SKID ROW Ė U.S.A.
By WILLIAM J. SLOCUM
he author of this two part article traveled 8,000 miles to get a close-up of Skid Row, U.S.A. Every city and town with a population of 5,000 or more has its own human jungle. Crumbling tenements and filthy alleys mark the end of the road for thousands of Americans. Part 1 dealt with the way vagrants go about getting a drink, a flop or an occasional stake. But what is society doing to rehabilitate these men?
Perhaps youíll recognize one of your old friends or schoolmates on this tour through the jungles of our cities. Skid Row is an open jail for men whose only crime may be poverty or loneliness
PART ONE OF TWO PARTS
I have just traveled 8,000 miles, groping my way through the missions, saloons and flophouses of a dark and sometimes dank jungle known as skid row. I saw thousands of men, most of them drunk, half of them dirty, and all of them beaten by life. I talked, drank, ate and sang hymns with them. I had some small adventures, too, which werenít very important. What might be important though, is that I probably met someone you have known.
If you went to Perdue, Villanova, the Haskell School for Indians, or to Heidelberg in Germany, it may be that I crossed paths with an old classmate of yours. Or, if you are a doctor of medicine with a wide acquaintanceship, it is possible my roommate in Kansas City counted you a friend. He and I shared a six-by-four chamber with a crate full of chickens.
If you are a pampered hambone living in Hollywood, come along with me; step into your chartreuse convertible, drive down to Fifth Street in Los Angeles and park outside the blood bank. Sooner or later youíll see him, and perhaps recognize him. He gets $4 a pint for his blood, a sum which is immediately translatable into a couple of gallons of muscatel.
Are you a member in good standing of the Officersí Club? Then, try Congress Avenue in Houston. You may recognize the man I saw there. He was a lieutenant colonel, up from the ranks, sir. Or check Clark Street in Chicago for a West Pointer, or Howard Street in San Francisco for an Annapolis man.
Did you know a linguist? Scout the Madison Street jungle in Chicago. Because a derelict there surprised a cop by speaking to him in Gaelic. An assistant stateís attorney got Italian from him. Later he lapsed into Chinese. A Greek lawyer, called in, said his Greek was good. "Sure, he could get by," the lawyer explained. "You see, he doesnít speak modern Greek much. Just classical Greek."
This man wonít be hard to find. Heís a Negro.
I traveled 8,000 miles before I met somebody I knew myself. I ran into a schoolmate on the corner of Stanton Street and the Bowery in New York at seven fifty one morning. (A saloon on Stanton Street hands out "coffee and " each morning when the doors are opened at 8:00 A.M.) My old schoolmate was waiting. He laughed when he saw me and said, "youíre getting fat. You drink too much beer." Meeting him cost $5.
I started this tour of Skid Row in Chicago where I met Captain Joseph Graney of the Desplaines Street Police Station. The captain made me a little bet.
"If youíre going all over the country to look at Skid Row Iíll lay you 15 to 5 you meet an old friend," he predicted. "And Iíll tell you something else. Youíll meet guys who talk better than you, think better than you, and dress better than you. But you just wonít meet anybody as lucky as you."
The captain was right on all counts.
Alcohol: the Cause or the Result?
Skid Row is the end of the road for thousands of Americans. It is a jungle of crumbling tenements, twisted shacks and filthy alleys. It is an open jail for men who are guilty of no greater crime than being poor, or not getting along with their wives, or just being lonesome. Sure, many drink, but no man can honestly say whether alcohol is the cause or the result of their hopelessness.
Skid Rows are at their gaudiest in big cities, but if there are 5,000 or more people in your town, chances are you have a Skid Row of sorts. You think not? How about that part of the city where the neíer-do-wells gather-a couple of drunks, the old panhandler, the shiftless handy man, the fellow who never amounted to much after the war (pick your own war) and the village idiot? Thatís Skid Row.
If you live in a big city you know the place. In New York itís the Bowery, biggest and cruelest of them all. Chicago has two small Rows plus bloodstained Madison Street. There is also Howard Street in gracious San Francisco, the dirtiest, drinkingest and most depressing thoroughfare in the land. In Los Angeles itís Fifth Street off South Main where the bartenders direct you to the nearest blood bank when you run out of money and need some quick cash.
Proud and booming Houston has its Congress Avenue where the bums try to talk like Gene Autry, try to look like him, and never spill a grain of tobacco as they roll their own with quivering hands. In Kansas City, the flophouses on Main Street and the tin-can shacks on the banks of the Missouri have at one time or another housed a great Middle Western brain surgeon, a millionaire'í son, a farm equipment engineer who was the best man in his business, and wonder of wonders, Missouri's leading madam.
Dungarees or blue jeans are the traditional uniform of Skid Row, but a neatly dressed man excites no interest. He can be a sightseer, a businessman off on a bender, or one of the highly prosperous gentlemen who run the saloons, flophouses, barber colleges, pawnshops or two-bit movie houses that infest the jungle.
The saloons sell 10-cent gin at a profit. Barber colleges are numerous because there are always plenty of men in the neighborhood who are willing to shed a few drops of blood in return for a free shave. The two-bit movie houses provide a comfortable place to sleep despite the endless gunfire exploding from the sound tracks of the old Westerns that are Skid Rowís customary cinema fare.
I spent a month on the Skid Rows of the nation and visited all these exotic hangouts of the unlucky and the unwary. I also visited a quiet old building on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut. In it work some of the brilliant and consecrated men who are devoting their lives to studying alcoholism. If anything is to be done for Skid Row bums, the whys and wherefores of drunkenness must first be understood. The men at the Yale Clinic are trying.
To the vast majority of people liquor is refreshment, a part of good and congenial living. And wine, always more exotic than the hard stuff, recalls the warmth, the richness and the good taste suggested by its historic use in religious ceremony.
Thatís what alcohol generally means to most of us. But to the 90 per cent of the Skid Row population who are chronic drunks, alcohol-in any form-is the be-all and end-all of their sordid existence. It is pursued as other men seek fame, fortune or the third blonde from the end.
The other 10 per cent live there for financial reasons, usually because their earnings or their pensions permit nothing better. Some are ducking alimony payments or more serious complications. Others simply are misers. Many old-timers eke out their last days in fleabags because they can fins companionship there without the regimentation to be faced in the Old Folks Home.
