Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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The homeless are everywhere in New York City. I run across them every day while riding public transit, while walking around the city and while using wireless in the public libraries. After a few conversations with homeless people, I’ve learned that most of them avoid shelters because of the risk of violent crime there. So where do they sleep? Where do they go to get a shower and clean clothes? Are all homeless people either crazy or crackheads? How did these people end up living on the streets in the first place? Don’t they have families and friends? You will learn the answers to these and other questions in a compelling new memoir, Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, by Cadillac Man, who lived on the streets of New York for 16 years (Bloomsbury; 2009).

The author introduces his book by writing;

I ain’t no scholar.

I ain’t no bum.

I have never been good in grammar, so there will be misspellings and perhaps some passages that make no sense to you.

But hey, I’m a street person, not a Rhodes Scholar. You, the reader, will just have to bear with me. You’ll see vulgar language, nudity, street jargon, romance, etc. You may laugh or cry or both. You may even say this guy is nuts and should be committed to a padded room with Demerol cocktails. And in a way you’re right. You have to be crazy to live out here, but craziness is a way of survival, which I’ll explain to you later.

These are my people, my friends, my enemies [...] This is my story, their story.

Empathy!

Although I don’t recall any misspellings, Cadillac Man does deliver, as promised.

From the moment I began reading this memoir, I was captivated. Despite the sometimes coarse language and odd timing of the details in some of his stories, I think this book works really well. The personalities of the men and women shine from the pages containing their collected stories; some humorous, others poignant, all compelling. Through Cadillac Man’s eyes, we get a rare insider’s glimpse into the lives of homeless people — many of them veterans with peculiar and memorable names like Chocolate Milk, Old Crow, the Wizard, and Twinkies. In this book, we also meet newly destitute families and pimps and prostitutes as well as those who provide a helping hand whenever and where ever they can. We learn about the many trials of street life: poor sleep; violence; bad weather; filth and the constant presence of illness and death. We also pick up a few tips for surviving on the streets: for example, crumpled up newspaper stuffed inside one’s clothing makes good insulation and can also double as toilet paper in a pinch; garbage spread around one’s sleeping place is a good way to hear people sneaking up on you; and refrigerator boxes, known among the homeless as “box Hiltons,” make superb sleeping quarters.

We learn that not all homeless are panhandlers. At least some earn a living by “canning” .. collecting tin cans and redeeming them for cash. From what I could discern about the income generated by this activity, it pays better than my postdoc did, and of course, this is tax-free income, too.

Sometimes, it seems that Cadillac Man is a bit of a hero with impossibly noble ideals, such as the time when he stepped into a late-night fight to rescue a homeless stranger who was being beaten up by a group men. Interestingly, he later discovered that this “man” was not what he appeared to be. Instead, “he” was a “she” — a runaway teen-aged girl. Cadillac Man ends up taking care of this young woman, Penny, as if she was his daughter, introducing her to his circle of friends and teaching her how to survive on the streets. Later, they end up falling in love. Even though Penny is adamant about remaining on the streets with him, this spring-autumn romance ends after Cadillac Man secretly sets up a meeting at the Grand Central bus station between Penny and her aunt and sisters.

But why is Cadillac Man homeless? He doesn’t seem to be crazy or addicted to anything (except perhaps, to coffee). He teases his readers by peppering cryptic and leading comments throughout the early parts of his book, such as “I had a good life and I screwed up, plain and simple.” Only after the reader’s curiosity has reached a fever pitch does he finally share this particular story. Knowing this story makes me realize that it is nothing short of miraculous that there aren’t more people living on the streets, especially as the direct result of these current disastrous economic times combined with many people’s social isolation.

After I finished the book, I wrote the author with a few questions. He told me that he has not heard from Penny since the book had been published. He also told me that he has a home in Queens, and is in a stable long-term relationship, although he maintains close contact with his former street colleagues by visiting them frequently. Of course, this revelation raises more interesting questions, such as how did he get off the streets? It sounds as though a second book might be in Cadillac Man’s future.

Despite its rough prose, this readable and engrossing account of one man’s experiences on the streets of New York City is a must-read for politicians and public policymakers, those who work with the homeless and the impoverished, and also for anyone who is interested to learn about the lives and culture of “street people.”

Cadillac Man was born and raised in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. By the age of 44, he was happily married with kids, but it all came to an abrupt end after he lost a series of jobs and was arrested for shoplifting. As a result, Cadillac Man, whose nickname was the result of a run-in with a Cadillac, ended up living on the streets in four of New York City’s five boroughs for sixteen years. During this time, he wrote hundreds of thousands of words in a series of spiral notebooks that served as his personal journals, which were excerpted into a series of articles by Esquire magazine. These magazine articles inspired the publication of this, his first book.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul Sunstone
    April 12, 2009

    What a fascinating story! A few of my friends are street people. Just from what little I’ve seen, I think chance plays a larger role in life outcomes than most of us wish to consider.

  2. #2 llewelly
    April 13, 2009

    I think chance plays a larger role in life outcomes than most of us wish to consider.

    But don’t you SEE? ‘Cadillac Man’ was a SHOPLIFTER! He DESERVED his homelessness.

    Isn’t it much more comforting to believe

    that those less fortunate than you

    deserve their fate due

    to some moral failing?

    Be it real or just perceived?

  3. #3 Paul Sunstone
    April 13, 2009

    I suspect that’s quite true, Llewelly. Perhaps when we believe people deserve their fate, it reassures us that they — and more importantly, we — have complete control over our fate. That might be more comforting to some people than the realization that fortune is fickle.

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