Famous homeless veteran gets a home in Astoria

The Cadillac Man says the mouseleums at St. Michael’s Cemetary in East Elmhurst is where he slept when he first came to Queens.
Photo by Bill Parry
By Bill Parry

Cadillac Man has come in from the cold. Thomas Wagner, perhaps the most famous homeless person in the borough, moved into his own one-bedroom apartment after spending most of the last 21 years living on the streets of Astoria.

After fumbling with the lock of his new home in the George T. Douris Tower, Wagner entered his immaculate, freshly painted and sun-splashed new home Friday with members of his support group known as the “Cadillac Care Team,” several people who spent years trying to get the 65-year-old homeless veteran off the streets for good.

Known as Cadillac Man, after he claimed he was struck by several of them during a six-week stretch nearly 15 years ago, Wagner became a cause celebre in literary circles after penning his memoir, “Land of Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets,” which was published in 2009.

After reading Wagner’s self-described survivors guide to homelessness, film actor Richard Gere was inspired to portray a vagrant in the hit movie “Time Out of Mind” last year. Wagner and his girlfriend Carol Vogel were Gere’s guests of honor at the film’s premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“Richard is a real friend of mine, we talk often,” Wagner said in the warmth of his new home. “He once asked me how much would I need to get off the street and I said nah. I couldn’t take money from a friend.”

And so he stayed homeless, living mostly in the 33rd Street viaduct of the Hell Gate Bridge, which he can see from his living room on the 12th floor of the Douris Tower, the affordable housing for seniors building on Hoyt Avenue South. Wagner shared a small apartment in East Elmhurst for a brief period last year before the landlord sold the property.

“I’ve been out there 24/7 with no shelter, living on trains, in factories, even in the mausoleums at St. Michael’s Cemetery over on Astoria Boulevard,” Wagner said. “I was convinced I was going to die out there. I tried living in a shelter, but I had a bad experience there. Everyone has a horror story from the shelters.”

He would not go into specifics as to what he experienced but remembered life on the streets during the Giuliani administration.

“Whenever it got dangerously cold they would give you the choice: shelter or jail,” Wagner said. “Many chose jail.”

Cadillac Man began his life in the streets in 1994 after losing several jobs in New Jersey. He was arrested for shoplifting, which made employment harder to find.

The collapse of his second marriage soon followed and Wagner found himself homeless and depressed living in each borough except for Staten Island. In 2001 he stepped off the N train at the Ditmars Avenue station, and he fell in love with Astoria.

TimesLedger reporter Matthew Monks introduced Cadillac Man to Queens readers in 2005. After several interviews with him, Monks wrote: “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.”

A decade later Cadillac was still so much in love with the neighborhood, he refused to leave when he had a chance. Nicole Branca, an assistant commissioner at the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs met with Cadillac Man in September, when she presented him with several housing options that were available to him because he served in the Amy between 1968 to 1971.

“The apartments that became available weren’t anywhere near Astoria,” Branca recalled. “The people in the neighborhood had become his family and he really didn’t want to leave them.”

Branca left Cadillac Man that morning because she had a business lunch set up with John Napolitano, the director of community development and planning at HANAC, Inc., the owners of three senior assisted-living centers in Astoria.

“I told John about Cadillac Man and he said he just happened to have a vacancy in the Douris Tower,” Branca said. The 184-unit senior living facility, with support services, 24-hour security, senior center, library and rooftop terrace had one more thing: a vacant one-bedroom apartment that was set aside for homeless veterans.

The “Cadillac Care Team” swung into action procuring a Section 8 subsidy for veterans paid for by the federal government.

Last Friday, Cadillac Man, Branca, his friend Cynthia Stuart, administrators from HANAC and Commissioner Loree Sutton, of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, stood in a circle in his new living room, toasting him with sparkling cider.

“This is absolutely mind-boggling, it’s like a dream come true,” Cadillac Man said, his voice cracking with emotion. “These people right here all know how much I love Astoria and now I have a million dollar view of it.”

He was given a bag full of towels, sheets and a welcome mat with a capitol C as a house warming gift. The man who wrote of “scattering peanut shells” around himself before going to sleep so he would hear intruders approach out on the streets was awaiting the delivery of his new bed — the first one he would own since 1994.

“The little things you take for granted are luxuries for street people like me,” Cadillac Man said. “You make do with what you’ve got – like sleeping in a cemetery – who’s going to bother you there? Now I’ll be able to sleep without keeping one eye open and when I close my eyes for the last time, I’ll be closing them here in Astoria.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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