Charles Carter is an easy man to find in this town. Just look for the 1993 gray Caprice Classic, the one with the smashed back door, the fuzzy leopard-print steering wheel and the row of stuffed animals lining the back seat.
It’s most likely parked at the Salvation Army thrift store or Gerbes on West Broadway, the two establishments Carter has visited every day for more than 20 years.
Inside, he’s impossible to miss. His jewelry and belt buckle shine under the fluorescent lights of the thrift store. He's often wearing an outrageous hat, and everyone is always saying hello to him. Carter, 73, is a colorful and reliable fixture in both places, beloved by his friends and fellow patrons.
But this is the second half of his story. Carter's life has played out in two acts, with scenes and characters so unalike they could have been taken from two different scripts.
The first story is one of job hopping, multiple marriages and drinking that tipped his days upside down. The second is one of friendship, peace and redemption.
Tragedy could have pushed him further into self-destruction but instead became the force that turned Carter into a new man, one who made a fresh start for himself midway through life.
It's mid-morning at the thrift store, and Carter sits in a floral armchair, surveying the brightly lit, bustling interior.
“A lot of nice people here today,” he says, stopping mid-sentence to wave to a petite, middle-aged woman. His brown eyes squint when he smiles mischievously.
“A lot of nice ladies.” His laugh is sweet and rusty. Carter is known for his humor, his friendliness and his sense of style.
“He wears crazy jewelry,” Gail Plemmons says as she rings up purchases. Indeed, a faux diamond-encrusted pistol the size of a cell phone dangles on a gold chain from Carter’s neck.
Guy Mills, who has worked behind the plastic curtain that separates the retail space from the warehouse portion of the store for five years, knows Carter's taste pretty well.
“Anything that has a wild animal print, Charles likes,” he says. “One day, we had a tiger-skin toaster come in. I said, ‘I know Charles is going to go crazy over this.’ And he did. He loved it.”
The toaster now sits on a counter in Carter’s kitchen. In 20-plus years of bargain hunting, what is his favorite find? A snakeskin leather jacket.
Carter does more than shop. Plemmons and Mills agree that he is an integral part of the operation and the atmosphere. He regularly pitches in to help on the dock, to collect the shopping carts and fill in where he's needed.
Plemmons considers Carter a volunteer security guard.
“I feel safer with him here," she says with a laugh. "He’s big.”
Charles is as dear to the patrons at Gerbes as he is at the thrift store. He’s part of a small circle of regulars who come in for coffee every morning. “We sit around and talk and lie to each other,” he says.
He smiles broadly. “No, we don’t really lie.”
Under the bright lights at the deli counter, Sheila Owens dishes up spicy fried chicken and potato wedges. Her eyes grow large and round with enthusiasm as she talks about him.
“Everyone in the store knows Charlie,” she says. “He’s such a helper. He’s just a nice, smiling face to see every day.”
He seems to know every woman — Trisa behind the soda counter, Carolyn the grocery bagger, the girl at customer service.
Their faces brighten when they see him shuffle slowly by. Carter freely admits that most of his friends are female, though it’s only partly out of preference.
“Most of my male friends, they’re dead,” he says bluntly.
Women cycled in and out of his earlier life. He was married twice by the age of 18, the first time to a girl of 13.
“She was a brick house for a 13 year-old,” he says. “She was hot-blooded. Yes, she was a mess.”
He chuckles. That marriage lasted a year, the same duration as his second marriage at 18, which produced one daughter.
Carter stayed married to his third wife, a clergyman's daughter, long enough to have four more children. It ended when she left him for a preacher.
At 30, he met his fourth wife at a bar. He was buying another girl a drink when a pretty stranger caught his eye. He sidled up and told her, “All I’ve got is a job. I don’t have no money.”
He laughs. “I was so bold back then.”
Throughout his marriages, Carter worked a string of jobs in Kansas City, including barbering, cooking, managing a bar and supervising an auto plant.
He moved back to Columbia in the '70s and started sacking groceries.
He pauses at this part of the story. “That was the peak of my drinking.”
Although Carter hasn’t had a drink in 25 years, drinking defined much of his early life. “I’ve been drinking since I was 2,” he says.
Growing up in Ashland, he spent hours at his grandmother's house, drinking her dandelion wine. “I’d get drunk on that, roll around in the mud, and they’d give me a bath.”
By high school, he was sneaking what he called “shake 'em up”— white port and 7-Up — with his friends.
“I hate to say this,” he says, “but we’d put in Listerine bottles, go to our lockers and say, ‘I’m going to gargle.’” He throws his head back and shakes with laughter.
He remembers well why he stopped drinking 25 years ago.
The night before Thanksgiving, he received a phone call. His son had been shot in the head at a party. “The doctors said he’d be brain dead, and we decided to take him off life support,” he says, his voice steady.
“I drank and drank and drank.”
