Published December 27. 2009 4:00AM Updated December 27. 2009 9:16AM
As the morning's low winter sun floods his apartment with light, Richard Edward Chapman Jr., 54, leans forward in his chair, rests his elbows on his knees, and says he's grateful for "the fleas."
He's not talking about insects.
Twice, advocates for the homeless had visited his tent under the bridge to urge him to let them find him housing.
"Come on, Hollywood," they told him. "We have a place for you. We'll get you off the streets, and we'll give you a nice place and food stamps and all that."
"I didn't even have food stamps back then," Chapman remembers. "I never asked for any help whatsoever."
Instead, he'd get up every morning and go to Labor Ready, where he'd take whatever jobs the day had to offer - carpentry, painting, laying tile - returning each afternoon with a 12-pack of Natural Ice beer, which he would drink into the night.
Twice, he turned down their offer of housing, and then, he said, "God kind of moved into the situation."
The other men living under the bridge with him "were just partying and drinking a whole lot, and they were being too wild for me," he said. "And God told me, 'Why don't you just take the tent and pick it up and move it down the tracks so you can be by yourself?'"
And so he did.
"And two nights later ... some of the gangs over there by the co-ops, they came down and they burnt up all the tents and everybody's stuff, and all the other six guys that were living underneath the bridge with me, all their stuff got all burnt up," he remembered.
"You know, you don't normally thank God for fleas in your house, but I look at it like, God sent some fleas," he said. "Homeless people get fleas sometimes, and they all come around and infest you, and you feel like you're being boxed in, so you've got to pick up your shit and just move away. And that's what I did."
The third time he was offered housing, he did not refuse.
But he also vowed, to himself and God, that on the day he left the streets he would give up drinking.
Of all the apartments the social workers with the Thames Valley Council for Community Action Inc. showed him, "this one in New London was the nicest," Chapman said, "the one that reminded me a little bit of home, or of Grandma and Grandpa's house over in Queens."
And from the day he took it, he said, he has not had a drink.
"My sober date ... is April 1st, a year and eight months ago," he said. "I haven't had a beer since the first day I walked into this apartment. Just by faith."
The apartment is in a beautiful old house on the corner of Broad and Williams streets, with a spacious living room, turret-shaped bedroom, bath and kitchenette. Hollywood has decorated it in his own inimitable style: with objets d'art he creates from things he finds on the street.
He shows off a statuette of the Virgin Mary on his mantle. She's blue and wearing miniature sunglasses, and there's a ruler glued to her side.
"There's my Mary with her sunglasses. This is her tape measure. She's measuring the world one foot, two foot, three foot, four foot," he said and laughed. "That's my version of Mary. When we start out as altar boys into the big boys we become ... you don't know what you're going to grow up to be or still, even when you're grown up, you still don't know what you want to be."
His latest creation is a sculpture he's made on top of a compact disc. It is a landscape of pebbles and grass occupied by a nut with a yellow thumbtack hat.
"This is my nativity for Christmas," he said with a grin. "This is me." He points to the nut. "I'm the nut. I call it 'Stomp Mountain.' That's me, the homeless guy." Then he points to a tangle of red threads at the center and a pair of boots from a child's action figure. "There's my barbecue. There's my shoes when I take them off."
He battles loneliness
The transition to his indoor life has not been an easy one.
When first he moved in, he developed cellulitis, a skin condition that sent him on numerous trips to the hospital. He's been on a regimen of pills and creams and has pretty much recovered, but he still struggles with depression. For a time he went to Sound Community Services Inc., where he was given medication and talked to a psychiatrist.
"It's like being in death's cave inside your head," Chapman said. "But you make that ascent up the mountain, and you come to the top of the mountain and you're all right. This is the second time I've had to make an ascent, a real long walk up the mountain, and coming out of my drinking, which has always been my sister darkness. That's always taken away the pain, the thoughts, made me numb where I didn't have to think about what I was going through."
He attributes his bouts of depression, in part, to his new life.
When he first got sober, his friends shunned him.
"Yeah, they parted from me, they left me. It's like Jesus Christ; they abandoned me."
Fortunately, with time, that has changed.
"They've warmed back up to me. They know I'm not a threat to them," he said. "I even faced quite a few of them and said, 'I hope you don't think I think I'm better than you. I mean, we sat out here in the cold and warm, summer and the spring. Don't forget I was sitting out here with you.'"
He battles his loneliness by going to church and to AA meetings, but he freely admits he needs to find other ways to meet people.
"The only events that are available in the town are the AA events and church on Sunday," Chapman said. "I've been to every church in the whole community on Sunday."
But another part of his depression stems from idleness.
"I've got dreams. I don't want to sit down and do nothing. I'll eventually either go to the full-time ministry, which I've made a lot of calls about, or go back to a full-time job. I have to go to work. I can't do this," he said, gesturing to the room around him. "This is not me."
Indeed, even when he was homeless, Hollywood always worked. And he always managed to be well-groomed and dressed in clean clothes. Today, as he sits in his living room dressed in a bright orange sweater and pressed blue jeans, he talks about his longing for work and female companionship.
"I really want to be doing something," he said. "Either full-time work, or I want to be in a part-time ministry with one of the ministers around here, as a vocational pastor, an assistant pastor ... God hasn't shown me which one ... I've scoped out all the churches here, and I could pretty much fit anywhere, but I have to go where God wants me to go."
As to the question of a "girlfriend," Chapman said, "It doesn't matter: Fat, round or square, I want a woman. The Bible talks about how the prophets when they wanted their mates, they wanted a heifer." He laughs. "They wanted a strong woman sent by God. A strong one!"
He pauses in thought.
"You know? I really feel in my heart I'm going to get married in this town. I really feel in my heart that God's going to provide a wife," he said.
"This is the end. This is the end of my tracks ... For some reason, this is where it is. It's here. This is where God called me to my feet. Finally."