Detroit’s ‘Walking Man’
A new home. New money. A new car. New friends
And some old friends who aren’t friends anymore.
In the days after his sudden fame, walking man James Robertson moved twice in three weeks so that he could elude those hounding him for money — ultimately filing a personal protection order against his landlady, who was also his ex-girlfriend.
Detroit police helped move Robertson after his two windfalls — the $360,000 in tax-free gifts donated by total strangers on three GoFundMe pages, and a $35,000 metallic-red Taurus given to him by a local auto dealer. Authorities weren’t taking any chances after an 86-year-old lottery winner was found dead in a vacant Detroit house last month, six weeks after family members said he’d won a $20,000 prize.
Now settling in at a new apartment in Troy, Robertson is modestly rich. He was venerated for walking 21 miles a day, to and from an hourly job where he’d had a decade of perfect attendance. After the Free Press told his story, Robertson vaulted from obscurity to being the standard bearer for Detroit’s mass transit woes, the need for auto insurance reform, the income gap and the “living wage.”
But the soft-spoken plastic-molding operator left no forwarding address with anyone in his old neighborhood, near Woodward and Grand Boulevard.
“I may have been born there, but God knows I don’t belong there anymore,” he said.
Learning new habits
The Free Press caught up with Robertson last week, as the die-hard baseball fan relaxed in front of his new 60-inch television, tuned to the Major League Baseball network. Wearing his usual calm smile and rumpled sweatshirt, Robertson said he felt safe and secure in Troy, amid beige decor studded with contemporary black furniture from IKEA. There are few reminders of his 56 years of living in Detroit, except for a Spirit of Detroit proclamation he received that sits prominently on a shelf in his living room.
Robertson’s old habit of fueling up with huge meals hasn’t died. Recently, he had two egg sandwiches and two bacon sandwiches — in one meal. He appears a tad chubbier since the Free Press first encountered him walking 8 miles to work and 13 miles home. But he insists he hasn’t added to his 230-pound, 6-foot frame.
“I keep telling myself, ‘this is the year I’m cutting down on drinking pop.’ I’m drinking a lot more water now,” said Robertson, who routinely swallowed 2-liter Mountain Dews and cans of Coke in his days of walking to work.
Those days are over. When the door opened to his new car, another closed on his marathon walks. The commute that once took him more hours than his eight-hour factory shift has shrunk to a comfortable 20-minute drive in his well-appointed 2015 Taurus.
Awaiting him in Rochester Hills each afternoon is his familiar job at Schain Mold & Engineering, where he still earns $10.55 per hour. His cache of fresh cash is being managed by a dream team of financial experts, all working at no charge. And Robertson has no thought of quitting the job he has had for 16 years, he said.
“I’m going to keep working — that’s for sure,” he said.
Robertson’s routine includes getting up almost as early as he used to, at about 6:30 a.m., but now he gets a reasonable seven hours of sleep, instead of the survivalist two hours he once got during his years of walking until 4 a.m. to his home in Detroit. And now, instead of leaving the house at 8:30 a.m. to catch a bus and then walk 7 miles, he relaxes each morning with baseball and other televised sports.
Robertson keeps his abode spotless. He eagerly showed a visitor his spin mop with automatic wringer — “something I’ve always wanted” — that he keeps charged with cleaning solution. His life had been tightly constrained. Now, with a car and money, he has so many new choices. But there are new limits too.
Before becoming famous, Robertson liked making an occasional jaunt to a casino in Detroit, “but then he received hate for that” after becoming a public figure and he has yet to gamble another nickel, said Evan Leedy, the college student who started the GoFundMe account on behalf of Robertson. Instead, Robertson has driven several times to the Troy Sports Center to watch schoolboy hockey games, he said.
Asked whether he’ll take up skating, Robertson smiled and said, “I might be doing that.”
Lately, he attends church each Sunday with Leedy’s family at Rock Community Assembly of God near New Baltimore, and last weekend he followed up with Sunday dinner with Leedy’s family in Macomb Township.
“A lot of people are concerned about his loneliness and so am I,” Leedy said.
Safety a priority
Robertson has cut himself off from virtually everyone in his former life, except for the coworkers he continues to praise. “Now I don’t have all the riffraff, the troublesome people, running around me,” he said.
In their place, along with his new address and new car, is a new circle of friends. Besides Leedy there is Blake Pollock, 47, the UBS Financial Services vice president for wealth management, who befriended the walker last year during Robertson’s foot-slogging commutes.
This story shows that there are really good people out there and some really Fucked up people out there