The extraterrestrial sits on a couch in his bare feet, as always. He looks up at a blank artist's canvas hanging crookedly on the wall. Only it's not blank. There are vague grayish shapes and blotches in the white background.
"That picture is transforming right now," Prince Mongo proclaims. "It's the resurrection of the world. The Earth doesn't have much time left. We're on the second run right now. That painting is the tunnel to life."
When will it be finished?
"It won't end until the world ends. Then I will take the people I'm going to save back to Zambodia."
It may sound like the ravings of a demented street person babbling on the sidewalk, but Prince Mongo isn't homeless. He's sitting in his $2 million Fort Lauderdale home near Las Olas Boulevard. With a pool and an elevated wooden deck on the Intracoastal-connected canal in the backyard, it's a beauty of a place. And the home is apparently just a small part of his fortune. He also owns homes in Virginia Beach and Memphis, and he skis in Vail. "He's got more money than God," says his neighbor, Bill Concha.
But when Mongo sleeps, he does it on a little mat in the family room, like a poverty-stricken college student. He wears old T-shirts and shorts and, as mentioned, never, ever wears shoes (even when walking in the snow in Vail, he claims). "I don't need money," he says. "I live off the stars and the earth and the energy of the sun."
Prince Mongo isn't tall, maybe five-foot-seven, and he's got a pretty good-sized belly. He likes to eat. When I paid him a surprise visit last week, he offered me radishes, sushi, goat's milk, vegetable soup, and a ham sandwich. I told him I'd just had some eggs. "You ever have sardines and eggs?" he asked. "They're good."
The first thing I noticed was the change in his hair. When I'd first met Mongo the week before, his hair was grayish and seemed to have some kind of oil in it. Now it was pitch black, looking windblown and sticking straight up like something from a 1980s pop band. "It does funny things all the time," he said of his hair. "Some mornings, I'm blond. Some mornings, I'm a bush. And some mornings, it's black-black. There's great power in my hair; it helps protect me from demons trying to get near me."
Mongo looks to be in his 50s, but he says he's 333 years old. Three is his favorite number it has some special significance in Zambodia, his original home nine light-years away.
"When I hit Earth, I fragmentized and went all over the world," he explains. "I then began assembling myself and still am."
His first identity on Earth was as a Blackfoot Indian chief in the Dakotas. Since then, he's had 33 wives, all of whom have died. "They can't last like I can," he explains.
His mission is to save the Earth. Right now, he's working on saving hundreds of thousands of people from the coming bird flu epidemic. Such a huge task involves meditation and the use of spiritual dusts and elixirs he's brought from Zambodia. I asked him what he thought of the Bible. "Jesus is exactly what you know him to be; he's in control of our planet too, you know," he told me. "It isn't like I'm a supreme being. I'm only a messenger."
He says he's gone to several universities including the University of Virginia, Tulane, Columbia, and William and Mary and has a doctorate, though he won't say in what. He claims that he's been living winters in Fort Lauderdale for 33 years, but county records show he's owned the home only since 1985. When he leaves for parts north, he still doesn't lock the doors. "Anybody can come in here anytime and take what they please," he says. "I don't care. I'll give anything away. People are always walking off with my TVs. I don't mind. I have a terrible phobia about throwing things away. Why throw things away when you can give it away?"
Only those with eclectic tastes could appreciate Mongo's household goods. He's got paintings all over the walls, many of which he's done himself (and he's a very fine artist). There are kites, model planes, fossils, and a few things that can only be described as dried-up sea creatures festooned about the house. Everything on the walls is crooked or upside-down. One room has so many off-kilter paintings and album covers tacked onto the walls (cool old ones like the original soundtrack to The Treasure of Sierra Madre) that I felt a bit of vertigo when I walked inside.
In his living room is a poster of himself walking across the road wearing mirrored welding goggles, a long gray wig, a rubber chicken around his neck triumphantly holding up what looks like a human leg bone. On another wall are the innards of an old piano keyboard, which he says was given to him by Liberace, an old friend. And then there's the transforming white painting, slowly coming into focus as the world winds down.
On his front porch, six Christmas trees surround the door. "My Christmas doesn't begin like y'all's," says Mongo, who speaks with a light Southern accent. "Christmas changes for me depending on the moon and the energy lines. This year, it's in February."
In the backyard, near the water, an upside-down toilet sits by itself. His neighbor, Concha, says that there used to be 50 toilets on the property but that Mongo has cleaned it up a bit. Mongo gets along pretty well with his neighbors these days, though he's been hit with a few code violations for the "artwork" he's kept outside his home in years past. "We had a war once," he says. "I won. They moved away. I'm still here."
