He’s disabled. His closest friend is a goat. He lives in a house that has no heat or water. And he was nearly beaten to death during a recent robbery.
Yet he thinks life is beautiful.
Erick Brown has spent a lifetime trying to find a place to fit in. The 31-year-old suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was a toddler. He doesn’t talk or act like other people. He’s socially awkward and childlike.
“I grew up as a person with disabilities,” he said. “I’ve always been picked on my whole life because I’ve always been different.”
He was bullied as a kid. Laughed at as an adult. He's had few real friends. All of this could've made him bitter and withdrawn. Instead, he somehow became a sunny proponent of peace and love, an energetic advocate for the outcasts and the oddballs who aren’t considered normal or mainstream. Just like him.
For the past few years, he's traveled the country on a bus with his pet goat, preaching that everyone is beautiful just as they are, that people should follow their dreams no matter who makes fun of them or tries to discourage them. He's become a celebrity of sorts, drawing crowds and media coverage wherever he and his goat visit.
Last year, he discovered Detroit, the land of wide-open spaces and new beginnings, the kind of place where someone who’s different can settle down, find a cheap house and live in peace however they want. He fell in love with the city and decided to make his home here, and he invited total strangers to come join him.
His generosity nearly cost him his life.
On a mission
When Erick was 4 years old he fell down the stairs at his childhood home in Colorado and landed on his head. He was severely injured. He lost his vision for a time. He couldn’t speak again until he was 8, and he was left with a speech impediment from the accident — the letter “R” comes out of his mouth like the letter “W,” so when he says "recycle," for example, it sounds like "wecycle," which lends whatever he says an endearing, childlike quality. He can’t read or write beyond elementary phrases, and his mind often gets lost mid-sentence when he talks.
“He’s had it really hard,” said his 37-year-old sister, Karen Grady-Brown. “He’s had to endure a lot. He’s always gotten told, ‘You’re different. You’re disabled. You can’t do things like the other kids.’ ”
He had a difficult time in school, a tough time finding work, and, in his wandering quest for meaning, he often ended up homeless. That’s why in high school he’d walk around with everything he owned on his back, including a guitar, which school administrators told him he couldn’t bring anymore because he wasn’t in the school band or in a music club. So he founded a group called the Rock Club Foundation, not just to comply with the rules, but also to create something for people who don’t get invited to other groups.
Despite his struggles, he’d made it through life relatively unscathed because of the protective care of a handful of people, particularly his sister Karen, who lives in Seattle and calls him every day to see where he is and how he’s doing. That unconditional safety net has shaped his worldview, and since he usually sees universal significance in his personal circumstances, he's made it his mission to tell the world that everyone deserves to be loved and taken care of, just like he was.
“Because I feel like through all my life, I’ve always been provided for, and that if I’m able to, I should provide for others in the community,” he said.
Danielle Knab first met him when he passed the window of the Florida T-shirt shop where she worked and saw her manager yelling at her. He walked inside and began strumming his guitar and making up a song to cheer her up.
“He’s the most amazing person you will ever meet, because everyone always smiles when they see him,” said Knab, 31. “He’s one of those guys that makes everybody want to shine. He wants everybody to be positive, he wants everybody to be loving, he wants everybody to just smile, and that’s what everybody loves about him.”
But he truly blossomed when he got his goat. He was working at a petting zoo at a music festival in 2014 when someone offered him the animal for $80. When he brought it back to his apartment, his landlady thought it was a deer. So he named the goat Deer. “He’s my best friend,” he said.
Deer became his mascot, his ambassador to the world. Above all, Deer was a loyal buddy who didn’t care how Erick talked or what he acted like.
“It gives him a way to relate to the world,” Karen said. “When you’re disabled and you have a speech impediment, a lot of times people look at you like you’re weird. And the goat essentially gave him a way to relate to people. People light up when they see them together, and he would talk for hours and hours. Before that he was so depressed. People really didn’t want to talk to him because people don’t respond that well to people who are different, unfortunately.”
