Look at Carl Wolden’s weather-worn face and a panorama of American culture comes to mind, most of it arising out of the Deep South and Midwest: The themes of Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor all seem carved into his features. But, despite his looks, Wolden wasn’t born in Oklahoma or the Deep South; he was born in April of 1964 in Yolo County’s General Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to San Francisco.
Carl never had a childhood as most people know it. He left home at age seven, soon after almost cutting his finger off while trying to make breakfast.
“I was hungry and my mother was too drunk to wake up, so I went into the kitchen and tried to make fried potatoes,” says Carl today. His father had long since been absent due to alcoholism and poor health.
With his finger bleeding profusely, Carl ran to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor rushed him to a hospital, and doctors managed to save the finger. Carl was then made a ward of the court and entered the juvenile hall school program, where he stayed about a year. After that, he shuffled between boys’ homes and guardians, none of whom could keep him off the streets.
“I went to school for whatever food was available,” says Carl. “After I ate, I left.”
By the age of eight, Carl had already become an accomplished panhandler. “I saw all these people coming off the Sausalito Ferry and moving through the Bart station, and I just started asking for money,” he says.
As he got older, Carl’s guardians started pushing him to attend school, in large part because truant officers had begun coming to the house looking for the wayward boy. Once in junior high school, he showed a bad temper.
“I snapped on people sometimes,” Carl says now. “I was big for my age and sometimes I beat people up.”
Barely into his teens, Wolden found that marijuana had a calming effect and reduced his aggression. It was widely available and at that time relatively inexpensive. Though he had a strong antipathy toward most drugs, and alcohol especially, he began using marijuana regularly.
At one point Wolden went to live with his middle brother. It was then he began his routine of handing over his take from panhandling to pay for his rent. Once his brother learned of Carl’s remarkable street skills, he took more interest in the daily haul than in keeping Carl in school. Some days Wolden would fill his pockets with so many coins he had trouble keeping his pants up.
Carl enjoyed living with his brother even though relations were sometimes strained. He thought he may have at last found a family. But before too long, he realized there was trouble between his brother and his wife. They were soon divorced.
After his brother’s divorce, Carl wandered. At one point, he got a message from another brother that he could come live with the people who were caring for him in Los Angeles. Carl left immediately for what he thought would be a new home. His heart leaped when his brother met him at the bus station, but fell almost immediately when he told him he was running away that night. Carl was once again in a house with people he didn’t know.
He moved back to San Francisco. He fathered a child with a former girlfriend and began working. Though they didn’t live together, he routinely sent checks for child care. Later, the woman, who used methamphetamine and was on welfare, would file a formal request for child support.
When Carl found a good job at a large auto parts dealer in San Francisco, his life improved markedly. He received promotions. He had his own apartment; he married and fathered another son. For a while he had a stable family life, but when he found his wife was using cocaine, he separated from her and took his son with him.
A divorce soon followed and the courts awarded custody of the child to the mother, even though the boy spent most of his time with Carl. Wolden found himself saddled with two child support payments, a shattered family life, and stress at work as his company down-sized. It wasn’t long before he lost his job.
Almost before he could comprehend the chain of events, he was out of work and unable to make child support payments. The former child of the streets had become a “deadbeat dad.”
He was thirty years old.
Next: Part II: Carl sees the light