The alarm, those London chimes of the iPhone, exhort wakefulness, ambition, compliance to your Corporate masters. You blunder from the mattress in a pollen-chemtrail groggy haze, eyelids resisting, cringing at the dull, chilled early fall morning light as the cat wriggles sadistically between your legs. Eventually, after the haphazard efforts of morning water and mouthwash, you slump to the kitchen table, gobbling from a bowl filled with the sodden detritus of gluten-free-organically-boxed cereal, glancing at the cover story of Runner’s World magazine mocking you from its height of unread mail.
You grunt, crinkling page after page of Runner’s World, these delusional accounts of humans transformed through New Balanced exertion, sweat-sweat-sweating mile after mile of flab and anxiety…this most primal, self-reliant method of travel elevated to competition, to an ideal human form of dynamically sculpted bodies, studio-lit and glamorously photographed.
Disheartened, knowing you squandered another morning, another opportunity to fix the disrepair of your physical self, maybe, just maybe into something similar to those Olympian-like bodies on the pages of Runner’s World, you finally collapse into the seat of a car, bus, or subway…another example of your ever increasing sedentary lifestyle. But you’re an evolved human, you justify, a person in this grand age of transportation, comfortably, relatively, conveyed about in these seemingly perfected pollutant spurting machines. You’re no longer dependent on the bones, tissues and muscles of legs, ankles and feet for your long hauls from the coffee shop to the microbrewery and then home.
That’s right, you smile to yourself, I’m fine, I’m good, I’m healthy, just like everyone else… And then, you see him, that middle-aged man, as you do every day, multiple times a day walkingwalkingwalkingwalkingwalking with his aggrieved, sweated face staring into the sun, rain, snow, a one man battalion hurtling, trudging, stomping down the sidewalk to some unknown destination. The Walker, is all you’ve ever called him...
There are neighborly whispers, polite conjecture that The Walker is Touched, as your great-grandmother would have described. Some thought he was a refugee of the pharmaceutical-sponsored state mental health system, a medical file misplaced by some hospital administrator, pushed from the paddy-wagon, as some crudely joked. No one ever witnessed some schizophrenic, corner of the sidewalk outburst, jibber jabbering about Government tracking implants. But there has always been a remoteness to him, disengaged from scenery, pedestrians, weather, innately of his own Sisyphean universe, traversing the neighborhood; disappearing, then reappearing, clothes changed, occasionally replacing his bulky, thudding boots for sneakers.
Where did he live? Did he have family, handlers?
Everyone shrugged, He’s just The Walker…
There were late night sightings, encounters, pants-pissing moments when the drunkards wobbling from the corner tavern were instantly, horrifyingly introduced to the hurried phantom of The Walker.
Jesus… They exhaled, as if briefly confronted by some witching-hour spirit.
A mystery has attracted itself to The Walker, frayed and nearly forgotten, according to Dave Anchor, owner of The Buckle and Anchor Coffee House, who for 15 years has occasionally served The Walker.
“Six-thirty in the morning, when I first open, he would stroll in, order a small black coffee, pay exact change and nod good bye.” Dave laughed, recounting The Walker’s morning greeting. “I know year’s ago someone had said he was a pianist, a composer, went to Berkley College of Music, I think, is how the rumor goes,” Dave chuckled, “That started because someone saw him at the library checking out a bunch of classical music books.”
Was he a forsaken genius, the loner of some romanticized, artistic pursuit? Or just a man of his own tormented repression, dedicated to a punishing exercise/travel regiment?
“I’ve seen him huffing and puffing during some absolutely brutal heat waves,” Art Connolly, instructor at Punisher Crossfit, marveled. “He’s like an animal, like bulls pulling three buses, to maintain those energy levels, especially how crazy hilly this place is, like worse than San Fransisco…”
Have you ever walked with him?
“I’ve passed him a few times on my runs, and I swear to god, he some how passes me… Without ever running. Seriously.”
My neighbor, Henrik chuckles. “When you’re new to a neighborhood, had your time to acclimate, you find these idiosyncrasies all rather fascinating.”
I shrug. “I just always see him.”
Henrik smirks. “Eventually, he will become part of the sidewalk scenery.”
“But he’s always been here?”
Henrik nods, “I’ve lived here over thirty years. When I first moved here, I saw the punk rockers stabbing their veins to get high, then these computer nerd hipsters come in with their coffee houses and artisans soaps and its back to the junkies getting high…” Henrik gives a rueful shrug, “They only thing that survives is The Walker.”
“Maybe you, too.”
Henrik grimaces. “No, I’m leaving. Its gotten too expensive and I’ve been offered a lot for this house, so back to Sweden… But, Helena, the so called Oracle of this neighborhood? I bet she could tell you all about him. I’ll give her a call for you.”
A nose of wrinkled disgust, “I prefer The Chronicler, like the title of my last book, not Henrik’s spiteful Oracle.” Helena Odegaard seethes. She admits Henrik enjoys provoking her vanity, but that term, Oracle, conjures a sort of rotting death, a Halloween mask witch, which she is not, correct?
For over forty years, Helena has chronicled this famous neighborhood, its infatuation and worship of psychedelics, anarchist pamphleteers, communal living and its steady, boring repudiation of all things Anti as it transformed into something of a suburban retirement village for younger, middle-management families seeking tree-lined safety from the downtown.
