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Street Poet's words can go where he didn't fit in

Michael O'Connor never quite fit in.

"I've always done exactly what I've wanted to do and been beat up, thrown out of places, spit on, laughed at, sent to the principal's and dean's offices, suspended, been busted, been used, lied to, seduced, felt horrible about my own lot in life . . ."

He wrote two books about being an outsider. Typewritten books that he would trade on the streets for cash. The same way he'd trade a poem he'd make up on the spot for beer money.

I met him in 1989 when he was peddling his instant poetry. We spent a long evening together strolling the decaying mansions near Kennedy Boulevard where he lived.

In the column I wrote, I called him "The Street Poet of Hyde Park."

It wasn't an easy job. Being Michael O'Connor was never easy. He called himself the "dark lamb" of his comfortably middle-class family. Mental illness, drugs and too much beer kept him constantly grappling with life.

"I'm not gonna start this question of existence again. I'm going to say the Lord's Prayer, get up, shave and shower and write until the gray matter begins dripping from my ears onto my typewriter keys. . . . I've got to move forward and accept life . . . until they find my corpse, cold and alone in this new place that I've learned to call home."

Last Tuesday, they found Michael's corpse in the new place he called home. A tiny house in Sulphur Springs that caught fire, probably from a cigarette or a candle he'd left burning. He was 38.

They found him beside his bed where he'd crawled to escape the choking smoke. Next to my bed that same morning was a copy of Michael's last book.

It had been five years or more since I'd seen the Street Poet of Hyde Park. Five years since Michael had dialed my number asking for a story, a lift, or 10 bucks to hold him until his check arrived.

He'd been out of sight but not completely out of mind. I'd gathered some of the outcast characters I'd written about into a play. One of them was the Street Poet. Friday, March 14, was opening night.

That afternoon, Michael called.

"I'm living in Sulphur Springs now," he told me. "I saw the ad for your show. Am I a character?"

Michael never saw the show.

His appearance at the Performing Arts Center the next day had caused the usual commotion. Perhaps it was the edgy look in his eye. Perhaps the red, puffy face and the sweat-matted hair. More likely it was the insult he'd hurled at one of the security guards.

I hustled him out of there before things got ugly.

As we walked to my car, he handed his last $2 to a beggar in a wheelchair.

"I've got a problem with authority figures, and they have a problem with me," he said, as we drove north toward Sulphur Springs. "No matter what I do, I'm never good enough or clean enough or straight enough for them."

It wasn't just authority figures. Michael had managed to get himself tossed out of just about every poetry gathering in town at one time or another. He'd yearned for acceptance as a writer and as a person. But Michael never was very acceptable.

That Saturday, after I gave him 10 bucks, we sat for a while in his living room talking about writing.

He called me Monday to see how the show had gone. I was off and didn't hear his voice mail message until Tuesday morning. Had I read his book? Could he get a copy of my script? Could we get together?

I didn't know then I was listening to the voice of a dead poet.

Like many poets, Michael's death may have given him the validation he longed for in life. The fire was covered by all the television stations and newspapers. There were photos, and his name was mentioned.

Thursday, in his obituary, Michael was identified as "a self-employed author."

He would have liked that.

"My reputation is growing. I had to learn to be patient and suffer the consequences. I've prayed to God to make me not just a good writer, but a great writer. I even got down on my knees, a cheap beer in my hand, all by myself in the woods, and asked Great Spirit for that, the beery teardrops running down my cheeks like a river of longing. To be understood; to understand; to live each day . . ."