Robert Cohen (Nigeria 1962-64) was an Associate Peace Corps Director in Liberia from 1965 to 1967, and is today an educational consultant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and cabaret singer. He has also been on the board of Friends of Nigeria. In 1963, he was Alan’s roommate in Nigeria.
As his roommate in Africa, what do you remember most about Alan in Nigeria?
His “wedding,” a rag-tag affair that took place at a Yoruba Magistrates Court, in midday, all of us suited and tied for the occasion and sweating mightily as we all awaited our group’s turn before the magistrate. This was one event that Alan could NOT simply OBSERVE. He was the main character, along with fiancee Judith, and unaccustomed to that role, despite his writing. Also, I remember the going-away party Weiss and Judith held for at least a dozen of us. Weiss sat at the end of a long banquet table in his house and held us in thrall as he “roasted” each of the honored guests. Others chimed in with wit and drollery, but we deferred to Weiss, and he carried the day.
And I’ll always remember that Weiss was the messenger bearing me the news that JFK had been shot. I was in a University of Ife classroom in the late afternoon or early evening, rehearsing a bunch of students for an upcoming play, and Weiss rode up on his Honda 50, shouting at me, flailing his arms like a madman. “Kennedy’s been shot, Cohen . . . shot in Dallas . . . he’s been shot.”
I could only think this was a joke, and I remember shouting back to Weiss — his Honda was still running — “Can’t you see I’m busy, Weiss? Get outta here, g’wan get out, I’ll see you later.” And Weiss just revved the Honda and drove off.
What is so revealing now to me about this is that Weiss was not a practical joker; not a schemer, he was too busy just observing. But at the moment it was far easier for me to think him totally out of character than to believe the news he was bringing to me.
What was his greatest gift, as a storyteller? Or a writer?
I think, had he lived, he would have written a lot of good, publishable stuff. He was not a storyteller, a good raconteur, yes, but not a maker-up of stories. His greatest gift was his accuracy of visual observation, plus a fine ear for speech. I like to think that he would have been capable of a fine “nonfiction novel,” with the bravado and intensity of, say, one of Mailer’s finest, Of a Fire on the Moon.
In what ways was he driven?
He was my chosen housemate. He was a driven observer, and a disciplined notebook-keeper. I fell asleep while he clacked away a few hours every afternoon on his typewriter. As far as I know, he wrote down what he observed, and that was his way of creating a reservoir of material for later writing.
What kind of Volunteer was he?
I haven’t a clue. He certainly was not a magnet for students; I can’t recall a single student of his coming to our house. In some ways, I think he depended on other PCVs to initiate going places and seeing things. I did not see him as adventurous. It didn’t take much to “observe” to keep his appetite for observation fully occupied. He had all antennae out, a skilled eavesdropper.
Why do you think he did what he did?
I think that once Weiss thought he was no longer capable of writing, he was unwilling to give up the one thing he wanted to do (and had done, reasonably successfully): write. He was unwilling and/or unable to change his direction. He could not redirect his hopes for himself, and so he became hopeless, despairing.