One step at a time, the Walking Man has become Chicago’s favorite enigma
For decades there has been something reassuring about spotting the mysterious long-haired dude (real name: Joseph Kromelis) strolling the city sidewalks. Now he’s fighting for his life.
From Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey to Michael Jordan, Chicago has been home base for some of the most renowned and globally famous figures of the last few decades — and, of course, we have a steady stream of local anchors, sports stars, radio hosts et al., with high recognition factors, as you’d see in any major city.
But there’s also another kind of celebrity unique to Chicago, i.e., the local character who achieves a certain level of semi-famousness just being out there and doing their thing. We’re talking about the likes of the beloved Andy the Clown, who for years strolled the concourses of old Comiskey Park, bellowing “GO YOU WHITE SOX!”, or his North Side counterpart, the always uniformed, bafflingly ubiquitous Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll no doubt remember the late Jim “Moose” Murphy, who was in the news once a year when he’d set up camp at the Cook County Building so he would be first in line for a picnic permit.
Or how about Jerry Berliant, the notorious gate-crasher who for decades somehow wrangled his way into every Chicago nightclub and restaurant opening, not to mention Super Bowls, Kentucky Derbies, Final Fours, you name it?
Or the Rev. Samuel Chambers, doing his speaker-box preaching on State Street?
More recently, we’ve seen the emergence of the Mario Kart Guy, who zips around the city dressed up as Mario, driving a custom go-kart and playing the video game’s theme song, and “The Dreadhead Cowboy,” whose fame took a sour turn when he pleaded guilty to felony animal cruelty after riding a horse on the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Then there’s the Walking Man. Sometimes known as the Walking Dude. Occasionally referred to as “Yanni” or “The Continental.” Real name, Joseph Kromelis.
It’s been nearly 30 years since I first wrote about the Walking Man, who cut a striking figure with his long flowing hair, his 1970s mustache and his spiffy sports jackets and was always just … walking. Zipping along at a brisk stride in his prime, not so swiftly as the years went by, and moving with painful slowness in recent years.
From time to time I’d hear from readers or colleagues who had spotted the Walking Man and were always delighted by the sighting. There was something reassuring, something hippie-timeless, about the Walking Man. It seemed he’d be around forever. There’s even a YouTube video from 2006 titled, “The Walking Dude, a Dudementary,” consisting of grainy footage of the Walking Man … well, walking. “What’s His Deal?” asks the graphics.
You’d hear different tall tales and urban myths and heard-from-a-friend stories through the years. When I approached him in October 1998, I said, “People always see you walking all over the city, every day. … Are you going anywhere in particular?”
“Yeah, I walk all right,” came the reply. “I like to walk. But I work, too, you know. I work in the Loop. In fact, I have to go to work right now.” And with that, he broke into a jog and went on his way.
Who knows if the Walking Man really was going to work that day, or if he just wanted to keep moving and not have to explain himself to anyone. In recent years, we learned his real name and that he was homeless and was something of an enigma even to family members who had trouble getting in touch with him.
After a brutal attack on Lower Wacker Drive in 2016 in which Kromelis was beaten by a man with a baseball bat, the Sun-Times’ Mitch Dudek reported that a GoFundMe account had accumulated more than $32,000 in donations, but “it’s not clear how to get the money in Kromelis’ hands. Or if he wants it.” A Northwestern Memorial Hospital spokesman said Kromelis made it clear he didn’t want to talk to the media.
Last week brought the horrifying news that, nearly six years to the day Mr. Kromelis endured that beating, he suffered third-degree burns to 65% of his body after someone walked up to him while he was sleeping on Lower Wabash Avenue, poured a flammable liquid on him and lit it. My God. As of this writing, Kromelis is in critical condition, and officials are saying his chances of survival are not good.
Joseph Kromelis is 75. He’s been walking the streets of the city for at least half his life. I’m not sure he would care what any of us think about him, but I hope he realized you never heard anyone speak with the least bit of condescension or cynicism when they reported a sighting of the Walking Man.
We appreciated Kromelis just doing his thing as a hometown original. Whether it was his design or not, he carved out his own unique space in Chicago lore.