Twice a week for the past month, I’ve paid an underemployed actor $30 an hour to walk me through the hills of L.A. like a Labrador. Chuck McCarthy isn’t a dog walker, though; he’s a people walker — the “People Walker,” in fact — who has accompanied hundreds of strangers on foot for thousands of miles since 2016, when he began walking people to earn a few extra bucks and get himself out of the house more. McCarthy is a bit coy about his age, given his primary profession, and his long shaggy beard makes it hard to pin down an exact number. He admits to playing characters “between 35 and 45,” most recently a killer biker in a true-crime spoof on E!, but demand for such roles has waned with the pandemic. Fortunately, his supplemental income from walking humans has not.
I first learned about McCarthy from a TED Talk he gave last year. Only recently, though, did I book the service myself, hoping to infuse my coronavirus isolation with sustained human contact since I’ve regularly gone days without it over the last seven months. Along those lines, I contend the mental-health implications of COVID have disproportionately affected middle-aged, single men like me, as the pandemic dovetails with a similarly destructive epidemic more generally: male loneliness.
“I think something like the People Walker is incredibly sad and necessary, filling a real void for men,” says professor Andrew Reiner, author of the forthcoming book Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency, who teaches men’s studies, writing and cultural studies at Towson University.“The need for a people walker speaks volumes about the way American men are socialized and conditioned to be independent.”
At 10:58 a.m on a Tuesday morning, in order to identify McCarthy, I scroll through his Facebook page to find a current picture while awaiting our first walk at a coffee shop in Hollywood’s Franklin Village. I spot his trademark bushy beard first, along with a bedraggled mane corralled beneath a tan gondolier’s hat, though any question about his identity are resolved by a belt buckle that reads “CHUCK” and a handmade T-shirt that declares the hirsute hulk lumbering toward me is, indeed, the People Walker.
As we stride past a row of handsome houses, I hear the first of many car horns greeting McCarthy, who smiles and waves like a political candidate. This honk is from a guy named Turbo, whom McCarthy describes as “a kinda sensei” and his inspiration for acting, given that Turbo’s been known to go 10 years without booking a role. “You just have to just keep going,” he says, slightly increasing our pace, “kinda like walking.”
Most of our first walk consists of small talk. While small talk has long been maligned as a waste of time, recent studies indicate people are happier when they talk to others, no matter how frivolous the conversation. For his part, McCarthy considers small talk “the building block of friendship based on shared experience,” a fundamental component of his mission. It’s essentially a calibration, he says. To that end, on our first walk, we’ve established that it’s 20 degrees hotter than the day before and that my water bottle is leaking, giving us the option to move on to more consequential subject matters should we please. “The absence of small talk is why it’s so hard to have any kind of conversation about politics online, because you don’t first establish that you’re even in the same universe,” McCarthy tells me.
When we arrive at a hollowed-out cavity along the trail — a former rock quarry whose guts McCarthy says were used as freeway pavement, among other things — I’m struck by a pang of deja vu. Effortlessly shifting into tour-guide mode (a classification he resists), McCarthy explains that it’s the cave from the movie Palm Springs and the Batcave from the 1960s Batman TV show. So many places in L.A. are things we’ve seen throughout our lives on TV, I note in return.
As the small talk continues, the cadence of our steps naturally falls into a synchronized rhythm, and I’m reminded of a term — “entrainment,” or the rhythmic physiological events that match a natural environment — employed by Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute and Mindful Living Network, who has spoken with presidents, Supreme Court justices, CEOs and the Dalai Lama about their practice of walking and reflection. “There’s a rhythm to nature,” she explains. “Birds, dogs, leaves — it all slows you down.”
McCarthy likens the phenomenon to being in the womb. We get used to the heartbeat and being carried by someone for the first three years of life, he says, which informs what we consider to be connection with others. It likewise inspired the mission statement of the People Walker: “Creating momentum in people’s lives through movement and connection.” “I provide conversation and motivation to get people moving,” McCarthy explains as we return to the coffee shop, referencing a study finding that 25 minutes of brisk walking a day could add seven years to your life. “As the song goes, ‘nobody walks in L.A.,’ but I’m trying to change that.”
His mission began in 2016, when McCarthy was looking for something to get himself out of the house on a regular basis. He considered walking dogs, but knew he’d have to walk a bunch of them to make any real money and wasn’t inclined to pick up their shit all day. He and his girlfriend had set a rule that anytime they ordered takeout, they would at least walk to the restaurant to pick it up. Along the way, McCarthy would see flyers for personal trainers and dog walkers and thought, What if I start walking people? His mother had recently fallen and broken her leg while walking by herself on a nature trail and was stranded for hours before passersby rescued her. “I figured people might want something like this for safety,” he recalls.
