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Carl from the CTC
by Matt Trinca

It's funny how people come to discover the Computer Training Center. Located in the heart of the Tenderloin, in a nondescript gray building adjoining the Cadillac hotel, it doesn't exactly jump out at you. And although the CTC sends out calendars and brochures and flyers, most people will tell you that they happened upon the Center one day when they were just walking by.

One of the more remarkable people at the CTC came to us in just such a fashion. It was Mary, another CTC volunteer, who first brought him to my attention. "This man came by today," she said, handing me a resume, "I think he'd like to help out here." Carl's resume was interesting, to say the least, featuring a large American flag and listing "professional telephone presence" under the "Skills" section. I invited him to a drop-in session on the next Thursday to see what he was like and how he interacted with everybody at the center.

When Carl came in, I wasn't sure what to make of him. Tall, thin, with disheveled hair, a thick mustache, and a gap-toothed grin, he reminded me more of Wiley Coyote than a skilled computer helper. He mentioned that he read about our programs one morning while attending an AA meeting, and thought that giving back to the community could be a pivotal part of his recovery. He was very knowledgeable about computers, and really enjoyed helping people with their questions. He'd often exclaim, "Let me show you this! It's really cool!" In addition to his technical skills his easy-going demeanor led to an almost instant camaraderie with everyone. He'd occasionally crack an offbeat joke directed at nobody in particular then strike-up a conversation with a total stranger.

After his first session at the CTC, Carl asked eagerly when he could come back, "Call me anytime. I just live down the street." He became a regular at our Thursday drop-in sessions. Everybody knew him by name, and he was always ready to help with that Wiley Coyote grin on his face. It was great, having an extra volunteer living nearby. Not only was he able to come in at a moment's notice, but he knew a lot about the area and its resources, and could really relate to people at the Center, since he faced many of the same difficulties.

Carl shared his stories with me - his struggles with job search, his interest in web design, his attempts at fixing his computer, and his very colorful, sometimes difficult past. In turn, I listened and tried to help him with a little advice from my limited knowledge base. I showed him a website that teaches HTML (a programming "language" for web pages) and the next week he showed me his first website. He even put his resume online, including a link to it on all his email correspondences, hoping it might help land him a job.

Carl's had many jobs in the past, from traveling carnie to used car salesman. I tell him all these experiences have contributed to his success here as a CTC volunteer. He responds that he loves volunteering here because, "It's like a real job. It gets me out of bed and out of the house. And sometimes when I'm just hanging out, I'm proud to tell my friends that 'I have to go,' and then when they ask why, I can tell them that 'I have to get to work.'"

During his second week at the CTC, Carl told us about a program which refurbishes old business computers and gives them to those who can't afford to buy a new PC. The program inspired him work on his own PC, upgrading it with parts he'd bought or had been given and the help of a how-to book. Periodically Carl would call or email me saying, " I did it! I formatted my machine, and it works!" He'd thank me profusely for my help or my advice, but really I was the one being inspired. Carl had the intelligence and know-how to fix computers all along; he just needed a little encouragement and support to try something new.

One day he mentioned that he needed a new printer. "That way," he said, "I could earn money by typing and printing work for businesses." We had an older printer lying around in need of an owner, so I made a deal with Carl. If he volunteered 15 more hours at the CTC, we'd give him the printer and all the print cartridges we had in stock. That next month, Carl was completely professional, calling if he was running late, even bringing in notes from his doctor appointments. He took deep pride in the fact that he was working towards a goal, fulfilling an agreement.

It's been several months now, since Carl first walked in the door with that resume. He's still a recovering alcoholic and suffers from a variety of medical ailments. He helps maintain a professional, friendly environment here at the Center and he's a great help to the computer users, volunteers and staff. But what most impresses me about the man is how comfortable he is with his own brokenness. We are all broken in our own ways, but here in the Tenderloin it's just a lot harder to hide. And so it's comforting when you can find a place like the Computer Training Center, where you can admit your weaknesses, be accepted for who you are, and get help from others who are equally open with their faults. Carl has come a long way in making peace with himself, and this sense of peace and forgiveness flows through his actions spreading to all those he interacts with. He is generous with his time and resources, occasionally inviting people out to lunch, or bringing in a book or article for someone because, in his words, "it reminded me of you."

Yesterday, I learned that Carl found a well-paying job and will not be able to help out at the CTC quite as much. I'm happy for him, but will miss his presence here. Carl is just one of many remarkable people here who give back to the Center more than they receive.