As the digital age makes people more lonely, Chuck McCarthy created a service to stroll with strangers – but the job is more people whisperer than walker
Chuck McCarthy recently auditioned as a homicidal biker for a TV show, but the actor is finding glimmers of fame, and possibly a business franchise, with another role: Los Angeles’s first people walker.
He walks humans for $7 a mile around the streets and park near his home, pioneering an alternative to dog walking that requires no leash, just an ability to walk, talk and, above all, listen.
The idea initially struck the underemployed actor several months ago as a joke, an imaginary way to make extra cash, until it became real.
“The more I thought about it, the less crazy it seemed,” said McCarthy, draining a bottle of water – he now takes hydration seriously – and heading out into the sunshine for another walk, this time with the Guardian trotting in step.
A homemade scrawl across his T-shirt declared him The People Walker, low-budget, mobile advertising. “I’ve been doing walks almost every single day for the past week and I’m getting repeat clients, which is what you want.”
A stroll with this soft-spoken, hirsute hulk seems to be what much of LA wants, judging by the response to his Facebook page and homemade flyers.
“Need motivation to walk?” they ask from lamp posts. “Scared to walk alone at night? Don’t like walking alone at all? Don’t want people to see you walking alone and just assume you have no friends? Don’t like listening to music or podcasts but can’t walk alone in silence, forced to face thoughts of the unknown future, or your own insignificance in the ever expanding universe?”
For many, the answer to one or all of the above seems to be “yes”. McCarthy is fielding hundreds of emails from the lonely, the curious and the adventurous, all seeking a stranger’s ambulatory company.
“I try to listen more than talk,” he said this week, striding past handsome houses in Los Feliz, a leafy neighbourhood near Hollywood.
Conversations with clients are seldom confessional, but he respects confidences. “It’s mostly surface, small-talk type stuff. But I think it’s therapeutic even if they’re not baring their souls.”
It’s mostly surface, small-talk type stuff. But I think it’s therapeutic even if they’re not baring their souls
Grumbling about traffic, for instance, felt better when delivered to an actual human ear rather than posted on social media. “Tweeting about it and getting no response just makes you feel sadder.”
So many requests have poured in that McCarthy has recruited five other walkers to serve different parts of LA, though he will not take any cut from their earnings until he figures out a professional business model.
Commenters on his Facebook page offer plenty of advice. “Charge more and scale it up. Figure out what the secret sauce is – personality, being a supremely good listener, paying attention to inane bullshit, etc – then train your walker bees accordingly.”
It could grow fast. A woman in Israel has copied the idea, someone in Britain wants him to do it there, and a guy in New York asked him to walk his eight-year-old son to the bus stop each day.
McCarthy, bemused and excited by the attention, is considering crowdfunding to hire techies to design an Uber-style app. In addition to ensuring proximity – he wants to stay local and on foot, not drive across town, let alone fly thousands of miles – the app would let walkers and clients rate each other for personability and walking speed. The latter is a key point for walkers since a slow pace, say two miles an hour, yields $14, versus $28 for a brisk four miles an hour. “Awesome concept, plenty of screwed up lonely people out there,” said one of his Facebook commenters, suggesting the job is more people whisperer than walker.
But according to McCarthy, paying to be walked does not mean people are friendless. It just means they cannot always coordinate leisure time with friends, a product of fluid schedules in the gig economy, leaving them isolated. “We’re on phones and computers constantly communicating but we’re not connecting as much. We need that human interaction.”
We also need exercise. McCarthy has slimmed down two notches on his belt since starting the professional walking. “I try not to run because it could ruin my brand,” he deadpanned.
Originally from Atlanta, McCarthy is serious enough about acting that he declines to reveal his exact age, beyond saying he is in his 30s. He has found bit parts – most recently in a promo for the film Pete’s Dragon – since moving to LA a decade ago, but no breakthrough role.
“I grew the beard so I could play homeless people.” And, potentially, homicidal bikers. He is hopeful of landing that role.
McCarthy stresses that he is not a personal trainer. “I’m more about motivating someone to leave their house and walk than being a drill sergeant shouting at them.”
Might the daily treks up and down Los Feliz lead to a movie treatment? Thinner material, after all, has made it to the screen. The people walker grinned. “Why not? Maybe (Jean-Claude) Van Damme will play me.”
This story is reprinted from The Guardian, Wednesday September 14, 2016