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
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
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.