C.E. agreed to be interviewed for the blog but insisted that I introduce him as the Cardboard Christian. I tried to reason with him. "But C.E.," I said, "you are anything but cardboard. To me, cardboard means stiff or phony. That's not you."
After posing for the photograph, C.E. crossed the room toward me, defending his title along the way. "That's not how I mean it. I mean that I sleep on cardboard every night and I am a Christian. That's who I am. That's what I want people to know."
C.E. has been coming to book club for a couple of years. He contributes regularly and enthusiastically to the discussion, but rarely ever mentions his past. That was about to change.
"Why do you sleep on cardboard?" I asked. "Why are you homeless?"
He paused. I pulled out the chair next to mine and C.E. sat down. I've noticed with some of the poor and the homeless that side-by-side conversations get further faster than face-to-face ones. Full-on eye contact can feel like too much pressure, may even seem confrontational. So siting side by side, the two of us gazing at the empty tables and chairs across the room, my little dog Turbo nestled at our feet, C.E. told me the following story.
C.E. was born in the village of Gowanda, New York in 1976. He never met his father, doesn't even know his name, and the only memory he has of his mother is of her saying goodbye. She stooped down to hug and kiss him. "I love you," she said, "but I can't take care of you anymore." And then she was gone. C.E. was three or four years old at the time.
He remembers his mother as a beautiful woman with a loving, tender attitude, long brown hair and a petite frame. "It's sad," he said, "but I'm glad I have that memory." He has few other memories of his early childhood. "It feels like my mind shut things out. I don't know why."
He remembers next living in a foster home. The details are fuzzy. There may have been more than one foster home. At one point there was a foster brother, a mean one. "He zipped me up in a sleeping bag and wouldn't let me out." Another time C.E. was locked in a basement. He can't recall why or for how long or by whom, but he remembers that it was dark down there, and damp, and he was alone and terrified.
Next he remembers the day he was adopted. A car came up the driveway, two people climbed out and went into the house to talk with C.E.'s foster parents. C.E. stood alone on the porch taking in his surroundings. There were fields and cows and then, of course, there was the car. He decided to investigate the car and while doing so he accidentally shut the car door on his thumb. He screamed in pain and everyone came running out of the house, all four adults staring agape at him, wondering what had happened. C.E. pointed to his aching thumb, which turned out to be fine. That's what he remembers of that day. He was five or six at the time.
C.E. feels fortunate to have his adoptive family, which includes his parents, two sisters and a brother. They love him and did their best for him, he says, but he has trouble communicating with them now because he doesn't want to burden them with his homelessness. His father retired from the air force and his parents now live in Nevada. Two of his siblings live nearby.
C.E. was raised in Sun Prairie. At 13 he was confirmed at Sacred Hearts Church but, he says, he wasn't saved until age 16 when he went to Calvary Baptist Church, where he was invited to the front of the church to kneel and be prayed over, then taken to a private setting to talk alone with the minister. "That changed everything," he says.
But school was still a struggle.
School was always a challenge for C.E. He lagged a year or two behind his peers in math and english but excelled in science and social studies. During tenth grade he dropped out. A few years later he passed his GED with little effort. "I was surprised because I hardly studied," he says.
C.E. has a speech impediment but is proud that it doesn't keep him from doing things he loves. He does, however, sometimes find it annoying. He knows exactly how words or sentences should sound, he can even hear them in his head, but when he speaks they often come out differently. He gets frustrated when people ask him to repeat what he said. He received speech training from 2nd through 7th grades, and every morning the teacher would announce in front of the whole class that it was time for C.E. to go to speech. Being singled out like this made C.E. self-conscious when he was trying so hard not to be! When asked, C.E. says he isn't sure if the speech impediment affects his work history or contributes to his homelessness.
In 1999 C.E. came to Madison to take the Postal Service Exam. When he failed on the first try he gave up. "It was a bunch of addresses and stuff to memorize." On and off since then, C.E. has been living on the streets of Madison.
Unlike a lot of the homeless people C.E. knows, C.E. does not struggle with addiction. He has no criminal record or major medical or psychiatric problem. He is generally quite healthy and strong, but he is listless. He has dreams but isn't sure which one he should follow. Meantime he likes reading poetry and science fiction and writing poetry, and when the weather is nice he likes shooting hoops with friends at James Madison Park.
"The hardest part for me is knowing what I want to do with my life. There are so many things I think I'd like. I'd like to be a famous author, or a poet, or a police officer, or a computer expert in animation. But I can't pick just one of them. I don't think I have this or that. Or I can't imagine being happy doing it ten years from now. Or it wouldn't pay enough. I don't know..."
"Have you ever met with a career counselor?" I asked.
"Yeah, maybe ten years ago. I took a test. Or something..."
"Have you ever had a job?"
"I had a part-time job once at [fast food restaurant]. I wasn't perfect but I did the best I could. It wasn't full time. I'd go in and they'd change the schedule and send me home and the next day I'd go all the way there again and they'd send me home when it got slow. I was supposed to get 20 hours a week but it never was like that."
As happens to many part-time employees, C.E. found himself spending more time traveling to and from his place of employment than he did actually working. After six months he got fed up and quit. "There's no respect."
C.E., who doesn't have bitter feelings toward his birth parents, has never tried connecting with his birth mother. He isn't sure what he'd say if the two ever met again. He thinks he'd like to know what happened to her, why she had to leave him, and what she is like today. But he doesn't dwell on it. He reads. He writes poems. He shoots hoops. He practices his Christianity. He sleeps on cardboard.
Cold pavement and cardboard,
blankets cover me as I dream.
Love is not always natural for us to give,
We make reasons to doubt even when there are none,
We live in sadness where the shadows dwell,
Our dreams speak of our hopes unveiled,
We take for granted our happiness,
And wait for that one special moment of being content,
When what we have may have been what we wanted all along.
Present at book club Tuesday were C.E., Phyllis, Melvin, Mark, Jack, Linda, Bo, Ray, Tyrone, Suzanne and Turbo.
We meet next week in room 216 to conclude our discussion on Angels & Demons by Dan Brown.