On the water is a yacht he takes out regularly. He fishes but doesn't golf ("I once hit a golf ball so hard it caught on fire, so I quit that game"). He's also a political hound and has a special distaste for George W. Bush and the Iraq War. "Bush is no savior or warrior for this country," he says. "He will be remembered like Lyndon Johnson. He will be a pig in the eyes of people who know what really happened."
Prince Mongo is undoubtedly entertaining, but I kept thinking, "Who is he kidding?" Was he mad, or was he simply a performance artist who never got off the stage? I had to find out who he really is. A news search showed that he's only been mentioned once in local papers. It was a few weeks ago in the Sun-Sentinel in a story about Farris "Baghdad Boy" Hassan, the teenager who traveled to Iraq. The newspaper identified him as "Prince Mongo, a neighbor who has known the Hassan family for years." There was no further explanation.
So, according to the local newspaper of record, he was Prince Mongo. Surprised the editors didn't add that he was 333 years old and from Zambodia.
When I first asked Mongo for his given Earth name, he skirted the question. But he did tell me that he'd run for every political office there was in Memphis. And he said that he'd grown up in Virginia and that his "Earth parents" were named Roebuck and Minnie and had already returned to his home planet. I knew it was rumored his family was wealthy, and I asked him about it. "They liked to own what they walked on," he said rather cryptically.
It was Concha who gave me Mongo's given name: Robert Hodges.
I was off to the races. With a quick Internet search, I found out that Hodges is famous in Memphis, where he has owned several large nightclubs in the town, including the giant Prince Mongo's Planet three stories and 30,000 square feet of partying and another called the Castle, which was housed in a century-old stone mansion that looks as if it might have appeared in Nosferatu.
If previous published reports in Memphis newspapers are correct, he's now 58 years old. The first reference I found to the fact that he never wears shoes dated back to a mayor's campaign in 1978, when he was just 30. He's run for office countless times, always losing. Over the decades, Hodges has been involved in an ongoing and quite epic battle with the powers that be in that city. His favorite epithet for politicians seems to be "skunk bat." He's complained that his political activism has prompted the city to target his drinking establishments. Others counter that his bar was a sleazy haven for drunk teenagers for years and needed to be shut down and all of them, incidentally, were.
Hodges has been jailed a handful of times, mostly for contempt of court. He made national news when he appeared before a judge in 1983 covered in green body paint and wearing a fur loincloth. The Tennessee Supreme Court overruled the conviction on the grounds that Hodges was practicing his religion.
How can you not love that? His stunts made him a household name in Memphis, got him featured on the 1980s show Real People, and gave him a taste of national media attention.
"On the Mongo question, Memphis is generally divided," nationally syndicated columnist Bob Garfield wrote in 1987. "Some regard him as a crackpot, others as a shrewd businessman assiduously cultivating a weird persona for the purpose of selling more pizza and beer."
Hodges undoubtedly can get a bit boorish. He's had numerous wars with Tennessee neighbors over what he called "art" in his yards that was more ugly than funny. Once, he was jailed for dumping trash in the yard of one of his enemies. He was also dogged by lawsuits over the drunk-driving deaths of two teenagers who died after they were served beer at the Castle in 1992.
In 2002, Commercial Appeal columnist Michael Kelley bludgeoned Prince Mongo in print. "I've watched as you annoyed one neighbor after another with yard displays and antics that lack creativity," he wrote. "It has become apparent that you're just a provocateur who lives on the publicity you don't deserve but get anyway."
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When I brought up his life in Memphis, Mongo said he's been the victim of harassment for decades there. "When I ran for office and gave speeches, I'd always express myself in a fanatical way," he says. "Even though it's not fanatical. I'd call the other guy a fabulous thief, and every time he'd prove me right. It's real. People are scared to say what I say."
OK, Mongo's definitely not crazy. And he's got his faults. He can be mean and petty, just as he can be funny and inspiring. But he most definitely is one of those rare things on this Earth a man who lives life on his own terms. And he lives it with some imagination and a lot of guts.
And kindness. One of Mongo's greatest passions is helping the homeless, or street people, as he prefers to call them. Nobody in Memphis ever wrote about that. Concha told me about it, saying it was a secret that couldn't be revealed. But after I spent a couple of hours with Mongo, he showed me the cooler in the back of his truck, full of ice and leftover food from a morning delivery. "I try to help unfortunate families who can't pay their bills," he says. "There is no mercy on Earth to help those people."
Good thing there's mercy on Zambodia. Long live Prince Mongo.