Lets Ask Bill W.
Question & Answer # 20
Could you tell us about the early days and the meetings in your home on Clinton Street?
In those days we were associated with the Oxford Group and one of its founders was Sam Shoemaker and the Group was meeting in Calvary Church. Our dept to the Oxford Group is simply immense. We might have found these principles elsewhere, but they did give them to us, and I want to again record our underlying gratitude. We also learned from them, so far as alcoholics are concerned, what not to do – something equally important. Father Edward Dowling, a great Jesuit friend of ours, once said to me, “Bill, it isn’t what you people put into A.A. that makes it good – it’s what you left out.” We got both sets of notions from our Oxford Group friends, and it was through them that Ebby had sobered up and became my sponsor, the carrier of this message to me.
We began to go to Oxford Group meetings over in Calvary House, and it was there, fresh out of Towns Hospital, that I made my first pitch, telling about my strange experience, which did not impress the alcoholics who were listening. But something else did impress him. When I began to talk about the nature of this sickness, this malady, he pricked up his ears. He was a professor of chemistry, an agnostic, and he came up and talked afterward. Soon, he was invited over to Clinton Street – our very first customer. We worked very hard with Freddy for three years, but alas, he remained drunk for eleven years afterward. Other people came to us out of those Oxford Group audiences. We began to go down to Calvary Mission, an adjunct of the church in those days, and there we found a bountiful supply of real tough nuts to crack. We began to invite them to Clinton Street, and at this point the Groupers felt that we were over doing the drunk business. It seemed that they had the idea of saving the world and besides they’d had a bad time with us. Sam and his associates, he now laughingly tells me, were very much put out that they gathered a big batch of drunks in Calvary House, hoping for a miracle. They put them upstairs in those nice apartments and had them completely surrounded with sweetness and light but the drunks imported a flock of bottles and one of them pitched a shoe out of the apartment window and it went through a stained-glass window of the church. So the drunks were not exactly popular when the Wilson’s showed up.
At any rate, we began to be with alcoholics all the time, but nothing happened for six months. Like the Groupers, we nursed them. In fact, over in Clinton Street, we developed in the next two or three years something like a boiler factory, a sort of clinic, a hospital, and a free boarding house, from which practically no one issued sober, but we had a pile of experience.
We began to learn the game, and after our withdrawal from the Oxford Group – a year and a half from the time I sobered in 1934 – we began to hold meetings of the few who had sobered up. I suppose that was really the first A.A. meeting. The book had not yet been written. We did not even call it Alcoholics Anonymous; people asked who we were and we said, “Well, we’re a nameless bunch of alcoholics.” I suppose that use of the word “nameless” sort of led us to the idea of anonymity, which was later clapped on the book at the time it was titled.
There were great doings in Clinton Street. I remember those meetings down in the parlor so well. Our eager discussion, our hopes, our fears – and our fears were very great. When anyone in those days had been sober a few months and slipped, it was a terrific calamity. I’ll never forget the day, a year and-a-half after he came to stay with us, that Ebby fell over, and we all said, “Perhaps this is going to happen to all of us.” Then, we began to ask ourselves why it was, and some of us pushed on.
At Clinton Street, I did most of the talking, but Lois did most of the work, and the cooking, and the loving of those early folks.
Oh my! The episodes we had there! I was away once on a business trip (I’d briefly got back into business), one of the drunks was sleeping on the lounge in the parlor. Lois woke up in the middle of the night, hearing a great commotion. One of the drunks had gotten a bottle and was drunk; he had also gotten into the kitchen and had drunk a bottle of maple syrup and he had fallen into the coal hod. When Lois opened the door, he asked for a towel to cover up his nakedness. She once led this same gentleman through the streets late at night looking for a doctor, and not finding a doctor, then looking for a drink, because, as he said, he could not fly on one wing!
On one occasion, a pair of them were drunk. We had five, and on another occasion, they were all drunk at the same time! Then there was the time when two of them began to beat each other with two-by-fours down in the basement. Then one night, poor Ebby, after repeated trials and failures, was finally locked out one night, but lo and behold, he appeared anyway. He had come through the coal chute and up the stairs, very much begrimed.
So you see, Clinton Street was a kind of blacksmith shop, in which we were hammering away at these principles. For Lois and me, all roads lead back to Clinton Street. (Manhattan Group, 1955)