My connection with Robert the Walker started back in March with an emailed copy of his letter to Burbank officials about how much he loves the newly-opened Glendale Narrows portion of the Los Angeles Riverwalk and the sadness he feels seeing homeless people living there.
He didn't get an answer to his question: "How about a couple of bucks to create a sanctuary for the homeless, vagrant scavengers that are living (on) your streets?"
Several dozen emails followed in the ensuing months. They contained pictures of the beauty of the Narrows and the ugliness of homeless people hidden in the nooks and crannies and the trash they leave around.
His missive at the end of August pushed me to take a greater interest: "Seeing some innocent kids going down to the river at night to have their fun, or a single woman walking her dog. Would these innocent folks represent an opportunity to the homeless who have nothing … this is a disaster waiting to happen."
So I made a date for Robert the Walker's Glendale Narrows tour — a date that coincidentally occurred the same morning last week when I got an email from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about the city's 232nd birthday.
"The L.A. River is the best-kept secret of Los Angeles! You can bike, kayak, walk and run throughout the 51-mile stretch with great scenery like Glendale Narrows and Atwater Crossing," Garcetti wrote in explaining it was the public's choice to use photos of the river to greet tourists arriving at Los Angeles International Airport.
Still, I was not prepared for the beauty, the serenity I encountered when I met up with Robert the Walker or the truly L.A. vista of natural beauty amid two massive freeways and steel-and-glass high-rises — the light and dark of a schizoid place in a single image.
We were at the start of the mile-long first-phase pathway, the exact point where Burbank, Glendale and L.A. meet — a political and law enforcement no-man's land.
"This is a bird habitat, birds you don't see every day," Robert the Walker explained.
"That's a stilt over there. That black bird there, standing on the rock, that's a cormorant. That channel over there is where the fish all come down, guys are around here all the time with fly rods."
Before we've gone very far, we encounter a guy named John Pearson, who tends the native gardens of succulents and cactuses and who comes regularly to look after what he helped create as the Glendale Parks Department's project manager for the Narrows.
"This was my baby, still is," said Pearson, who retired a year ago. "We started this back in the late '90s. It took a long time to get all the property issues resolved because of the overlapping jurisdictions and the easements we needed from Disney and others. Now I'm just a volunteer helping out."
We resume our stroll and Robert the Walker points out what he sees in the river.
"Look at the cormorant, he's posing for you. There's a green heron. A pair of black-hooded mergansers will spend the winter here. Oh, and there, right in the middle, is the common egret and some seagulls," he said. "How beautiful is that? That was me standing there at 17 looking at the world in wonder."
At that point, the story of Robert the Walker starts to tumble out and I learn how, at the age of 68, this retired star salesman, actor, writer and so many other things winds up finding his calling as the self-styled janitor, gardener, photographer and policeman protecting this mile-long trail.
He is the son of a Syrian father and British mother and grew up in Dearborn, Mich., home base for the Ford Motor Company, at a time when Arabs were not very welcome.
At 17, he took his guitar and his Elvis Presley hair on the road, hitchhiking to L.A. in search of fame and fortune. Half a century later, things didn't quite work out the way he'd dreamed, but he made good money and got to live in New York and the Bay Area before winding up selling post-production services for TV and film projects in L.A.
His wife died nine years ago, their daughter has grown into womanhood and now he's writing a book about the moral dilemma of someone happening onto a murder scene where $10 million is lying on the floor and no one is around.
Do you take the money and run or do you call the cops?
Interesting guy, this Robert the Walker, who finally tells me his last name is Acey. He tells me he lives down Riverside Drive in an apartment and how he walked nearly every day along the Equestrian Center trails that run all the way to Warner Bros. studios until the Glendale Narrows became his passion.
"It's nature in the city, you got a cormorant and a stilt talking to each other," he said. "This is peace and quiet and love. It's spiritual. And yet we've got a problem waiting to happen. We can't have crazies living in our park. They're an intrusion, they don't fit. We got to deal with it, come up with a solution."
I run Robert the Walker's "Get Up and Do Something" philosophy by Glendale Police Lt. Bruce Fox, who has spoken with him many times and who shares his concerns about the homeless problem and the public's safety.
"He's a great guy but he might expect a little more out of me than I can perform," Fox says.
"We will literally drive a homeless guy to a rehab center once he or she says they'll come. If there's even a glimmer of hope that they want some service, we'll get it to them; but these guys are very, very service-resistant, so we're in maintenance mode, making sure it doesn't lead to crime," Fox explained.
The homeless are a big problem with their dysfunction, psychological issues, addictions — problems that defy simple solutions that are humane, problems that can't be alleviated unless more people adopt Robert the Walker's "Get Up and Do Something" philosophy.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.