Home > Critic-At-Large > Walking Man
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
There's a great story that Bob Seger likes to tell about driving around Los Angeles and discovering the singer/songwriter Tom Waits walking by himself in the middle of a blisteringly hot summer day. The singers were acquaintances, not friends, but when Seger saw Waits walking, all in black, he immediately pulled over and offered him a ride. Somewhat reluctantly, Waits agreed, and got in the car, and the two engaged in some awkward small talk for a few moments before Waits finally asked Seger to pull over. He said, I'm sorry, I just prefer walking, and got out of the car before Seger could respond. Seger watched him, dumbfounded, as Waits strode away in that heat-sucking, all black, boots, jeans and T-shirt outfit, into the haze of the LA afternoon.
It's reassuring to know that Tom Waits is just as peculiar in real life as he is in his music. He's one of those artists that's almost impossible to classify, for "singer/songwriter" doesn't really come close to explaining the singularity of his style. (Other artists have had success covering his songs, like Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Sarah McLachlan, and well, Bob Seger, so I do get the "songwriter" tag.) Waits is the ultimate "cult" perfumer, with legions of die-hard fans, but he's still a pretty tough sell for the uninitiated; I still remember trying to sneak Rain Dogs onto the turntable at a house party in the 80s, and seeing the horrified response from the party-goers when they first heard that slurring, growl/croak of a voice through the speakers. My roommate had to nix my selection pretty quickly, opting instead for a safer choice. Boozy, blues-laden, drunk-sounding singers didn't play well for a crowd more attuned to David Bowie or R.E.M. (And actually, at that time, Bob Seger would've been okay for that crowd as well. I remember trying to convince one of the horrified that Seger's "Beautiful Losers" — which didn't sound anything like Waits — still accurately described most of the characters that populate Waits' songs. The guy nodded, but wasn't interested in hearing any more.)
But anyway, I still like the story, especially the image of Waits walking in that 100 degree heat in that Johnny Cash get-up. I feel a kinship for the brilliant weirdo, for I too, tend to favor the all-black, uncomfortable-as-hell hipster uniform, even in the punishing heat of Summer. A few years ago, after my daughter was born, I discovered that I was getting a little meaty, and so I forced myself to drop a few pounds by walking everywhere. I went to the local shoe store and bought a brand new pair of coal-black, Red Wing work shoes and started hoofing. After a full summer of going everywhere a pied, I managed to drop forty pounds. Incredible, to me, that I had forty pounds to lose, but I did and I did, and now, whenever I feel that I'm getting too fleshy, I make sure that my summer outfit — black, black, and black — is up-to-date and ready for some serious pavement pounding.
This puts me at odds with about 98% of humanity, I know, for I haven't owned a pair of proper "workout" shoes in decades. But I simply can't understand the "workout" mentality that virtually everyone I know subscribes to. I know time is a commodity that everyone finds precious and that that forty-five minute blast of "cardiio" at the gym is a necessary health-and-time saver, but I just can't do it. Whenever I walk past a spin class or a fitness center, I can't believe people would prefer to be trapped in those hamster cages than being out in the fresh air and moving.
As for black, well, look — everybody looks good in black. And when it's rainforest-Summer in Indiana, you're not going to escape the humidity anyway; even jumping form air-conditioned room to air-conditioned room still means you're gonna have rivulets of sweat pouring down your forehead. Why not embrace it? Of course I take precautions — I don't want to drop dead on the street, how embarrassing, I wouldn't want to ruin anybody's day — but I'm not afraid to get the sweat rolling in public.
And actually, there's a word to describe the kind of person whole like to walk everywhere as a lifestyle choice. (And no, the word isn't "dumbass.") The French came up with it, like they come up with everything (Raymond Chandler, from The Long Goodbye — "The French have a word for it. The bastards have a word for everything, and they're always right."), and it's a word that I'm tickled to have discovered: "flaneur." It's a word I've encountered before, but only recently bothered to find out what it truly means. Literally, "flaneur" means "stroller," "lounger," "saunterer," or "loafer." It comes from the 19th century, when "flaneurs" were a specific literary type in Paris — a "flaneur",the man of leisure, the connoisseur of the street. Somebody who likes to watch the social world and sub-genres of people as he goes from neighborhood to neighborhood. The philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin once described flaneurs as "uninvolved but highly perceptive bourgeoise dilettantes." Now these are my people.
Of course, there's a difference between cool French social observers strolling through Paris and an Indiana hick sweating in monochrome, but you get the idea. And while I still like the occasional seasonal trip to the lake and the beach, Summer will always be the time when I'm more interested in the pavement and heat-carrying concrete of the city. Where there's traffic, street lights, horns honking, and the blessed sight of fellow flaneurs, flaneuring everywhere until the sun finally sets.