I grew up in Melbourne’s inner west in the 1990s, back when it was still a hotbed of heroin addiction and burglaries. Before it was cool. I’ve gotten a bit defensive about this since the area started becoming über trendy, because once upon a time no one knew where Yarraville was and I always had to define it by its proximity to Footscray.
“Oh,” people would say. “Oh.”
Now it’s all, “Yarraville’s so lovely! That must have been so great!” And I have to remind them that back in those days, Yarraville was basically the same thing as the rest of the west. Think Sunshine, think Braybrook. Explaining it all to people from the other side of the river, who just don’t understand, is the burden I bear for existing in an area before it started gentrifying.
But this isn’t a piece about the east/west divide or the development of my class consciousness, or even about that time in my creative writing class (at the University of Melbourne, for added context) our tutor asked, “Raise your hand if you’re from the eastern suburbs”, and I was the only person who didn’t. No, this piece is about a unifying oddity I have noticed in the various locales around Melbourne, not one specific to the west. From what I can tell, anyway. I lived in Heidelberg for a total of 6 months and found it weird. There were too many white people*, it was too far from the city, and it was just weird, okay? You can take a girl out of the west …
This oddity is the phenomenon of the walking man. Every suburb seems to have at least one.
When I was growing up in said industrial west, on the drive to school my mother would comment that she often saw one such walking man. Dressed in a standard longcoat, boots and hair clips, he walked with purpose but no clear direction here and there. He may have had a trolley, but I can’t remember. In any event, he was a frequent sight alongFrancis Street and the surrounding streets.
There was also a walking couple closer to the train station than to Wembley Avenue, sometimes also seen in Footscray, who seemed to despise each other. A tiny pair of probably Russian immigrants, they followed one another around, shouting at each other in Russian, never ceasing and yet never apart. This is the only example of a walking woman I can recall, so I’m not sure whether this counts as part of the Walking Man subclass of neighbourhood “characters” or not. Further investigation might be needed.
There is the helmeted walking man who spends his time around the city, who I once saw entering the Supreme Court with some wires hanging from his helmet into a plastic bag. I’m reasonably sure security confiscated his helmet, but they let him in. And there was an anti-balloon walking man in Heidelberg who went about after the Grand Final the tear I lived there, tearing down all the team-coloured balloons. There was a running man, again in Yarraville, who had the alarming hobby of jogging down the middle of the road at night in a navy tracksuit.
In Essendon, we have our own walking man, who is always dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, regardless of the weather. He, like the walking man of my childhood, walks with intense purpose, and I see him at all hours of the day, all around the suburb. And he, like all the rest, provokes my curiosity, because I do have to wonder about these walking men.
I wonder if they are okay, for the most part. They seem to have homes and to really just be a little bit odd, and perhaps they are happy. Perhaps walking is all they have to do with their time, or maube it brings them joy. I don’t know whether they have families or if they live alone, but I strongly suspect the latter. Are they social isolates, or do they go back to their houses and simply cease being walking men? Might people I know be walking men in potentia, or walking men in fact? Do people consider me a walking man**? What makes a walking man, since merely walking on a regular basis doesn’t really qualify. Do other people fear them? Quite possibly.
What I do know is that there are elements of a walking man that set him apart from the regular pedestrian. These are:
- Notable hair or headwear.
- The same type of clothing, regardless of temperature or other metereological phenomena.
- Walking around at all hours of the day or night with purpose, but no evident schedule or direction. Obviously since I don’t actively stalk people, this last is hard to ascertain
This is what I have gathered from the walking men that I have seen. I’d be interested to know about other walking men readers might have seen, or even know. It isn’t that I want them to stop; I’m just curious. Are the walking men a universal phenomenon? Do walking men emerge in other cities, in non-urban areas, or elsewhere? Perhaps they’re just another element of the lonely suburban life, walkingaround with purpose, but with no evident direction.
*I say, as a white person, and opening myself up to an accusation of merely liking “ethnic windowdressing”, which is a fabulous phrase from an article, the name of which I have forgotten. I know exactly what it means, and I am currently attempting to confront whether that is my true, hidden purpose. I hope it isn’t.