I Loved It Under the Viaduct; Still Do
FOR nearly 13 years between 1994 and 2007, I wandered the streets of New York, a nomad in the town where I was born in 1949. To say that I was homeless is true and yet not the whole truth. I had a mobile home of sorts — my wagon — the most recent, a grocery cart I liberated from the Costco in Long Island City. In it, I carried everything I needed: bedding, clothes, a camp stove, beach chairs, an umbrella, pots and pans, a first-aid kit and 20 or so paperbacks.
Every morning, I’d get up and say to myself: Where to today? And I’d turn my wagon either right or left and just keep going in that direction. Eventually I rolled my way through all the boroughs except Staten Island, stopping to live for a while in one place or another. I supported myself mainly by “canning” — collecting and redeeming recyclable bottles and cans. On an average day, I might make $20; on a good day, I could top a hundred.
I expected to die on the streets, a fate I’d seen befall so many of my homeless brothers: Nacho, Old Crow, Joe the Bum, Billy, Petey, Wahoo, Pachunga. One day we’re here, the next day gone, picked up by the meat wagon from the morgue, dropped off at Bellevue or Kings County hospitals, and stored for up to 60 days in the fridge. Then, if our bodies are still unclaimed by relatives or friends, we’re ferried for one last ride across the East River to the potter’s field at Hart Island, where inmates from Rikers Island on burial detail stack our plywood coffins in a long trench and cover us with dirt. I call that place the Land of the Lost Souls. That’s where I was bound.
Somewhere along the way, I decided to keep notebooks about my years on the street, in the hope that when I died, they would be discovered next to my body and someone would read them and give them to my three daughters, so they would know the life their father led.
People pass us by on the street and think we were born this way. But we all had lives before we came out here. I had a wife, three daughters, a job. And then I didn’t.
LATE in 2006, my luck changed. I was living under the viaduct at 33rd Street and 23rd Avenue in Astoria. I loved it there, still do. The trains run overhead between New England and Penn Station. A nice breeze blows through in the summer like the place has its own weather system. There’s shade. The neighborhood people are compassionate. One winter, I received 36 winter coats from them, and gave almost all of them to people in need.
Under the viaduct is where I met Carol Vogel. I was setting out my memorial table for the firefighters and police officers who lost their lives on 9/11. (I used to be an auxiliary police officer; my brother Michael was a traffic agent, and my friend Joe, who was like a brother, was a hostler with the mounted cops.) Carol came along and said, “Maybe you should put the candles this way.” Like an interior designer, though she actually worked for an Internet company.
She looked at me as a human being, not as a homeless guy. I’m about 25 years older than she is, but she said, “Age doesn’t matter to me.”
I hadn’t thought that I was ever going to fall in love again after saying goodbye to Penny, a runaway who lived with me on the streets back in 1995 before I sent her on a bus from Port Authority to her aunt and uncle. But Carol proved me wrong. She has changed my life, as the story goes.
Being in love this time has meant starting a new life indoors. Carol and I moved to East Elmhurst, Queens, into a basement apartment in what was once a three-family house, now converted into single-room units.
Our room is probably 12 by 14 feet. The bathroom in the hall we share with two other tenants. We have one chair, one dresser (with a TV on top), one closet (for Carol) and two folding tables.
We cook our meals in a microwave and sit on our twin bed to eat. In the morning, I heat up pancakes for myself, waffles for Carol.
If the gods are really kind, maybe one day we’ll get an apartment where we can actually go into another room. Maybe I’ll even have a shelf where I can put all of my Clive Cussler novels. A man can dream, can’t he?
For fun, we watch DVDs we borrow from the library, trying to catch up on all the movies I missed in the time I was on the streets.
At night, Carol and I sleep together in the twin bed. It’s like sleeping in a life raft. I turn over, she turns over. She turns over, I turn over. All night long.
We may not have much room, but it is at least a bed, the first I’ve slept in for more than a decade. During my homeless years, I spent nights nearly everywhere but the Waldorf-Astoria — a garage in the Bronx, backyards in Brooklyn, the old maintenance rooms under the Triborough Bridge in Queens. I slept in the back seats of abandoned cars and the closets of crack houses. There were times when I was urinated on, shot at and pelted with garbage. I averaged four hours of sleep a night.
I often shared my sleeping quarters with rats. After a while, they didn’t faze me. Imagine the family dog or cat snuggling up to you while you slept. That’s what it was like with the rats. If I didn’t wash well after eating, they might chew at my knuckles. I just didn’t want them crawling up my pant legs.
If no better accommodations were available, I’d check into the local cemeteries — Calvary in Woodside, St. Mike’s in East Elmhurst, Green-Wood in Brooklyn. Let me tell you, a five-star hotel has nothing on a mausoleum. The other guests never complain. I’ve even slept in open graves just to get out of the wind. I used to be in the Army, and what really is the difference between a foxhole and a grave?
After so many years on the street, going inside is like moving back to a country you lived in once, though you can’t quite remember the language. Indoor heat, for instance, remains a novelty to me.
On the streets, my body heat was all I needed. Cigarettes and coffee — lots of coffee — kept my thermostat set at around 125 degrees, like a hot day in the tropics. I never worried about Jack Frosting, as we used to say when a street person froze to death. If I entered a heated room when I was homeless, I’d fall asleep within minutes, it was so soothing. Even now, I have to open the window to our apartment to stay awake. Carol says: “It’s cold. Close it!”
On the street, I loved snow — bring it on! But rain I hated with a passion. Your clothes get mildewed. On one of our first nights in the apartment, it was raining cats and dogs and every other kind of animal. It felt wonderful to be inside. Then in the middle of the night, I got out of bed. I stepped onto the carpet, which was as wet as a river. We’re at the bottom of an incline and the rain had run into the basement, which it continued to do every time we had a hard rain, until the landlord patched the exterior with cement.
These days when I’m taking a hot shower, I always expect somebody to come to the door and say, “Hey, how long you going to be in there?”
But Carol says: “You done already? You wash behind your ears? Between your toes? No? Get back in there.” I can’t believe that I could stay in there for hours if I wanted.
Of course, now that I’m inside, I also have to pay bills, which I hadn’t done in years. Carol says: “It’s the end of the month. We have to pay the rent.”
“Do we have to?” I say.
SOMETIMES the street still beckons. At home with Carol, I have peace and love; I don’t have to watch my back. But I also get claustrophobic. In the street, I had freedom, coming and going as I pleased. The streets are hard but they’re my life’s blood. I even write better there, with more energy in my stories.
I try to return to the viaduct at least three times a week. The way some people commute to their jobs, I commute to my old spot on the sidewalk and catch up on the latest gossip.
Carol is wary about this. “Do you have to go?” she asks. She worries that I’m still too connected to my old life, that, as she puts it, I’m homeless in my heart.
“Not to worry,” I tell her. “I’m with you until the end of time.”
There’s not many of us homeless left near the viaduct. Recently, I heard that Redface — we call him that because he drinks so much “street juice,” i.e., vodka — just got a job at the new Shea Stadium, handling merchandise in a warehouse. I told him, “Better not lose this job or I’ll break your nose, your right arm and your leg.”
If we find a place in Astoria, I’ll be under the viaduct every day. In the meantime, my old wagon is still there, where I had a friend anchor it into the sidewalk with cement so nobody knocks it over.
Will I ever take my wagon for a spin again? Or is it a monument to my old life? I know what I hope.Cadillac Man, whose legal name is Thomas Wagner, is the author of “Land of the Lost Souls,” a new memoir about being homeless in New York City.