But the typical Skid Row bum will drink anything. Three Chicago policemen, planted inside a stolen automobile in a garage, watched one bum tap an engine and then lie on his back to catch the spouting antifreeze alcohol. Rubbing alcohol and other forms distilled from wood are diluted or "cut" to make "smoke," a universal Skid Row drink.
Bay run, hair tonic and canned heat are also widely used. The solid canned heat is reduced to liquid by putting it in a piece of thin cloth and then squeezing it. The resulting poison is known among the cognoscenti as a "Pink Lady."
Death or blindness is the frequent end result of this kind of drinking. As a minor note in a major tragedy, "smoke," "Pink Ladies" and the like do not produce the sense of well-being common to accepted alcoholic drinks. They merely numb, render unconscious and perhaps bring on death.
An oft-used drink along Skid Row, however, is wine. Fortified wines. They run slightly over 20 per cent alcohol and are therefore about half the strength of a shot of whisky.
There is a popular police theory across the nation that the "winos" (or "wineeos" as some Chicagoans call them) will drink fortified wines because they keep a man drunk longer. The winos disagree. I was told at least a hundred times in response to my question, "I drink wine because I canít afford whisky." When a Skid Row bum does have a stake he drinks hard liquor.
The business of getting drunk starts with the dawn. The haggard man walks around with one hand outstretched. In that hand is a nickel or a dime. He hails each passing comrade with "I got a dime." The other in turn sings back how much he has. They join forces and continue the search for a third and fourth, or until they have among them enough to get a bottle.
There are certain customs and etiquettes observed. The largest contributor usually gets the first drink, but after that it is rotation drinking without regard to contribution. If two men have enough to buy a pint they will do so, but not three. Three will wait until they have a fourth, and perhaps even a fifth man, in order to get a larger bottle. A non-contributor often can get a drink. However, custom limits him to just one, unless he has spent the night in jail. He may then join the rotation. These gentle rules apply everywhere except in New York. There, Bowery protocol is: No money, no drink.
Shelter is a distant second need to alcohol in the Skid Row pattern. Food is a bad third. Even in the mildest of weather the bum wants a bed or, as he calls it, a "flop." He knows he must sleep and his need for a bed is one per cent comfort and 99 per cent sheer survival. If he sleeps in a park or an alley he can reasonably expect to have his shoes stolen and his pockets sliced out of his pants. He will be too drunk either to know or to resist.
Many Names for Flophouses
he commonest of Skid Row shelters are the flophouses. The entrepreneurs of these substandard stables prefer to call their hostelries "lodging houses." The clients of the "lodging-houses" prefer such basic descriptive terminology as "fleabag," "scratch house," "flop-house" and a long series of accurate, but unprintable names. Prices vary slightly the country over, but the difference is not great. In general a dormitory cot costs a quarter and a private room usually sets a guest back about a half dollar.
The private rooms, called "bird cages," are six feet by four feet and contain a bed and locker. The walls are built at least two feet short of the ceiling, and wire netting stretches across the top of each cell. This netting is a ventilating device, and as the evening wears on, ventilation progressively becomes less of a blessing.
Each floor of a flophouse has a few "suites." These are rooms which have windows. They rent for 15 or 20 cents more than the regular rooms. They also have electric lights, a rarity in the majority of lodging houses.
Many flophouses are patent firetraps. New York and Chicago recently cracked down on the proprietors. But they remain firetraps, nevertheless.
Anybody (male) gets into a flophouse by plopping down the necessary fee and muttering a name to the clerk. The clerk tosses the guest a key and scribbles down his interpretation of the name.
All you get for your money is a flop. If you smoke you get tossed out. If you have a visitor in your room you both get thrown out. If you make any noise (Not uncommon when you go to bed with a jug) you get the heave-ho. Seldom does anybody get his money back when evicted.
Credit regulations are basic the country over. There is no credit except for the steadiest customers and pensioners. A steady customer is defined as a man in residence for more than six years. He can expect two nightsí lodging on credit, then out he goes. The pensioner gets a better break simply because his check comes to the hotel, and the management forces him to endorse it on the spot. These rare courtesies are likely to be withdrawn immediately if the recipient forgets to tip the clerk. Strangely, the itinerant guests invariably tip the clerk a nickel or a dime.
Some Skid Row bums, usually pensioners, live in the same flophouse 15 and 20 years. Two of the Four Horsemen gallop the corridors of the nationís fleabags 24 hours a day. The ambulance and the hearse are almost as common as the patrol wagon which makes regular rounds picking up drunks out of the gutters.
It is impossible to get statistics on the Skid Row death rate but Chicago, whose Skid Row population varies seasonably between 7,000 (spring and summer) and 15,000 (winter), reported last winter that 50 corpses a month are found in the Skid Row area. Another 50 persons are removed from Skid Row to die in hospitals.
Missions sometimes have dormitories and "bird cages." The missions are cleaner and invariably more expensive than a hotel flop. They are not popular with Skid Row bums because their admittance requirements are higher than the flophouses.
In many cities there are also dilapidated rooming houses which usually cater to a reasonably permanent clientele. A lady in Kansas City runs one which has eight pensioners. None of the guests has seen his check in months. She handles everything.
When a Skid Row bum is without a flop for the night he "is carrying the banner." When he is tormented with a hang-over that screams for a nerve placating drink he is "sick." A bum who says he is "sick" or "carrying the banner" can be certain of relief from his fellow bums if among them they can dig up the necessary funds.
Soup and coffee are the staple items of a Skid Row diet. Where prices are high (40 to 50 cents for a portion of meat scraps, potatoes and all the bread without butter you can eat) a regular meal comes close to costing as much as it would in a modest restaurant located in a poor section of town.
Chicago and New York fit this category. But wherever a man can get meat and potatoes for about a quarter, as he can in Kansas City and Los Angeles, it sometimes seems to me that he could do better to get his nourishment from wine. Such restaurants are called "horse markets" by their suspicious customers.
Chef Earns All He Gets
A restaurant on Madison Street in Chicago pays its Skid Row chef $150 a week and he is worth it. A strange characteristic of Skid Row restaurants everywhere is their attitude on cleanliness. They are either unspeakably filthy or as spotless as a hospital operating room. They all specialize in the cheapest and most obscure cuts of meat, and their prices vary in each city.
