The Man Everyone Knew, But No One Had Known

The light turned red. The pedestrian signal gestured him to walk through the intersection to complete his first lap of the day.

Old black army boots, exhausted by the miles, marched him east through the newly reconstructed crosswalk between his home, and the local biker bar. A tired, sun faded army private uniform hung limp around his fragile frame. At one time his military garb fit snug, but the years have withered him down to a small, slightly hunched, feeble figure. old boots1

A long, uncombed white beard obscured the weathered, gaunt features of the old mans face. On his head sat a tattered camo-green army hat which revealed tufts of silvery-white hair under its brim. He would walk with only his finger tips  in his pockets revealing the veins on his hands. They were oddly thick and stood out like blue rivers on a desert map. Strands of thread dangled where the buttons of his shirt cuffs used to be. The seams at his shoulders separated exposing a dingy gray thermal shirt underneath.

Crazy Joe they all called him. He would appear mid-morning every single day walking the four corners of the intersection in front of his home. A significant character in the lore of that small town, his monotonous daily schedule made him somewhat of a legend. Obeying traffic lights, and crosswalk signals he would continuously walk from corner to corner all day long, mid-morning until dusk. People never knew why he would parade around the intersection, at times walking backwards, then forward again conversing with himself. Regardless of the reason, everyone knew about Crazy Joe.

A page from my dictionary of human ignorance. Xenophobia is a great term for the story of Crazy Joe

No one was ever sure of his real name. Residents and passer-byers all called him the same thing…..Crazy Joe. Uncertain of his mental capacity it was always assumed that Joe was crazy. Mothers would walk their children to the opposite side of the street from where he stood for fear that he may snatch them up and take them into his house. Teenagers would walk by him, mocking and teasing enjoying a good laugh at his expense. Although he followed all pedestrian traffic rules, drivers would still yell “get out of the road” to him as they sat at red lights. He had been spat on, and fountain drinks had been thrown in his direction. Harassment, and Heckles were common. Smiles and “good morning’s” were rare, but whatever treatment came his way he never acknowledged any of it. His only focus it seemed was navigating his corners. The legend of Crazy Joe perpetuated.

I couldn’t help but wonder why this frail old man seemed to deliberately wear out the soles of his boots. What was he trying to walk away from or walking toward? Why did he never stray from the street in front of his house? Where was his family? Sobering inquiries about someone who everyone knew, but no one had known.

His tattered green hat contained the biography of an old soul. A narrative  of laughter, joy, fear, and sorrow; the reasons for his daily trek. The questions I carried would never find answers. Reasons for his routine lost to gossip, and folklore.

A Sunday morning drive through the village seemed void of something I could not quite put my finger on. As I slowed to a stop at the traffic light in front of the only house left on those corners, I realized that the figure that invariably waited for the light to change was absent from the Sunday morning church traffic.  Where was the old man that traversed the intersections? Could he be late for his walk? I somehow knew that I would not see that vulnerable, tired old fellow retrace his path around the intersection again.

Left: The remains of Crazy Joes house in 2007. Right: The corner where Crazy Joes house stood today.
(Left)The remains of Crazy Joes house in 2007. (Right) The corner where Crazy Joes house stood-present day.

Years have passed. New development has erased the footprint of where his house once stood; in its place is now a small plaza. The old biker bar is now a bank, and gas stations compete with each other across the road. The intersections have been widened to accept the increased traffic, but in spite of all that has changed, his story remains. The story of a man who everyone knew, but no one had known.