Editor’s note: This article was originally published in our November 2020 issue. We are republishing it now to celebrate the life of Olantis Livingston, who died in November 2022 at the age of 49. His exuberant spirit and “Colgate smile” will be sorely missed in our office and on the streets of Berkeley, where he sold Street Spirit for 10 years.
“Selling papers is my therapy,” says Olantis Livingston from his chair just outside the Community Foods Market on 32nd and San Pablo in West Oakland. “I’ve been through the good, the bad, and the ugly, and this right here is my therapy.” It’s hard to imagine Olantis separately from the communities in which he sells Street Spirit. In half an hour, he administers a dozen greetings, compliments three strangers on a shirt, a hat, and a smile, respectively, is approached by two friends wondering, worriedly, where he’s been—the hospital, he tells them, but I’m all right, now—and engages in one debate about the merits of argyle sweaters with a young mother going to buy groceries.While he seems to know everyone in the little corner of West Oakland where he lives and sometimes sells papers, Olantis says the place where people really know him is outside of Peet’s Coffee on the corner of Shattuck and Kittredge in Downtown Berkeley. “That’s my block,” he says, passionately. “They know when they see me coming that the boss is here.”
When he’s feeling healthy, Olantis—known affectionately to many of his customers as Big Man—takes the bus down there almost every day. “The thing about it is, you gotta like what you do in order to be committed to it,” he says. “Out of thirty-odd days in a month, if I’m not sick, I’ll take off maybe once or twice a month.” His dedication pays: most months, Olantis is Street Spirit’s top vendor, selling an average of 400 papers each issue.
Olantis’ regular coffee shop haunt is a short two blocks away from the eucalyptus-lined west entrance to Berkeley’s campus.
“I didn’t go to college,” Olantis says. “The streets is my college. And this college aint easy. If you don’t get graded right, you might not be right.”
Olantis has a big and assertive personality, which has led to some misunderstandings over the years, but it has led to even more robust friendships and allegiances among those with whom he’s interacted on the streets. Over the course of his 10 years selling papers in Downtown Berkeley, he’s provided moments of joy to many in the Berkeley community. Zishan Lokhandwala, now a lawyer in Visalia, talks fondly about the friendship that grew between him and Big Man while Zishan was studying at UC Berkeley’s law school.
“I met him very early on during law school,” Zishan remembers. “ I lived in the Mandville studio apartments, and he would park out on Shattuck, and I would pass him all the time. Big Man just has this captivating personality. He is the most dynamic figure in the room. He is that guy.”
Words exchanged in passing transitioned into long stories shared over burgers at Mel’s Diner, or BurgerMeister, and soon most people in Zishan’s life had come to know Olantis, too. Olantis met Zishan’s parents, friends, and his girlfriend.
“That one’s a funny story,” Zishan says, laughing. Olantis was showering in Zishan’s apartment when the woman who Zishan would end up dating for three and a half years came over for the first time. Everything was going well, and then she heard Olantis hollering from the bathroom.” Recognizing Olantis’s voice from talking to him on the street, she turned to Zishan and said, “Is Big Man in your bathroom?”
Certainly, to meet Olantis even once is to remember him—his warmth, his wit, his charm. “I felt like he somehow integrated me into the community,” Zishan says. “I liked to be around him because he made me feel like a part of things. Big Man has this presence where he never seems like a stranger, no matter where he goes.”
And quite a few places Olantis has been. Until age 18 he lived with his mother and siblings in East Oakland. Of boyhood, Olantis remembers being spoiled by his loving mother. “I was the baby, but I was also the black sheep,” he remembers, his eyes crinkling into the familiar lines of a smile. “I kicked ass and took names.” Olantis, who has always thought it important to stand up against bullies, recalls being in the middle of a lot of fights. Oftentimes the police were called to intervene.
At age 18, Olantis went to prison for eight and a half years. “That’s when I was baller blockin’,” he says. “Gettin big money. Selling drugs.” When he got out, Olantis went back to live with his mother, and then got a job working for a car dealership in San Francisco. There, Olantis learned from a mentor how to detail cars, and became a professional detailer by trade. “I loved doing that,” he says. “I really miss it.”
But when Olantis’ mother passed away 14 years ago, he fell into a harsh depression.
“That was my ace boon koon,” he says. “That was my heart. That’s why I fell deep into depression, you know what I mean. I watched her die, ICU.”
Olantis, struggling with his depression, left his detailing job and began selling drugs again. Eventually, he landed in a shelter on Center Street in Oakland, and stayed there for several months.
He soon realized that it wasn’t the best place for him, and worked hard to distance himself from behavior and people he thought might be detrimental to his goal of becoming housed again.
“Everybody in there had problems,” he remembers. “They would sit in there and whine all day. I don’t want to hear that shit. You’ve got time to get yourself together, so work on getting your shit together!”
It was at another homeless shelter that Olantis first heard of Street Spirit. He was there to take a shower when he noticed a pile of newspapers, and asked to learn more about it. When Olantis learned what the job entailed, he was excited. “I said: ‘let me try.’”
Olantis spent the next 15 years or so living on the street while he sold papers. Eventually, with the help of an advocate, he was put in a lottery to place formerly incarcerated people into housing and was placed in a house in Oakland. That was six and a half years ago.
Since then, Olantis’s life has taken on a more steady rhythm, although he still faces bumps in the road like paying rent each month and managing his health. He makes an effort not to worry the people who care about him, and when friends stop by to ask where he’s been, his response—the hospital—is quick and quiet.
His health problems, though, are many—congestive heart failure, type II diabetes and absent cartilage in his knees, to name just a few. His health makes it hard for him to do the things he likes to do, like visiting the ocean, or cooking. Since his electric wheelchair was stolen a few months ago, Olantis has found his movement especially limited. If these things bring Olantis down, it’s only for a moment. They certainly never stop him from selling papers for more than a day or two.
“I’ve learned how to survive,” he says. “Life teaches you respect. It makes you keep going. You can’t just throw in the towel and give up, or try to take the easy way out.”
Olantis says he’s kept these lessons especially in mind over the past few months, since he started spending more time selling papers in West Oakland after being bothered by a man at his usual spot in Berkeley who began hurling racial slurs at him.
Still, Olantis recounts all of this with a persistent smile on his face, stopping frequently to say hello to passersby.
“Let’s put it like this,” he says. “I know I’m a survivor. I know I’m stronger than what’s outside of me.”
Katherine Blesie is a reporter and editor for the Daily Californian’s Weekender magazine.