Before he disappeared, Sombrero Man was legend. Now, he lives only in the mind.
He was an old man. A flabby man. In summer, he sat on the sidewalk, legs folded beneath him. In winter, he stood beneath one awning or another, shaking a single maraca. His doll’s eyes stared straight ahead. As students and day-workers flooded past him, they saw his short, stocky frame, his white-bristled cheeks, and they heard him murmur: “Chaaaaaange… spare some change, change…”
And he wore a vast black sombrero. It stood like a floppy black satellite dish above his age-melted face.
He was Sombrero Man. Not the Sombrero Man, not a Sombrero Man, not El Hombre del Sombrero. Just Sombrero Man. No actual name. No age. No city of birth or known criminal record. For years, he manned the streets of Oakland. His voice was low and nasal, and when he sat, he aimed the words at people’s passing knees. When he stood, he was quieter, and he never met another gaze. Folks remember him appearing sometime in the early-to-mid-1990s; his tenure straddled the new millennium. He was Postmodern. He was Everyman. Jocks smirked as they passed him and traded glances with their bros. Girls sidestepped him, giggling to each other. But deep down, people loved Sombrero Man. He was a fixture, a breathing monument. The windy corridor of Forbes Avenue would never be complete without him. For two years running, The Pitt News, the daily student paper at the University of Pittsburgh, dubbed him “Best Oakland Regular.”
Was he homeless? Nobody knew. Was he damaged – psychologically, spiritually? Nobody cared. In a city fraught with poverty, Sombrero Man never received pity or remorse. People dropped money, they pointed and smiled. He waslocal flavor, considered as fanciful and unserious as the Cathedral of Learning, the Original Hotdog Shop, Primanti Brothers Sandwiches.
Then, sometime in 2004, he disappeared. Whssk. Gone.
Some say he moved to “warmer climates.” Others claim he moved permanently to Morgantown, where he was often spotted. Then there were fears that Sombrero Man is no more – deceased, gone forever, without so much as a gravesite to visit.
The stories are endless. Anyone who frequented Oakland during those years remembers Sombrero Man, and everybody has heard something. But there are no definitive facts – no even a real first name.
Oakland is a panhandler’s paradise – if there can be such a thing – and there are plenty of other characters to substitute for him. There’s the Dreadlocked Guy who opens the door to CVS. There’s the Round Woman who always politely asks for change and then says “God bless you” when you decline. There’s “Leroy,” a man whose shtick is always the same: “Hey, let me ask you something,” he says, every time. “I’m not gonna give you some sob story. I just want to get a beer, man. You got five bucks?”
Not to mention Bill Dorsey, the blind gospel singer who sits on a crate, rocks back and forth, and blasts the Lord’s Song from his organ-like vocal chords. The legend of Bill Dorsey – the Man Who Almost Made It – overshadows any of his fellow vagrants.
But nobody could replace Sombrero Man. He was so inoffensive, chanting his mantra (Change… chaaaaange) all day long, never elaborating his narrative. He had no backstory, only a costume, and this was enough for his fans. Some claimed that his sombrero was stolen. Others spotted him at the local Thai restaurant, splitting a bill with another panhandler by dividing a mountain of coins. Some spotted him in Squirrel Hill; others claim he never went to Squirrel Hill. Kevin Koch, a local stage actor and graduate of Point Park University, remembers coming home drunk and stumbling right into Sombrero Man – a rare nocturnal sighting. “We said nothing and both walked on,” Koch recounts.
For that special generation of Oaklanders, Sombrero Man still comes up in conversation. He is that rarest thing in modern American life – an undocumented celebrity, a folk hero of oral history. As far as Pittsburgh’s students are concerned, Sombrero Man has no Facebook page, no email, not a single traceable document. Yet everyone remembers. He may be the city’s most famous person never to exist.
Says one former student: “I still sing his song to myself sometimes. Have any chaaaange…”
“I had forgotten all about him,” says Susan Hicks, a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at British Columbia University. “I remember him being a clear part of my Pittsburgh experience now. Growing up in the suburbs, I never saw people on the street and coming to Pittsburgh was my first exposure to the grittier side of urban life. The Sombrero Man was a part of that, but he was also representative of Pittsburgh’s unique and even appealing grittiness – the homeless people wear sombreros and shake maracas!”
Hicks remembers him being “kind of surly.” She remembers the chant, the maraca-shaking, and she remembers leaving change in his cup or hat. “Not because I felt bad for him,” she says, “but because I liked him. Or at least I appreciated his character.”
The memories are clear yet conflicting. And without so much as an obituary – a summary of his odd existence, marked down in black and white – Sombrero Man is only a patchwork of memories, a man who exists solely in the mind. Unlike the other characters of Forbes Avenue, Sombrero Man is truly, genuinely missed. He is a rare piece of oral history. The people who saw him remember. The people who never saw him will simply never know.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sombrero Man first appeared in Oakland in 2001, however a large number of poeple remember him appearing many years earlier. The author thanks his readers and apologizes for the error.