Philadelphia Lazarus Passes Away

By David Mills
October 11, 2017

When Omar died, apparently a suicide, many remembered him “as a boozy lout who would shout sexist and xenophobic comments at passersby.” Others, Philly.com reported, “remembered a selfless and idiosyncratic soul, prone to spontaneous acts of kindness.” He was Moroccan, born in France, living on the streets in a rough neighborhood in west Philadelphia.

Everyone, the site continued, “seemed to know Omar, whether or not they wanted to. He had a way of forcing an introduction, and of commandeering the conversations and relationships that followed. He inspired strong measures of love and hatred. . . . He slept on various neighborhood porches and relied on donations to fund his enormous consumption of alcohol and cigarettes.”

He Wanted to Be a Good Person

Our eldest lived for a year in a house with one of those porches. She had a fellowship from her college nearby and the fellows lived in one side of a large duplex. The other side was inhabited by sketchy young males who covered their windows with tinfoil.

“He seemed to have suffered some major trauma when he was younger,” Sarah wrote when she sent the story. “He would get drunk and shout at people. Well, more than drunk — obliterated. When he was merely drunk he was entirely pleasant. I could see a lot of times that he wanted to be a good person and make friends with the neighbors but his alcoholism / mental illness did not enable him to. I remember him with bemusement but hope he's found peace.”

He tried to be kind, in his own way. He may have stolen a bicycle from the very wealthy suburbs to the west for one of Sarah’s housemates after she casually mentioned wanting one. The web story tells how he provided his friends with clothes, always the right size and style, apparently lifted from charities’ donation bins. He was in the fellows’ house many times, Sarah said, “and never ever stole anything but food, though he easily could have.”

Omar loved dogs. “I only ever once or twice saw the angry, ranting Omar and we hung out with him nearly every night.” They sat on the porch with their dogs and he was never angry or yelled around them. “They say that sociopaths hate people but love dogs, but I think so do damaged people, who could have been good, because dogs never judge and dogs never hurt you. People,” she added, “can be an untrustworthy mixed bag.”

She continued, “I am seeing things online saying he could be ‘violent’ but they have to mean verbally. I never saw or heard of him laying a hand on anyone and I know he got punched many times — by other streetpeople, and legend has it one irate shop owner who broke one of his ribs. But even when he told the stories, he did not fight back.”

Omar could get verbally abusive, “though usually his speech was so slurred and heavily accented that I couldn't actually understand him. And even then, he could be calmed quite easily. My housemate would say mildly, ‘Yo, Omar, don't be so aggro, dude’ and he would calm right down.”

It is telling, she thought, that the police never arrested him. “I am sure that people called the police on Omar a bare minimum of three times a week (several of my friends have done so when he was carrying on at 3:00 am in the street near their bedroom windows). I think at heart he was a non-violent person, so the police could say the equivalent of ‘Don't be so aggro, man,’ and he would calm down and go on his way.”

A Character in a Story

Omar’s a good story, a colorful character, a slice of life, an entertaining performer from a foreign world. I think I’m not alone in enjoying such stories partly because we look at the subject as a character in a story. We don’t feel people like Omar to be entirely real.

We consume their stories the way we consume short stories, tv shows, and movies. They entertain. It takes an effort of imagination to see the man as a man and not a character. Empathetic and charitable people feel for people like Omar when they read about them, but I suspect that for most of us, the story separates us from the subject’s humanity — maybe only a little, but enough.

What was it like to be Omar? Was he happy in his own way? Did life offer him pleasures with his pains, or did he wake every day hoping just to get through? To die? What had he suffered? What had he lost? What did he want that he couldn’t get? Why did he kill himself at the age of 51, and how long had he wanted to die? Who was he?

Perhaps we see a man like Omar as a story, as a character, because the pleasures of story divert us from deeper, harder, more painful facts. Omar could not be healed in this world. He would never be well. He would always be the tragic subject of stories, affectionate or indignant. His life complicates the happy narrative the safe, secure, bookish live by. Easier to read him as a story, and not look at him as a man. Rest in peace, Omar.