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July 28, 2003  

Walking Men

There's a new guy at the group home, and I don't think he's going to make it.

About four blocks away from one of the print shops I service is a group home for psychologically disabled men. They're all "walkers" -- all day long, they walk. A couple of guys have relatively short circuits; you can see them pass the shop every hour or so. Others have longer circuits, taking up to three hours before they pass through the four-way stop that I use as a lap counter. The new guy's circuit is around six hours.

Quite a few guys go through the group home; maybe one a month. If they can adjust to the income, accomodations, and comrades, then they've got a good place to live. If not, they're gone, and someone else gets to try out their slot.

One guy who didn't make it had problems crossing certain intersections. He would start crossing, then stop, then try to "push" against some unseen (by me) barrier. On a good day, he could best whatever it was he saw that was blocking his path. It might take three or four pushes, during which time cars would honk and people would stare, but he wouldn't know it -- he was all smiles from having made it across, from having a good day.

Other days, the barrier would prove insurmountable. He would go up against it a few times, always pushed back; traffic would then force him back to the corner. From there, he would back up, as if to get a running start. He would watch and calculate, feeling the rhythm of the traffic light and the walk/don't walk light, and the other pedestrians. After enough study, he would go again. Sometimes he could make progress -- three steps back, four steps forward -- and eventually make it across the street in a one or two more tries. At other times, the barrier was too strong...there was no getting past it.

On those occasions, he would back up some more -- way back, like to the previous intersection. Then he would try the whole thing all over again... usually (it seemed to me) with the same bad results. It's hard to get to know these guys; they're a bit -shy. (As in gun-shy, although I don't know what form of "gun" has made these fellows nervous -- trauma, abuse, internal errors, I dunno.)

One night, maybe half an hour after sunset, I saw three of the guys walking more or less together. They weren't normally companions (one was a one-hour circuit man, and the other two were three-hour circuit-ers, but in different directions), but here they were out together. Just as they were passing the back of the shop, they stopped to talk. They looked to be in doubt about where to go; the one-hour circuit guy turned back, returning to the "lap counter" four-way intersection that led home.

It's hard to get to know these guys; they're very skittish about strangers. In "public," they're very soft-spoken and polite -- places like inside a restaurant or liquor store. But out in the open, out on the road, doing their walking... they'll move from one side of the street to another, just to avoid a kid whizzing by on a bike. After a year of seeing me give a little wave, maybe say, "Hey," one of the three-hour walkers would talk with me. I had learned to let him go first -- it was like his sign that it was O.K. to talk. I wandered off the concrete porch where behind the shop, drifting out toward their place... he spoke.

They were worried about the new guy. He'd been gone about eight hours, and hadn't been having a good day when he'd left the house. They wanted to find him, get him inside for the night. No one really liked him, it turned out, but they'd all been helped by someone when they first got to the home, and helping this guy was p'bly the closest thing to having a "duty" that any of these guys ever saw.

We cleaned out enough crap from my car to make room for two passengers, and this guy and I took off in the last direction that I had seen the missing man go walking. I can't tell you the name of the guy I took off with; he hasn't told me yet. I usually think of him as "Mel," for his beautiful mellifulous voice. Mel stands about six-two, usually jacketed in a long green duster. He's the color of aged southern oak, with very distinct facial features... like he might have had seven parents, each from a different continent. I had seen him around for over a half year before I first heard him speak -- he said "Thank you," in the liquor store after buying a soda. Gos, what a voice -- a soft but clear low tenor, as clean as fresh air and distinct as a cold snap. As he was leaving, the clerk and I both commented at the same time: "Wow, what a beautiful voice."

I go to to hear it again in the car. "Thanks." "How long ago was he here?" "Maybe he's on a bus." Thanks." I could tell Mel was nervous being in the car; no control over where he was going, confined to an upholstered bucket... but he stuck it out.

By the time we found him, the new guy had "backed up" about four miles; that's six lights. Each time he dropped back to get a longer "running start," the intersections would be "blocked." He was really frustrated.

He wouldn't get in the car, and rain was coming, so I gave him and Mel money for the bus and said goodbye. By the next week, that new guy was gone.

The new new guy will, I think, last even less time. With every step he takes he checks out the total environment -- head cocking from one side to another, up and down, full vista, everywhere. There aren't enough sides to the street for him to avoid everything and everyone that he considers an obstacle...sometimes he just walks in a tight little circle until the scene calms down. Sometimes he circles for 30 minutes....

Where do these guys go when they wash out of the group home? An institution? Out on the street? I don't know. I imagine it's pretty terrible to have such great freedom granted -- getting a slot in the group home -- and then not make the grade. Maybe the ones who can make it day after day just want to help the others as a charm...building karma points. Maybe their helping is a form of "There but for the grace of God go I." Maybe I'll learn more if I get called on to help locate the Circler some night....