The Walker

by Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Even though virtually all of us have seen him as he wanders relentlessly, day and night, across and beyond his home town, few know his name.

Those of us who know him call him the Walker. That’s what he does. He is well over fifty years old and has not had an established home for years. His mail is delivered at the local rescue mission (where I used to work).

He walks. He moves determinedly through the blistering heat and rain-slicked streets. He walks day and night, winter and summer.
Always alone, he moves like a permanent leaf being blown by circumstance and nervous energy through the neighborhoods where he grew up and went to school – where, in a previous life – he used to be known.

His steely sun and wind blasted face says it all as he walks many days at a stretch. He sleeps in snatches, huddled in doorways and makeshift corners and shelters. But he does this rarely. Mostly he sleeps as he walks. He wears a fog of constant embedded fatigue.
As I have talked to him, I have realized that I have been talking to a man who has lost track of time and schedules. He just walks. He hasn’t worked for years, decades perhaps. I seem to remember that he is a military veteran.

I have seen him on the move early in the morning and late at night. I have seen him in distant outlying areas and in the urban cores.
His pace is swift – and perhaps – just perhaps – with intention. Even if that intention is to merely keep moving.

He moves like a stray animal. He is a man cut loose, a man without a context, a man with no place, no direction, no center.
But perhaps he is not so far from us – those of us with homes and obligations. He has a name. A family. A history. A history that intersects – more than we would like to acknowledge – with many of us.

There is a truism among those of us who have worked with the homeless; even in the best of times, few of us are more than three paychecks from being homeless. We like to believe that we are in a separate world – a world that does not intersect with “those people”. We like to imagine that we are not like them – that they are different – far different than we are – a different species almost. We do not want to believe that each one of us is not far from being our own anonymous blur on our own urban horizon. But the Walker shows us that it takes very little for us to find ourselves marooned from what used to be home.

When we see the Walker – and those like him – do we confirm – or do we bridge the invisible yet impassable gap between us? Do we silently, passively, put our stamp of approval on this “arrangement” that allows us our comforts (and our ability to sleep at night) and keeps him (and literally hundreds like him) out in the cold at night? Or do we do the difficult, awkward – and perhaps humane acts that would bring him back, make him more welcome and safe in our – and his -own world?

Are we willing to do whatever it might take to make him, our community and ourselves more civil and more human? We can always take the easy, lazy way and just drive by or look the other way. In fact most of us do. But can we do the difficult work and make him, and ourselves, more, not less, human?

Courage is always difficult, it always requires that we reach beyond what we would rather do. Pulling someone from a burning building is dangerous and frightening – but we all know that it is the right thing to do. The “right thing” to do when someone is homeless or an active addict is vastly more complicated and packed with contradictions and unforeseen hazards. And every situation, every individual is unique.

But our first step is to recognize, even, or perhaps especially, when we really, really don’t want to, that this bedraggled, barely recognizable human is not an alien, but is, as much as we don’t want to hear it, not so different from any one of us.
We dare not forget that every huddled body on a park bench or under a bridge has a name – and used to be – and in fact still is – someone’s friend, neighbor, cousin, son, daughter, brother or sister.

The Walker grew up in our neighborhoods, went to the schools we may have attended. Our children may walk the same halls and sit in the same classrooms he inhabited not too many years ago.

The Walker, the blanket man, the woman huddled in layers of clothes outside the coffee shop, with all of her possessions in a shopping cart, the family living in their rusted car with the broken windows, these are no strangers; they, in their silence, tell us who we are – and who we could be.