Philly was home for a long time, West Philly, specifically. West Philly is not for everyone. There aren't as many restaurant options, even fewer bars and venues, and the only way in is up a hill (I was going to mention its distance from other neighborhoods, but Fishtown is far as hell and people go up there all the time). But what West Philly lacks in those big city amenities, it makes up for with its small community charm. Backyard hangs around a fire pit, impromptu events in Clark Park (Bluegrass to Fire Spinning to Slip n Slides), and probably most importantly, colorful neighbors intertwined in surprising networks. The degrees of separation between you and your neighbors is at most two to three, building unexpected friendships in short time.
On Wednesday, West Philly lost one of its most colorful and socially interwoven (for better or worse) neighbors: Omar. West Philly Omar, with many other nicknames depending on the company, was a staple in the neighborhood, mostly floating around Locust St. between 43rd and 45th. Anyone that stopped by Abyssinia or Fiume even once would know him. For anyone who hasn't and doesn't, Omar was, in simplest terms, a local homeless man that never seemed too low on energy to talk to a passersby. But he was a lot more than homeless, and he may not have even been that (according to some). He was a drunken berater, a sober wordsmith, a slurred poet, a clear eyed advisor, a racist asshole, a friendly face, and above all in my experience, a record of the neighborhood. He was a living embodiment of the good and the bad that are West Philadelphia.
|Omar (Kyle Cassidy - Philly.com)|
I found out about his death on Facebook, and the responses therein varied widely. Omar was not a simple person. People loved him for good reason. People hated him for good reason. I liked Omar. He was always nice to me, but I can't speak to the experiences other people had. He seemed to always be at his worst when drunk, and I can't tell you why someone that could be so eloquent when sober would want to get so wretchedly drunk each night, but my assumption is that he was either numbing pain or stopping voices. I never asked.
When I read about his death, it hit me a lot harder than I could have ever expected. It felt like losing a close friend or family member, of which Omar was neither, and I wasn't quite sure why. Then it sunk in that Omar wasn't just Omar; he was the West Philly that I'd just left and now couldn't go back to because it/he was dead. My brain was being dramatically symbolic, I know, but hear me out. Omar was the neighbor that everyone knew and who knew everyone. That was my West Philly experience. Everyone knows each other, even if they don't all like each other, and that's why it works. There is social glue to hold everything together. And I say this as I'm currently not looking forward to battling the Seattle Freeze, thinking about how the friendly, open, neighborliness of West Philly, or at least the biggest symbol of it, is gone.
More personally, though, Omar was the last West Philadelphian I saw as I left town, which carried a lot of weight. As I thought about that fact, I realized that Omar had quite literally book ended my Philadelphia life. It starts a tad convolutedly, but my first good friend in Philly was Jon. We lived on the same floor in the dorms and eventually became roommates. Our freshman year, Jon had friends going to Penn, and through them I was first introduced to Omar (pointed out from across the street). When I left Philadelphia last week, while driving up 45th St. with a carload of life, Omar was standing on the corner (probably the same corner that I first saw him on) having a conversation. I hollered out the window, "Hey, Omar! I'm moving to Seattle," and then kept driving north, past The Second Mile, past Saad's, past Philadelphia. He was my last human proxy for an entire city. And now he's gone.