I 've always wanted to meet Prince Mongo, the same way you'd want to meet Paul Newman, Robert Duvall or Martha Stewart ? stars in their own galaxies, people who know things, or how to do them.

I'd seen his picture in the Memphis newspaper often enough, running for mayor, going to jail, arriving in court wearing goggles and a cape, a one-man parade. I even talked to him on the phone once. But I'd never had a close encounter.

You can say he's Memphis' main eccentric, but then that's saying Mongo falls into some predictable category. He does not.

Prince Mongo is a walking commentary, an artful dodger, a bright, beguiling fellow, somehow underlining human absurdity with his own bizarre dress and behavior.

I am getting ahead of myself.

Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges is from the planet Zambodia, sent here to save us from earthquakes, hurricanes and from taking ourselves too seriously. Life is not easy for our prince. He must continually be on guard so that aliens from his home planet don't locate him with their homing devices and ferry him home to rule.

When that clever fellow, John Berendt, wrote the best-selling book about Savannah, Ga., called "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," you can bet reporters in every town in America slapped their foreheads and said, "I could have written that book."

For every place does have its oddballs and characters, pigeon-feeders and perennial political candidates.

Every town, however, does not have Prince Mongo. He may be only a prince on Zambodia, but he's king of the "kreative kooks."

If you run an Internet search for the Prince, he'll show up, all right, in bits like a Parade Magazine article headlined "When Neighbors Go Bad." Once, Mongo decorated his front yard with mannequin heads, commodes, traffic cones and a coffin, adding to his art whenever certain neighbors complained.

People have just so much tolerance for deviation, and that's only when it's in someone else's neighborhood. But Mongo has moxie, and money, and he makes his point with gleeful abandon.

You can see why I've always wanted to meet him.

I just never thought it would be at a 50th wedding anniversary celebration in little Iuka, Miss. Ours is a conservative town, with rather predictable parties toasting the opening of dove season or the imminent arrival of a baby. Guest lists vary, but not a lot. Ours is a small social pool.

So when my good friends Luke and Sue Hall celebrated their mighty successful union, I expected to see their church friends and children, maybe a few of their former neighbors from Memphis, where they lived for decades before retirement.

Prince Mongo made the scene! A friend of the Halls from way back, he was dressed rather tamely, in a red golf shirt and blue shorts, no goggles or furs or loincloths. He was barefoot, but then Mongo doesn't do shoes.

Mostly Mongo ran around taking pictures ? he's quite a good photographer ? and charming the ladies with extravagant greetings and hand-kissing. It was a rainy day, so Mongo escorted guests to their cars with an umbrella. He didn't need its cover, he said, because only earthlings get wet.

It was the social coup of the season. Now we all want the prince to grace our gatherings, to lend an extraterrestrial glow to suppers and showers, weddings and wakes. What we'd give for that name on a register. Please, Prince, come graze at our house.

But Prince Mongo is busy, running for Congress or mayor, I forget which. We have to be satisfied with memories.

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