Don’t sell short the power of a pencil


“I thought, isn’t that just like life. One day you’re smoking crack under Grand Central, the next you’re addressing the U.N.” —Lee Stringer

 

In 1996, Joan Osborne sang “One of Us”: “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus…tryin’ to make his way home?”

That same year, Lee Stringer was homeless, strung out and living under the tracks at Grand Central Station in New York City. Beside him, a crack pipe and a long, skinny, cylinder shaped instrument. The pipe was empty, so he went to work pushing the cylinder tool into it, trying to loosen any leftover cocaine residue. He smoked what he had scavenged, but soon found himself with an empty pipe, staring blankly at the tool.

Then it hit him. Pencils could also be used for other things. So he started to write.

He wrote to pass the time he couldn’t pass with getting high. His is a long, painful and bumpy story, but today he is successful published author and speaker.

Within five years, Stringer went from a strung-out druggie to a major speaker at “Free The Word,” a London conference for International PEN, the world’s oldest literary organization.

After he decided to write, but before he was discovered by a commuting book publisher—and while he was living on the streets, still hooked on crack—he began to write a column for a Manhattan (New York) newspaper called Street News, eventually working his way up to editor in chief.

Street News isn’t as well known as The Times or The Post for good reason. It’s a newspaper written and distributed by homeless people. It was formed in 1989 to draw attention to the lives and troubles the homeless population faces, but it’s not the only one. Washington DC has Street Sense, Denver has Denver Voice, Dallas has Street Zine, Nashville has The Contributor, Boston has Spare Change News. Even Lawrence, in our home state, has Change of Heart, a quarterly published since 1996.

Most of these papers are set up to employ the homeless with writing opportunities and distribution jobs, and offer the homeless community information, advice, poetry, essays and resources.

Poor or homeless vendors sell the papers for a set price, give 20 to 40 percent back for future production costs, and pocket the rest to support themselves.

The North American Street Newspaper Association reports the International Association has 23 American members and eight Canadian, and is still growing. The papers offer the homeless an outlet to express themselves, boost their self-esteem, make some money, and maybe change their lives for the better.

Everybody can’t be Lee Stringer, but anybody could be. He may not have had much going on when he found a way out of the train station terminal, but he did have a pencil.

Within one week of his first book being released, it was being used by the largest church in Harlem, the largest synagogue in Riverside, N.Y., and the largest Buddhist paper in the country.

I’m not referring to Stringer’s eventual success as “godly,” in reference to Osborne’s song, but there must have been a spiritual hand at work and the connection between the two is about perception and possibility. He was a slob like (any) one of us.

Stringer may have smoked away his first book advance in a weekend, but between one publisher deciding he was capable of writing a book and himself committing to rehab in order to be sound enough to write that book, the pencil was essentially enough.


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