Missions hand out doughnuts and coffee in the morning and soup and coffee at night. But when a man eats in a mission he has been broke and hungry a long, long time. A few saloons give their regular customers coffee and cake in the morning. And soup is occasionally doled out in the afternoon. But the saloon usually uses only three or four bowls at a time, so the bums must wait while the early comers empty and clean a dish.
Free soup and coffee are always a miracle in alchemy. Somehow the cooks manage to water down the water.
The citizen of Skid Row has the same need-if not the same lust-for money that distinguishes his more normal brother. And he gets it precisely the same way. He works for it, has it given to him or he steals it. Skid Row seems to be evenly divided among those who wonít work and those who canít work.
Panhandling is a prime source of revenue in any jungle. Sometimes itís plain begging, but more often the price of a pint is earned through devices such as peddling pencils, shoelaces, and the like. The "lumbermen" or crutch carrying cripples can beg $30 a day with ease. However, when one has made a $5 stake he simply calls it a day and heads for a package store. The bums have learned that, for some reason, a young man on crutches does better financially than an older person. All begging is risky business because the police are wont to discourage it with controlled violence, but they dare not touch a cripple.
Beggars hang together in groups of four of five. Frequently only one of the gang will work a full day while the others loaf. Each man simply takes his turn.
Meet Trampdomís Upper Crust
The gandy-dancers are the Skid Row aristocracy. They work for the railroads, laying track, grading roadbeds and digging drainage ditches. Their name is derived from the rhythmical movement they once made as they tamped gravel and cinders tightly around railroad ties. They worked in pairs, bobbing up and down. Modern machinery has made this type particular type of work extinct, but there is other heavy labor easily worth the standard $1.06 to $1.09 per-hour rate. That shoots up two cents per hour when the gandy-dancer has a year or more of continuous service, a most unlikely eventuality.
The gandy-dancer usually works from May 1st to November 30th. During this period he frequently leaves Skid Row and lives in work camps where he must pay for inferior food and bad lodging. At the typical camp the tab varies from 65 cents per meal to $2.93 a day. He works six, but pays room and board for seven days. Many railroads maintain labor offices on Skid Row. Others contract for help through commissary agents who supply the men and feed and board them. The agentsí profits comes out of the food and lodging bill.
A gandy-dancer is entitled to unemployment benefits from the railroads based upon how much money he makes. These benefits, plus local unemployment relief, help see him through the winter, or as he says, "Keep me safe to Paddyís Day." A few gandy-dancers, as soon as they hit town, will pay their flophouse rent in advance for December 1st to St. Patrickís Day. Most of them are lucky if they have a nickel left a week after they come in from the camps. Agents say 70 per cent of the men stay at work throughout the season.
From my own observations, I doubt it by 70 per cent of their estimated 70 per cent.
Many go out to pick fruits or vegetables. This is piecework and those who have the strength and the necessary manual agility can make as much as $12 a day. The food is always better than the railroad camps provide and is frequently excellent by any standards. Labor agencies are numerous in Skid Row and help supply agricultural workers.
It is an accepted custom for a man to sign on as a gandy-dancer so he will be shipped close to the Connecticut tobacco fields or the California vegetable crops. Then he jumps the railroad and justifies it, if he bothers, because of the bad food and dirty living quarters that seem to be part of the railroad camps.
When a man comes back from a period of gandy-dancing or an agricultural job with a couple of hundred dollars in his pockets, he wants a shoeshine. A bootblack on Kansas Cityís Skid Row told me, "Iíve shined shoes that didnít have any soles on Ďem. They always throw you a half buck. If they have any money, theyíll get a shine three or four times a day. I donít know why but they all love to get their shoes shined."
The shoes may be polished in a bar- room and often a man who is flush will leave his wad with the bartender. He may or may not drink it all up in a night. Obviously no man can drink $200 worth of two-for-a-quarter whisky in a single evening but there are repeated rounds of drinks for the house. And the bartender usually keeps tab with equal abandon.
Men who want a dayís work will gather at a rendezvous point in Skid Row to be picked up each morning by independent truckers. The pay is usually a dollar an hour and no Skid Row laborer will accept hire from an employer who insists upon withholding taxes. He wants $8 for eight hours and the trucker can pay the government anything Uncle Sam has coming. This work is as unpopular as it is arduous, so four or five men will band together to take daily turns at working and each dayís $8 is divided among the group that night.
Most of the handbills distributed in any town are set out by Skid Row workers. To get around minimum-wage laws, an hour is not used as a unit of time in this industry. An hour is the duration it takes to distribute a specified number of handbills. In crowded areas an hour is equivalent to 125 deliveries; medium crowded itís 100; and sparsely settled suburbs are 75. Payment in this field seems to work out to around 35 cents an hour for a day'í work. But it can be a lot less.
The lowest form of Skid Row labor is bottle collecting. Men trudge around picking up empties which, by a custom which is nation-wide except in New York, are carefully lined up along the curbs for the convenience of the bottle-man. He gets a cent and a half for gallon jugs, a cent for quart bottles and a half cent for pints. And they must be wine bottles, because whisky bottles by law cannot be refilled.
Brisk Trade with Blood Banks
f you have ever been given plasma or serum you are closer to Skid Row than you think. Thousands of bums peddle their blood to legitimate banks, many of which are located in, or reasonably adjacent to, Skid Row. The price for a pint which is to be reduced to plasma is $4 in California and a little more in the East.
A blood donor is generally limited to five bleedings a year, but a man can go broke a lot more than five times during 12 long months. Records are kept, but identification is a haphazard thing on Skid Row. Arms are examined for recent punctures and in Los Angeles each donor has the fingers of his left hand painted with a compound which is not visible unless the hand is placed under a blue fluorescent lamp. It takes about eight weeks for this solution to disappear completely. I watched one bank turn away 32 men within two hours when the lamp showed telltale blue on their fingers. Recently, however, a Skid Row chemist discovered a solution that erases the stain within minutes.
Clear-blooded alcoholics from Skid Row make up the largest part of the nationís donor population. But their contributions mix easily with those from church groups giving blood for charity, or from young men who need the price of a few gallons of gas for an evening date, and from other young men who need money to buy mike for their babies. The blood banks in Los Angeles normally hit peak production just before Income Tax Day.
Pensions account for a large, if not the largest, portion of income. Most pensioners do not draw enough to allow better living standards.
