Off His Rocker
This is a story about Jeff O'Leary trying to write a paper about the Crocker Rocker conspiracy. He's probably working on it right now. His Metro State class, Advanced Creative Writing, is--or ought to be--a place where hackneyed phrases like "This is a story about..." are not tolerated.
But such stylistic matters are the least of O'Leary's problems. If he is going to write about the Crocker Rocker conspiracy, he must be able to explain it--and that won't be easy. I know this for a fact, because I've tried myself. But since O'Leary is young and game, he should be encouraged. And so I leave a message on his answering machine asking him to define "Crocker File" for someone who has never seen one.
O'Leary must not only explain the Crocker Rocker conspiracy, he must do so using creative nonfiction--"and what is that, exactly?" he asks. "What used to be called literary journalism? My instructor is in love with Annie Dillard, and we had to read this piece of hers about Northern explorers, and it has this whole part about Catholicism and the two themes eventually merge and she makes this grand analogy--that we're all arctic explorers, basically, and blah blah blah."
So now O'Leary and his classmates are assigned to write something known as a "parallel narrative," along the lines of Annie Dillard, with two threads running through the piece--one from real life and one personal. "I have an idea for the first stream," O'Leary says, "the Crocker stuff. But I don't want to get into the subject of me."
O'Leary, 27, grew up in Evergreen, the youngest of five kids. He has an affinity for libraries, words and weirdness. One of his brothers once had a job editing the magazine Private Pilot, published by the same conglomerate that puts out Cat Fancy. "The writers at Cat Fancy have to write stories about the latest cat toys," O'Leary says, "and I heard they have to test them themselves, which is bizarre." It is also the kind of detail that interests O'Leary more than it does other students.
When he first started working part-time at the Auraria library, O'Leary wrote a story for the student newspaper detailing the exploits of a foot fetishist who stole women's shoes from beneath their carrels. "The research was simple," he says modestly. "I called security and said something like, 'Do you think there's a high percentage of perversion in the library?' They said, 'Why, yes.'"
His current assignment is in the library's archives department. O'Leary loves it there. "We have the Minori Yasui collection, scrapbooks, papers, correspondence," he says. "I go pull them out of boxes. If this was Victorian times, I'd be called a clerk."
One of the first boxes to land on O'Leary's desk was a Crocker File. And just what is a Crocker File?
Oh, here's O'Leary on the phone to tell us. Except he thought my message said "Crocker-phile."
"No, no," I say. "Write one sentence defining Crocker File, and get back to me. It'll be good for your self-discipline."
Meanwhile, here's my version: A Crocker File is a huge mass of correspondence sent by a certifiably crazy man whose name is not Colonel B. Jasper Crocker (retired), as he claims, but Robert Thurston Wylde. One day in 1978, Wylde was walking down 17th Street when a roll of steel mesh fell from construction scaffolding onto his head, instantly turning him into a mental case--depending on whom you ask, either a dangerous, disturbing loony or a creatively manipulative mastermind who just happens to be insane.
Over the past twenty years, Wylde, dressed in a respectable suit, has wandered the streets of Denver, popping into offices, stealing letterhead and business cards from unsuspecting receptionists, and then firing off correspondence, cc-ing like mad. His letters touch on everything from global warming to world peace, but they share one central theme: the existence of twelve handmade rocking chairs known as the Crocker Rockers. These are somehow linked to Native American rights and have inspired endless committees, task forces, alleged movie deals and letters requesting that anyone and everyone from here to Hollywood serve on various Crocker Rocker-related boards and subcommittees.
Wylde hooked me in 1991 with the suggestion that I become "recording secretary" for a Crocker Rocker subgroup known as the Association of Polish-Speaking Navajos. (He signed his first letter to me "Antelope Bukowski," a name I found hilarious, as Wylde knew I would.) Throwing caution to the winds, I waded into Wylde's world and produced a hundred-inch story on the Crocker Rocker conspiracy, after which I went to sleep for a week.
In the years that followed, I would receive an occasional letter from Wylde--on stationery from the Brown Palace, various law firms and the Native American Trading Company--which I would throw into my burgeoning Crocker File. And I'd sometimes hear stories about him, mostly of the "It's not funny anymore" variety. An example: Wylde reportedly stole some Westin Hotel stationery, wrote memos stating "Please pardon the interruption, but there is an ax murderer loose here this afternoon" and delivered them to every room on one floor of the downtown Westin. (That wasn't funny?)
Still, I hadn't given Wylde much thought in years until O'Leary opened his first Crocker File, found my name and contacted me.
"Wylde wanted the former dean of the library on his Chairfax board," O'Leary explains. "He wanted her to participate in something called 'militant booksmanship.' He was always coming over to the library to harass her, and I guess he stole two stamps. One says 'Archives, Auraria Library' and one says 'Received: Auraria Library' and the date."
Needless to say, Wylde started stamping his correspondence liberally, making it look a great deal more Officially Auraria than it was.
"I never heard of him until our acting dean left, and she cleaned out her desk, found all this Wylde stuff and sent it down to archives," O'Leary continues. "At first glance, I thought it was another boring bunch of letters. Then I started reading, and oh, my God, I felt a little woozy. But part of any archiving project is providing documentation and research, and that's what I'm going to do."
