John Stringer is Dead

John Stringer worked with me in Phoenix, Arizona between 1981 and 1983. I was building houses from scratch in Fountain Hills, Arizona, as the leader of a small crew. I had a few reliable helpers. John was one of the most steady and reliable construction helpers I ever worked with.

He was maybe five years older than I, about 30 at the time, handsome, dark featured and dark-haired, with a good, strong body and a bright mind. But there was something seriously wrong with John. He didn’t look people in the eye. His posture was stooped forward, eyes downcast, like an extremely shy person. His handshake was limp. He lived with a few losers in a hovel in east Phoenix. There was something helpless about him, something child-like. He was never angry, never mad, always funny in his own way. I knew he was bright, that was obvious from just talking to him. I never got to the bottom of it, since we didn’t socialize outside of work. Rumor had it that he had a degree in anthropology from Amherst. That did not surprise me. I always suspected that he simply had done too many drugs. Once I remember his saying that he took LSD daily for years. That would do it, I always thought.

John was unemployable. Just like John was unable to take care of himself. Yet, he never missed a day of work. I would drive my truck by his house at 5 or 6 in the morning in the Arizona summers, and I would not have to honk. He would come right out and we would ride to Fountain Hills together. He always packed his own lunch and water, he was always prepared for a full day’s work. John was the most reliable helper I ever had. He learned fast, and he did things right. He mixed concrete and mortar by hand. He tossed clay tiles up to the roof by the hundreds. He cut boards and plywood during framing. He painted, dug ditches, did whatever I asked him to. After I showed him something once, he knew it after that and was able to hit the ground running on the next house.

Nobody understood John and nobody could work with him. But I did, and we were a perfect team. John blossomed while he was with me. He drove a little yellow VW bug and he fixed it up with nice lamb skin seat covers saying: “Now that I have this steady job I can afford to put some money in my car and make it nice.”

A few times he would ask for time off (while we were between houses) and I would later find out he had ridden his bicycle from Phoenix to Connecticut to see “his folks.” That was just something John would do. It did not surprise me at all.

I liked John, and while he was with me, I protected him. He was one of  the most loyal people I have ever known. Sometimes I likened him to a dog. John was like a human German Shepherd, and I say that not with a derogatory connotation, but with one of honor and loyalty. John knew I was his friend and protector, and he would have done anything I could have asked him. He would never have left me. Rather, it was me that left him.

While working construction, I was going to college for computer science, and by the beginning of 1984, I took full-time work as a computer programmer at Ticketmaster, got married, and stopped working construction. John was on his own again, and deep down I knew that he’d never make it. Eventually I moved to San Diego. In about 1989 or 1990, when our kids were little, he once showed up at the door. I think the took the Greyhound to find me. I suspect he was hoping that I would be able to do something for him, perhaps get him work. But my life had changed and I had no work and no place for him. After a few days of staying with us he left again. I don’t remember the circumstances, but it was the last time I ever saw him or heard of him.

As the Internet came around, I would search for his name occasionally, but nothing would show up.

I missed him from time to time. Sometimes I’d dream that I had bought a large estate-like property and John would be the caretaker, living in the back in the caretaker house. He could have done all the gardening, kept the cars clean, helped with errands around the house, done the grocery shopping, the laundry, anything that needed doing. We could have grown old together, and I would never have regretted having John around. But that is not how it turned out.

Today I found this article about my old friend John Stringer. I am saddened.  John was killed, surrounded by squalid conditions, in Phoenix in 2004, just before his brother arrived to “take him away” with him. It looks like things went just like I thought they would. I was part of his life only for a few years. John may not have found many people outside of his family who saw the jewel in him. He was left to a life of drifting, swooping down amongst his loved ones now and then over the years, only to disappear again into the slums of Phoenix, where he was at the mercy of friends, and sometimes of abusers. It does not surprise me that he spent years sleeping under freeway bridges. John was a German Shepherd, but one without an owner, and he had to fend for himself in the urban wilderness and brutality of the big city.

John was a young man of promise, as the Amherst article shows, before something went very wrong early in his life. I know now that John is dead, so I won’t wonder about him anymore. But I still miss him as a most unusual friend.

3 thoughts on “John Stringer is Dead

  1. Mary Haupt

    I haven’t thought of John for many years. I remember his wide smile and darting eyes, his childlike joy and scattered thinking. He was a likable, mild teddy bear that I felt could turn wild at any moment. When he showed up on our doorstep looking for work, we had two small children and I didn’t feel comfortable having him there. I wished we could have helped him more. This news of his death is sad and tragic. Thank you Norb for writing this thoughtful tribute to John. I hope you send it to his brother David.

  2. Yes, I connected with David and I will buy the book when it comes out. John’s story is as tragic of that of Chris McCandless, the hapless hero of Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild.”

  3. Eric Petrie

    Well, I would say that John Stringer lives, in a way, in this portrait. I never knew a thing about him until I read your account, but it’s as if I had met him.

    I am struck by the difference between your story and the Amherst article. In the article, they make John out to be the typical independent individual who cannot conform to society’s rules. You say that, too. But the picture of an ordered life, and of friendship, and loyalty that he had with you is missing from the long Amherst description of John Stringer.

    Your story is more sad, because you shared a happy time of loyal friendship with him. It’s moving.

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