The steel and concrete jungle is heavily populated with remittance men drawing small monthly checks from relatives and with Army and Navy pensioners. The retired servicemen are usually as drunk as anybody in the bar- room, but they are invariably immaculate.
One of the most extraordinary seminars I ever heard started in a Bowery saloon when one old gentleman complained of his rheumatism and said, "I can go up to the Old Soldiers Home. But I donít want to do that yet." He went on to say, "Thereís a law you know. No soldier of Uncle Sam can be a public charge."
General agreement was voiced and then a bleary old gent said, "You know, America is the greatest country in the world." This was immediately acknowledged as gospel by all and sundry and there began a round-table discussion among a half-dozen down-and-out hulks, each vying to add further vocal tribute to the land of opportunity.
There are a few women on Skid Row, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one explanation is that the weaker sex is made of sterner stuff. Another more obvious argument is that society just wonít allow a woman to sleep in the gutter. I saw a cripple fall and split his face wide open in front of Chicagoís Haymarket Theater and the box-office lady didnít pause a second in the job of applying her lipstick. But let a woman doze off in a hallway and the police station switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree. Almost invariably the calls are from indignant females.
The female Skid Row consists, obviously, of the bordellos of the land. But the inmates therein rarely wind up in the gutters. The mortality rate among prostitutes is high. But so, too, is the marriage rate. And when a girl finds she has to call quits to such a career she can always go home.
Few Women Among the "Down"
Traveling from New York to California and back, I saw four out-and-out Skid Row drunks of the opposite sex. I donít know how many thousands of alcoholic men I saw. The professional phrase for a bum who has dropped to the sidewalk is "down." I saw at least 500 males who were down during a month in the jungle, but just two females.
I did see perhaps 50 women who obviously lived on Skid Row. There are no flophouses available to them, so they live in tiny rooms. They are pensioners or beggars. A few shelters for women do exist, but they are expensive and the tenants are subject to expulsion if, after a 12-hour day of selling pencils, they so befoul themselves as to have a couple of glasses of beer.
Although Skid Row is almost completely free of sex, and few females are ever seen on it, women are a perpetual topic of conversation at the bars and over the tables in the flophouse lobbies. Almost all Skid Row bums insist that women put them where they are. At first I shrugged off that theory as an alibi. After a month of closer listening, however, I would suggest that any error is in the direction of understatement. In addition to the bums who are certain that women put them on Skid Row, there are others who unmistakably were driven there by women and donít realize it.
To clear up that last statement first: Policemen all over the country told me to look for the derelict who had been the "youngest son." He was not hard to find. He was, in fact, everywhere. He was the boy who had stayed home with Mother while the older brothers went out and got themselves set in business. When Mother died, the youngest was finally forced into a competitive world. Perhaps he started at the age of forty-about 22 years too late.
He stands alone, bereft of his motherís comfort and with a tight silver cord still tied around his hands and his brains. Whisky, he soon discovers, erases his fear, his confusion, and his humiliation. Soon he is on Skid Row. Quite frequently he is supported by checks from his older brothers who ask only that he stay to hell away from them.
He himself believes that heís on Skid Row because he couldnít get along with his family back in Des Moines. Heís there, of course, because his mother didnít give him the same break she gave his brothers.
"Too Much Mama" May Harm Son
A slight variation of the youngest son who stayed home with Mama is the case of the only son who did the same thing.
The Yale Plan Clinic is in the throes of conducting a survey which is not yet nearly complete. But the figures which have so far been compiled carry a tremendous impact. Mark Keller of the Yale Group has made the following statement on the basis of what has been learned so far:
"We are making a study on the subject. It is not yet complete but we now have statistics indicating that 40 per cent of alcoholics are either 'only children' or Ďyoungest.í Also, the more siblings older than the subject, the more likely he is to appear as an alcoholic." Siblings are brothers or sisters.
So much for Mama who is, after all, a woman. The most frequently recurring episode in the Skid Row story goes like this. The Hotel McCoy is the Grand Hotel of Chicagoís foul Madison Street Skid Row. It has 800 rooms divided among three floors, each cubicle measuring roughly four feet by six feet. Rates are 60 cents a day except for the rare rooms with windows. With ventilation the price jumps to 75 cents.
A handsome automobile halted before the McCoy and one of the two ladies in it daintily hailed a policeman.
"Officer," she said, "weíre afraid to go in there but we would like to see Mr. John Jones. Would you ask him to come out?"
The policeman entered and the clerk pointed out Mr. Jones who was quietly reading a comic book and enjoying a chew of tobacco. "Jones," said the policeman in the courtly manner of all Chicago cops, "thereís a couple of babes out there in a big car. They want to see you."
Jones, being on Skid Row and being in the presence of the law, cowered. "Do I have to go out?"
"Nope. But theyíre real rich looking kids. Furs and everything."
"Is there a redheaded old woman with them, Officer?"
"No. Just the two young ones."
Jones smiled and got up. "Okay. Letís go. Those are my daughters. But if that redheaded old bag of a mother of theirs is along, Iím running right back in here."
Jones, Skid Row bum but proud father, went out to meet his daughters. He was one of the vast army of men who have fled a nagging wife for the delights of an all-make Skid Row flop and some peace and quiet.
None of the men I met admitted his life had been blighted by a maiden who spurned his offer of matrimony. Nor did any charge infidelity on the part of their wives.
But the doting mother, and the nagging wife must take the blame for thousands who seek escape on Skid Row. Liquor, too, plays a heavy role here, of course, and no woman can be criticized for objecting if her husband is perpetually plastered. But, like the chicken and the egg, it would be interesting to know which came first.
What steps are being taken to wipe out Skid Row - U. S. A.? Next weekís installment exposes the inadequacies of our programs to help the unfortunate men who are Americaís living dead
Source: Collierís©, August 27, 1949
SKID ROW - U.S.A.
By WILLIAM J. SLOCUM
Within our cities there is a world of living dead where Lonely, despairing Americans seek escape from themselves
A weird little tale was recently unfolded in Chicago that somehow managed to encompass everything that goes to make up Skid Row, U.S.A. A bum was found dead in the Madison Street jungle and they carted his body off to the morgue. His pockets were crammed with identification, so officials were able to notify a Wisconsin family that their father had departed this world. The wife and a couple of daughters came on and identified the remains.
