Chicago, IL

A Story About Joseph Kromelis — Chicago’s Walking Man

Carolyn Light

He perseveres, despite a heinous attempt on his life

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Joseph Kromelis, known as the “Walking Man,” in the Loop in 2011. Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

On May 26th of this year, I was out of town.

I woke up in my hotel room to a text from a former colleague of mine. She said:

Carolyn someone set our guy on fire as he was sleeping on the ground, suspect looks about 30ish white male escaped on the blue line! He’s in critical condition and age 75 omg!

She followed it up with a blurry picture of her television, turned to a local news station with the headline HOMELESS MAN CRITICALLY INJURED AFTER BEING SET ON FIRE.

I knew immediately who she was talking about. Before we knew his name was Joseph Kromelis, we called him “Mark Twain.” When she and I worked together, we’d leave work at the same time and walk to Chicago’s train station, beginning our commutes home. We’d see the same man each day. He was elderly, always wearing a heavy tweed outfit, and sporting long gray hair and a mustache. He looked like Mark Twain.

It was clear that he lived on the fringes of Chicago society — he wore the same outfit every day, he was always walking aimlessly down the street, and he was a bit unkempt. Many had noticed him, and he was widely referred to as “The Walking Man.”

My colleague and I grew fond of seeing him — on the days we didn’t see him, we’d be worried something had happened to him. He was a beacon. He minded his own business; he didn’t bother anyone. He was just, living.

After reading her text, I quickly turned on the television in my hotel room, but because I wasn’t home, none of the news stations were playing the story. I turned to my phone. I Googled “man set on fire +Chicago,” and found the news stories I was seeking.

Joseph Kromelis had been sleeping on the sidewalk in the city, late at night. Joseph Guardia, a 27-year-old man who said “I was angry and wanted to set something on fire. I didn’t know there was a person under the blanket,” doused him in gasoline, and lit him on fire. Kromelis awoke, stood up, and began thrashing around. Guardia took off running, escaping on Chicago’s blue line train. A security guard in a local building caught sight of the blaze and ran outside with a fire extinguisher, putting out the fire.

Joseph Kromelis was brought to the hospital, and for over a month, it looked as though he wasn’t going to survive. Luckily, his condition has been upgraded. Joseph Guardia was caught, arrested, and charged with attempted murder.

Joseph Kromelis “The Walking Man” is a fixture in Chicago.

He’s frequently photographed, and there is a Facebook page dedicated to listing daily sightings of him. He was once even the focus of a video on YouTube called “Dudementary.”

I’m like the Kardashians, he’s been reported to have said. I’m famous for doing nothing.

According to a blog post entitled The Story of Chicago’s Walking Man, Kromelis moved to the United States from Lithuania when he was a child. His parents owned a tavern in Chicago, but then sold it and moved to Michigan. Kromelis stayed in Chicago, and got a peddler’s license. For 30 years, he lived in a single-room occupancy building, but was turned out when the building was converted to condos. He’s been living on the streets since.

Still, he’s not without family. Though he was never married, he has siblings. He has nieces and nephews. He’s attended family gatherings throughout the years, looking happy in all of the photographs posted on his family’s social media pages.

There’s nothing wrong with him, his sister-in-law said. He’s not mentally ill. He just likes walking. It’s that simple. That’s Joe. He loves the city.

When I started writing this story, I had titled it, Why Would Anyone Set a Homeless Person on Fire?

I changed the title though, because I decided that I didn’t want the story to be about Guardia and his act of hatred.

I thought that I was going to analyze the motives of Guardia. I wanted to figure out what could cause a person to act in such a way. But then, I decided that I don’t really care about the reasoning behind what he did— it was despicable. Hard stop.

I was angry, I wanted to light something on fire, he told the police.

All over this world, people are angry. Struggling. In every state, in every country, in every corner of this planet, we could find someone who is hurting. We could find someone who wants to bring others down to their level of misery. The majority of those people will control themselves and any violent urges they may feel. The majority of those people will not light someone else on fire.

This story is about Joseph Kromelis, and I wanted to write it because when I Googled him this morning to see if there are updates on his condition — the most recent update was weeks ago. I don’t want this story to fall off the radar — and though this never should have happened, and I wish this wasn’t even a story to tell — it’s ultimately a story of hope.

Joseph Kromelis — a 75-year-old homeless man who has survived immigrating to America, street peddling, eviction, homelessness, an attack by a man with a baseball bat (I didn’t even get into this) in 2016, and now being set ablaze by an “angry” fellow-citizen continues to persevere.

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