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December 26, 1985
They're at end of track

by Adam Nagourney
In the end, when life among the down and out in Grand Central Terminal finally killed her on Christmas Day, the woman known as "Mama" was left only with a soiled pink dress, a gray coat and the purple scarf that was a holiday gift from charity. She had no name, no home, and no one to claim her body.

As far as anyone was concerned, it was as if Mama had appeared out of nowhere a year or two ago on a hard wooden bench in the terminal waiting room.

For the other 300 "residents" of the railroad terminal, Mama's death meant a few exciting moments before the television cameras followed by a swift return to the anonymous reality of their day-to-day existence.

By day, they live on the benches in the waiting room, scurrying along when Metro-North cops come by rapping their nightsticks and ordering them out. They panhandle cigarets and money and share wine and marijuana. They know the exact times -- 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. -- when the charity groups show up with food.

When the cops lock up the terminal at 1:30 a.m., some head to the city shelters. But most -- rejecting the city shelters as dangerous and degrading -- stay on the streets or sleep on the grates and by the steam tunnels three or four levels under the city in the labyrinth under Grand Cetnral Terminal.

"It's like they dropped out of the blue," said Fred Griesbach, director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Life in the terminal means learning how to ward off other destitute people looking to rip them off and keeping ahead of the Metro-North cops.

Early one morning two weeks ago, said George McDonald, an advocate for the homeless, he was visiting the terminal with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau when they saw Metro-North maintenance workers chaining open three sets of doors to the concrete subway ramp where many terminal residents -- including Mama -- went to sleep.

Many then wandered into the steam tunnels, deep beneath the terminal. Yesterday, in a nook far above one set of tracks two levels below the station, makeshift beds of cardboard and dirty sheets were laid over metal grates on the tracks.

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