The body was taken back to Wisconsin and buried with full American Legion honors. A $1500 insurance policy was settled and all went well for two weeks. Then the family received a peremptory note from the morgue giving them 48 hours to claim Father or he would go to potterís field. The family, baffled by this development, came running to the Desplaines Street police station, which has jurisdiction over the Madison Street Skid Row.
Captain Joseph Graney quieted the woman and told them the morgue had originally made a mistake in concluding the body was that of their father, and the family had compounded the error by identifying the strange corpse. While the Captain was talking to the ladies, however, they showed him a picture of their father, taken a decade before. Captain Graney looked at the picture and bellowed, "I saw this same guy last night in front of the Star and Garter. He was plastered. Wait here a minute."
Graney hopped into a squad car. In five minutes he was back, dragging behind him a very live and reasonably sober gentleman. It was, indeed, Father himself. As soon as the initial shock had worn off Father spoke. "Fooled you, didnít I?" he gloated. "You thought I was dead, eh? Sorry to disappoint you." With that he made a vulgar noise in the direction of his wife and requested the captainís permission to return to the peace and quiet of his flophouse.
The possibility of intended fraud is remote and unimportant to this grisly anecdote which capsules so much of the Skid Roe story. Father did not merely dislike Mother. He hated her. Fatherís respectable family and his war record suggest he had not long been an anonymous alcoholic. Father had recently been "jack-rolled" while drunk and it is reasonable to suspect that the man who later died was the one who had picked his pockets. That would explain how Fatherís identification papers were found on the corpse.
One drunken derelict preying on another, sudden death and the completely broken family, these are Skid Row-the American jungle.
In New York, a Bowery tavern owner named Sammy Fuchs made an effort to do something to help the bums who wanted their relatives to be notified in case of death. From them he accepted envelopes which the bums numbered and sealed. Inside they put the names of their next of kin. Sometimes papers to be forwarded were included. The bums in turn carried little notes on their person reading: "In case of death tell Sammy Fuchs to open Envelope 17." Or Envelope 11, or whatever the identifying number would be.
"I sent off dozens of telegrams," Sammy told me. "I never looked at anything except the address. I know one envelope contained papers which were supposed to secure a big estate for a Skid Row womanís illegitimate son. She told me about it before she died and I hope the kid got it. I sent one telegram to a rich Pennsylvania banker to tell him his son rolled off an East River pier and drowned."
Early this year burglars broke into Sammyís saloon and carted off the safe which held the envelopes.
Sammy runs a Bowery saloon that has a dual personality. From 8:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. it is just another Skid Row dive. From 9:00 P.M. to 4:00 A.M. it becomes a sight-seeing mecca for thrill-hungry out-of-towners. The hour between eight and nine is used to clean the place up and create atmosphere by lining up prop Bowery characters. After nine oíclock ancient entertainers sing with great gusto, and a benevolent old man, well into his sixties, plays the meanest piano Iíve heard in a long time.
Experiments in Rehabilitation
Sammy has made an interesting experiment in rehabilitating Skid Road characters the country over. He straightens them out, buys them clothes, pays a monthís rent and gets them a job. He estimates it costs him about $350 per man to do a complete job. He has experimented thusly 18 times and claims four of his rehabilitation projects are still off Skid Row.
"You canít let Ďem live on Skid Row and expect Ďem to stay sober when they see all their friends drunk," says Fuchs.
Another Fuchs theory-"The only ones who have a chance to straighten out are the young ones"- is an opinion universally shared by policemen and judges all over the country. The scientists at the Yale Plan Clinic, where the problem is being studied carefully, confirm that they young are not beyond redemption, but in measured academic tones Yale suggests that Sammy, the cops and the judges are nuts. "A young alcoholic has very little reason to want to sober up," they point out. "He has never experienced the rewards of a normal life-family, children and a job."
According to Dr. Robert V. Seliger, first-rate psychiatrist and executive director of the National Committee on Alcohol Hygiene, Inc., 30 to 40 out of every 100 alcoholics may be helped back to health by modern psychiatric treatment. They are sick in the same way that a man may fall ill of pneumonia, or smallpox, or diabetes.
As Dr. Seliger points out, alcohol itself does not cause alcoholism. To the millions of Americans who drink regularly or occasionally without letting alcohol interfere with their lives, liquor is a refreshment, a part and a symbol of gracious living. But most alcoholics drink to excess seeking escape from emotional ills.
Missions do what they can to help the sick and despondent on Skid Row. They are everywhere there, beckoning all with signs of gold and blinking neon. But to the men on the rows, they represent only a place a man can get a soup, coffee and bread.
I entered a mission on Sunday afternoon. Services had started, but I was greeted by a preacher. "Welcome, brother," he said. "Get yourself a book."
I got a hymnal and took my place among 20 other men. Fifteen were Skid Row bums, clean, hung-over, shaking and miserable. The other five were well-dressed by any standards. Four were businessmen who had been saved from Skid Row. One was a visiting clergyman who had come to listen to the sermon.
We sang three hymns. Then the businessmen rose in turn to tell their stories. A sermon followed this, and when it was ended, the preacher asked whether anyone felt called upon to speak up. The room was redolent with the aroma of hot soup and coffee, and the hungry men were concentrating on that. There was no thought of talk.
We sang three more hymns and then it was time for grace. The minister said it, trying not to look self-conscious as he gazed down at the bowed and frowsy heads of his sick and hungry congregation.
After that the men rose and formed a line for a tin cup of soup, a half cup of coffee and a slice of bread. They gulped the food and left hurriedly.
Alcoholics Anonymous Gives Aid
HardĖworking members of Alcoholics Anonymous are another force for good along Skid Row. Faith is especially mentioned in six of the 12 steps of the program for recovery the organization uses.
Alcoholics Anonymous is everywhere, in the jails, the courtrooms and the hospitals. Sometimes A.A. members are received with open arms by officials, sometimes they are brushed off as tiresome nuisances. They keep insisting that a drunk doesnít belong in jail, and that, when he does get to a hospital, he should receive the same care he might expect if he were a well-to-do citizen.
New York City is a case in perfect point, illustrating the conflict in official attitudes. At Bellevue Hospital A.A. are sometimes brushed off by some busy and impatient doctor. "I didnít spend half my life studying medicine merely to take care of weak-willed drunks," he will complain. But at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, run by the same City of New York, A.A.ís are welcomed. Its members and interested doctors sit in joint committee to see how they can better cooperate in helping the penniless alcoholic.
