Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Streetby Lee Stringer, Kurt Vonnegut
Whether Lee Stringer is describing "God's corner" as he calls 42nd Street, or his friend Suzy, a hooker and "past due tourist" whose infant child he sometimes babysits, whether he is recounting his experiences at Street News, where he began hawking the newspaper for a living wage, then wrote articles, and served for a time as muckraking senior editor, whether it is his adventures in New York's infamous Tombs jail, or performing community service, or sleeping in the tunnels below Grand Central Station by night and collecting cans by day, this is a book rich with small acts of kindness, humor and even heroism alongside the expected violence and desperation of life on the street. There is always room, Stringer writes, "amid the costume" jewel glitter...for one more diamond in the rough."
Two events rise over Grand Central Winter like sentinels: Stringer's discovery of crack cocaine and his catching the writing bug. Between these two very different yet oddly similar activities, Lee's life unwound itself, during the 1980s, and took the shape of an odyssey, an epic struggle to find meaning and happiness in arid times. He eventually beat the first addiction with help from a treatment program. The second addiction, writing, has hold of him still.
Among the many accomplishments of this book is that Stringer is able to convey something of the vitality and complexity of a down—and—out life. The reader walks away from it humming its melody, one that is more wise than despairing, less about the shame we feel when confronted with a picture of those less fortunate, and more about the joy we feel when we experience our shared humanity.
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Read an Excerpt
What happened was I was digging around in my hole -- there's this long, narrow, crawl space in Grand Central's lower regions, of which few people are aware and into which I moved some time ago. It is strung with lights and there is a water spigot just outside the cubbyhole through which I enter. It's on the chilly side in winter, and I baste down there in summer, but it is, as they say home.
I have filled this place with blankets and books and have fortified it with enough cardboard baffles to hold any rats at bay (the secret being, of course, to never bring food down here. It's the food that attracts them). So, at the end of the day I come down here to polish off that last, lonely blast. Or just to sleep it off.
But as I said, I was digging around in this hole--lying flat on my back, reaching back and under the old blankets, newspapers, and clothes that I've amassed over time and that keep me insulated from the concrete floor, trying to find some small, dowellike instrument with which to push the screens from one end of my stem to the other, so that I could smoke the remaining resin caked up in the thing.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure, I point out that when you are piping up, the first thing to go is your patience. And I'm digging around under this mess, cursing and muttering under my breath like an old wino on a three-day drunk, when my fingers finally wrap around some sort of smooth, straight stick.
I pull it out and it's a pencil and it does the trick. I push my screens and take a hit and have a pleasurable half hour of sweaty, trembling panic that at any second someone or something is going to jump out of the darkness -- I get much too paranoid to smoke with the lights on -- and stomp the living shit out of me or something.
That's the great thing about being a veteran crackhead.
Always a lot of fun.
Anyway, the point is, I start carrying this pencil around with me because I really hate like hell to be caught without something to push with and then have to go searching or digging around like I was doing when I found the thing.
The good thing about carrying a pencil is that it's a pencil. And if I get stopped and searched for any reason, it's just a pencil. Of course I carry my stem around too. And there's no doubt about what that's for. But, hey, I'm not looking to strain my cerebral cortex on the subject. It's all I can do just to hustle up enough scratch every day and go cop something decent--without getting beat, arrested, or shot--so I can have a lovely time cowering in the dark for a couple of hours.
So I have this pencil with me all the time and then one day I'm sitting there in my hole with nothing to smoke and nothing to do and I pull the pencil out just to look at the film of residue stuck to the sides--you do that sort of thing when you don't have any shit---and it dawns on me that it's a pencil. I mean it's got a lead in it and all, and you can write with the thing.
So now I'm at it again. Digging around in my hole. Because I know there's an old composition book down there somewhere and I figure maybe I can distract myself for a little while by writing something.
The things a person will do when he's not smoking.
The funny thing is, I get into it.
I mean really get into it.
I start off just writing about a friend of mine. Just describing his cluttered apartment. How I kind of like the clutter. How it gives the place a lived-in look. How you can just about read his life by looking around.
So I'm writing away, and the more I write, the easier it gets. And the easier it gets, the better the writing gets, until it's like I'm just taking dictation.
Pretty soon I forget all about hustling and getting a hit. I'm scribbling like a maniac; heart pumping, adrenaline rushing, hands trembling. I'm so excited I almost crap on myself.
It's just like taking a hit.
Before I know it, I have a whole story.
I go to read the thing and it's a mess. The pages are all out of order. Parts are scratched out. Other parts are written sideways in the margins. But what I can read looks pretty good.