This impossible dream has taken him through assorted offices in the Denver Federal Center, as well as all the courts housed in Denver's City and County Building. There O'Leary discovered that Wylde was once an Officially Protected Person, whose settlement from the construction company that dropped steel mesh on his head was doled out to him by the Denver Probate Court. But he's not officially protected anymore.
"Because he no longer has any money, because people keep suing him for defamation of character," O'Leary suggests. Or they file a criminal suit against him for any one of his various trespassing hobbies. O'Leary himself was spending more and more of his money on court-copying fees, adding to his Crocker File, never realizing how caught up he was in the Crocker Rocker conspiracy until there was no escape.
"Spring break is coming up," he says. "Should I drive to Georgetown and find out if there really are twelve rocking chairs in the courthouse? That would take half a day! And what about the Navajo Nation? Should I go there and see if anyone knows him? At some point you have to stop, but it's so tempting. Part of the appeal is, most of what Wylde says is ridiculous, but every once in a while he throws in something true, just to keep you interested."
I am familiar with the sensation that Wylde is orchestrating his story with someone specific, such as myself, in mind. But I try to shake it off. After all, how can he spend so much time strategizing about me or O'Leary when he also has Cher, Kathryn ("Mrs. Bing") Crosby, Roy Romer, the Art Students League of Denver and hundreds of others to write to?
Wait. Finally, here's O'Leary with his official Crocker File description: "A repository of arcane information consisting of letters and documents written by, or relating to, the infamous Colonel B. Jasper Crocker (or any of the other aliases of Robert Thurston Wylde)."
Wow! That's succinct! Here's Crocker-phile, as well: "One who endures many hardships in the vain attempt to unravel the mysteries of the semi-mythical Colonel B. Jasper Crocker."
He's got my number.
"Not everyone finds it interesting," O'Leary says when we finally meet to exchange information. "Some people think he's scary. Could he do this if he weren't mentally ill? I don't know. It's a riddle. I mean, he took a rocking chair and built an empire, and you get the feeling he could do it with anything. A can opener, for instance."
"What about this Verdicchio Crucifix?" I ask, citing one of my favorite Crocker sub-conspiracies.
"Oh, I have a lot of that, too," O'Leary says, "but I asked a friend who knows about it, and we tried to see if it really exists, but all we came up with was wine. Apparently, Verdicchio is the name of some vineyard."
Sidetracked, O'Leary and I do our own Internet search. We come up with vineyards, all right, but also something called Sven's Fantasy Art Page. Here's the first sentence we read: "I live next door to Santa Claus--in the frosty Sweden." It has nothing to do with the Verdicchio Crucifix, but it has a certain Wyldeness, and we throw it in the Crocker File, anyway. Then I find myself staring at the opening lines of one of Wylde's letters to me--one I paid scant attention to in October 1992, when I received it.
"Remember?" Wylde wrote. "In an unguarded moment you agreed to serve as the recording secretary for the Association of Polish-Speaking Navajos. And, we are holding you to your promise. Watch and see. Let young reporters write your story as you hack your way through the jungle using language as your two-edged sword."
"Whoa! The young reporter! That's you!" I tell O'Leary.
"Yeah? You think?"
"You have to admit it's possible. So tell me-- how, exactly, are you working all this into your parallel narrative?"
"I'm writing about the history of alchemy," he says. "Which is basically turning shit into gold. It's a whole pseudo-science. Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and turned it into art. That's alchemy, and Wylde does it, too. What he has created is this incredible work of imagination. He takes the bureaucracy and turns it into something fascinating. At least I think so, and you do, too."
I do, and, in fact, I'm a little envious that O'Leary gets to unravel it all once again. I'm envious, that is, until I secure a Crocker File item that he doesn't have yet: Wylde, who'd been thought to be on the Eastern Seaboard--at least, that's where his most recent correspondence had come from--is back in Denver.
"I hadn't heard from him in four years," says public-relations exec Kyla Thompson, whose stationery was once one of Wylde's favorites. "Since then, I sold my company and I don't even go downtown much. My name isn't on the door or anything. But one day a few weeks ago, when I did go downtown, I heard someone asking for me. It was Wylde! He left me a bunch of rocking-chair crap. Then he sent more in the mail. Who can I contact to let them know he's back? Isn't there a detective?"
"I don't know," I say. "I don't think he's violent, exactly."
"No? Well, he used to scare the hell out of my staff," Thompson says. "Anyway, one day I ran after him and met him at the elevator. And I said, 'Look, stop it. Cut it out.' And he got nervous, oh, incredibly nervous, and he said, 'I'm not hurting you.' And I said, 'You scare us. Just stop.' He didn't stop. He turned out to be just like my ex-husband, and then I remembered: You have to treat crazy like crazy."
"How did he get all your stationery?" I ask.
"He would have had to stake out my reception desk for hours! Think of the energy it took! Anyway, hang on. I'll tell you what I got in this latest batch. Hmm...some stuff on stationery from some law firm called Crocker, Graham. From some photographer in New Orleans named Will Crocker. And, hey! Remember Antelope Bukowski? He's back, too! And it goes on, page after page after page!"
"He's back? In Denver? Really? Wow!" O'Leary says, when I tell him the news. "I wonder...but I have five other classes! I can't do this forever!"
"When's your term paper due?" I ask.
"At the end of March. And it's not a term paper, exactly. It's supposed to be a portfolio--ten pages of my best stuff. But obviously," he says, "it's going to be a lot longer than that.
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