The district attorney of San Francisco bows a reverent head in the direction of the "South of Market" chapter of A.A. which works in Skid Row. In Los Angeles, A.A. teams of two patrol the Lincoln Heights court 24 hours a day and any Skid Row bum who needs a cup of coffee or a double-header of rye to stave off the d. t.ís gets them and no questions. The "Alinon Club" in Newark is fighting the good fight in a rough part of the country. "Alinon" has to its credit the rare case of a woman who spent 16 years on Skid Row and has been "dry" two years now.
In New York City the Twelfth Step House at 53 Barrow Street has turned an apartment house basement into a refuge for any man or woman who is willing to walk the short distance from Skid Row. He can get anything that a group of human beings who are themselves pretty poor can give him: food, a suit of clothes, a job and that precious thing, an understanding ear.
Twelfth Step House was started by an A.A. who wanted to do something for what his group calls "low-bottom drinkers." A "high-bottom drinker" is an alcoholic who has a little money, a home and some friends to help him through his travail. A "low-bottom" is one who has nothing. Last January this man, who is not rich, paid $50 to cover a monthís rent on a basement which had been unoccupied since prohibition.
Other A.A.ís pledged one, two, or five dollars a month to keep it going. It is open from noon to midnight. A Skid Row drunk walks in and he is soon talking to an A.A. who can truthfully top any story of degradation or misfortune the bum can tell about himself. He is given coffee and food, and, if he volunteers a request for help in sobering up, a silk-smooth operation begins.
First he has to "sweat it out." Thatís a three or four day process during which a man gets sobered up first and then goes through the agonies of the dammed, fighting against a nervous system which screams for a drink. While he is "sweating it out," A.A. veterans of the same sort of personal hell talk to him, listen to him, walk with him through the night and even buy him a double-header if their expert eyes tell them his system must have a little alcohol. When sleep comes at last he is taken to a flophouse and his new friends buy him a nightís lodging.
When the "sweating out" period is finished, the man gets a suit of clothes and a job. Twelfth Street House has an arrangement with a half-dozen hospitals to hire men it recommends. Since January more than 150 Skid Row drunks have been straightened out and returned to work through its efforts.
A.A. flatly refuses to compile statistics about cures it has effected because its axiom is, "An alcoholic is cured only when he is buried."
Every night 35 to 50 former Skid Row bums can be seen at Twelfth Step House. They sit around talking or listening to impromptu speeches-academic discussions of the problems involved in fighting alcohol. Talk and companionship are the very heart of the A.A. technique.
Everybody helps everybody else. I saw an old man hustle in and survey the room. He spotted a young fellow who was with a group which was heatedly discussing the effects of "sneaky-pete," a generic term for fortified wines. He nodded the boy away from the group and excitedly whispered, "thereís a dishwashing job open up on Twenty-third Street. I couldnít take it on account of my bum arm. But I told them youíd be right up. Six bucks." The boy got his cap and was gone in half a minute.
Employed Make Contributions
No working member of Twelve Step ever enters the place without a couple of loaves of bread and perhaps a half bologna under his arm. They all try to contribute to the kitty, but one of the few rules of the place is "No contributions from men working one-night stands. Okay from those steadily employed."
The policeman is the Skid Row bumís mortal enemy; he is as frequently his only friend. My own experience with policemen in the Skid Rows of America ran along the same line. In Chicago, Captain Graney told me, "We donít want you writing about Chicagoís Skid Row. But youíre going to write about it anyway, so weíll answer every question you ask us. Of course weíre ashamed of our Skid Row, but if you can figure out an answer, youíre smarter than I think you are. We give the bums all the protection we can. Itís not enough, I guess. Still, if you assigned a cop to every bum on Skid Row, the bums would still get in trouble."
In San Francisco, Captain Leo Tackney of the Southern Station glowered at me and said, "Iím not going to tell you anything and neither is any of my men. Itís bad for San Francisco. If you go into Skid Row, you go at your own risk. If you take any pictures, youíll do it at your own peril." I told the captain that the pictures would be taken. I also assured him I was going through his Skid Row.
Three separate times I walked all over San Francisco, rated by many as Americaís most charming city, always with the feeling I was being followed. I lost that feeling only after I dropped in for a chat with District Attorney Pat Brown. The D.A. agreed that Skid Row was bad for San Francisco but he also felt it would be much worse if people stopped trying to do something about it.
I later learned why Captain Tackney was so irate. It seems they are making a movie about Skid Row-U.S.A. and the producer of the film has chosen Captain Tackneyís precinct as the locale of the epic. It is a choice with which no man would quarrel.
I tried one more police department. That was in New Orleans. When I had finished my conduced tour in that city, I was stumped.
The first day in town I had asked kind and expert friends to tell me where New Orleansí Skid Row or rows were. They told me and I made arrangements to visit the jungle the next day in the company of a police department expert. However, there was not a bum to be see anywhere, not even in the jails. Later I visited the same areas unaccompanied and found all the bums I ever wanted to see. I asked them where they had been all afternoon. They said it had been real hot, so they stayed off the streets.
No young man ever took up police work in anticipation of a career that would be spent chaperoning Skid Row bums. It is not surprising, therefore, that those assigned the task sometimes go about their duties with a maximum of muscle and a minimum of persuasion. But for every cop who makes enemies of the men he is supposed to help, there are two like Chicagoís Steve Wilson and Los Angelesí William Shurley. And there is the immortal "Book-Him" John McGinnis, also of Chicago. "Book-Him" John is now relieved of his arduous Skid Row chores and works with children, but his name is still revered on the nationís Skid Rows.
When a bum put in a hitch as a gandy-dancer with the railroad-the name traces back to the jiglike step used in tamping down the track beds-and quit, got fired, or finished his unwelcome job, he headed back to Chicago. He might have a couple of hundred dollars in his pocket and the unhappy knowledge that he would blow it all in a night if left to his own customs and habits. So he would seek out McGinnis and turn over the major part of his money to him. "Book-Him" John doled it out until it was gone, and after that John was always good for a touch.
The officer never lost a nickel through these loans. Usually the debtor paid off at the first opportunity. But id he went off on the railroad again or took to the hobo jungles, John would pass the word along that he was in default. The debtor would hear about it from every Chicago resident who crossed his trail. And if he found himself overlong in arrears, he also found himself barred from the mulligan stew, the bottle and the companionship of his fellow hobos or gandy-dancers.
