Book Review: What’s My Zip Code – by David Stringer

He was a friend of mine.

John Stringer was 52 years old when he was murdered in a roach-infested, filthy apartment in Phoenix on February 25, 2004. Between spring 1981 and fall 1983, I built about ten houses in Fountain Hills, Arizona, and during that time John worked with me almost daily, including weekends, with occasional breaks of a few weeks at a time between projects.

If John’s life were equated to one 24-hour day, my time with him would have been from two to three o’clock in the afternoon, nothing before and only one single meeting after. So I have a very narrow albeit extensive time slot in John’s life, and I can picture him clearly and vividly as he was in the early 1980-ies.

What’s My Zip Code is a superb chronology, analysis and celebration of John’s life, told by his older brother David. It gave me a view into John’s background before I knew him, as a carefree jock in his school years, his college years when he started getting goofy, his early travels and move to Phoenix, where I eventually got to know him. Those were the good years. Then the book described him after my time, the time I was worried about for John, when I was wondering what might have happened to him. I had no idea how bad it got, how stark-raving-mad he was toward his middle age, battling paranoia and psychosis and whipped by terrible drug habits.

David interspersed plenty of letters and passages of letters John wrote to friends and family over the years to provide glimpses into a severely ill mind, along with narration focusing on the various major subjects and periods of John’s life. At the end, the book provided me with an excellent insight into the dynamics of the Stringer family as it related to their black sheep and youngest member, and it illustrated the almost heroic efforts his older siblings made, year after year to help him out, keep him grounded, make him better and make him more comfortable, against terrible odds.

I was grateful for the insight. I had always wondered how John got the way he was. I knew he had done damage to his brain and his mind by using a lot of drugs in his younger years. I had held up John’s image to myself as the archetype of what can go wrong when using drugs. But I never knew exactly what happened. John was very closed about his past. I clearly remember one time when we were working, he was mixing cement in a wheelbarrow while I was laying foundation block and he told me about having a brother who was a high school teacher [David]. He laughed after the statement, inappropriately as he often laughed. He was very private and sharing facts about his family is something he did not do very often.

When reading David’s book I saw him describing some of the habits of John I knew so well. The dark, handsome face, seemingly painfully shy, eyes always averted, looking down, and his huge bright smile when he enjoyed something. I think John could not look people he considered authorities into the eyes, which included me, his employer, and of course his brothers, counselors, police, etc. He was different with friends and equals. He would be stooped, looking down, smiling crooked, shuffling his feet back and forth and occasionally making wise-cracks indicating a much higher intelligence than the almost retarded look he sometimes projected, particularly toward strangers.

David described a John that was completely unstable, unemployable, a perfect victim and impossible to reign in. During the short window I had into John’s life, I did not have that view at all. Perhaps I was lucky to know him before his schizophrenia rampaged. While I knew John, during those two years, I would often pick him up at home, which was the hovel on 24th Street at the time, or he would drive to the construction sites in his yellow VW bug and we’d meet up there. We would often start work very early at 5:00am, and work until early afternoon. Since I was going to college at the time, we’d often work weekends and take a weekday off. Many periods we worked seven days a week.

Contrary to the picture David seems to have of John’s employability, here are the unequivocated facts while I worked with him: Not once in the years we worked together did John not show up for work. He was always on time. Not once do I remember him ever complaining about work, or walking away, or not doing the job. He may have done drugs after work, but I never once saw any evidence of drugs on the job, not one joint was ever smoked while we worked, there was never alcohol. John never appeared impaired, numb, hung over or otherwise in any trouble. He operated power tools all the time. He was up on roofs and I never worried about him or his balance. He would measure and cut lumber accurately and reliably as called for. He worked at a steady pace. I paid him more than other helpers because over the months he simply was more experienced and he could work more independently than others.

David talked about John working from time to time as a carpenter with a man named Rayjan. Eventually they had a falling out, partly because of John’s odd habits, apparently living behind Rayjan’s house and scaring his wife. Rayjan eventually threatened to beat him up, at times.

I do not know where in the chronology Rayjan fit in John’s life with respect to my years with John. It looks like he came later, and John used some of the skills he learned from me when working for Rayjan.

I can firmly say that John was employable, productive, steady and dependable when certain conditions were met. I do agree that the conditions are tough to meet, and John didn’t have the luxury of those conditions very often in his life. His employer or team leader needed to understand John and respect him. This was a college-educated, bright and fun-loving human being, and he needed to be treated that way. John needed a firm hand of leadership. He needed to be told to be there at 5:00am, and he was there, without fail. John needed rules, reasonable rules, and he had no problem living within them. John was an easy victim. He was good, he wanted to help, he could not say no, and therefore he attracted riff-raff who abused him all the time. A boss or employer who was out to abuse John would do so and quickly lose him. In addition to being his boss, I acted as a friend and protector (sometimes from others on the crew) and John, as a result, respected me and was ever loyal. While it lasted, we had a good thing going and it worked, for me and for John.

Like all good things, it had to end. I graduated from college, took a job as a computer programmer and stopped doing construction. I had no more work for John. I had an uneasy feeling about leaving John. David’s book showed it got worse, much worse than I would ever have fathomed. We stopped working together sometime late in 1983. I saw him once more in California in the early 1990-ies. He died in 2004,  and I didn’t even find out about it until 2011 – by stumbing upon David’s writings online when I, on a whim, Googled “John Stringer.”

This was an excellent book for me.

Rating: ****

Of course, anyone knowing John will want to read What’s My Zip Code, there is no question. I am grateful to David for writing it. It is a celebration of an utterly unique individual.

I cannot imagine how What’s My Zip Code would seem to somebody who did not know John personally and if the book would be as readable as it was for me. Probably not. But the powerful images coming through the pages, the filling in of all the dark and blind spots and blanks that only a brother could provide who was there all these years watching it first hand was eminently valuable to me.

Thanks, David.

John was a friend of mine.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: What’s My Zip Code – by David Stringer

  1. Eric Petrie

    Norbs, do you know how rare it is to have an old friend die young, and then have his brother publish a book about it?

    And speaking of which, when are you going to publish a book? It is not that much different from writing regularly in a blog–just all the entries have to be related. Or at least that is what they tell me.

    1. I agree on point 1: Due to the diligent work of the Stringer family and his brother’s tireless efforts, John is becoming one of the most well known drifters in the country – possibly with the exception of the guy who got a gig with voice recording companies recently through YouTube.

      Me and a book: That would be work. Actually, one of the fundamental issues with my blog is that I don’t restrict myself to topics and I can go anywhere I want. This limits the usability to those that have a personal interest, like probably you. The hits I get here seem to be about two thirds search terms from all over the place, and about one third steady readers. It takes a long time to build readership.

      About a book: I am not focused and interested enough in any one topic to put one together, I think.

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