The Wanderer

An Unknown Man and His Buggy 

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published Jan. 3, 1999 
The man pushing the Piggly Wiggly buggy trudges out of the shade and merges with the 29-degree wind chill blowing south down Interstate 475. The shade has come from where it always does, the space beneath the overpass between Exit 1 and Exit 2, the place where the man and his Piggly Wiggly buggy live.The man is a fixture along the freeway's breakdown lane, as familiar as its mileposts.

Locals have their theories, their self-assuring explanations that, yes, there must be some very good reasons for a man to poke along a highway the way he does. His story has no doubt logged more miles than he has, circumnavigating the gossip circuit no telling how many times.

This day, the man and his story head downwind toward Exit 1. To Eisenhower Parkway. To a McDonald's. To lunch.

A clerk at the Shell station across the street says, "We heard his family was in a real bad accident and it killed his wife and kids."

A girl in the McDonald's next to Macon State College watches the man eat a Quarter Pounder in the parking lot and she just knows "he really has a family that would do for him."

A woman sitting with the girl hears "he's really smart ... and something happened and their car broke down."

Back across the interstate at the Fina station, a lady thinks "he used to be a professor and his wife died out here on the street and that's why he hangs out."

A clerk at the Super 8 Motel nearby offers another perspective: "Everybody has seen him and doesn't know a thing about him."

* * *

A Bibb County sheriff's deputy calls him "Shopping Cart Man."

"We tried to get his name in case something ever happened to him," the deputy says. "But we couldn't get anything out of him."

The chief of police in Byron, 10 or so miles down the freeway, refers to him as "Interstate Sam."

A cashier at the Exit 1 Citgo knows him as "Sam Buggy."

To folks at the Exit 2 Waffle House, he's good old "Go-Cart Willie."

He actually answers to James. So say the folks who work at the Shell Station near the college. They say a former customer claimed to know the man. So now they ask him things.

"James," they'll say, "you want these cans?"

"Ain't no can man," he'll reply, "ain't no can man."

* * *

Cardboard boxes are his thing. He collects them from trash bins at convenience stores. He piles them on his buggy and carts them to his bridge between Exit 1 and Exit 2.

Columbus Road is his roof. His neighbors? Four lanes of 65-mph traffic.

He sleeps in a nest of flattened boxes stacked 35 thick and bound with twine. In his living room, the concrete shoulder at the foot of a 30-degree embankment, are two spare sets of shoes. Beside them rest a can of Beanee Weenees, two cans of Armour potted meat and a $1.09 tin of Spam. He keeps water in an anti-freeze jug.

A dozen or so boards, some tree limbs and sticks are stashed by the food. Firewood. His fireplace is portable. A hubcap.

* * *

A guy who lives in the house next to the overpass has no idea when the man moved in.

The bridge was built in 1965. The buggy man hasn't been there that long, but the way he moves sure makes it seem like he came from a slower time.

He plods behind his cart as if busing tables in a dining room he will never reach. His stiff walk is neither limp nor waddle. It is more a robot-legged creep, his propulsion more a product of leaning than stepping.

"I bet the bottoms of his feet are like concrete," says the owner of the Exit 1 Citgo.

It isn't clear if the buggy man shuffles because he is tired or because he is old. There is no telling how old, however, but they do give him the senior discount at McDonald's.

For breakfast he likes the hot cakes and sausage with two large Hi-C Oranges. He likes the blueberry muffins. For lunch he downs a pair of Quarter Pounders with cheese and a double order of fries. He chews a lot faster than he walks.

But a mechanic at the garage beside the Mickey Ds has seen him turn food down.

The mechanic says the man will be standing, propped on his buggy, napping on his feet. People will pull up and fork over just-bought Big Macs and McNuggets, stuff still in the wrappers.

"As soon as they drive off he'll toss it," the mechanic says.

* * *

The buggy man wears size 10-1/2 Nike high-tops. He keeps them behind the retaining wall back at the overpass.

But his walking shoes are boots as dirty-black as old tires. They're rounded at the toes, puffed, as if he somehow pumped too much air in them. They don't let the bottoms of his jeans past his ankles.

He wears a gray shirt, a dark leather coat. When it's cold, people give him blankets, jackets. When it's hot, it looks like he's wearing every one of them.

* * *

At the Shell station, he buys rubbing alcohol, two pints for $2.25.

The clerks sometimes give him extra plastic bags with his purchase.

"Thank ya," he'll say.

He buys D batteries for the radio strapped to his buggy. He buys Clorox, dirty magazines, pencils by the handful.

The Shell manager says the buggy man waits for the store to clear out before he goes in. If he happens to get to the register when someone else does, he'll step aside.

"A lot of times he's playing a two-step dance getting his merchandise paid for," the manager says.

People give the man money, but he doesn't ask for it.

A lady at the Fina station says, "I told my husband to quit giving it to him because he's probably the wealthiest man in the world."

* * *

The buggy man's Piggly Wiggly cart is a beater from the days before express lanes. He keeps it lubed with WD-40.

Its cargo bin is crammed with crates, old sacks, satchels and other freeway flotsam: five 5-gallon buckets, two milk jugs, a jumble of wires and cords.

Someone tried to give him a low-mileage Kroger cart once. He turned it down.

His has a radio.

He listens to the Braves.

* * *

Travelers report seeing him trolling the highway as far south as Valdosta.

A state trooper once drove him back to Macon from Peach County, buggy and all.

"He was southbound in the northbound lane," the trooper says.

Last summer, the buggy man went missing for a few weeks. When he showed up again, the manager at the Shell noticed he had a cast on his right arm. She asked if he'd been hurt.

"No, ma'am," he told her, "on vacation."

She says he sometimes stops in front of the gas pumps and conks out, slumped over his cart.

"Is that gentleman expired?" a customer once asked.

* * *

The buggy man is at the McDonald's again. It's afternoon now. He's parked outside, eating. Dinner.

"What's that man doing?" an 8-year-old boy from Valdosta asks his brother.

"That's a homeless man," his brother tells him.

But then the man, having gobbled his Quarter Pounder, heads . . . for home.

It is six-tenths of a mile from Eisenhower Parkway to his living room.

But his commute takes more than an hour.

3:38 p.m. At the foot of the onramp, he nudges the buggy north, baby-stepping as ever.

3:52 p.m. He pauses and adjusts a new addition to his load, a tree limb he picked up behind the Super 8.

3:54 p.m. Still climbing the ramp. Someone in a pickup stops, hands him something and drives away.

4:13 p.m. A Brink's truck throttles past. Then there's a lull in the herd of traffic. Then a sound, his tree limb scrubbing the concrete.

4:23 p.m. He reenters the anonymity of the interstate.

4:58 p.m. He is home. Sitting. Up in the green beams of his bridge. Soon it is too dark to see him. Not that the light of day has helped.

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