McGinnis was a one-man warrant squad on Skid Row. If any flop resident was wanted, John only had to pass the word. "Tell McCarthy to get over to the station house. Somebody is looking for him." "Somebody" could be a relative, a friend, an insurance adjuster or even a warrant. It didnít matter. If McGinnis sent out the word, McCarthy came ambling into the police station within an hour.
Every morning, when the unhappy contents of a jailís drunk tank were lined up before a judge, McGinnis would stand at the courtís elbow. Theoretically he was there to identify the bums, but in practice he would make recommendations. "Ah now, this is a nice lad, Judge," John would say as a shivering hang-over stood before the bench. "A nice lad. Heís been working and only been on Skid Row a couple of days. Let him go, Judge."
The next might hear, "Judge, this fellowís a nice lad but heís been laying around six months. He needs a doctor, Judge. Send him away for a while."
But Johnís favorite expression and the basis for his nickname was, "Now hereís a lad been laying about drunk for six months. But a nice lad. Let me take care of him, Judge. Iíll book him." John would wave the man aside until the court recessed. Then the man, along with several colleagues, would be shepherded to a group of railroad labor representatives and John would persuade them to book the derelicts for gandy-dancing jobs.
Chicagoís Steve Watson is in the McGinnis mold. Heís in court every morning with his advice. 90 per cent of it compassionate. I did hear him say to Judge Edward Pluczak, as one man came up for sentencing, "Judge, this is one of the best thieves this side of the Mississippi." The man got the equivalent of 30 days when he sullenly refused an offer to rebut Watsonís estimate.
Steve walks his beat amid an endless salvo of greetings. When his charges attempt to shake hands, as they frequently do, Steve shows them his gloved hands and begs off with some excuse about a skin ailment.
I saw a young man laid out cold on Madison Street. He looked dead to me. Steve bent over him, applied some pressure behind his ears, and bloodshot eyes opened in an ashen face. The man managed a pathetic smile, "Hello Steve," he said. "Please help me up, will you?"
In Los Angeles, William Shurley has earned the confidence of his charges. He will say to a man, "Youíre pretty bad off. I want go to go in. Stand over by that lamppost until the wagon comes by." The man will stagger to the lamppost and wait until the patrol wagon, making its endless rounds, appears.
Out-of-Bounds for Bums
Most cities have off-limits areas for bums. The Skid Row resident who crosses Texas Avenue in Houston does so at his own peril; or he can expect a good clout if found panhandling around New Yorkís Times Square. He is supposed to stay "south of the slot" in San Francisco; and in Kansas City he passes the Kay Hotel at his own risk. Boston cleans out its Skid Rows by making periodic promises of a year in Bridgewater for vagrants and drunks who are apprehended.
Some police departments attempt to enforce a "keep-moving" policy. I heard a crippled beggar, of extraordinarily handsome features and cleanliness, plead with a judge to let him off. "Iíve got relatives in Detroit and Iím going back to see them."
The judge said, "Youíre not going back to Detroit and you know it. If you do, Hitler and Mussolini will get you." The men who were lined up behind the cripple smiled. The cripple himself grinned one of those "you-ainít-just-talking-judge" grins. "Hitler and Mussolini" are a couple of Detroit policemen who have dedicated themselves to keeping Detroitís Skid Row population as fluid as possible.
No city over patrols its Skid Row. Most municipalities seem to ignore their jungles. There is a universal theory among law-enforcement men that there is little or no crime on Skid Row. They couldnít possibly be more wrong.
The major criminal is the "roller," "jack-roller" or "mugger." He is the same man operating under a different name in different parts of the country. He steals shoes, shirts, pants, and even the underwear of his victims. Usually prey is too drunk to know, but sometimes he attempts to resist and is hurt. I staked a battered old wreck in Kansas City, but when he saw me go to my pocket he said, "Iíll meet you around the corner. If those guys see you give me anything, Iíll get jack-rolled."
Almost any man found dead in Skid Row without a bullet or a knife in him died of "natural causes" so far as the cops are concerned. Public statistics keep tab on murders and since police efficiency is judged by those statistics, the cops try to avoid any additional unsolved homicides among the nonentities of Skid Row.
Before going into the details of how murder is committed on Skid Row, it is necessary to understand that the resistance and physical condition of most alcoholics is tremendously substandard. They hurt easily, they cure slowly and assistance comes tardily if at all. Nobody knows whether a man curled up in the hallway is suffering from too much sherry or a cracked skull.
Fist fights are common on Skid Row. Bottles make excellent weapons and they are everywhere. Bartenders and flophouse bouncers are busy men who frequently have only enough time to practice a bit of rudimentary jujitsu to invoke order and then "leave Ďem lay." And of course the "jack-roller" takes many a life for a pair of shoes or the nickel and three pennies to be found in a bumís pocket.
Police Keep Watchful Eye
In most cities a patrol wagon, manned by policemen called "ragpickers," makes regular rounds collecting the pugnacious and the man so drunk he may stagger into a moving trolley car or truck. Bums who are sleeping it off are rarely bothered, unless they have bedded down in front of the chamber of commerce. New Orleans sends out the wagon on call. The Second Precinct there, covering the beloved French Quarter, speaks proudly of an elderly client who regularly telephones and says, "Sergeant, send the wagon for me. The usual corner."
New Orleans and Los Angeles give the pick-up bum a chance to sleep it off before subjecting him to formal arrest. He gets a flat six hours. If he can make the 5:00 A.M. "kick-out" line and sign a false-arrest waiver, he is freed. In most other cities he must face the judge.
The police, the magistrates and the victims all agree that this is an expensive and useless procedure excused only by the fact that a man in the drunk tank is less likely to be injured.
Drunk tanks are the same the country over and they are shameful. Most of them have no facilities beyond bare, cold floors. The police claim they would be delighted to install cots and rudimentary plumbing, but the condition of the prisoners makes such sharp and unyielding objects a serious menace.
When court convenes, the nightís haul is herded into a special corner of the room. The non-Skid Row citizens who seek justice are separated and their cases, usually domestic quarrels and landlord-tenant disagreements, are heard first. Then the Skid Row group is lined up before the bar.
