Death of an enigma: West Philly Omar

Omar
Omar Lahyane, 51, a street eccentric known as “West Philly Omar” died an apparent suicide on June 7.

The news broke on the Philadelphia Reddit page. Within hours, Facebook and Twitter were filled with posts of shock, anger, and sadness about the apparent suicide on Wednesday of  “West Philly Omar,” a complex and ever-present neighborhood fixture. Many remembered the 51-year-old mainstay of 45th and Locust Streets as a boozy lout who would shout sexist and xenophobic comments at passersby. Some remembered a selfless and idiosyncratic soul prone to spontaneous acts of kindness.

Others saw the amusement at his “Mayor of Locust” celebrity status as exploitative of someone who many suspected suffered from mental illness.

Everyone in the neighborhood 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.

The neighborhood held an official vigil Friday night after an informal one Thursday. Hundreds of residents filtered in and out at the intersection where Omar once stood directing, blocking, and dancing in traffic. Even a police car stopped by, playing a video of Omar.

His presence is well-documented online, on Reddit, YouTube, and even a Yelp page listing him as a “Local Flavor.” But he left little evidence on the public record, having never owned a home or held a job in Philadelphia, according to several people. He slept on various neighborhood porches and relied on donations to fund his enormous consumption of alcohol and cigarettes.

“He came with your lease,” joked longtime friend Brian Morseburger. “You either figured out how to find a place in your heart for him, or you moved out.”

Many residents who grew close to him considered him family. They recounted his encyclopedic knowledge of film, his affection for pets and for walking dogs, and his repertoire of philosophical rants that some found incomprehensible. He was always smartly dressed in clothes rooted from donation bags left out front of the Second Mile thrift store. He often gave people clothing, somehow always in their exact size and style.

However, he had a dark side when he drank — which was often.

He would hurl insults about people’s clothing, weight, and ethnicity. He’d shout, “Go back to your country!” in his heavy accent. Sometimes it seemed there was no way to avoid his abuse. He accosted residents on the street, crashed their parties, or blew his whistle outside their homes in the middle of the night. His longtime friend Ryan Collerd recalled him berating a woman and her child. There was nary a local business from which he wasn’t eventually banned.

“Let’s just say Omar did not understand consent,” said Morgan Jamison, a close friend of Omar’s for nine years, who called him ” a crash course in humanity” and who appreciated his positive qualities despite his antics.  “He didn’t allow people a choice, and I think that’s why so many people were hurt by him.”

At the same time, many women described him as protective — someone who would go out of his way to make them feel safe and cheer them up. Sharon Curley recalls that after Omar learned that a customer at Green Line Cafe had threatened her at work, he’d show up every day when her shift began at 6:30 a.m.

Many of his close friends struggled to come to terms with this dichotomy. Some, like West Philly resident Sheila Myers, drew a distinction between his drunken behavior and the “real” Omar. Myers said the two wrote notes back and forth to each other in a notebook she kept on her porch until the book was full.

“I believe the degree of culpability is somewhere in that ether,” Myers said. Omar even developed a rapport with the police, who could recognize an Omar complaint simply by its description, and would come by to chat with him, never making an arrest, according to two 18th District officers.

Collerd described Omar as a man who loved animals (because “they didn’t ask him any questions,” he said), and recalled tearfully the day the two visited an animal refuge. Omar was so “psychologically in a good place” that he declined a beer on the way home, an anomaly.

Others considered Omar’s verbal abuse inexcusable.

“His ability to just single somebody out and pick somebody apart was sharp and cutting,” said Jamison. “There are people who legitimately did not deserve or invite those buttons to be pushed.”

He called his close friend Aziz Akabouche a terrorist, even though Omar himself was Moroccan and raised Muslim, just like Akabouche. Many figured that his behavior toward others reflected some inner conflict.

“I think ultimately Omar disliked himself more than anyone,” said Collerd.

Omar was enigmatic by intention. While many called him a close friend, few knew even his last name.

According to his birth certificate, Omar Lahyane was born on March 16, 1966, in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris. His family are Berber, an indigenous North African group. Akabouche said the family moved back to Morocco when he was young, and eventually lived in Germany for a short time. According to Akabouche, Omar always dreamed of coming to the United States and moved to Florida in 1991 to work as a performer at Disney World. After that, with his visa expired, he moved around for a bit, ending up in Philadelphia roughly 25 years ago, carving out a home among the residents at 45th and Locust.

Since Omar’s death at the Stafford Township home of friends with whom he stayed with periodically over the last 15 years, Akabouche has been helping to plan a memorial service at Calvary United Methodist Church, 801 S. 48th St., from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday.

His friends say Omar often talked about his death. He said he wasn’t afraid of it, and urged others not to be either.

Jamison recalled asking him several years ago how he wanted to be remembered.

“Dig a hole in the ground, have everybody bring something they hate, the color they hate,” he told her. “Bury me in the colors that everybody hates, and I can take them with me.”