By then, Erick started wearing a long, tie-dyed coat, and he grew his hair and beard long. He’d stroll through downtowns all over the country with his long-haired goat on a leash and a smile on his face, talking sunshine and rainbows in his peculiar way, looking like a psychedelic apostle.
“Honestly, I could not keep a straight face in my first conversation with him,” said Elecka McClay, 31, of Houghton, who met him as his bus travels took him to Michigan last year. “I was like, 'is this dude for real?' It was really hard to understand him because he has a bit of a speech impediment. I just thought it was kind of adorable.”
He could be charming, but some found him difficult and annoying. He doesn’t recognize social cues, and he’s aggressively friendly, particularly with women.
“He kind of steps on personal space sometimes, and you really have to be up front with him and say, ‘Quit doing that,’ ” McClay said. “He can be pretty feisty, but he means well. He does have a really good heart. He just needs some social mentoring.”
A few years ago, Erick bought a battered old bus, named it the Freedom Train, and spent months at a time driving around the country on a quest of self-discovery, stopping at Rainbow Gatherings, where modern-day hippies meet by the thousands in the woods, a scene that was right in Erick’s wheelhouse. He relied on disability payments and donations from strangers to survive, though he often gave his money to anyone who asked. Wherever he went, he drew attention, and he was the subject of dozens of stories in newspapers and on TV news. His Rock Club Foundation pages on Facebook grew to thousands of members.
“What I do is inspire people,” he said. “When I travel America, I realized I have a magical power to make people smile.”
But sometimes the attention was negative. The goat was seized a couple of years ago by a local animal welfare group in Florida after someone reported him allegedly dragging it behind his bike, and he didn’t get his pet back until a vet gave the goat a clean bill of health. Someone in Nashville accused him of kicking the goat, and when the city cited him for having livestock without a permit, he came to court with the goat dressed in a shirt and tie. Debates broke out in Rainbow Gathering chat rooms about whether he was a prophet or a pest. A lot of people can tell something’s different about him, but don’t know about his injury.
“He creeps some people out,” said Detroiter Arjen Bosma, 37, who considers himself a friend. “He’s Goat Man. He’s a different kind of dude. He’s entertainment, but he can also be kind of obnoxious.”
From the beginning, he was too trusting, friends say. He’d let anyone on his bus, and he’d arrive in each new town with a caravan of hippies, hitchhikers and homeless people. One couple asked whether they could ride along while they kicked their meth habit. They stayed for a month.
“Something was bound to happen, just because he welcomes anybody and everybody,” said Christina Singleton, 30, of Denver, who met Erick last year at a music festival in Chicago. “He doesn’t judge anybody, so you never know what kind of people he’s going to surround himself with. A lot of people use him.”
A near-death experience
Last fall, he passed through Detroit and discovered the Psychedelic Healing Shack and Vegetarian Café on Woodward near 7 Mile, the colorful epicenter of a community of young idealists, hippies, artists and squatters who’ve made the rangy, mostly abandoned neighborhood around it their home.
Finally, he felt like he found somewhere he could fit in.
“You can be anything you want to be in Detroit,” he said. “It’s a free place. You can come here, you can get a place to live like nowhere else in the country, will allow you to live and be who you are, and people will accept you with open hands and open arms.”
He excitedly told his sister he’d found his new home. “He just kept talking about this neighborhood in Detroit,” Karen said. “He just couldn’t get it out of his head.”
With her help, he bid on and got a tax-foreclosed, two-story home for $1,350 near Nevada and John R. It was a wreck — crumbling plaster, holes in the roof, broken windows, no utilities. But it had a fenced yard for the goat, and he thought it would make a great headquarters for the Rock Club Foundation. And he enjoyed taking Deer on long walks through the neighborhood, where he and his unusual pet soon became an infamous sight.
