Leaving home in Detroit at 8 a.m., James Robertson doesn’t look like an endurance athlete.
Pudgy of form, shod in heavy work boots, Robertson trudges almost haltingly as he starts another workday.
But as he steps out into the cold, Robertson, 56, is steeled for an Olympic-sized commute. Getting to and from his factory job 23 miles away in Rochester Hills, he’ll take a bus partway there and partway home. And he’ll also walk an astounding 21 miles.
Five days a week. Monday through Friday.
It’s the life Robertson has led for the last decade, ever since his 1988 Honda Accord quit on him.
Every trip is an ordeal of mental and physical toughness for this soft-spoken man with a perfect attendance record at work. And every day is a tribute to how much he cares about his job, his boss and his coworkers. Robertson’s daunting walks and bus rides, in all kinds of weather, also reflect the challenges some metro Detroiters face in getting to work in a region of limited bus service, and where car ownership is priced beyond the reach of many.
But you won’t hear Robertson complain — nor his boss.
James Robertson, 56, of Detroit, walks toward Woodward Ave. in Detroit to catch his morning bus to Somerset Collection in Troy before walking to his job at Schain Mold & Engineering in Rochester Hills on Thursday January 29, 2015. James walks 21 miles daily round trip to his job.Robertson’s roundtrip commute requires a bus ride each direction as well as nearly 21-miles of walking consuming 22 hours of his day before beginning again throughout the work week.
The sheer time and effort of getting to work has ruled Robertson’s life for more than a decade, ever since his car broke down. He didn’t replace it because, he says, “I haven’t had a chance to save for it.” His job pays $10.55 an hour, well above Michigan’s minimum wage of $8.15 an hour but not enough for him to buy, maintain and insure a car in Detroit.
As hard as Robertson’s morning commute is, the trip home is even harder.
At the end of his 2-10 p.m. shift as an injection molder at Schain Mold’s squeaky-clean factory just south of M-59, and when his coworkers are climbing into their cars, Robertson sets off, on foot — in the dark — for the 23-mile trip to his home off Woodward near Holbrook. None of his coworkers lives anywhere near him, so catching a ride almost never happens.
Instead, he reverses the 7-mile walk he took earlier that day, a stretch between the factory and a bus stop behind Troy’s Somerset Collection shopping mall.
“I keep a rhythm in my head,” he says of his seemingly mechanical-like pace to the mall.
At Somerset, he catches the last SMART bus of the day, just before 1 a.m. He rides it into Detroit as far it goes, getting off at the State Fairgrounds on Woodward, just south of 8 Mile. By that time, the last inbound Woodward bus has left. So Robertson foots it the rest of the way — about 5 miles — in the cold or rain or the mild summer nights, to the home he shares with his girlfriend.
At the plant, coworkers feel odd seeing one of their team numbers always walking, says Charlie Hollis, 63, of Pontiac. “I keep telling him to get him a nice little car,” says Hollis, also a machine operator.
Echoes the plant manager Wilson, “We are very much trying to get James a vehicle.” But Robertson has a routine now, and he seems to like it, his coworkers say.
“If I can get away, I’ll pick him up. But James won’t get in just anybody’s car. He likes his independence,” Wilson says.
Robertson has simple words for why he is what he is, and does what he does. He speaks with pride of his parents, including his father’s military service.
“I just get it from my family. It’s a lot of walking, I know.”
This goal would help James get a nice vehicle along with a few months of insurance payments. Thank you everyone for helping James get back into a car!