The air of frustration that hangs over the courtroom defies description. The long weaving line of hang-overs is wrapped in hopelessness; the judge is baffled; so too are the prosecuting attorneys and the police. Everybody is licked and knows it.
Names are called and men answer. The old-timers-a history of 200 arrests calls for no undue interest-are resigned; the youngsters are frightened; and the rare gentleman from the proper side of the railroad tracks is confident he can talk himself free, even though he looks about apprehensively in fear that he may see an old acquaintance, such as his wife.
A few of the old-timers shrug, plead guilty and hope for the best. Most of them give it a bit of battle: "Iíve got a job waiting for me, Judge," or, "Iím getting out of town tonight, Your Honor," or "Iím a hard working man, Judge. I just slipped a little last night." If the judge has enough interest, he will ask the hard worker to show him the palms of his hands. Calluses will support his story.
Frequently a man says, "Please, Judge, give me 30 days." Invariably it is to get hospital treatment for wounds or infections. Occasionally itís a desperate effort to get sober or something to eat. But generally the men are frantic to avoid jail.
Itís a dreary procession spotted occasionally with high drama. I heard the father of a young newspaperman plead with a judge, "We have $15,000 to assure my boy complete medical and psychiatric treatment, Your Honor."
Before the Judge could answer, the boy spoke, "Father, please. You know and I know itís just a waste of money." His father left, weeping, as the boy took another 30-day sentence.
A twenty-one-year-old ex-G.I., hung-over and petrified, answered all questions in a quavering voice, his head hanging. He was asked what kind of a discharge he possessed. His head came up, he straightened and his voice was firm as he answered, "An honorable discharge, sir."
In Los Angeles the court told a young woman who had been picked up several times, "Iím going to send you to jail to sober up."
"No, Judge, please donít do that," she begged. "Iím in Sister Essieís show tonight. Iíve got a big part. Iím a very important angel." The important angel was freed to take her place in the religious pageant at Sister Essieís Skid Row mission.
Judge Edward Pluczak, of the Desplaines Street Municipal Court in Chicago, looks like a tough Army sergeant, but he is surprisingly gentle. He told me, "Iím sick and tired of meeting boyhood friends, college pals and members of the Chicago bar whom I once idolized. Sending these people to jail doesnít do any good. What I need is a non-prison farm where they could go to sober up. Nobody ever gave up liquor in a cell block."
San Franciscoís realistic district attorney, Pat Brown, is in complete agreement with Judge Pluczak. Brownís theories are particularly apropos because his bailiwick is the drinkingest city in the United States, according to surveys published by Brownís own office. "I want a half million dollars to set up a rehabilitation center that is not a jail," Brown told me. "I want to stop the practice of tossing alcoholics in jail or freeing them to get stiff all over again. We wonít straighten out very many, but if we can rehabilitate 10 per cent, the experiment will be cheap." All four of San Franciscoís newspapers support Brown. Alcoholics Anonymous, Stanford and California universities are behind him, too.
Brown laughed and said, "Iíll probably never be elected dogcatcher after saying this, but theyíre doing a magnificent job across the bay in Oakland."
Brown isnít the only one with an eye on the Oakland project. They are watching iy at Yale, too. And they are watching it wherever municipal officials do not feel that Skid Row is something that should be kicked under the rug and ruled out of public discussions.
California Experiment Promising
Alameda County, which is Oakland, has rented an unused military installation for $1 a year. It is called the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center and covers 3,300 acres. Alcoholics are given a choice of jail, or the Center. It is not as obvious a choice as you might think, because at Santa Rita there are 550 acres of vegetables under cultivation and that means hard work for the physically fit.
Most of the inmates are sent there for 90 days but it is not a jail. When a man gets himself straightened out and healthy he can leave in less that 90 days. Alameda County Sheriff Jack Gleason says, "We give them psychiatric assistance, work and an opportunity to build up their health. I wonít say how well the plan is working because itís too new. Give me two years. But it looks pretty good, so far."
To spare their sensibilities, the Skid Row patients at Santa Rita were separated from other inmates. The Skid Row group complained against this discrimination. "Weíre as good as they are," they argued. Now all mix together, and psychiatrists and policemen agree it is better that way.
Raymond McCarthy, executive director of the Yale Plan Clinic, thinks Oakland is on the right path. He told me, "The punitive approach to the Skid Row problem accomplishes nothing beyond making a city look neater.
"But," he added, "the majority cannot be helped by treatment on an out-patient level. They must be isolated for medical and psychiatric study. Jail is no good. Prison farms are just as bad. The Skid Row bum, to be saved, must have supervised freedom." McCarthy admitted "supervised freedom" is a top-notch contradiction in terms. "The sad fact seems to be," he said, "that these men and women must be institutionalized in an institution that doesnít exist today."
To that, and to all that went before it, I can add only this: I didnít meet anybody on Skid Row who liked it. I didnít meet anybody who ever expected to leave it alive. I didnít meet anybody who deserved to be there. It is a world of the living dead and an utterly fantastic exhibition of manís cruelty to man. It deserves as much study and research as cancer or heart disease because, like those scourges, it can happen to you and yours.
Skid row, U.S.A., is the end of the line. When a man gets there he canít go any lower. He can only go up-or out. Helping him up is not easy, for he is one of the most perplexing members of society, as well as one of the most pathetic. He is neither insane nor a criminal, but a man who has surrendered to adversity and sought oblivion at the rock-bottom social level.
Alcoholism is the first and most evident obstacle to getting him back on the beam. But, as William J. Slocum suggests in this article and the preceding one, alcohol most likely is not the only problem, or even the basic one. It may only be a symptom. It is easy to say that drink has driven a man to Skid Row. But what drove him to drink?
That question can never be answered easily. Sometimes it cannot be answered at all. But an encouraging number of men are being helped to find the answer as the understanding of their problems increases. One of the leading contributors to that understanding is Alcoholics Anonymous, where a man who still wants to come back can find inspiration and advice from others who have overcome desperate difficulties that most of us cannot even imagine.
The story of Skid Row is not new or pleasant. But it presents a situation that has to be faced. Intelligent studies like Mr. Slocumís can help society to regard the inhabitants of Skid Row not as congenital bums, but as troubled, unhappy men who, with patient and intelligent aid, may perhaps resume their places as useful citizens.
Source: Collierís©, September 3, 1949