As usual, Erick issued invitations for anyone traveling to stay with him in his new home. Soon he had takers — a pair of out-of-state transients claiming they were married found him on a ride-share website. The pair and their dog moved in with him.
Others in the neighborhood thought the pair were sketchy and possibly drug-addicted, including Robert Pizzimenti, the 55-year-old chiropractor who owns the Psychedelic Healing Shack. “He’s a naïve kid,” he said of Erick. “He just wants peace and love on the planet. He’s got a good heart, but when it comes to deciphering people …”
The pair promised to help him fix up his home in exchange for taking them in, but soon they began complaining about the rotten house. On the night of Jan. 13, Pizzimenti phoned Erick, who’d grown nervous about his houseguests, and Pizzimenti offered to evict the pair. The woman overheard the conversation and flipped out.
“She got really mad when I hanged up the phone and then she started complaining about the living conditions of the house,” Erick said. She commanded her dog to attack Erick while the couple beat him in the head with a cordless drill.
“I’m trying to climb up the stairs and they kept pulling me back down the stairs,” Erick said. “All I was trying to do was get out of there and leave.” They tied him up, took his phone and his ATM card, and demanded his PIN number. He gave them a fake one.
When they left to get money he freed himself, took his goat by the leash and walked five blocks in the cold darkness to Bosma’s community center, where he arrived on the doorstep drenched in blood with a broken nose, swollen black eyes, two broken teeth, slashes on his back and gashes in his head.
“He was in disbelief and really shivering and barely conscious,” said Bosma, who called 911. “We were afraid he was going to pass out. It was really scary. It was hard to get him to stay awake.”
Kevin Brown, Erick’s 56-year-old dad, drove that night from his Kentucky home to the hospital, where Erick stayed for several days. “I was astonished,” Kevin said. “I can’t believe that anybody in the world would do this. I mean, they could’ve robbed him without being violent. They beat him up because they were vicious, mean people.”
Kevin took Erick back home to Kentucky for a week to recover, and Bosma took care of the goat while he was away. His attackers fled the state, though everyone in neighborhood knows their names and reported them to police, who refused to comment other than to say the case is still under investigation.
“I think they thought it’d be OK because he was such a poor guy that they could beat his ass and nobody would care,” Bosma said of Erick’s attackers.
Staying the course
People did care, though. A local hardware store donated supplies to seal his doors and windows from the cold. A dentist fixed his teeth for free. The GoFundMe page for the Rock Club Foundation was repurposed by his sister and saw a surge of money to help with his medical bills. “The outpouring of people that have been so kind and helpful to Erick, I tell you, it’s been overwhelming,” said his dad, Kevin.
A week after the attack, Erick was back in Detroit, sitting in his cold bus, his face black and blue, stitches across his forehead. Yet, he said he harbors no ill will toward his attackers.
“I’ve got a lot of scars from everything that happened, but hopefully we can all heal from our scars,” he said, again turning the personal into the universal. “Hopefully, we can all heal from everything that’s done, because we can’t continue to hold baggage forever. We’ve got to learn to forgive people eventually and move on and grow from it.”
He and his goat are staying with friends in the neighborhood as he works to fix his broken-down bus, which sits in front of his broken-down house, where his goat chews through everything in sight, including what’s left of the pipes in the house. He talks excitedly about building his foundation, and planting gardens, and creating a community around him where everyone can belong.
“Sometimes, people that have been through big trauma, a lot of them want to save the world, like a Superman mentality, and that’s how Erick sees himself — as a hero,” his sister said.
Despite all that happened, he plans on staying in Detroit, his wonderful new hometown, on his mission to spread his message of love and unity to anyone who feels like they don’t fit in. Just like him.
“I feel like karma will pay for everything in the end,” he said. “No matter what happens, even if they kill me tomorrow, my mission will be lived out. And people will see that I’m a generous and loving person.”
John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.