The pen is mightier than the rock

Lee Stringer spent 12 years on the New York streets as a crack addict. Then he got hooked on words.
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The Independent Culture
Lee Stringer was having a bad day. He was uptown and desperate to score some crack-cocaine when he heard gunfire. Five shots to the head of the drug dealer, delivered at close range. The killers ran away. For a moment, the delicious anticipation of his next high was shocked into submission as he stared down at the dying man.

This was one of the more dramatic incidents Lee Stringer witnessed during his 12 years living on the streets of New York City. Back then, he was an invisible man; a mute onlooker to this casual murder. Now this tall, soft-spoken man who loped along unnoticed is suddenly in the literary spotlight. What he saw from the fringes of society is the subject of his new book, Grand Central Winter, a memoir from the deepest trenches of homelessness. The 47-year-old Stringer has received lavish praise from the eminent American author, Kurt Vonnegut, who hailed him as a "storyteller of the first rank". He's been courted by the media and toasted at Manhattan book parties. It is an unlikely reversal of fortune for a man who, until recently, was a homeless crackhead.

But Grand Central Winter is not about homelessness, says Stringer. "I see it as more of a book about the Eighties. We read and heard about what a lot of the big guys were doing. But there were things happening out on the street that were happening out of the same sort of despair."

His descent started 12 years ago with personal tragedy. Depressed at the deaths of his business partner, with whom he co-owned a graphic arts company, and his brother, Stringer slipped easily into depression, drink and drugs. The first time he smoked crack is vividly recalled in his memoir: "It is a taste I know I am going to love. The taste of success, love, orgasm, omnipotence, immortality, and winning the lottery all rolled into one."

Soon, the drugs were all-consuming and he found himself evicted from his apartment, down-and-out on the streets of New York. "Only instead of feeling put out, I feel strangely relieved, elated even," he wrote in his book. "I have just been released, I realise, from all earthly claims upon me. There is nothing any more that I am obliged to do. No one any more that I am required to be."

By day, he collected empty soft-drink cans for money to feed his crack habit. Then at night, he'd bed down in a crawl space underneath Grand Central Station, his head inches away from the track. This was his home for nearly 10 years.

It was here that Stringer found a pencil that changed his life. He started scribbling in an old composition book. "At first it just took me out of my immediate circumstances, nothing else could do that," says Stringer, adjusting his thick, black-framed glasses.

"Writing not only took me out of it, it enabled me to deal with it in a constructive way, in a non-overwhelming way. So in that respect it had a pay-off and in that respect it was very addictive."

That's how writing slowly came to replace crack as an addiction. Soon, he began writing for a paper called Street News, the New York equivalent of London's The Big Issue. The idea behind Street News was to encourage the homeless to produce and sell their own newspaper, allowing them to keep the profits on every copy they sold.

For Stringer, this was the forum he needed. As a regular columnist on the paper, known as "Homey", he realised his redemption lay in writing. Not only that, the newspaper's office had a soft couch which was somewhat more comfortable than Track 109 in Grand Central. Then, fate took a hand when publisher Dan Simon got stuck between stations in the subway. To kill time, he picked up a copy of Street News and read it cover-to-cover. One of Stringer's columns in the paper caught his eye. Impressed by the graceful and witty writing, the publisher subsequently offered Stringer a book contract and a tempting advance of $3,000, soon spent on crack. But that was the beginning of the end of Stringer's crack addiction.

"I wasn't going to go any further and still be an active cocaine crackhead," he says. He entered a drug treatment programme, which took him 18 months to complete.

Stringer has supplanted his pencil with an old Mac Classic. He is impassioned with writing. His whole body rocks with animation as he describes his new daily fix: words. "It's almost like being in a zone," he says. "It's almost like taking dictation. When it's like that, oh, it's great. It's the greatest feeling in the world. It's like being touched by God." When Lee Stringer talks about success, he does so with the knowing smile of a man who has stared down hopelessness and survived.

"As far as I define `success', to me it's having a healthy relationship towards life and the world. So success started when I not only stopped doing drugs but began to do the inside work that needs to be done," he says, gesturing towards his heart.

Lee Stringer is no longer an invisible man. Amongst the crowds of Grand Central Station where his loneliness was once thrown into relief, he weaves his way across the newly-renovated concourse. People who might previously have ignored this towering black man, now recognise him and ask for his autograph.

This great American terminal was the starting point for his odyssey into homelessness, addiction and back to his new life as a writer. Ironically, the 12 years that Stringer spent wearing out his shoe leather on the street, collecting cans, scoring crack, jumping subway turnstiles and selling newspapers provided him with a uniquely-felt body of material. One reviewer called it "memoirs from the abject poor".

Stringer talks about his life on the street without bitterness. "Being homeless and being ignored and being passed by gives you a good vantage point to be an observer," he says. His experience has also given him a strong empathy with those who are still out on the streets living through their own Grand Central Winter.

"I know the pain," he says. "So, when you're in the thick of it, you're in pain but you don't know it. Or that pain has become totally acceptable to your psyche."

`Grand Central Winter' is published this month by Seven Stories Press, price pounds 13.99