On a recent May morning my wife and I visited Barron Cannon, whom we hadn’t seen much since the previous fall when we met him picketing The Hungry Conscience, a vegan restaurant in our neighborhood.
The first time we encountered Barron we were attracted by the flashing lights of a police car at the eatery, and were greeted by the sight of a slender pony-tailed man in his 30s bearing a placard on a stick with a single word scrawled on it: HYPOCRITES.
The two patrolmen who had been called to the scene by one of the outraged cooks were politely asking if he would refrain from protesting without a permit. Although he insisted he had more than enough reason, he reluctantly agreed to go home, and strode off, his picket sign thrown over his shoulder.
He was going our way, and after falling into step with him, we were astonished to learn he was himself a vegan.
“Eating is an act of nourishing my body and soul,” he said. “I choose to do no harm.”
He did not eat animals, drink their milk, or wear their leather. He eschewed all animal products for any reason, at all. He considered eating honey exploitive and avoided it.
“I don’t like people who eat animals,” he said, “but that’s just about everybody, and since that is not changing anytime soon, that’s that, there they are. At least I don’t have to live with them.”
As least as long as they weren’t his parents.
“My parents are the worst,” he said. “They are always bringing chickens, pigs, ground beef, Slim Jims, beef jerky, Spam, and sardines home from the grocery. I see them in their kitchen every day, sticking forks into decomposing flesh and animal secretions.”
It turned out he lived in a yurt in the backyard of his parent’s home overlooking the Metro Park, barely a mile south of Lake Erie. He did not have a job, a car, a refrigerator, a wife, or any pets.
“Don’t even get me started on pet slavery!” he said.
A philosophy major with a Master’s degree and more than a hundred thousand dollars in unpaid student debt, Barron Cannon was unqualified for nearly any job, even if he had been interested.
He did not vote, watch television, or take medicine.
“By FDA requirement,” he explained, “each and every pharmaceutical is tested on animals.”
He was a vegan purist, pursuing his ideals to their logical conclusion.
He had few friends, other than several elderly bicycle-riding hippies and a handful of retirees in the neighborhood for whom he did odd jobs. But, he only worked for them if they did not have cars and agreed not to talk about their problems.
Whenever we visited Barron we always walked, because if he knew we had driven to see him, he would refuse to see us.
“Can’t we just drive and park a block away?” my wife asked, reminding me of the four-mile round-trip hike from our house.
He lived on an allowance his parents begrudged him, shopped at a local farmer’s market, practiced yoga every day for two hours, followed by an hour of meditation, and only recently had gotten his yurt connected to his parent’s power supply.
Unbeknownst to them he had dug a trench from the connection at the back of their house to his yurt, into which he had buried a concealed electric transmission wire.
“I found out we are on the nuclear power grid now, which I will tell you is a blessing,” he said. “It gets dark and cold in this yurt in the middle of January.”
“I used to heat it with firewood from the park,” he added. “I had to collect it at night, otherwise the rangers gave me grief. I don’t think they liked me.”
He now heated his yurt with a 5000 BTU infrared quartz heater, and compact fluorescent bulbs were strung from the rafters.
Barron Cannon had previously refused to enjoy either electricity or natural gas, on the premise that both are petroleum products, in which are mixed innumerable marine organisms.
“That’s one of the things I can’t stand about those leaf-eaters at the restaurant, cooking their so-called vegan cuisine with gas made from the bodies of dead fish,” he said. “And the Guinness they serve, it comes from kegs lined with gelatin. They are too busy ringing up the cash register to even know what they are doing!”
Vegetarians drew his ire, too, although he tolerated them.
“I can put up with vegetarians if I have to,” he said, which I reluctantly admitted to being when he quizzed us. He gave me a mirthless grin.
My wife, who describes herself as an omnivore, on the side of free range and organic, aimed a dazzling smile at Barron Cannon, keeping her eating habits to herself. As we approached the road overlooking the Metro Park valley we gazed out across a sea of green treetops, always a welcome sight after a long winter.
Barron Cannon’s yurt was on the backside of a sprawling backyard on the edge of the valley, where Hogsback Lane intersects with Stinchcomb Hill, named after the founder of the park system. It is a bucolic spot in the middle of the city.
I was loath to mention that William Stinchcomb had been a pork roast and beef tenderloin man in his day, as well as president of the Cleveland Automobile Club.
“Vegans are the worst, the whole lot of them,” he said. “Show me a vegan who isn’t an elitist, or spouts veganism who is not a do-gooder, or making mounds of money from it, explaining how it’s all one big happy equation, yoga, and veganism, and new-age capitalism, and flying to their Lord Vishnu immersions in Germany, and everywhere else around the globe for their yoga retreats, damn the carbon footprint, and I’ll show you the real invisible man.”
Since Barron Cannon did not own a phone, or even a doorbell, we were relieved to find him at home. He was laying out rows of seeds and tubers inside his yurt, where he had opened the flap over the roof hole and hiked up the walls. We joined him, sitting down on the canvas field chairs that passed for his living room, my wife remarking how pleasant and breezy it was inside his home.
I was nonplussed to see an Apple laptop on a small reading table.
“I keep up,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a caveman.”
Barron led us out to his new garden. He had dug up most of his mother’s backyard, dislodging wild roses and rhododendrons, and was planting rows of root crops, including beets, onions, turnips, and potatoes. He was especially proud of his celery.
“I cover my celery with paper, boards, and soil. They will have a nutty flavor when I dig them up in December.”
“I don’t eat anything from factory farms,” he continued. “In fact, I am getting away from eating anything from any farms anymore, at all. Farms whether big or small are not good ideas. Freedom is a better idea.”
As we prepared to leave, Barron scooped handfuls of birdseed from a large barrel into a small brown paper bag.
“You should take every chance you have to feed the birds and other animals you see outside your house,” he said. “Give them good food, organic food, not processed. It will make such a difference in their lives.”
On the sidewalk in front of his parent’s ranch-style house, Barron Cannon touched the brim of his baseball cap in farewell.
“Be a real vegan. That’s the biggest thing any of us can do,” he said.
On our way home my wife was unusually quiet. As we passed a small café with outdoor seating, we thought we would stop for refreshments.
“I know chocolate brownies have eggs in them,” my wife said, “and cappuccino has milk in it, and I know Barron wouldn’t like this, but right now I think I need to sit down in the shade and enjoy myself for a few minutes.”
We both agreed that the vegans we knew were ethical and compassionate, their lives complementing their health, humanitarian, and environmental concerns. We could not agree on whether Barron Cannon was a determined idealist, a mad ideologue, or simply lived in an alternate universe.
We had espresso and cappuccino, raisin scones and chocolate brownies, watched the sun go down over the western edge of the valley, and walked the rest of the way home in the dusk in a happy buzz.