My husband and I first noticed an unkempt man on the side of the road in our town of Converse about two years ago, while we were stopped at the light in front of the high school. Eyes wild, he appeared to be having a rather angry conversation with himself. He was waiting for the light to change at the cross walk, along with several sleepy students on their way to school. He crossed the farm road in front of our car when the sign said 'WALK', waving his arms in the air emphatically, and continued on his way.
"Looks like we've got a wandering man here in Converse," I remarked to my husband. There seems to be at least one in every small and mid-sized town in Texas; a person who is either mentally ill, intellectually disabled, or something, who walks everywhere. I've heard them called Boo Radleys, and less pleasant things. I call them wandering men, because I've never seen a wandering woman. They remind me of stories told about the Great Depression, where hobos would ride the rails or walk across the country, looking for work. Or something else.
I saw the man often after that first time. He would usually be arguing with an invisible entity or glaring at his footwear. I would also see him leaning against the rail of a bridge, a blanket beside him, as if he had spent the night outside. Over the course of about six weeks, his clothing began to suffer from rips and tears and stains. I grew concerned.
I see no harm in a person just walking around, whether they are special needs or not. For some, the physical exertion of walking seems to meet some sort of need. Maybe it's a form of self-stimulation. It doesn't matter. If they are not trying to hurt anyone, and they are not trying to hurt themselves, then leave them be. However, if the person doesn't appear to be taking care of themselves, should people in the community step in? With children, the answer is easy: Yes, you step in to help. Always. There's even a law that says you're supposed to. But adults, that's different. How do you balance that need to respect the boundaries of the individual without letting them just die in the process?
The next time we saw him, however, his hair had been cut. He was still walking up and down the road, but now he was clean and dressed in new clothes. He wasn't screaming at the sky. Instead, he strolled along with some purpose, a destination in mind. He looked rather normal; no angry energy animated his features. One day, I even saw him smiling to himself as I drove past.
Since then, he seems to go through cycles of deterioration, his unkempt clothes and hair a representation of his mental state, until someone cleans him up and makes him take his medication.
But always, he wanders.