A month later, on Christmas Day, he was hospitalized and recorded a .68 percent blood alcohol content.
“I held the record, and probably still do, for the highest blood alcohol level recorded in mid-MO,” he says. “It was .68 percent. That’s more alcohol than blood.”
Carter laughs. “They called me a miracle.”
That marked the end of his drinking and the beginning of a treatment program.
During a year of treatment at Phoenix House, he was approached by some of the rehab counselors. They had seen the way he interacted with his fellow patients and told him he’d have a counseling job if he completed the coursework.
Four years later, Carter graduated cum laude with a degree in alcohol and drug studies from Missouri Valley College in Marshall. His 3.5 GPA landed him on the dean’s list and in Who’s Who among American college students.
He was in his 40s. He returned to the Phoenix House, now called the Phoenix Program, as a drug and alcohol rehab counselor. He had a record of success over the next several years. One of his former clients, Columbia resident Tim Ranft, remembers meeting him in 1991.
“I knew he was serious,” Ranft says. “He’d scare some people at first, but it became evident that there was a lot of love going on.”
Carter encouraged Ranft to stay out of romantic relationships while going through treatment. “He used to say that a woman was nothing but a drink with legs,” Ranft laughs.
“His heart’s as big as he is, but he was stern, and he didn’t pull any punches.”
Carter speaks fondly of his clients from the Phoenix House, even one who was unabashedly racist and not at all pleased to be seeing a black counselor.
He is breezy as he talks about the ugliness he has experienced because of his race. “I’m used to that stuff,” he says.
He graduated from Douglass High School when it was still segregated, and he remembers being denied health insurance from an old employer because of his race.
Recently, a white customer came up to him and said, “Did you hear what Obama is planning to do? He’s going to tear up all the roads and plant watermelon gardens.”
There is nothing but a mild expression on his face as Carter recounts the story, but he continues: “If I’d been like I used to be, though, there would have been trouble.”
He stops his story as thrift store volunteer Clarisse Minner walks out of the backroom. “Any stuffed animals?”
“I’ll check,” she promises. She is the main reason he has his singing and dancing dolls, Carter explains. Singing and dancing dolls?
“Charles loves stuffed animals,” Minner said. She tells him about particular ones that come into the store. “Just certain ones I think he’d like. I gave him a gorilla that sings ‘Wild Thing.’ That was my Christmas present for him last year."
“As long as they’re jungle animals,” Carter clarifies. “I love the jungle.”
One needs to look no further than Carter's apartment to verify this. The one-room studio in Oak Towers could be a tropical jungle gift shop.
Every square inch of the shoebox-sized room is covered with stuffed animals, enormous plastic plants, cheetah print hats, masks, dinosaurs, leopard lampshades and tigers — so many tigers.
“I would live in the jungle if I could,” Carter says. “My wife wanted a bigger house. I told her, ‘If you love me, we could live in a cave.’” He laughs. “She got so mad.”
The phone rings from somewhere within the jungle, but there's no attempt to find it. “That’s a bill collector. I’m not answering it,” he says cheerfully as he shuffles over to a stuffed white duck.
He presses its furry foot, and it begins dancing and playing a disco tune. “Isn’t that something?” he asks.
Photos cover a cheetah print bulletin board and the fridge. There are snapshots of his kids, his grandkids, his great-grandkids and his many friends.
A lean young man in a white basketball uniform crouches gracefully in the front row of an old team photo — Carter as a teenager, when he was captain of the Douglass High School team.
Fifty years later, the eyes from the photo — “my bedroom eyes,” Carter calls them — are the same, but the youth and health are gone. A decade of diabetes and three years of cancer have taken a toll.
Carter takes more than $300 worth of pills every month, has heart trouble, arthritis and glaucoma, and he has undergone seven eye operations. He still cannot see well out of one eye.
He describes driving back and forth from Columbia to Missouri Valley, when the only thing he could see on the road was the white line dividing the lanes. During a snowstorm one winter, he couldn’t even see that.
Somehow he made it safely home. “If that wasn’t God,” Carter trails off. “I swear, I couldn’t see anything. I’m a firm believer in God.” He considers himself lucky to be alive and able to take care of himself in the second half of his life.
“I thank God every day that I wake up. I don’t have a lot of pain.” He pauses. “I wish I could stand. I can’t sit or stand too long. I wish I could work.”
His right hand, big and slow, with skin whorled around the knuckles like tree rings, brings a white tissue to his face. He dabs absently at his cheek.
“I’m still alive, and I’m blessed, but I could have done so much more with my life,” he says. He wishes he could do more for his 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, whom he adores.
But with his legions of fans around Columbia — the dozens of shoppers who know and love him and the many Phoenix House clients whose lives he helped turn around — he must have done something right.
Robbie Serfass, a 30-year-old employee at the thrift store, says he hopes to have what Carter has at his age. “To have that many friends,” he says, “it’d be a pretty great thing.”