There’s a horrible story in the news about a homeless man set on fire. Perhaps this kind of cruelty doesn’t rate when people regularly shoot up supermarkets and classrooms full of people, but it registered with me because I recognized the victim. Anyone who’s spent regular time in downtown Chicago over the past few decades knows the Walking Man. I mentioned him in my cab book. He’s a mainstay.
Eight or nine years back, I spent a bunch of time in the common area on the first floor of the Chicago Cultural Center. I drew the regulars and eavesdropped on their conversations. I thought it might be my next book. This was the first time I ever saw the Walking Man stop and sit down. He looked old and tired.
Thereafter, I saw him sitting various public places more often than walking. I often wondered where he lived. My guess was that he had a bed somewhere but preferred to spend his days wandering. His clothes didn’t look like they’d been slept in. Maybe he was a peaceful sleeper or had a good clean spot to lay his head. But the news story stated he was lying down on Lower Wacker where many downtown homeless people live.
There are crimes that can be explained. Even violent ones. People have desperate moments or are under such strain that they crack and take it out on others. But I can’t fathom a scenario where a person goes out of their way to approach a man sleeping on the street, douses him in lighter fluid, and sets him on fire. If you know of a justification or even a theory, I’d love to hear it. Or maybe not. If this is a thing you can explain, you’re not someone I wanna talk to.
I skip news stories all the time. I never watch war video clips or listen to politicians’ voices. I have things I need to get done most days and certain kinds of sounds and images interfere with my ability to do so. Everyone’s got their own threshold. I know mine. I would’ve ignored the homeless man set on fire story if ‘Walking Man’ hadn’t been included in the lede. I didn’t wanna know but I had to.
It’s not as if this man is my friend. But he represents something. Stands in for a distinct period of my life. When I crisscrossed the city in a cab 60-80 hours a week. Even back then, I didn’t necessarily want to know the guy’s backstory. It was just a comfort to know he was out there going along with no destination in mind. I probably felt like we had something in common. A taxi driver is aimless by definition.
Now he’s in some hospital clinging to life. His walking days are likely behind him. There was a link in the news story to another time he was attacked a few years back. People raised money and got him back on his feet.
Here’s hoping the Walking Man has a stroll or two left.
—Listen to my talk with the writer Gint Aras and look forward to the one with Sam Pink on Wednesday. Full archive here.
—I reviewed some storefront Shakespeare and a brand-new play about some not-so-new people. Also a doc about commemorating D-Day and a funny/sad roadtrip flick from Iran. AND, Mallory invited her friend Dave to make me watch a found-footage horror movie.
—I made a cassette. Please buy one.