BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
All he wanted to do was to walk the city streets in peace every day.
Joseph Kromelis walked and walked the streets that sprawled below the steel and stone canyons of Chicago’s Loop, Magnificent Mile, and Streeterville, past bustling businessmen, tourists walking five abreast on the sidewalk, and others enjoying their first date, going to a play or dinner, or just engaging in the tasks of daily life. Kromelis would be polite and kind if the curious spoke to him, but he simply wanted to walk and be left alone. For 30 years, he walked Michigan Avenue, Wacker Drive, and State, Clark, Van Buren, Polk, and other streets. He walked on sunny and humid days. On days where the snow feels like a curse to some and a whimsical blessing to others. And on those perfect Chicago days that keep us living here despite the weather the rest of the year.
Who was Joseph Kromelis? A Sun-Times story reported that he was born in and lived in Lithuania until he came to America with his parents at age 5. He had a large family (many of whom are now deceased), made money selling jewelry on the street, possibly worked in a downtown office at one time, and lived for years in an SRO hotel before it was converted to upscale housing, which caused him to become homeless.
But his walking and regular presence in downtown Chicago and other neighborhoods are what caught people’s attention. In a world of endless confessional social media posts and our “always on” society, Kromelis was mostly silent and mysterious. A blank slate for our imaginations. He appeared in a way as if he was from another time. He had long flowing hair with a Magnum PI mustache, and wore snazzy suit jackets (sometimes with a boutonniere). This fascinated many people. In fact, Kromelis became so famous that people began to call him the Walking Man, the Walking Dude, or Walking Yanni.
But one night last May as he slept on the ground, an evil man stood over him, doused him with a flammable liquid, and lit him ablaze. Kromelis was on fire for three minutes until help came. He suffered third-degree burns on more than 65 percent of his body. It was the second time in six years that he’d been attacked on the streets of Chicago. In 2016, he was brutally beaten with a baseball bat. On Sunday, Kromelis died from complications from his burns. He was 75.
There are Walking Men and Women in every Chicago neighborhood and beyond. Men and women who live outside societal norms and exist in carved-out spaces that make them happy and feel at peace—or at least, in some instances, allow them to push back the demons or sad thoughts that plague them. Others walk the streets in pain, anger, and rage.
When I worked downtown, I’d see a variety of walkers and other characters as I headed to and from work and to after-work events. There was the tall man who dressed in brightly colored suits who walked the streets and often posed for everyone to see on various bridges over the Chicago River. I’d sometimes see him several times a day. Or the speaker-box preacher on Michigan Avenue, who didn’t do a lot of walking, but plenty of talking from his street-side perch. When I was in my 20s, I remember seeing a tall, balding man walking with long furious strides on 111th Street in Mount Greenwood at all hours of the day and night. What was his story, I wondered, but I gave him his space. I regularly see the same men and women wandering our neighborhood and imagine their life stories and current circumstances. I’d like to tell you that I saw Joseph Kromelis walking the downtown streets, but that is uncertain. What is certain is that he and others who are willingly or unwillingly homeless need our compassion, kindness, love, and respect. And not to be attacked or feared (unless they are, of course, threatening to us).
I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly all of my 53 years. Our city is a captivating, yet befuddling, mix of poverty and prosperity, beauty and violence, towering skyscrapers and bungalows, restaurants with $100 entrees and vast stretches of food deserts, and miles of miles of concrete and asphalt with the occasional green space in between fighting to survive. There are also funky, wonderful neighborhoods that most tourists who visit Chicago never see. It’s easy to take our city for granted, but if you travel across America and the world, you will realize that it’s a special place. But there is evil afoot amidst the goodness of most people who live in and visit the city. Of course, this is not a Chicago problem as much as a human problem across the country and world.
The criminal acts committed against the homeless make me angry and sad. On a basic level, human beings should be better than this, and it’s appalling to regularly hear stories of hate and violence. But as a person who used to love wandering all over downtown Chicago, who often walks in and explores his Northwest Side neighborhood, and who enjoys getting “lost” in the wilds of Chicagoland nature, my anger has only been amplified. This is especially so since the one place Kromelis loved became a place of violence and pain for him. It seems obvious, but we should not have to live in a world where people are attacked and sometimes killed if they live on the streets, hike the Appalachian or Ice Age Trails, are working in community gardens, unloading groceries from their cars, or otherwise want to enjoy their lives in peace.
I don’t know if Joseph Kromelis was happy or sad, but I do know that myself and many Chicagoans came to view him and other benign street characters as sort of talismans for the eclectic spirit of the city. The Walking Man was a peaceful pirate bucking our American system of 40-hour-per-week jobs, 30-year mortgages, Auto-Tune–fueled entertainment, and general conformity (or, perhaps, complacency). He was free in his own way. But he paid a terrible price for that freedom.
Downtown Chicago looks heavenly at night as you exit the Dan Ryan and drive northwest on the Kennedy Expressway. From afar, you’ll see sparkling streetscapes; towering, glittering skyscrapers; and the big sky above. I often say that this beautiful sight is hiding the Twin Peaks-reality of the city (i.e., a beautiful veneer with complex problems and occasional darkness lurking beneath). Fixing these problems is a task beyond my ken. I don’t have solutions for the violence and inhumanity currently plaguing Chicago and beyond other than kindness and compassion, as well as vigilance against the bad people of the world. Loving and respecting one another would be a good start. More funding to help the homeless would be another. And more youth jobs programs and investment in impoverished areas would be yet another.
Nothing can be done for Joseph Kromelis, but I like to think that in a just and wonderful afterlife, he is once again walking the downtown streets at peace with the world, free of pain and suffering, and enjoying the solitude.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
“Walking Man” by mckenziemedia is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/24562578@N05/43045765724
A heartfelt thank you to Rick Kolar for allowing me to use his photo, to which he holds copyright.
I also used this Sun-Times article for a few of the background details of Joseph Kromelis.
Here are just a few sources to help Chicago’s homeless The Night Ministry, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and ALL CHICAGO.
Looking for some great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations (including for birding) in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. The book (306 pages, 210+ photos) is only $18.99. Click here to learn more and purchase the book.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.
2 thoughts on “An Elegy for Chicago’s Walking Man”
Thank you for this reminder of our need for compassion and empathy during the holiday season. R.I.P.
LikeLiked by 1 person