By Gerald Businge
“This interview has to take less than ten minutes. I have to go for my meal,” Omar Lee Robertson says, after agreeing to sit down for this interview. Robertson is seated on the verandah at 2576 Bancroft Way, the same time I have seen him when I pass by this route. It is 4:15pm on this Tuesday and I wonder why someone should be ‘rushing for a meal’ at this time. Omar had answered “I’m hanging on”, a few minutes ago when I a greeted him.
It is the third time I’m finding him at this very spot off Bancroft, and surely Omar looks different from most of the people on this street. It is not just because he is a Black man in a town of many White people. Omar’s chatty character is beyond human warmth, while his clothing and shoes reveal a lot of unfulfilled basic need. He is holding a small tin cup, begging for money from passersby.
Omar says he was born on Feb. 8 1949, to an African immigrant family in Oakland. His father, Le Robertson managed to work his way to the US Navy, from where he retired after 20 years of good service. Like any good parent would, Le Robertson Snr. Encouraged his son Omar Le Robertson to join the US Navy. Omar had successfully completed college at Casaltmort, McArthur Ave. in Oakland.
In 1972, Omar was recruited into the US Navy where he worked for four years, retiring abruptly. “I wanted to be independent. I was crazy. I should have stayed and retired honorably. My father told me that I’m making a great mistake. He said I will regret that decision one day and here I’m,” says Omar, smiling retrospectively at how spot on his father was. But back then in 1976 when he quit the Navy, Omar couldn’t have mastered the kind of wisdom he now hides behind his funny chatty character.
Like many young adults, Omar, then 27 wanted to get a job that will allow him the flexibility to go to hangouts, do what he likes most at the times he wants most and probably get bigger money than he would in the Navy. And those were the days when getting a good job was easy. He got a string of jobs in Oakland before settling at the Oakland City administration. He was by then a married man with four children. Then the urge for another kind of freedom consumed Omar.
“I wanted alcohol. I started drinking too much,” Omar says. It wasn’t long before he was sacked from his job for uncontrolled alcohol drinking. “I used to go the office while smelling alcohol, sometimes still drunk,” Omar says of his regrettable years. He tried to get another job. He was fired in the next two months. “My wife got rid of me and left because of alcohol and because I couldn’t sustain a job. Sometimes, we didn’t have food to eat,” Omar says in matter of fact tone.
With a growing love for the bottle, no job and no family (the wife went with the children), the world beat Omar left, right and even center. That is why he decided to just give up “chasing life” and settle here in Berkeley as a homeless resident. That was in 1979, almost 30n years ago. Boy, he has seen all the bad and good of Berkeley. He has since been operating from his ‘office’ here at the veranda off Bancroft Way. “I was here during last Berkeley riots when the Governor sent the army to quell riots by students,” Omar says. He has endured many cold nights on the streets, the run-ins with the police and the struggle to re-indentify himself as a responsible person.
But Omar has also witnessed an enduring love and care in Berkeley city. “There is no problem of food here. There are many places for the homeless to eat. There are outreach projects of churches who give us food. I’m now going to Trinity Church for my quarter mean which starts at 4pm,” Omar says. For him, that time between 4pm and 6pm matters in life more than any type of food. It is between that time of the day that he has a chance at getting a meal. A genuine meal.
The Berkeley City administration has also made life as homeless person less miserable for Omar by providing free medical care at the Free Clinic off Durant Avenue. “There is also a place with bathrooms for the homeless. We are given free towels, soap shavers at Willwod swimming pool,” Omar says of a life he doesn’t enjoy but is grateful for.
It is from this help in Berkeley that he picked the idea and couragement to give up drinking, go to the rehabilitation center and supplement his begging with some economic activities of his won. “I wake up every day at 6am and head for the streets to look for materials for recycling. I pick bottles, cardboards and other materials and sell them to the recycling plant down town. On a good day, I can make up to 40 dollars,” Omar says.
With that kind of money, and the helping hand of the Churches in Berkeley, you might understand why Omar is a smilling man every time you pass him at his ‘office’ on Bancroft Way. Living more than half of his life in Berkeley, though under unfavourable circumstances has made Omar like the city fondly.
His best moment in life has also come while Omar was here on Bancroft. “The best time was when President Bill Clinton came to Berkeley and he shook my hand. Oh man, that was memorable. He addressed the students and then moved on the street shaking our hands ” Omar recalls with glee in his eyes.
But he still lives at the homeless shelters, sometimes on the streets when the places are full. After 30 homeless years, Omar has learnt all the important lessons. While his jolliness can be confused for a mentally unstable man, Omar speaks with the wisdom that comes from deep reflection.
“I had my chances. I made my choices. I regret some of those decisions, especially leaving my job in the US Navy and taking to drinking,” he says. Today he has managed to beat the drinking habit, courtesy of the support at Alcohol Anonymous club which he joined two years ago. “Alcohol is bad and I want to tell all young people to avoid taking alcohol, not a lot of it. It will ruin your life. I also think we should take our jobs, the opportunities we have more seriously,” Omar advises.
From the old clothes he is wearing, the torn shoes, the colour of his teeth, and the small tin he is holding to beg for money, you might be misled to think Omar is a thoroughly beaten man. But he still has a dream. “My dream is to get a good job. To get off the street and get permanent housing. If this can happen, I will live happily,” he says.
Omar is planning to go to town neighboring Sacramento where the cost of living is lower and look for work and begin a new life. He says he will be living near two of his children who live and work in Sacramento. There, he expects to settle down and reminisce the good stories of his life. Especially the time in the Navy which took him to Philippines and Mombasa in Kenya, where he camped for two weeks. “Oh,” Omar gestures he has to go for his meal. “I will tell you about Mombasa and other expedition next time you want to interview me,” he says. The time for the meal is really very important to him.