Also, says Michele Stanten, a walking coach and fitness instructor, walking doesn’t get the credit it deserves since it pretty much provides all of the health benefits regular exercise offers — e.g., improving your mood, helping you sleep better, reducing stress and anxiety, lowering blood pressure and lessening the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. “Mostly, though, people actually enjoy it, unlike many other forms of exercise,” she tells me.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the aforementioned loneliness epidemic, a majority of McCarthy’s regular clients are men. “I view the People Walker therapeutically in terms of being able to open up a little bit and get things off my chest,” Bob Nankin, a partnerless, 69-year-old retired cardiologist who is McCarthy’s longest-running client, tells me. “It’s nice to have that companionship and connection, particularly during the pandemic.”
McCarthy is quick to point out that he is neither a trainer nor a therapist — just a walking companion, which is fine by Nankin. “I don’t go to a meat market when I’m looking for bread,” he says. “And I don’t lay a lot of heavy stuff on Chuck. I save that for my therapist.”
An entirely new mode of therapy has sprung up to take advantage of our natural inclination to be more forthcoming while walking in nature, explains Jennifer Udler, a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland who leads a “walk-and-talk” psychotherapy practice, Positive Strides Therapy, where sessions are conducted outdoors. Most of her clients are male, too, so she understands why the People Walker is so attractive to them. “The activity of having something to do is helpful in reaching men on a deeper level,” she says, referencing the physicality of male interaction while playing sports and sweating together. “I have male clients who would never work with a therapist in an office setting, but get them moving outdoors and it’s a completely different story.”
One of the things that helps men when walking is that you’re not face-to-face and don’t necessarily have direct eye contact, Stanten adds, so it allows them to relax and open up more.
McCarthy chalks up the gender discrepancy of his clientele to women’s natural ability to make and maintain friendships better (in a recent British study, 2.5 million men admitted to having no close friends). As Udler alluded to, most men require a purpose to hang out, which McCarthy broadly categorizes as either “hunting” or “protecting.” Sexual conquest and fantasy sports fall into the hunting bucket, while walking with another man falls into the protecting one. On the latter count, the buddy system, he explains, was created by the U.S Army, the rationale being that you’re safer with somebody watching your back. And if it’s safer for trained soldiers to walk around together, it’s certainly safer for us as well, he argues.
“The whole idea of society is to make our lives safer, easier and better,” he explains, as he guides us up a small hill dotted with dry chaparral on our second walk and warns me to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. “Our brains are yearning for that connection, because we want to know that our fellow man is looking out for us. That’s a part of politics that gets completely lost on too many people.”
And yet, Reiner says two men walking together often requires more courage than doing so alone because of the male unwillingness to be seen walking with another man in public, for fear that it will either make them look “gay” — or worse, vulnerable.
Vulnerability, however, isn’t an issue for Sam Pocker, a 43-year-old artist, musician and coloring book designer who freely shares his dark life story online via autobiographical YouTube videos and songs like “Los Angeles Sucks and I Want to Die,” the lyrics of which include, “They won’t make eye contact / For you can see their fear / Or even worse the dead look / That makes me wonder why I’m here.” The divorcee from New York City rarely leaves his apartment and admits he doesn’t relate to people very well. Yet while walking to get breakfast one morning, he spotted a handmade flyer hastily taped to a nearby lamppost.
“Need motivation to walk?” it asked. “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?”
Pocker snapped a picture of it, figuring the guy would soon be out of business and he could look him up to see how miserably he’d failed. But a year later, his phone reminded him of the flyer, and he looked up the People Walker, who wasn’t only still in business, but a viral sensation of sorts. Incessant Postmates ordering had left Pocker overweight and riddled with corresponding health deficits, so he asked McCarthy to come every day to get him out of the house. “I’m very scatterbrained,” Pocker explains. “I don’t remember to eat. I don’t remember to shower. I don’t remember to exercise because I’m so focused on whatever it is I’m working on. Because I was paying Chuck and he was texting me saying he was downstairs, it got me out of the house. He’s really helped me.”
Three years later, Pocker and McCarthy still walk together regularly, text each other daily and have even taken a standup comedy class together. When the air quality in L.A. was impacted by the wildfires last month, they walked indoors at IKEA or Costco. “Given the changes I saw with my own eyes in the way he was moving and acting, Sam cemented in me that the People Walker could improve lives,” McCarthy tells me.
