Ditmars’ Cadillac Man prefers streets over shelters
"In all probability it's going to be a heart attack. All the men in my family die at the age I'm at now," the 55-year-old said. If death comes tomorrow, the homeless outreach workers who tried for years to coax him indoors will consider it a tragedy - something they failed to prevent. But Cadillac called it a dignified passing. After all, where better to have your last breath than at home surrounded by loved ones. "As far as I'm concerned, this is my destiny," Cadillac said. "I want to be out here with my people. We have this bond out here."He was talking about his neighbors near the corner of 24th Avenue, where he has been a fixture for four of the 11 years he has lived outdoors. He is among the dozen or so permanent homeless in the western Queens neighborhood.Experts say giving a street person spare change or a meal is destructive. That kindness kills, they say, by enabling a deadly lifestyle. If altruism is indeed as dangerous to street dwellers as the elements, then Cadillac could be Astoria's most hapless victim. For years local residents have embraced the grizzled former bodyguard who rarely strays from his "home" - a shopping cart crammed with spare clothes and paperbacks he refers to as the "Cadillac Mobile." People give him food and places to shower. A property owner lets him store his belongings in a nearby shed. Cadillac knows hundreds of local residents by name and cherishes his role as the block's street dwelling concierge. He spends hours each morning greeting people on their way to work. Despite the man's imposing presence - he's a beefy 6-foot-1 with an intense, wind-chapped face - many stop and chat. "Good morning. Have a good day," he told a woman hustling by on a recent morning. "How's your sister doing?" He asked another. "Gosh, I love these people," Cadillac said between the small talk. "This is my home here. I consider myself the unofficial block watcher."He carries a pre-paid cell phone in case he sees a break-in or emergency. He doesn't drink or do drugs and never asks for handouts. The people seem to love him for it. "He talks to everybody. He's very helpful," said Phyllis Flossis, 54, who lives down the street and has known him for years. "When you speak to him, he sympathizes with you."Her friendship, however, is a dangerous kindness, according to Andrew Martin, a spokesman for the non-profit homeless services provider Volunteers of America. "We tend to romanticize homelessness," Martin said. "Everyone gets to know the local bum. But what they don't understand is that person will need services down the road."That's why his organization has tried in vain for years to coax Cadillac into a shelter. "A guy like Cadillac is getting up in age," he said. "What's going to happen when he can no longer care for himself?"But the street dweller said that's for him to decide - it's his life. He said he is among scores of homeless who avoid the police and outreach workers who prowl the city, forcing vagrants indoors when the temperature gets bitter cold as it has in recent weeks. He prefers to bundle up and take his chances outside. Besides, he said, he can't go back indoors. "This is sort of like a jail sentence out here. You're institutionalized. You get used to it," he said. "It's hard. I haven't slept on a real bed in 10 years."He surrendered that daily comfort after a spirit-crushing ordeal more than a decade ago. He would not say what happened, but gave vague details about circumstances that forced him outdoors. Born and raised in Hell's Kitchen, in his old life he held down jobs as a liquor store manager, a professional bodyguard and manager of a soft drink plant. He was married once and has three children. "I had a combination of bad luck. I didn't try hard enough and I lost something very precious to me and I gave up - something very, very precious," he said, tears welling up in his eyes. He was drinking at the time and telling lies. He got caught in a big one, became depressed and let go. "The damage was done," he said. "Between the lies and the depression, I ended up out here. It just hurts thinking about the past. So many super mistakes."During his first few years on the streets he drifted around Manhattan and the Bronx. He came to Astoria about four years ago, earning the nickname "Cadillac Man" after he claimed he was struck by a series of Cadillacs within a six-week period. He won't reveal his real name. He said his children, three girls ages 16, 26 and 40, know where he is. He swapped e-mail with the youngest, but she stopped replying. He has a sister who lives a few blocks away from his cart. He called on her for the first time in years this past Christmas. They spoke in the door of her apartment building. She asked where he was living. "I said, 'The same spot I told you a couple of years ago," Cadillac recalled. "She said she was cold so she had to go back upstairs. Needless to say, I won't see her again ... Perhaps the family is still pissed at me." That's why he embraces the kindness of his neighbors. He has considered taking up Volunteers of America's many offers to get indoors and back on his feet. But the best he could hope for, he said, is to land up in some shelter or one-room dive. His worst fear is to die alone. He has nightmares about his heart giving out in some state-subsidized room, where he will lie undiscovered until neighbors notice the stench. At least if he dies in Ditmars people will notice, he said. He'll be remembered and mourned. "I just want to remain Cadillac. My past is dead. This is my new life," he said. "I want to be around my new family and friends." He said he's always interested in meeting new people. Here's his e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.
Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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