Even great in parts.
By the time I go back and carefully rewrite the thing, it's too late at night for me to bother going out, which is a remarkable thing for me because I don't think there's been a day since I started that I have gone without at least one hit.
So I read the story over and over.
Fix a few things.
And what I end up with reads like Tennessee Williams (I have a paperback with all his short stories in it) in the way it kind of comes in through the side door. I mean, Williams will start off talking about, say, what it smells like to work in a shoe factory and before you know it, he's going on about wanting to kill his father or something like that.
That's how my story went.
It started with my friend's house and then I have a guy sitting there with him who wants to get some pills from him so he can take himself out before the AIDS virus gets him -- you see, he is HIV positive -- and when he gets the pills, he goes over to the park to just lie down and fade away on the grass.
Only he feels the need to apologize to the world because he has to die in public. And someone will have to come along and pick up his sorry dead ass and all. But he's homeless, there's no place for him to go.
I guess they'll never make a musical out of it.
But the thing is--and this is what gets me -- when I read the story, I can feel this guy's pain! I mean, I haven't been able to feel much of anything in years. And there I am, sitting down there under Grand Central, reading this thing scribbled in an old composition book, and I'm practically in tears.
The next day I take the story over to my friend's house and he reads it. All I'm expecting from him is a sarcastic remark because this guy is one of those snob alcoholics. He doesn't approve of anything.
Least of all me.
But he just puts it down quietly when he finishes and gives me the slightest nod. Then he says,
"Do you love me?"
I know why he asks this.
Because in the story the two guys are friends but they would never admit it. They just hang around together putting each other down all the time -- a lot like my friend and me -- and in the end the one guy is sorry because he'll never have the chance to tell his buddy that he loves him -- in a normal sort of way, I mean -- and that he'll miss him.
He never realizes this until he's dying.
The only real difference between the story and me and my friend, come to think of it, is that I'm not HIV-positive and I'm not dying.
But my friend is.
And when he asks me whether or not I love him, it gets to me because I would never have thought he gave a shit one way or the other. So I go over to him and hug him, and that weepy shit starts kicking up again.
What can I tell you?
It was one of those moments.
All because I sat in my hole and wrote this little story.
Next thing you know, I'm up at the Street New office with it, asking if anybody'd be interested in putting it in the paper, and -- sure enough -- damned if I don't open up the next issue and there's my story!
That's how I got my first thing published in Street News.
I think I called it "No Place to Call Home."
A couple of months later I had a regular column in there. And -- one thing after the other -- I had the writing bug.
After that there were four things I did every day. Hustle up money, cop some stuff, beam up, and write. And in the end I wound up dropping the other three.
Copyright © 1998 by Caverly Singer
Meet the Author
LEE STRINGER's journey from childhood homelessness in the ’60s, to adult homelessness in the ’80s, to his present career as a writer and lecturer, as told in Sleepaway School and Grand Central Winter, is one of the great odysseys of contemporary American life and letters. Stringer is the only board member of Project Renewal who is also a former patient of the facility. He is the two-time recipient of the Washington Irving Award and, in 2005, a Lannan Foundation Residency. He is a former editor of and columnist for Street News. His essays and articles have appeared in a variety of other publications, including the Nation, the New York Times, and Newsday. He lives in Mamaroneck, New York, where he also serves on the board of the Mamaroneck Public Libraries.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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In working with the homeless many of whom suffer the horrors of addiction it is hard to find stories to relate other than common 'war stories'. In Grand Central Winter Mr. Stringer takes us on an adventure from sleeping in the bowls of New York City's Grand Central Station to a triumph of spirit over the soul. I know his story to be genuine and from the heart because I have suffered and surmounted similar circumstances. I am grateful to have had the privilege to read Grand Central Winter. I highly recommend this book to anyone whose soul has cried out into the night. RJ Beaumont Executive Vice President Christian Charity Fund NEPA Wilkes-Barre, PA
In working with the homeless many of whom suffer the horrors of addiction it is hard to find stories to relate other than common 'war stories'. In Grand Central Winter Mr.Stringer takes us on an adventure from sleeping in the bowls of New York City's Grand Central Station to a triumph of spirit over the soul. I know his story to be genuine and from the heart because I have suffered and surmounted similar circumstances. I am grateful to have had the privilege to read Grand Central Winter. I highly recommend this book to anyone whoes soul has cried out into the night. RJ Beaumont Executive Vice President Chhristian Charity Fund NEPA Wilkes-Barre, PA