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Panhandling Poet Oba Maja, a Wicker Park Fixture, Dead at 71

By Alisa Hauser | October 22, 2015 9:57am | Updated on October 23, 2015 9:24am
 Oba Maja (l.) at age 24; and photo of Matthew Donahue in front of a mural of Maja in West Town.
Oba Maja (l.) at age 24; and photo of Matthew Donahue in front of a mural of Maja in West Town.
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Matthew Donahue/Family

WICKER PARK — A fixture in Wicker Park for decades, 71-year-old poet Oba Maja died last Friday. He was known by thousands of passers-by as the man who sat on the ledge of a Milwaukee Avenue storefront announcing "Poetry! Poetry!" in an attempt to sell his handwritten poems.

Katy Travelstead, a bartender at Pint, 1547 N. Milwaukee Ave., across the street from where Maja preferred to panhandle, set up a GiveForward campaign to raise enough money to help Maja's family get his body out of the morgue and to a funeral home.

"Oba Maja was my friend, and a friend to many people across Chicago. He worked in Wicker Park selling his original poetry for many years. His work was a reflection of himself. He wrote about love, unity, gratitude, and peace," Travelstead wrote.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., on May 25, 1944, Wayne Douglas Locke — who went by the name Oba Maja since the Black Power movement in the 1960s — passed away on Oct. 16 after suffering from organ failure while resting in Legion Park across from his home in Albany Park, according to his younger brother and roommate Mike Locke.

"When I went to the hospital after they took him from the park, his eyes turned green, a green I have never seen on any person before and then they [doctors] worked on him but I realized he was gone. I said, 'See you later,' and walked out of the room. I'm devastated," said Mike Locke on Thursday.

The oldest of seven children, Maja is survived by his youngest brother, Mike Locke, 68,  a sister, Janice Locke, 63, four daughters (Wanda; Tawndalea; Tonia; Crystal) and two sons (Wayne Locke, Jr.; Darryl Locke) from a previous marriage as well as 23 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Maja's daughter Crystal Locke is trying to coordinate a funeral service in Wicker Park's namesake park, 1425 N. Damen Ave., according to Locke, since that is where Maja considered his home to be and where he preferred to hang out.

"Wicker Park was where he felt comfortable. Everyone knew him there," Mike Locke said.

Two years ago, Mike Locke moved to Chicago to help his brother, who was getting sicker and suffering from drug abuse even as his organs, particularly his pancreas and liver, suffered.

Maja has no health insurance and was living on a fixed income, Locke said.

Locke said the family wishes to give Maja a proper burial and does not want to cremate him but may not be able to afford a burial.

Musician Matthew A. Donahue published several of Maja's poems online along with photos of a mural featuring Maja by artist Jeff Zimmerman on Damen Avenue just north of Lake Street.

Donahue helped Maja to publish a printed chapbook of Maja's poems, titled "Avenue of Happiness."

In a poem titled "The Utter Nots," Maja refers to being passed by on the street.

The Utter Nots

The utter nots are the people
(Or maybe they are the clones or gnomes)

They do not return a greeting of hello.
They pretend not to know.
They utter not.

If you ask them how they are today
they would not say.
Maybe because they are not being today.
What can you say?

The utter nots think they are special.
Maybe they think they are better
than the people that speak.
Are they being meak
by making the decision not to speak?

Well, God bless the utter nots because they are soulless.
They don't care to converse with the nothing people.

Services are pending.

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