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Memphis Flyer Home on the Range

Wisdom from the underbelly of Grand Central to the wide-open prairie.

By Leonard Gill

NOVEMBER 22, 1999: 

Grand Central Winter: Stories From the Street by Lee Stringer (Washington Square Press), 247 pp., $12.95 (paper)

On a Sunday afternoon in September 1984, Lee Stringer was hungover but on his way to Bellevue Hospital in New York City. He'd been there before -- to identify the corpse of his business partner, who one evening stepped outside his apartment building only to have his heart attack him. This fall day, it was Stringer's brother in Bellevue -- diagnosis: AIDS; prognosis: not good (as in, good as dead, which is how Stringer found him).

Two days later, Stringer, battling another hangover and no stranger to cocaine, met up with a bar buddy, who, in turn, introduced him to his first hit of crack. The hangover evaporated but so too life as Stringer had known it. Nine months later he was $100,000 poorer, on the street, and positively relieved: relieved of job, apartment, and the "tyranny of expectations," that last the heart of the matter in Grand Central Winter, out now in paperback. Before getting to the heart, however, a brief rundown on Stringer on the down-and-out.

From Central Park, where he was also relieved of three army blankets, the author headed to Grand Central Terminal, where Stringer hit the real skids but also real paydirt: a dependable stream of commuters casting off aluminum cans at 5 cents a pop upon redemption. This was 1985, and the waiting room at closing at Grand Central was still grand central for a very visible, very sizable homeless population -- until, that is, New York cracked down on its crackheads and sent them not out of Grand Central but under it. It was here, in a crawl space where even the police working overtime for overtime wages wouldn't venture, that Stringer first put pencil to paper instead of putting pencil to pipe.

Stringer's initial, writerly inspiration? Boredom and sheer fatigue, for one. Tennessee Williams, for two, and his habit of entering a short story "through the side door." And Nelson Algren, for three, who is on record believing that "writers are at their best when they don't know what they are doing."

That dubious but not entirely worthless observation must go for some writers, because Stringer started out one of them. Writing (and specifically, writing not knowing what he was doing when he was doing it) was his ticket out of Grand Central and into the editorship of Street News (a newspaper devoted to the issue of homelessness and distributed by the homeless), but it was not his road to recovery. For that, Stringer held out for a good 10 years and in the hard company of fellow addicts, hookers, thugs, low-lifes, losers, and the case can be made, an equally screwy cast of welfare workers, cops, judges, and, worst of all, policymakers.

So what are cities and legislation to do regarding the homeless? According to the author, when it comes to social services, what cities and even fundamentally misguided legislation already do until such time as human nature itself undergoes a sea-change.

"We tend to turn to legislation to enforce that which we desire to be as a people but fail to do on an individual basis," Stringer wrote in the pages of Street News, repeats in the pages of Grand Central Winter, and it bears repeating. "This is an awkward and ultimately unsatisfying way to go about being human to one another. ... Policy is never the real issue. The real issue is the hearts of men."

On the Richter scale of moral conclusions, this is not an earth-shattering report. In the context of this book, however, it comes, as it did to its author when he finally entered drug rehab, as a revelation -- a liberating, religious one, if you care to see it that way, but depending on action (compassion), not the fruit of action (expectation).

At the heart of Lee Stringer the addict was a false Eden relieving him of the world's and his own ills. At the heart of Lee Stringer the recovering addict at home in Mamaronek, New York, is a writer, a real one, in Grand Central Winter, knowing, more than he lets on, exactly what he is doing.


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