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A Second Chance In 'Winter'

For millions of New Yorkers, Grand Central Terminal is simply a place to catch a train. But, for more than 10 years, one man called it "home."

Lee Stringer chronicles his life and observations as a homeless crack addict in his new book, Grand Central Winter, reports CBS 'This Morning' Co-Anchor Mark McEwen.

Stringer, 47, grew up in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He says he was always confused about who he was: poor, on welfare, and black in a overwhelmingly white upper-middle-class suburb. He was not a great student and could not afford college. After taking a course in camera operating at a trade school, he was hired - and fired - by television stations in Detroit and Dallas.

He returned to New York, where he found work writing copy and doing graphic design. The high point for him was his ad in Women's Wear Daily for bra cups: "This summer throw that bra away."

He became homeless in 1985, a year after his younger brother died, "probably of AIDS." A drinking buddy offered him crack cocaine to smoke. He writes that it felt like "success, love, orgasm, omnipotence, immortality, and winning the lottery all rolled into one." But, after a couple of minutes, he crashed: "It's like death."

Stringer and subway cars (CBS)
After months of chasing the high, he lost his job, quit paying rent on his Upper East Side apartment, and was evicted. He spent the next 10 years migrating from street to park to Grand Central Terminal. He spent some time in what he calls a "prison-like [homeless] shelter."

What was it like to live in Grand Central? "Hot in the summer, cold in the winter," Stringer tells McEwen, "But it beat sleeping on the sidewalk."

He collected cans to make money, often raising $40-$70 per day for crack and food. ("It was probably nine parts crack and one part food," Stringer says.) He would go up and down the empty train cars to find the cans. After a while, the cleaning guys gave him a key to the train. "It made their job easier if I would carry off all the cans before they got to work," Stringer explains.

When he wanted to sleep, he would sneak into Grand Central, jump down to the tracks, and squeeze through a little metal door into a cubbyhole, where he had blankets, clothes, candles, and old paperbacks that were left by commuters on the trains.

One day, while cleaning out his crack pipe, he realized the instrument he was using was a pencil, and he was a writer. He started scribbling like crazy and soon found a forum in Street News, a weekly newspaper. Stinger's writing began appearing frequently and eventually he was writing most of the copy, including two weekly columns, Ask Homey and Tails From The Rails.

According to The New York Times, Janet Alon, the former editor of Street News, remembers him as "a crackhead with a conscience, at times brilliant and at times totally unreliable and infuriating."

Stringer at his old "home" (CBS)
Stringer's luck changed in 1994, when a subway train carrying Daniel Simon, the publisher of Seven Stories Press, stalled between stops. He read a copy of Street News cover to cover. He ended up calling the offices of Street News (where Stringer was sleeping on the couch) to compliment the writer.
With a book contract and a $3,000 advance, Stringer spent the money on crack, having the biggest party of his life. But then he realized that he could not continue writing if he was on drugs. So he enrolled himself in a drug treatment program, which took 18 months to complete. After that, he was able to write the book.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote the foreword to Grand Central Winter, and Stringer says he's "tickled pink" that Vonnegut admires his work. He has a contract to write another book, and has moved back to Mamaroneck, where he lives with his mother.