He walked up and down this life’s thoroughfare known as Lincoln Highway, toward or away from the sun, omnipresent for seasons.
We all saw him. Or we didn’t. He was either flesh and blood, heart and soul, or else a mere shadow of homelessness.
Then suddenly, he was gone, like an unexpected hard summer rain whose scent lingers long after the storm has passed.
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Tall and slender, his sandy salt-and-pepper beard, long and scraggly most times, he ambled across the buzzing south suburban highway, dodging motorists who either paused or didn’t. We called him, “Poncho.”
Smothered by layers of clothes in winter, or wearing in summer a T-shirt and oversized pants with a belt that I can still see him pulling tightly, he walked. The mileage showed on his tattered shoes. The toll of life was etched in the lines on his forehead. In the lines beneath his often-wearied eyes.
He walked, as if a man on an endless solitary journey. Poncho’s walk was a dignified, deliberate two-step with a rhythmic bobble to which his entire body moved, with his head — adorned with unkempt locs — slightly bowed as if passing in humility.
He passed politely, minding his own business with an unspoken respect for his world and all of its inhabitants.
At night, he could be hard to decipher between glaring headlights and the shadows. We learned to look for him. To look out for him.
Many knew him as “Mr. Lincoln Highway,” the tireless soul who meandered daily from Chicago Heights to Olympia Fields and Park Forest to Matteson, sometimes nodding a “hello,” though sparse with words.
He never bothered anybody. Never begged. Was never seen causing any raucous. He just walked, as far as we could see, from can’t-see-in-the-morning ‘til can’t-see-at-night. Everybody knew him, even if they didn’t.
Rumor had it he had been a star athlete once upon a time before something happened — before something changed him.
Once, after buying him a cup of coffee, the journalist in me inquired about doing a story about his former life. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he answered.
Good enough. I have lived long enough to understand that life is what happens when you make other plans. That there but for the grace of God go I. That it is better to love than to judge.
Apparently many people felt that way about Poncho. They gave him clothes, shoes, coffee, food. He never asked, perhaps too proud.
Sometimes he showed up at the local Starbucks, looking fresh — clean-shaven, his hair trimmed and wearing new clothes and shoes, his eyes clear.
Sometimes, on brutal winter days, local merchants let him sit and warm up, or cool off on tortuous summer afternoons. He was ours. Our local wanderer, our friend, our neighbor, our guy, our dude, our Poncho.
I was out of town in January when I got the news: Poncho was dead. He had been walking near Western Avenue and Lincoln Highway when he was struck and killed Jan. 23, by a Hyundai driven reportedly by a 23-year-old woman charged with aggravated DUI involving death.
I learned then that Poncho’s name was Joe Townsley Jr.
At his funeral, inside a small church in Chicago Heights, on a winter Wednesday in February, as I paid my respects, I learned a lot of things about Poncho.
But what I will say here — so that I may grant him as a writer the same respect and privacy in death that I showed him in life is this: He was 64, he was loved, he walked.
And he is missed for having graced our lives with his noble walk for many seasons.
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