LA's first "people walker"
Chuck McCarthy is an under-employed actor in Los Angeles who came up with a joke and turned it into a business: he walks people.
For $7 a mile he walks strangers who feel in need of exercise or company or just something different. He's not a guide, bodyguard or fitness trainer, he's just a guy who walks with you, listening if you wish to talk, opining if you ask his opinion, staying shtum if you prefer silence.
McCarthy started doing it in the summer of 2016 and is about to expand, recruiting an additional 15 walkers to a concept which simultaneously feels very un-LA – not a city famous for walking – and very LA, an incubator of mad fads and inspired innovations.
Many people still think it's a gag. “Some of my friends still ask, 'oh that's a real thing?'” McCarthy says. But his expanding roster of clients – tourists and locals – consider it a natural addition to the gig economy, he says. “People see it as a service like any other service.”
Paying someone to walk with you does not mean you have no friends or are a loser, it just means you do not have a friend available to accompany you when you fancy a walk, he says. “If you take an Uber it's not like, oh, you don't have a friend that can drive you to the airport at 7am.
McCarthy is a bearded, bearish, affable thirtysomething – being an actor he declines to reveal his exact age – who moved to LA from Georgia a decade ago.
He found bit parts but went long spells between roles - “resting,” in Hollywood lexicon – and daydreamed an idea of walking people, as opposed to dogs.
The more he pondered it the less nutty it seemed so last year he started pasting wryly-worded marketing flyers around Los Feliz, his neighbourhood in east LA.
“Need motivation to walk?” they asked from lamp posts. “Scared to walk alone at night? Don’t like walking alone at all? 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?”
People, it turned out, were fed up spending so much time sitting in front of screens engaging on social media and craved old-fashioned human interaction.
McCarthy is now a familiar sight, often wearing shorts and a home-made People Walker t-shirt as he walks people around the leafy, hilly streets of Los Feliz.
“The People Walker is exactly what I needed and is very valuable for my overall well being,” one client, Amber E, wrote on his site. The television producer said that between projects she can go several days without interacting with someone. “So mainly I enjoy the connection and emotional component that The People Walker provides, like having a buddy, and the fitness is an added bonus. I’m always telling my friends that I need to walk, but they can’t always meet up. With The People Walker, everything is simplified."
McCarthy says about a third of his clients are tourists. The rest are a mix of older men, middle-aged women and younger, work-at-home creatives.
Over the past year he has fielded requests via Facebook and hired a few friends to fill in when he was unavailable. To expand he has now teamed up with a business partner, Aryan Sarbaz, a lawyer who previously worked for a real estate tech start-up.
In January they plan to overhaul the website and add an app, allowing online bookings. They also plan to hire about 15 additional walkers dotted around LA. “We're looking for people that are personable, healthy and fit enough to to walk a good amount, good listeners, interesting, maybe well travelled.”
The duo will also change the pricing from a mileage to a time-based model: $15 per half-hour, which at a decent pace works out similar to the current $7 per mile fee.
McCarthy says a client has hit on him just once – asking to be walked to a bar, to have a drink with him. He declined. “Yeah, I keep away from that.”