In the prestigious author lineup of events at the North Carolina Literary Festival, one session stood out at the University of North Carolina's Gerrard Hall.
Speaking to the packed auditorium on Sept. 12, an author who spent nearly 15 years living on the streets told his story. His name is Thomas Wagner, but he seems to be known to all as "Cadillac Man."
Cadillac's memoir, Land of the Lost Souls, published last spring, is his account of his life on the streets of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
Cadillac is not a beggar, degenerate or stereotype. Instead, he is an Army veteran, a former volunteer policeman, the father of three daughters and for many years, the primary breadwinner for his family. His early life was harsh: He was born in Hell's Kitchen, third in a family of seven, with each sibling born to a different father. Unsentimentally, Cadillac describes his 10th birthday: It's the day his father left him saying, "My birthday present to you is that I will never see you again."
Cadillac lost his home on June 16, 1994, when his wife kicked him out—"not [because of] the bottle-only depression," says Cadillac of the condition that so debilitated him that he would disappear for days.
At 6-foot-2, Cadillac has a natural physical presence that serves him well in his Gerrard Hall appearance. However, his quick wit and transparent honesty is what kept his audience in rapt silence. He shared the stage with Will Blythe, the freelance writer and former Esquire literature editor who, to use the hoary word, "discovered" Cadillac.
Onstage together, the two men riffed back and forth telling their story, which is as good as a fairy tale, but it has the extra value of being true: One day in 2002, it really did happen that Blythe encountered Cadillac living under a viaduct near his home in Astoria, Queens, with trains overhead running between Boston and New York.
Cadillac was living less than a half-block from Blythe's apartment. His cheerful greetings eventually disarmed Blythe.
Speaking before the Gerrard Hall event, Blythe says Cadillac became a friend because of his own good nature. "Cadillac has a way of befriending people that is a great gift. He'd sit under that viaduct and greet people with a few words in their own language: Greek, Russian, Italian."
One day, Blythe noticed Cadillac scribbling in a grubby spiral bound notebook; he was intrigued and offered to take a look at it. Blythe promised himself he'd only read until he got bored, but he wasn't.
"The first chapter I read, the one that excited me, was the 90-page notebook that told the story of the runaway Penny," said Blythe, who quickly realized Cadillac had stories to tell.
One thing led to another, and the result was Bloomsbury USA's publication of Land of the Lost Souls. (According to Blythe, Cadillac's story is the first memoir on homelessness written with no co-author.) The title refers to the potter's field on Hart Island, a graveyard for the unwanted and unclaimed that Cadillac feared he would end up in one day. Cadillac's primary motivation for writing was to memorialize a piece of his life for his daughters who knew neither where he was nor what he was going through.
His book is not an easy read. In fact, the experience is like swallowing cut glass. His memoir opens with a chapter titled "Merry Fuckin' Christmas," and it hurts long after you put the book down.
Literature based on homelessness can easily fall into Horatio Alger-esque sentimentality that focuses on the homeless individual who's been saved and set on a new "righteous" path. Land of the Lost Souls ends with Cadillac on the streets.
The Chapel Hill audience seemed eager—painfully eager—to know what homelessness really is. In his book, Cadillac describes a new concept of home, for him and his cast of real-life characters. When he writes, "Home is a four-letter word that's always on our minds," he reminds the reader that homelessness is more than just a condition; it's a painful ache. We learn, too, that the homeless mortality rate is high. If you happen to survive two or more years on the streets, Cadillac says, you're just plain lucky.
Cadillac's pride was all he had and he never panhandled—a street point of pride. He earned each meal by "canning"—gathering and redeeming cans and bottles. He pushed around an old shopping cart (he says Costco shopping carts make the best wagons; A&P shopping carts, the worst).
The most stirring chapter in Cadillac's book is the one that captivated Blythe. It's a love story, really. Cadillac meets runaway Penny when he saves her from being beaten up by a gang. After teaching her to survive on the streets, Cadillac soon discovers that Penny had fled from an abusive father. He learns, however, that she has an aunt in a different state who might take her in. One day, Cadillac finds the aunt's phone number and makes the call, knowing he will never see Penny again.
"No one could write the story like Cadillac," says Blythe, who calls the original manuscript massive. "His voice is unique, and that's why it was so important that he do all the writing himself."
There were two things that finally got Cadillac off the streets three years ago. First, he met Carol, his partner, and second, he had his book to write. "Cadillac rescued himself," said Blythe. "He deserves the credit for changing his life, he did that through writing."
When Blythe was traveling to Chapel Hill to work on his own 2006 bestselling memoir, the Tar Heel classic To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever, he invited Cadillac to watch his apartment. "He never slept in the bed, or on the sofa," said Blythe. "He didn't want to get used to the luxuries of inside living, so he made a pallet on the floor."
For the audience at the North Carolina Literary Festival, Cadillac's story struck a chord. It could be the past year of economic woes, the ongoing debate in Chapel Hill about policies toward the homeless, or it could be that as bleak as his story is—and as abruptly as it ends—many readers just wanted to see for themselves that Cadillac was OK.
He is, and the audience knew it as they gave him a standing ovation at the end of his talk, which ran way over time, into the next session's slot.
Tearing up, Cadillac closed by looking to Blythe and remarking that those Tar Heels could be some mighty hospitable people. It may not be home, but Cadillac is welcome to come back anytime.
Indy freelancer Rebekah L. Cowell spent a good deal of time at the North Carolina Literary Festival last month and sends us this report on one of the weekend's biggest hits. Read also her festival-related stories about area authors Daniel Wallace, Nic Brown and Elizabeth Edwards.