By Jon Berry
MY CELL PHONE BUZZED: “HAVE YOU HEARD FROM____?” I’ve learned through experience to be wary of text messages from people I don’t know asking for my friend’s whereabouts. So after making a quick mental checklist of the possibilities – someone looking for money? someone looking for a fight? a social worker? collection agency? – I texted back circumspectly: “Yes. Who’s this?”
“I know him from the homeless shelter. He’s a friend.” Then, seconds later, “Do you know where he’s headed?”
I didn’t have time for this. I’d just come off the train at Grand Central Station, and needed to squeeze through the rush-hour crowd and get a downtown subway to a lecture by a renowned spiritual teacher.
“Dunno,” I replied, still skeptical. “He didn’t say.” That was true. I had seen my friend the day before, to give him some things I’d been keeping for him. But he didn’t say where he was going. My guess is he didn’t know himself. “He wasn’t too communicative,” I added.
The next day, my friend resurfaced. I asked him about the texts. “Oh, yeah, that’s xxxx,” he said. “He’s been a good friend.” I changed the phone number on the texts to a name, and sent an update. “Good to hear,” xxxx replied. “Hopefully he will be good. Thanks for letting me know.”
Years of keeping company with people on both sides of alcoholism and addiction – the sufferers and the friends and family trying to detach with love – have created a reflex in me to go to dark places when I’m on unfamiliar ground. But reality is more than darkness. And that should not surprise me.
In Liberation Theology, people talk about the lessons that can be learned from those on society’s margins. The marginalized “can help cultivate a new look at the way things are.” If we learn anew “how to listen,” we can gain insights “in places where we least expect it” (Joerg Rieger, Remember the Poor).
I sort of got it intellectually when I read it in seminary. But, to really get it, I had to have real-life lab practice – like seeing again last week that that friendships exist, too, among the homeless, maybe especially so. I needed to experience that a lesson can come in unexpected places, at unexpected times – including on the way to what I think is my lesson. As a friend says, “If you want to hear God laugh, make plans.”
The surprise of insight in places we least expect it came through in my reading this week, too. On the recommendation of my friend (who found solace in it during a recent stay in a drug-treatment program), I bought Grand Central Winter, Lee Stringer’s 1998 memoir of the decade he spent living on the streets of New York addicted to crack cocaine.
In some ways, the book confirmed my worst fears. Life on the streets can be predatory. There's what the author calls "the pocket incident": two men carefully cut into the pants pocket of a sleeping homeless man and make off with a wad of cash. Guys routinely con each other and the system – and assume the system does the same to them. “It’s all a hustle,” advises one of the author’s acquaintances. What outsiders think will be havens, like the homeless shelters, turn out to be riven with a “watch-your-back, watch-your-mouth, watch-out-for-number-one, jailhouse mentality.”
But it’s not all darkness. There’s a moral thread that runs through Grand Central Winter. Guys keep an eye on each other. It’s rare for someone to get lost on the streets; the homeless generally know where each other are. There's humor. There’s creativity; for a while, a group of guys keeps a large population fed on the food thrown out by the train crews because it’s passed its sell-by date. There are charitable impulses, like when Stringer tries to give a passerby a copy of Street News, the newspaper for the New York’s homeless, arguing “If I couldn’t give something to someone every now and then, wouldn’t that make me even poorer than I am?”
Most important, there’s hope. The author eventually puts down his crack pipe and goes into recovery. It’s not a clean break. He has near-misses, then relapses, leading to an epiphany, on his knees, praying for help on Dog Run Hill in Central Park, and receiving it in the form of a seemingly heaven-sent dog that dashes up the hill...sits down...and leans into him. "I break out in goosebumps," he writes. "From that second...I never, ever had another craving."
Stringer remarks that he does not know any “hardworking, moral, churchgoing, non-addicted American who would go to the lengths to which recovering addicts and alcoholics go for the sake of spiritual growth." He repeats the oft-heard wisdom in the rooms that “religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, spirituality is for people who have been there.”
On the other side of that hell, he finds that the “miraculous world” that he believed in as a child, then through “grinding disappointment” had given up on, is still present. It’s in the joy he rediscovers in his travels through the city, coming up out of the subway, seeing the day with new eyes. Most, though, it’s in the people whose stories he hears – “people who’d stopped kidding themselves” and now “took solace in revealing their weakness and pain.”
“I doubt if people are ever so profoundly attractive as when they are being honest about themselves,” he writes. “…Damned if it isn’t a miraculous world after all.”
For more on Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter, or to buy a copy, click here.
These are times of incredible need. Please remember to support your local food bank, organizations dedicated to providing homes for those ready for them like Habitat for Humanity, and organizations providing services to those in need. Some New York-area ones: City Harvest, the Food Bank for Westchester, Midnight Run, and SHORE (Sheltering the Homeless is Our Responsibility).