Helena refuses to utter gentrification, this new, more virulent strain of phonies and profiteers, because, as she says, “Its all cyclical. Cities, cultures, humans… I moved here as twenty year old kid from Denmark and I’ve seen the in-between of all human effort and suffering.” She smiles, “All of our philosophies, like economics, democracy, everything is ultimately demolishing and reconstructive at the same time…” She sighs. “I’d rather not say anymore. Henrik reads this, it gives him even more ammunition for his pistol brain.”
The Walker, she says, is not necessarily peculiar, deranged or indifferent spiritual residue, instead, Helena corrects me, “It’s Walkers…Plural.”
“Of course I know of the man you’ve described. He’s primarily active in this neighborhood. But there are another two or three others. Though, I do find him quiet outlandish at times.”
I shake my head quizzically, chuckling. “Excuse me, but I’m not following you.”
“Henrik mentioned you’ve just arrived?”
“About two weeks ago.”
Helena and I walk three blocks from her apartment to Wrightsmith Books, the revered bookseller of this once hedonistic counter-culture neighborhood. Helena’s books still command a prominent section of shelving, a few kids wearing bulky-retro-framed glasses browsing titles on the gnarled wooden bookcases.
We’re greeted by Florian King, aka VicKnife, beat-poet-socialist-extraordinaire and owner of Wrightsmith Books. “Take the table. I will bring coffee.”
We nuzzle into the worn plushness of antique chairs at the window table, Helena’s eyes intent, careening from one pedestrian to another on the sidewalk. “Any of these people traveling about the sidewalk, no matter their attire, how rough or preened professional, could be a Walker…” Florian delivers our coffee cups, then a slight bow to excuse himself. “The man you describe, he’s one of the originals, at least of my time.” She leans forward. “They’re a secret society.”
They are an honorable order, nothing of menace, conspiratorial machinations, Helena explained. They’re doers of good deeds. If you were fragile, freezing, stricken, momentarily wayward, but of good conscious, your heart and soul of God or some Universal, they would find you, by whatever network of communication or psychic signals, a Walker would lead you away from your little gutter of the world…
“The boy, that curious, artistic, ultimately selfish charlatan that I had followed from Denmark to here, abandoned me. Even then I was self-reliant, strong, but when your heart is viciously crushed, there is pain… And alone, on the sidewalk, I prayed.” Helena’s lips stiffen. “You don’t believe in such things?”
I laughed, “God? I’m not really sure.”
She sneers. “The young only need the Internet to answer their questions, correct?”
I smile in reply, an uncomfortable, defiant silent abyss developing between Helena and I.
“I will finish my story for your little article,” Helena relents. “ After roaming about, I was approached by a man. He told me to follow him, to stay exactly behind him, a few paces separated as if I was not under his guidance.”
“Where did he take you?”
“A house—” She halts. “…I was given great care.”
Throughout cities, towns, communities, even those quaint pastoral villages, The Walkers have safe-houses, governed by local lodges, Helena stated. They’re not affiliated, or sympathetic to New York City’s Guardian Angel organization. They’re not political vigilantes, determined to vanquish perceived social injustice. There are no overt, esoteric symbols associated with them, though each Walker carries with them a small black book of verses.
“They study it. They read from it. It is of their own cryptic, possibly ancient language. Would be familiar to those with Swiss-German ears.” She stops, standing. “Thank you. Have a marvelous rest of your day.”
You dislodge crumbled dreams from your eyes, yawn and then begin to placate yourself, This is a transformative moment, this shirt, shorts, socks, these running shoes properly tied and fitted to my feet… This Is Me Every Morning. Everyday. Ah, what a mantra, what a stimulate for reclaiming this running routine.
With a few gurgles and slurps of bottled water, iPhone arm band secured, new app ready to record the domination of the city’s streets and trails, you slam yourself into morning nature and onto the sidewalk.
But, during that trotting warm-up, the first inhale fills your lungs with gelatinous breath, the knee-joints solidifying into clumps of cement, back and shoulders ache…your resolve waning, brain Tweeting pics of your lovely, rumpled bed until your entire self is deliriously defeatist.
NoNoNoNo… I got this I got this. YesYes, I got this, a gulping exhale regulating your breath, reigniting that cadence of mind and body.
The scenery slashes by, mind advising you to make a left at the intersection, redirect the human background, change it up…possibly gain another extra mile…two…three?
As your New Balance glide across the cement, you admire the glittering sunrise upon the reservoir waters… but, that’s different, right here, along this tract of grass, is a campsite: multiple tents, makeshift abodes of cardboard, wooden crates, a vagabond colony of people.
You stop, Yes…I saw this online…A tent city.
A mother breastfeeds her child, a man hustles fire from charred coals, a breakfast of non-organic beans and franks to be readied for their community.
A few younger guys, bearded and desolate, heft their backpacks, nodding to you as they pass.
You watch them trudge up the street toward the intersection, where, The Walker seemingly awaits them at the curb.
As the young men approach The Walker, he raises his hand to halt them. He whispers, turns away from the guys and begins to stride through the crosswalk and up onto the opposite sidewalk.
The young men wait a few seconds, and then begin to follow.