Who is This Walking Man?

by Rob Vitaro, 1997

He must be seven feet tall, the Walking Man. Atop a two-foot-high rectangular platform, perhaps intended to be a pedestal, he is no king, just as I know I am surely not one either. We are the same, the Walking Man and I; we are walking, yet we are not moving, our lives going nowhere.

A post-holocaust sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man II stands in Cornell University’s Johnson’s Museum of Art. I stare at this Walking Man, an abstract human figure of unpainted bronze. He has been stripped of all identity, possessing only the fundamental parts of a human body: a head, neck, torso, arms, hands, legs and feet. The extremities are but stubs; no fingers or toes assist the Walking Man. He is posed in a walking position, but he cannot move; his feet, large and out of proportion, are permanently affixed to the platform. They are swollen feet, swollen from his gait of going nowhere. Walking but not moving; no identity: all too familiar for me.

Upon first sight of him my heart sank, my jaw dropped; I feel empathy for this lifeless being. His skin appears rough, bubbled, and charred, as if he were severely burned in some unjust act. I can almost draw in the stench of the smoke, hear his piercing screams, and feel the flames lick my skin, for I too have been burned, by the injustice of fate. Who is this Walking Man? Who am I? How ironic that I find him at the very place of my current agony.

Cornell University: supposedly one of the best universities in the world to attend. Yet for me, it is the home of my nightly torture, of the realization of my insignificance. “I do not matter,” is what I’ve come to believe, and this thought penetrates deep into my soul where soon it will become permanent. I watch out my window some nights and I see my hall mates go off to dinner. Thanks for asking, guys. Oh well, another night dining alone. Maybe I’ll go to that party on the first floor tonight. Maybe I’ll just stay in my room again. I thought I could handle it; I thought I could do it all. But I was wrong.

Looking at my tendencies and behaviors now, it’s hard to imagine that I was the valedictorian of my high school. I graduated with a 4.0 average, earned from four years of studying, cramming, and the occasional all-nighter. Though I procrastinated some of the time (hence the late nights) never once did I not hand in an assignment, nor did I ever skip a class; I enjoyed every one of them. I had a love of learning; I wanted a wealth of knowledge to help me understand the world. And I had other enjoyments, too. The theatre became my creative outlet halfway through high school. My closer friends and I would make home movies, and we even had a small jazz band for a few months. I painted landscapes and drew cartoons. And during my senior year, I finally found the girl I felt I had been searching for all my life. I was the highest I had ever been when I graduated from high school.

Yet, even then, I could sense an eerie black fog of indecision approaching me. I was headed for Cornell, a choice based solely on the notion that, because this particular school had “everything” to offer, it was perfect for me. Loving every subject while also being good in all of them did not leave me room to narrow the choice of potential academic focuses. My major would be undecided, because that’s what I truly was. It was my hope that I could try my hands at “everything,” and eventually choose my career path. How foolish I was not to see the power of that black fog. It has now enveloped me, and it is slowly squeezing the life out of me.

How much I have changed in just two short months; my old teachers would not recognize me. I have reached the point where I simply no longer wish to work. It is not because of the competition here; I knew that it would be impossible to be at the top at this school. Some people at Cornell are simply not human; they are 22-credits-a-semester, anti-procrastinating, two hours of sleep, information siphons, and trying to compete with them would be like attacking a tank with leaves of grass. No, I came to compete with myself – and I’m losing. I’m losing to myself? Oh yes. And it’s not that I don’t want to work because the work is too hard, either. My classes here are quite easy when compared to my AP classes in high school, I just don’t do the outside work now. So what is it then?

I AM WITHOUT FOCUS. There is no longer a goal for me. I cannot find my purpose for being here, what I am supposed to become when I graduate. And I cannot work when I see no point; if I see no ends then I can offer no means. I’ve lost count of how many classes I’ve purposely skipped in my entire life, but I know they have all been here at Cornell. I have done absolutely no outside work in one of my classes. I’ve even failed two tests – my first ever F’s. And I don’t seem to care. My only comfort comes from the faceless world of the Information Superhighway. I am more withdrawn now than I have ever been. I eat all my meals alone. I have lost all confidence in my abilities that I can no longer speak in groups as I have done so easily in the past. People walk all over me, while I retreat back to my room night after night, weekend after weekend. It’s as if I’m completely invisible; I am utterly alone, and no one knows or cares.

I get out of bed each morning, wondering when I will reach the point where I can take it no longer. Will I take my own life? I seriously doubt it. Though the thoughts pursue me, I will never act on them. There are too many people back home that I would crush if I did that. But I would not be surprised if I left Cornell, very, very soon.

I thought I could handle being away from home, away from my family, my girlfriend, but I cannot. I thought I would find my purpose here, but I have not. I simply go through the motions each day, walking to nowhere. I am like the Walking Man, who walks and walks but never moves. I am insignificant, a three-inch nothing. You’ll hardly know who I am or what I mean. I am lost in the black fog of indecision. I AM THE WALKING MAN. And I just don’t feel like walking anymore.