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A Lifeline of Words

Homeless and addicted to crack, Lee Stringer found salvation by fulfilling a commitment to tell the story of how he lived.

May 10, 1999|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lee Stringer signed the contract and cashed the check--$1,000 even, one-third of the advance for a book about his years living on the streets of New York.

He was to write about "the low and the lost," and the stubborn embrace of pride in the face of constant degradation. About edge-clinging survival in the land of plenty. And about the rewards of resourcefulness, from the steady trickle of nickels redeeming empty bottles and cans to the hidden cubbyhole under a Grand Central Station platform that, for a time, Stringer made his bedroom.

A thousand bucks. Big cash, even in Manhattan, for a man with next to nothing.

So Stringer did what he usually did when he had extra money in his pocket. He rounded up some friends for a party, converting his office at Street News, a newspaper sold by the homeless, into a crack den.

"I gave my last 10 bucks to a guy who was going out to get us something to eat," recalls Stringer, who, as columnist and editor, was living in the Street News office. "He never came back."

Then came the reality. Waking up in his trashed office, with his pockets empty, brain numb and a book contract to fulfill.

Living up to commitments is never a big weight to an addict. But Stringer sensed this commitment was different. It was a promise to write, which, he was slowly beginning to realize, might be his last shot at redemption.

He took the shot.

Stringer has been clean now for nearly three years, though he didn't get that way until he was nearly done with the first draft of "Grand Central Winter: Tales From the Street" (Seven Stories Press).

On the strength of good reviews, word of mouth and such champions as Kurt Vonnegut, the book is in its fourth printing with some 60,000 copies in circulation. Stringer used some of the proceeds recently to move into an apartment one floor up from his mother, a 78-year-old retired data-entry clerk, in suburban New York. He's also landed a job, working part time as a language-arts aide in a school near his apartment.

"They want me to be seen by as many students as possible," Stringer says, enjoying the irony that a 10-year crack head could teach kids anything positive. "To be of value to these kids you have to be an improved human being, and that seems to be the work I'm engaged in these days."

Stringer, 49, was born in the Bronx and spent the first six years of his life with his older brother in a foster home. Their mother, he says, was incapable of caring for them, but visited often until she got on her feet and reclaimed the boys, moving them to Mamaroneck, north of the city.

Mother Visits; Father Leaves

Stringer barely knew his father.

"His concept of fatherhood ended with conception," Stringer says, the flippancy of the comment obscuring the deep scars left by that fragmented relationship. "When my father died, I had to go out and find someone else to be pissed off at. In recovery I realized that I just had to give myself a break. I realized that my father just wasn't capable of it."

After high school and some vocational courses, Stringer worked as a television cameraman in Dallas and a film librarian in Detroit. He wound up back in New York in the early '80s, setting up an advertising and graphic arts business with a partner. The work was going well. Solid contracts, a good income, a nice apartment and all the accouterments of successful Manhattan life during the Greed Decade.

Yet Stringer was dogged, he says, by a sense of disquiet.

"I was beginning to understand that none of these things were giving me anything that I expected they would," Stringer says.

His business partner died unexpectedly, and Stringer's world imploded in 1984 when his brother showed up on his doorstep one day, sick and drawn. The brother died a short time later--possibly from AIDS; Stringer says doctors never were certain--and Stringer slipped into an abyss he didn't even know was there.

"I didn't know how to respond," he says. "So I just walked right by [the emotions]. But you get things that stay with you all your life, and all they need is a trip switch. I was working on a trade show [presentation] and made a mistake, and I got inordinately mad. All this pain turned to rage. I began punching this rolled-up carpet. Then it was like I was empty. That was when I stopped answering the phone."

The final nudge came from a friend who showed up with some crack at Stringer's apartment three days after the brother's death. The first hit set the hook. Within nine months, Stringer had lost his job, smoked all his cash and then answered the door to a marshal carrying an eviction order.

Stringer spent the next decade chasing a high. Reagan was running for a second term when he smoked his first hit; Clinton was running for reelection when he smoked his last.

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