Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
Birthday
December 31
Bio
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at robertisenberg.net.

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SEPTEMBER 1, 2011 10:19AM

The Vanishing of Sombrero Man

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Sombrero Man

Photo by Karen Hoffman 

 

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.

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It's really sad, actually, how there was this person in our midst who everyone claimed to like but no one took the time to talk to - or help. He's remembered now like a *thing*, he was treated like a *thing*, and even if he was a beloved *thing*, that doesn't change the fact that he was a *person* who got dehumanized and ignored in every way that mattered by thousands of people, myself included. And rhapsodizing about him as some piece of oral history just continues that dehumanization, while we pat ourselves on the back for "remembering" when really, remembering, even eulogizing, even rhapsodizing, isn't worth shit. That man was completely left behind by society, and 60,000 people couldn't even be bothered to learn his name while they pointed and stared at him. And I don't think that makes him legendary; it makes him another victim of America's vast, callous compassionlessness for the marginalized, elderly, and mentally ill.

I'm not saying I'm any better than any other Pitt alumni who went past him and giggled at his "Change ... change" line; I'm just saying, let's be honest with ourselves.
Hey, Lekkers, just wanted to thank you for your comment. You're absolutely right -- homelessness is a critical issue, not only in Pittsburgh or even the U.S., but around the world. It's hard to say whether people offered to help him, but he had clearly fallen through the cracks. I also appreciate your modesty: The vast majority of us obviously passed him by like visitors to a zoo.

I would offer, though, that a person can be a victim and legendary at the same time. I think a lot of people remember him in a nostalgic (and yes, trivializing) way, but in the end this is how we will all be remembered, if we are lucky enough to be remembered at all. His circumstances *were* indisputably sad, and I think your suggestion that the "rhapsodizing" dehumanizes him is a very provocative idea. I'll be pondering on that for awhile, believe me. But regardless, the collective memory lingers.

On a less cerebral note, Lekkers, I really do hope this man (yes, this person) has found some kind of peace, as I would wish for any decent human being. Thanks for the nudge to say so.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I was reminded to return to this piece today when I came across this:

http://kellyblitzenberger.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/the-life-and-times-of-sombrero-man/

which details the actual life, insofar as we can know it, of Sombrero Man, Homer Clark. I was extremely gratified to learn that he did have some care and support in his life, and although I don't think this excuses the thoughtlessness of myself and others in the way they talked about and to Mr. Clark, I'm still very glad to hear it.

To clarify, I don't think that you intended to victimize or dehumanize Mr. Clark with your piece here; rather, I'm concerned that continuing to think about him as something other than a regular, real person, even if we think of him as a legend or hero instead, inadvertently mirrors the process by which others refused to think of him as a person instead of an amusement, a phenomenon that was problematic both abstractly and concretely in terms of how he was treated by many.

Anyway, I'm happy to share the above blog about the real Sombrero Man, and again, thank you for your thoughtful reply.