I was there when Walking Man walked by the State Street Preacher.
It’s an incredibly Chicago sentence, full of local shibboleths a step beyond the ones the tourism council promotes.
They might say Chicagoana is rooting for the Cubs or keeping ketchup off hot dogs. A step beyond that is knowing that the next number in the sequence 5-8-8-2-300 is “Empire” or favoring a lesser-known spot for fat Chicago pizza (Pequods is mine).
But when you’re down to recognizing downtown street characters, now you’re talking local.
Walking Man is a tall, gaunt man with a mane of gray-black hair. His clothes hang on him scarecrow-style and he just walks around the downtown streets, not saying or doing anything really, just a long-lived windup toy that walks and walks and walks.
It’s somehow hypnotic, just seeing him lope along various Chicago streets.
It’s not just me. There was a documentary about him a few years ago. When a crazy guy kicked the shit out of him a few months back, it was a major news story in the city. The Tribune even tracked down his nephew after the police report gave the city what it had been wanting for years — a name for our strange, silent, walking man.
Walking Man is famous for being no one. I’ve seen him on and off for 14 years, seen his hair go from black-gray to gray-black, but I’ve never said a word to him nor him to me. Other Loop denizens draw attention to themselves, a clever sign, a habitual pitch for change or, in the case of Suit Guy, a rainbow of zoot suits so he’s noticed when he stands on bridges and waves at boats.
The last one’s not a beggar. He’s just a nice if crazy old man who likes to wave at boats. His name’s Vincent.
But in this colorful crowd, Walking Man stands out by doing nothing. He doesn’t say anything to anyone, doesn’t ask for change or even make eye contact. He just walks.
“It’s as if he’s been put out there to wander, cleaned up and re-dressed overnight, then told to do it again and again and again,” writer Dmitry Samarov once described Walking Man.
The State Street Preacher is a nasty old man who sets up a portable amplifier and gets on a microphone to tell passersby every reason they’re going to hell. His karaoke of the damned has been running more than 45 years. The less said of him, the better.
And I was there when the two crossed paths.
The habitually gaunt man looked gaunter than I’ve seen in the 14 years I’ve known him. Dark, yearning eyes were flanked by swollen, puffy cheeks, a lingering side effect of the ass kicking that gave the city his name.
The total effect gave the image of someone’s grandmother, one who isn’t doing very well.
The State Street Preacher was, as always, a fount of hate. A constant stream of bile and vitriol, he points out passersby, using some personal detail as reason for their damnation. He’ll point out if a woman looks vain, if a couple is gay, if someone is smoking (smoking merits damnation in his cosmology), and use that trait as a microphone amplified example of why that person is bound for the eternal torment of hell.
It made the news when he got the shit kicked out of him too.
And, on a bright fall day so nice I decided to walk rather than ‘L’ back from a meeting, Walking Man walked by the State Street Preacher. Our beloved silent walker, our hated stationary screamer.
I braced. Nothing happened.
Walking Man wasn’t the Preacher’s example of anything. The old cuss kept rambling off reasons no one’s getting to heaven and Walking Man just walked.
But it happened. And probably happens a lot. Both set up shop in the same region, day after day.
It never occurred to me that the street characters might know each other, that the State Street Preacher might make a mental note mid-scream “Hey, it’s Walking Man.” Or that Walking Man might look over and think “Oh God, it’s that guy.” Maybe they might say hello, or one might nod at Vincent the Suit Guy waving on some bridge.
I’ve known these characters for years, but until that day where one loped past another, I had never thought of them as people.