How He Got Here
The homeless population is a large portion of the fabric of any big city. When I first moved to New York, homeless people became part of my daily interactions. I’d walk into McDonald’s for a cup of coffee, and a homeless man would hold the door for me, rattling a cup of change. On the subway home from work, a man with no arms and legs would amble around on the floor, holding an upside-down hat with the word “DONATIONS” printed on it in Sharpie. As these people became part of the cast of characters in my life, I started thinking more and more about them. Where do they sleep? Are homeless people friends with one another? Where do the homeless use find a bathroom if they have to go in the middle of the night? After living in the city for a couple of years, however, my fascination faded. Countless attempts to give food to homeless people had been met with a scoff and an upturned nose, and I lost my eagerness to help. I wanted to share my money with everyone, but when I was being asked ten, fifteen times a day, there was only so much I could take. “I lost my wallet in the bus station, can you spare anything?” “I just got out of the hospital and the shelters are full, can you help me?” “I just need some cash for a warm meal, but I’m not interested in any food you have, just the money.” When a homeless man threatened my roommate with a broken bottle, forcing her to empty her meager wallet, I put up my guard. My curiosity about the homeless community quickly changed to resentment.
When I heard that Cadillac Man, a local homeless man in my old neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, New York had published his journals into a book called Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, my interest in the homeless culture of New York City was piqued again. I’m pretty sure this is because I now live in California and am homesick for genuine New York stories, not because my interactions with the homeless have changed. As I read the first few chapters, I was amazed to read that most homeless people have no problem making money. Some panhandle and earn hundreds of dollars an hour, making up outrageous lies in order to survive, while others rely on cashing in bottles and cans for steady income. Hundreds of local churches and shelters offer free meals every day of the week in New York City. To people who suggest Cadillac just find a job, he says, “I’d have to work in a Burger King or McDonald’s getting seven dollars an hour. Now if you offered me a job that paid like thirty-five, okay, I’d be willing to give it a try.” Cadillac, who sleeps mostly in construction sites or out-of-the-way spaces under bridges and water pipes, receives donations when he’s not even trying. While stepping inside a church to pay his respects to God, people stuff money inside the shopping cart where he keeps his belongings. Cadillac Man, with his self-proclaimed heart of gold, places this money in the donation box at the church and never uses it for himself.
Cadillac Man, whose real name is Thomas Wagner, portrays himself as a beacon of light in the homeless community throughout the book. Whether he’s watching out for underage prostitutes, organizing donations for a woman who seems down on her luck, or keeping the construction site he squats in cleaner than he found it, Cadillac Man appears to be the perfect gentleman. So why would his wife have kicked him out, estranging him from his daughter? In a series of chapters entitled “How I Got Here, 1, 2 and 3,” I realized that my glowing narrator may not have been as reliable as I’d assumed. Cadillac states that he just kept losing jobs. For each job loss, he has a different excuse. The company didn’t need him anymore, the corporation closed, his supervisor was corrupt and took out frustrations on him. Cadillac Man does not, however, suggest that his own alcoholism may have been the reason he couldn’t hold a job. “I always had a pint on me,” Cadillac Man says. Rather than hearing excuse after excuse about what bad luck this otherwise honorable man was dealt, I would have loved a clear, honest evaluation about his life so far.
Towards the middle of the book, my attention dwindled. There’s only so many times I can read about Cadillac sitting in a diner, drinking coffee, or cashing bottles in at the grocery store. But the penultimate chapter in the book is a wonderful stand-alone story about a young woman named Penny, whom Cadillac saves, superhero-style from two street thugs. He teaches Penny the ropes of homelessness, as she has just run away from her abusive father. Although Penny and Cadillac begin to fall in love Cadillac contacts her aunt for a surprise reunion, and Penny goes back to live with her family. Cadillac gives up his companion to save her, even if it means returning to the loneliness of living on the streets by himself.
My biggest issue with Land of the Lost Souls lies in its editing, or apparent lack thereof. In an introductory passage, Cadillac states that he has “never been good in grammar, so there will be misspellings and perhaps some passages that make no sense to you.” What? I understand that the publishing company is trying to give the reader the sense that they are reading a raw, original journal, but I don’t want to read a book full of spelling and grammatical mistakes, of which there are dozens. Land of the Lost Souls is broken into structured chapters, which I doubt the original journal was. I understand the desire for a gritty personal narrative, but the grit disintegrates once the journal has been subjected to what appears to be a thorough editing process disguised with a layer of gimmicky spelling errors.
Although portions of the book seem like stretched truths, maybe looking at the world through a rose-colored lens is what has allowed Cadillac Man to survive being homeless for fourteen years. His story reads more like a street fairytale, where the world is so dire that magic must be spun in order to get through the day. I don’t envy Cadillac Man, but I admire him how he came to grips with the struggles that arose during his life on the streets. According to an article in New York Magazine Cadillac now lives in an apartment in Queens, which he is able to afford thanks to his royalty checks. Although I had a hard time getting through Land of the Lost Souls, if Cadillac Man was able to turn his life around by writing this book, it’s great that he took the steps to write it. I gained a knowledge of homeless culture in New York that I had never known before. But just because Cadillac Man has a story to tell does not make him an adept writer. What could have been a fascinating and authentic look at homeless life in New York City became a garbled mess as Cadillac Man’s tendency to ramble is fused with Bloomsbury’s odd editing choices.
Books mentioned in this column:
Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets by Cadillac Man (Bloomsbury, 2009)
Lindsay Champion’s short stories and personal narratives have been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney’s, Fray Quarterly, SMITH Magazine and Common Ties. She has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications. She earned her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. She lives in Los Angeles with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s website. Contact Lindsay.