Some called him The Prince of the Streets, others The Cosmic Wanderer. All, however, knew him best as Czarny Roman. So named for his penchant for immaculate black clothing, he was a common sight around Chmielna and Nowy Swiat, often seen stalking the surrounding grid of streets whilst shouting prophecies of doom. But Czarny Roman was not some babbling nut-job, rather a one-off original that wielded the ability to terrify and inspire in equal measure. When his death was announced in early December by journalist Cezary Ciszewski the news quickly went viral. The city was stunned.
Believed to have been 67-years-old, Czarny Roman – real name Jan Polkowski – had long been treated as a mysterious figure of urban fascination. Children would run away from him as if he were the bogey man; the elderly, on the other hand, would count an accidental run-in with Roman as a sign of imminent good tidings. And then there were the hipsters, who saw him as a Yoda-like figure to report about on Facebook.
Czarny Roman’s life was surrounded by an impenetrable fog of rumor. There were those who claimed he had made a fortune during the communist years trading illegal foreign currencies, only to then slip into madness after losing everything at the poker table. Alternative tales suggest he ended-up penniless and heartbroken after an ill-fated marriage. The truth, possibly, is a little more prosaic: that he was just one of many Poles left confused and abandoned following the country’s free-market transition – the streets became both his solace and soapbox.
It was on those streets that he would preach to anyone who would listen about an impending meteorite that would wipe out the city. There were lighter moments, as well: Czarny Roman became well-known for advocating healthy living (“He told me I had to eat two kilos of strawberries a day,” remembers one Insider reader), and was frequently seen admonishing youths that about the dangers of drink. Famously, he once turned his attentions to a group of right-wing nationalists, advising them to take-up yoga rather than bothering the public.
Unintentionally, and blithely oblivious to the fact, Czarny Roman came to stand for everything that this city is: wonderful, wacky, crazy, charismatic. With no hint of irony, one commentator was moved to liken his importance to Warsaw to that of King Zygmunt II. Neither was he only the one: since his passing, calls have grown to remember him via both a statue and a mural – seeing that both are likely to happen, it would appear that Czarny Roman’s boasts of immortality are not without substance. Goodbye Roman.