This was readily apparent to lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Aryan Sarbaz, who met McCarthy at a wedding in Australia in 2017 and saw immense potential in the People Walker, recognizing it as Uber for pedestrians. Burned out from litigating, Sarbaz identified the most important things he wanted out of life — health, connection, helping people, educating people and making money, and agreed to join the People Walker team as CEO. “When I talked to Chuck, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this checks off all the boxes!’ It was just such a cool concept, and I wanted to partner up.”
Sarbaz’s proposed business plan mirrored the rideshare model — easily accessible to join, easily accessible to book a walk. An on-demand app, “People Walker” (they dropped the “the” after watching The Social Network), was built to connect users, or “walkees,” to a fleet of 150 “walkers,” who were background-checked and vetted. The price was set at $15 an hour, with half-hour windows available for $10. An advantage of walking and talking with someone is information-sharing and learning, McCarthy says, so to add more value, walkees were matched with walkers who had shared interests. So if you wanted to practice Spanish, you’d be paired with a Spanish speaker, if you were a birder, you might be paired with a photographer, and so on.
An initial surge stemmed from massive international press coverage in 2017. McCarthy would do an interview with a German travel show and a bunch of people from Berlin would magically appear in L.A. in walking shoes. Same with Australia. Unfortunately, however, Sarbaz says Americans correlated it with more taboo pockets of the companionship economy, like Rentafriend.com and cuddle parties, which haven’t been fully accepted.
Why, though? Sure, cuddle parties seem weirder than dinner parties — and I can attest that they are — but the basic trade-off of cash for connection is the same. Not to mention, we’ve accepted prostitution for millennia, with which Reiner draws a close correlation to the People Walker, given that both are forms of rented intimacy. “You’re paying for essentially the same thing because of an inability to find another form of intimacy to satisfy some part of your life,” he says.
Likewise, when McCarthy pauses to inform me that Moby once lived in that castle on the hill with a massive beehive in a portcullis, or the jacarandas aren’t actually native to Southern California, Reiner says he’s deepening my sense of place, an additional form of intimacy. “And in the peripatetic, distracted world we live in today, we’re so focused on our phones that it’s hard to feel connected to the places we live, heightening the sense of isolation.”
Ironically, the day after McCarthy’s TED Talk was posted in July 2019, the People Walker app was shuttered permanently. Investors pledged money that was conditional on hitting a certain mark, which missed by a mile (at its peak in late 2018, the app was only booking 30 walks a week, many of whom were one-time users). It was a catch-22: They never had a surge in users because they didn’t have enough marketing dollars to instigate one, because they hadn’t adequately proven there would be a surge and so on.
Sarbaz views his experience with the People Walker as an examination of the human condition, revealing how thirsty we all are for connection and yet so afraid to ask for help for fear of rejection or judgment. “So we put [the app] on the back burner to see how things panned out, but when the pandemic hit, I officially gave up on it,” he laments.
Apps and VC aside, McCarthy is still happily putting one foot in front of the other. In fact, with the initial hype calming down, the service looks even more like what he initially intended — something to get him out of the house, make a few extra bucks and meet new people. I’ve enjoyed being the beneficiary of the latter over the last month and consistently look forward to our saunters. Each time, like an old friend, we share whatever’s going on in our lives that week, whether it’s bantering about the wildfires or the insanity of the Trump administration.
When we meet to walk one Monday morning, he tells me that he was secretly married to his long-term girlfriend by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a social movement promoting a lighthearted view of religion. Meanwhile, the following week, I barely recognize McCarthy, as he’s chopped a foot of hair from his face and head. “I had to get a haircut for some new headshots,” he explains, somewhat defeatedly. “My agent said the more normal I make myself look, the more regular white guys I’ll be considered for. And regular white guys work.’”
As we huff our way up to Griffith Observatory, I mention that I’ve always found it bizarre that all of this was named after the director D.W. Griffith, but McCarthy corrects me, explaining the namesake to actually be Griffith J. Griffith, a Welshman who made his fortunes in Northern California before settling on the East Side of L.A. (He also shot his wife after drinking a half gallon of whiskey and was caught up in the O.J. Simpson trial of his time.)
Suddenly, though, the tenor of our conversation shifts completely. “Watch out!” McCarthy shrieks, raising an arm to prevent me from walking any further.
Oh my god, I think, figuring I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake and my ever-present protector had my back.
“No, that guy is pissing off the ridge up there, and it almost hit you.”
The buddy system wins again.