SKID ROW – U.S.A.
by WILLIAM J. SLOCUM
Perhaps you’ll 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 weren’t very important. What might be important though, is that I probably met someone you have known.
If you went to Perdu, 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 you’ll 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 Officers’ 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 state’s 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 doesn’t speak modern Greek much. Just classical Greek.”
This man won’t be hard to find. He’s 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, “you’re 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 you’re going all over the country to look at Skid Row I’ll lay you 15 to 5 you meet an old friend,” he predicted. “And I’ll tell you something else. You’ll meet guys who talk better than you, think better than you, and dress better than you. But you just won’t 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 ne’er-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? That’s Skid Row.
If you live in a big city you know the place. In New York it’s 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 it’s 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'’ 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 Row’s 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.
That’s 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 can’t 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
The commonest of Skid Row shelters are the flophouses. The entrepreneurs of these substandard stables prefer to call their hostelries “lodginghouses.” 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 lodginghouses.
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 nights’ 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 nation’s 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 won’t work and those who can’t work.
Panhandling is a prime source of revenue in any jungle. Sometimes it’s 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 Trampdom’s 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 agents’ 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 Paddy’s Day.” A few gandy-dancers, as soon as they hit town, will pay their flophouse rent in advance for December 1st to St. Patrick’s 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 City’s Skid Row told me, “I’ve shined shoes that didn’t have any soles on ‘em. They always throw you a half buck. If they have any money, they’ll get a shine three or four times a day. I don’t 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 day’s 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 day’s $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 it’s 100; and sparsely settled suburbs are 75. Payment in this field seems to work out to around 35 cents an hour for a day'’ 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
If 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 nation’s 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 don’t want to do that yet.” He went on to say, “There’s 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 won’t allow a woman to sleep in the gutter. I saw a cripple fall and split his face wide open in front of Chicago’s Haymarket Theater and the box-office lady didn’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 mother’s 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 he’s on Skid Row because he couldn’t get along with his family back in Des Moines. He’s there, of course, because his mother didn’t 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 ‘youngest.’ 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 Chicago’s 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, “we’re 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, “there’s 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 they’re 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. Let’s go. Those are my daughters. But if that redheaded old bag of a mother of theirs is along, I’m 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 week’s installment exposes the inadequacies of our programs to help the unfortunate men who are America’s living dead
(Source: Collier’s, August 27, 1949)