for your kids and being able to show them by example and at the same time being able to steer them in the right direction.”
I had one question about sabbath.
“The shabbat. Ok, I’m an observer. I try my best to observe the commandments. My spiritual form of belief is the belief in the Bible, and it stems with the commandments. We have to be cognizant that something created all of this. We didn’t create it ourselves. So my belief system is that of an Israelite. The chosen people. I use the Bible to support that and part of the observance of the sabbath is from the commandments — remembering the sabbath day to keep it holy. As a result you will never see me out here doing business on a Saturday. You will never see me when the sun sets on a Friday afternoon open for business. My convictions are of such that, and this has happened many times, people have come and tried to offer me money and I’ll just give it to them for free on a Friday evening when I’m wrapping up. And it always comes back in more ways than one.”
I like that.
“It’s the truth.
Find Rob on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CoconutRob/