Chicago has no shortage of mythology and folk legends: Mrs. O'Leary's cow, Resurrection Mary, a northside pennant championship.
But most anyone who has worked in downtown Chicago within the past quarter century or so has seen the modern equivalent.
Gaunt, a world-weary look in his eyes, the sweeping pompadour, grayer now but still unmistakable. He's known by several names: The Walking Guy, The Walking Dude, The French Guy. He's been captured on a couple of online videos, both old and new. Yes, he's lost a step or two through the years, but still he walks incessantly, destination unknown.
He never speaks and from all accounts, any attempts to communicate with him are met with silence. If he ever did speak, I imagine him sounding like Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" rasping out "I'm not LIKE that anymore, kid" as he turns away, minding his own business, whatever that may be.
The closest I ever came to actually speaking with him personally was about two years ago, when I saw him, in an uncharacteristic moment, stop for a few moments to chat up a panhandler on the Michigan Ave. bridge. By the time I caught up to him, he was gone, and, feeling a little like Starsky hitting up Huggy Bear for some information, I gave the guy a couple of bucks to tell me anything he could about the gentleman he was just talking to.
"Oh, you mean Cool?"
Yeah, me and Cool go way back", he said as he showed me a stack of beer cans hidden behind the bridge embankment.
I asked him if either of them was aware of "Cool"'s cult celebrity status. He laughed and said no, he was fairly certain that Cool was pretty oblivious to that and would find it amusing.
All of that may just be the sort of "truth" you get for two dollars, but it just added to the mystique in my mind.
Maybe it's the IDEA of the Walking Guy that is more significant than any one individual: that amid all the changes of the city and the passage of time, there is this one constant, like the Water Tower after the Great Chicago Fire.
Maybe the title is bigger than any one person after all. Could one person really do all that walking for all those years? Could it be that The Walking Guy is like the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride? When one bearer of the title decided it was time to retire, he groomed a replacement who than took over the role, thereby continuing the line of succession.
Maybe, Then, The Walking Guy is the latest in a long line of walkers. Hey, I enjoy strolling along the streets of Chicago. When the time comes, maybe The Walking Guy will hand over his loafers, mustache, and pompadour and I'll be... "THE WALKING GUY"!
Update: Since this story was originally posted, The Walking Guy, whose real name, we now know, is Joseph Kromelis, was brutally and senselessly beaten on Lower Wacker Drive 0n May 24th , 2016 while (what else?) apparently walking and minding his own business. He suffered numerous severe injuries and a GoFundMe page has been established to defray medical costs. Please give what you can. We wish Joe a swift recovery!