Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

For spare change, a touch of poetry

Injured in failed suicide attempt, he does what he can to survive

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Larry Klippenstein was seeking salvation when he flung himself out a window on the top floor of a homeless shelter.

He'd planned his suicide carefully, checking into the Salvation Army facility with the sole intent of ending up dead on the sidewalk outside.

When he took flight, as his body hurtled toward the pavement, he was certain he was ridding himself of his demons and going home to the Lord.

He was saved -- but not in the manner he'd so deliberately planned.

On March 2, 2004, Larry Klippenstein was taken, crumpled and broken, from the pavement. He'd spend nearly a year in hospital recovering as best he could from a shattered pelvis, badly fractured lower legs and permanent nerve damage.

He flew -- and would never walk again.

But Klippenstein, raised a devout Christian and touched with madness, was destined for another reincarnation. He metamorphosed into a street poet, a bearded, wild-haired figure in a cheap wheelchair offering his words in exchange for coins tossed in a plastic pail.

Some consider him a prophet and a hero.

Klippenstein thinks of himself as a busker, no different than someone who plays guitar on the street or juggles to entertain a crowd. His gift to the public is lines scrawled on a page. Passersby can take it or leave it, he says.

"I'm doing this because I don't have an adequate source of income," says the 36-year-old, encased in a parka that is more duct tape than fabric.

"I was looking for a way to supplement my income."

You can measure the distance from Klippenstein's upbringing in Niverville to his patch on the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street in more than miles.

It's hard to know when his grip on mental health became tenuous, why a move to Winnipeg as a young adult caused him to solicit sex-trade workers, why that choice led him to make a valiant attempt to end his life.

He speaks slowly, intelligently. Sometimes he drifts off into silence. He refuses medication for what he says was a diagnosis of psychosis.

"I have not had a single positive experience on medication," he says. "I'm not a fan of chemicals that mess with your mind."

He blames many of his problems on a dispute with a rental agency. He still pays rent on an apartment where he's no longer welcome, partially so he can have a legal address and partially so he can continue to pursue his case against the agency in front of anyone who will listen.

He's not strictly homeless, living in an apartment provided by an evangelical church. It's not very wheelchair-friendly, he says. Klippenstein wears plastic kneepads, the kind you'd put on a young skateboarder, for the times he has to crawl.

His income, other than the $10 or so a day he makes as a street poet, is a $750-a-month disability pension.

"Everybody deserves to be able to survive. If you can do that within the boundaries of the law, more power to you."

As easy as Klippenstein is to ignore, the street poet has some ardent fans.

On a cool weekday afternoon, Susan Michaels races over to him. He'd written her a poem about faith a few days earlier. She was so moved she recopied his words onto a beautiful card which she hands to him along with a crisp $20 bill.

"I thought it was just awesome," says the middle-aged woman. "I've been a Christian all my life and the way he put that into words was beautiful. I think we could all learn something from Larry."

She beams at him.

He tucks the money inside his shapeless sweater, fiddles with glasses held together with tape, looks off into the distance. If he's moved by her reaction it doesn't register on his face.

Klippenstein will write poems on requested topics or just invent something for a customer. It doesn't matter if people like his work or they don't.

What matters is that he's made his peace with his failed suicide attempt. Most days he's glad he didn't succeed.

Those demons still haunt him. He's estranged from his family, living on the narrow margins of society and refusing medical treatment for his illness.

But Larry Klippenstein has the power and the soul to bring a grown woman to tears, to tell him he has helped her understand the inexplicable. Maybe he was saved for a reason.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2009 A4

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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