If you want to work and you’re black and you’re a blue-collar guy from Detroit and you don’t have a car, chances are you’ve got to take a bus to whatever suburb it is where they’re hiring. Because they’re not hiring in Detroit.
But the busses only go as far as the mall, because they don’t really want your type of guy walking around in the suburbs — unless you’re shopping for walking shoes.
So you take the bus to the Detroit city limits — 8 Mile Road — and you transfer to another bus that takes you as far as the mall at 16 Mile Road. Stranded, you have to walk another seven miles to get to your $10.55-an-hour factory job making plastic parts for automobiles you can’t afford.
When you’re done with your afternoon shift, you walk seven miles back to the mall to catch the bus that returns you to the Detroit city limits. But it’s late now, and the city busses don’t run late because the city is broke. So you walk another five miles back to the room you rent in the back of a house.
That’s how it’s been for a decade for James Robertson, Detroit’s Walking Man. Twenty miles a day. One-hundred miles a week. More than 5,000 miles a year. In total, the equivalent of two trips around Earth. In that time, Robertson has never missed a day of work.
“I just believe a man should work,” he told me. “Work takes care of your soul. The rest takes care of itself.”
This outlook may have made Robertson rich in spirit, but it has not made him rich in fact. He can’t afford a car; he clears only $320 a week, and auto insurance can top $5,000 a year in Detroit. His landlord charges him $220 a week for the room.
When it’s all said and done, there’s nothing left after groceries and bus fare. That’s how it is in Detroit. Like running on quick sand.
The local newspaper got hold of his story a couple weeks ago. And then the TV. And then the internet. Pictures of a humble, raggedy man shambling through 14 inches of snow. A working class hero. The story went viral.
And that’s when the trouble started.
More than $350,000 in donations poured into a GoFundMe account set up for him. A local Ford dealership gave him a flaming-red Taurus loaded with options. But the well-meaning dealership may as well have painted a bull’s-eye on the hood and attached a vanity plate that screamed: Come get me! I’m rich!
Robertson’s neighborhood is a cauldron of the poor, the defeated, the desperate. A landscape of charred houses, vacant lots, and busted bottles. It’s only a half-mile from the new light-rail line that will connect Midtown college kids with the revitalized downtown and its casinos, $12 cocktails, and lofts of young white professionals who still register their cars at their parents’ homes in the suburbs because insurance there is cheaper.
The rail will stop a half-mile short of Robertson’s Detroit, and it won’t connect him or the rest of the city to the bus terminal. In Robertson’s Detroit, the school year began with 100 children in a single kindergarten class. In Robertson’s Detroit, 18,000 families are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure this year because they can’t afford the property taxes. In Robertson’s Detroit, unemployment hovers around 40 percent. There are no miracles here. That is, until Robertson went viral.
After that, everybody knew him. And everybody wanted something. The neighborhood started showing up on his porch with their palms out, though Robertson has yet to receive any of the money. His girlfriend — the one who owns the house and charges him 200 bucks for the bedroom — demanded a payout, he said. So did her ex-husband who lives with them. So did her adult son who lives with them. So did the other dude who lives with them.
To make it worse, the day after Robertson received his new car, he clipped the neighbor’s house (he accidentally goosed the accelerator while on his snow-covered driveway). Now the neighbor wants to get paid too.
“Money don’t mean a thing to me,” Robertson said when I checked on him at the house. “My father taught me that. But for some people, a man’s life don’t mean a thing either.”
The very day Robertson’s story was pinging across the globe, an 86-year-old man was found under a tarp in an abandoned Detroit house, stabbed to death. His sin? He was rumored to have hit the lottery for 20 grand, though the state lottery commission says if he did, he never cashed the ticket. Either way, he’s dead.
I got a call from a banker who knows Robertson; he’d noticed him walking over the years and occasionally gave him a lift to work. The banker explained the obvious: It was only a matter of time before the car was stolen. Or worse.
So I called the local police captain. The captain let Robertson park the car at the station house, and then he called a landlord in the city who had an empty apartment for Robertson to use while he and the banker figure out what to do with the money.
The captain sent a handful of cops over to the house with Robertson to protect him while he gathered his four bags of stuff. The girlfriend wasn’t home, but she knew Robertson was leaving and furiously called a half-dozen times.
“She ain’t happy,” Robertson said. “But I don’t belong here no more. To tell you the truth, I never did.”
This article originally appeared on Vice. Copyright 2015.