1000 Words: A Life’s Walk

The Walking Man died this week. He was murdered.

He was a fixture along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile, one of the country’s most glittering, high-toned boulevards, lined with fancy shops, bustling crowds, men in expensive suits, ladies in furs, and tourists from Iowa in T-shirts and sneakers.

Few people knew his name. Yet a thousand, a hundred thousand, hell, maybe a million people knew him by sight.

He walked the Magnificent Mile every single day, rain or shine, winter or summer. He spoke to no one, always looking straight ahead, his eyes fixed on some distant point, striding toward it, ever so purposefully. Sometimes he’d be seen on one of the side streets intersecting Michigan Avenue, or along the Equitable Building plaza, or between the foot of the mammoth John Hancock Center (then-named) and its own sunken plaza.

But he was never spied in, say, Billy Goat’s Tavern or the vestibule of the Tribune Tower or the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental. He was never really anywhere even though he was always everywhere.

I first caught sight of him back in the late 1970s, when I began pounding the pavement along Michigan Avenue. My friends in the writing business, ad copywriters and newspaper reporters and the like, told me that’s what I had to do. Pound the pavement.

I walked Michigan Avenue just about every day, even as I spun records on the midnight shift at WUIC, the college radio station for the University of Illinois at Chicago. I’d go directly from the station a couple of miles to the southwest of Chicago’s Loop — by foot, of course — to my job as a coder at Rabin Research Company, a marketing consultant.

I worked for Rabin at different times of the day to accommodate my class schedule at UIC. Sometimes I’d show up on Michigan Avenue at 7:30 or eight in the morning, sometimes late in the afternoon. No matter when I’d hit the boulevard, I’d catch sight of the Walking Man.

I didn’t know him as such back then. After seeing him walking so purposefully, day after day, at any time of the day, along one of the most expensive streets in America, I concluded he was the scion of some fabulously wealthy family, its black sheep, perhaps a bit off, his daily needs taken care of by the executor of his trust fund.

The Walking Man had a lush head of jet black hair, long and flowing down past his collar, and a thick mustache. He took after the 1970s hockey idol Derek Sanderson, tonsorially. Sanderson was a hockey sex symbol when he was playing center for the Boston Bruins powerhouse teams of the early ’70s. He (according to Wikipedia) “helped transform the culture of the professional athlete.” Sanderson became known as a sexy hunk rather than a dumb jock. I figured the guy who’d eventually become known as the Walking Man wanted to be seen as a sexy hunk too.

Here’s a shot of Derek Sanderson:

And here’s one of the Walking Man, taken some years after his prime:

I’ll admit, the latter fellow isn’t exactly the type who’d cause a crowd of screaming females to toss their panties at him but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

The Walking Man always wore a sport coat and neatly pressed slacks. In the summer, he’d wear a V-necked shirt exposing his thick chest hair. In the winter he buttoned up the shirt under his sport coat, but never donned a parka or overcoat.

I’d mention him to other people and they’d invariably respond, “Oh yeah! That guy! Who the hell is he? What’s his story?” I couldn’t answer them. Nobody could for the longest time.

One guy I knew, Tennessee Tom Lee, got all excited when I brought the Walking Man up. “Oh man, Big Mike, you’ve gotta do a story about him!” I’d been writing for the Chicago Reader for years at this point. Tennessee Tom called him the Ghost.

Soon after, I saw the Walking Man — or the Ghost — coming toward me on Michigan Avenue. As he neared, I smiled and nodded. He continued looking straight ahead, his eyes still fixed on that distant point. Another day, he again came toward me. As he neared, I tied to catch his eye. “How’ya doin’?” I said.

There was no response. He stared straight ahead.

That’s what he did. Walked. Stared. Kept mum.

His name was Joe Kromelis. Acc’d’g to an Illinois history website, he came with his family to Chicago from somewhere in eastern Europe as a small child. His parents ran a successful Halsted Street saloon, sold it, and moved out of the city. Joe remained, aimless and largely jobless. He sold jewelry for a while on downtown streets and then settled into his life’s work. Walking.

Perhaps Joe had some spending money even as he became homeless. He’d lived in a Lincoln Park SRO for 30 years until it was sold and turned into luxury condos. I’m guessing he might have had some dough because he was brutally attacked a couple of times. One guy beat him with a baseball bat in 2016. Then, this past May, another guy doused him with lighter fluid and lit him on fire as he lie sleeping under blankets on Lower Wacker Drive. It’s possible his attackers themselves were homeless and wanted to get at whatever cash Joe had.

Joe Kromelis died this week, apparently from injuries he suffered in the May attack. NPR’s Scott Simon eulogized him this morning:

It may be a natural reflex of the heart to feel pity for Joseph Kromelis, but everything I saw in his stride the times I glimpsed him strutting across the Michigan Avenue bridge, looking poised, urbane, and elegant, tells me the Walking Man would prefer to be remembered for making his own way through life.

Me? I don’t think he’d have wanted to be remembered at all, back when he was alive. Just left alone. To walk.

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