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SKID ROW - U.S.A.
WILLIAM J. SLOCUM
our cities there is a world of living dead where
Lonely, despairing Americans seek escape from themselves
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?
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 potter’s 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morgue had originally made a mistake in concluding the body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, didn’t
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 captain’s
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. Father’s 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 Father’s identification papers were found on the
One drunken derelict preying on another, sudden death and
the completely broken family, these are Skid Row-the American
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.
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 woman’s 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 Sammy’s 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
o’clock ancient entertainers sing with great gusto,
and a benevolent old man, well into his sixties, plays the
meanest piano I’ve heard in a long time.
has made an interesting experiment in rehabilitating Skid
Road characters the country over. He straightens them out,
buys them clothes, pays a month’s 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
can’t let ‘em live on Skid Row and expect ‘em
to stay sober when they see all their friends drunk,”
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
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.
Anonymous Gives Aid
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
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 doesn’t
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 didn’t 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.’s are welcomed.
Its members and interested doctors sit in joint committee
to see how they can better cooperate in helping the penniless
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.’s 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
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
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 month’s rent on a basement
which had been unoccupied since prohibition.
Other A.A.’s 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.” That’s
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 night’s
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, “there’s a dishwashing job open up
on Twenty-third Street. I couldn’t take it on account
of my bum arm. But I told them you’d be right up.
Six bucks.” The boy got his cap and was gone in half
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
The policeman is the Skid Row bum’s 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 don’t
want you writing about Chicago’s Skid Row. But you’re
going to write about it anyway, so we’ll answer every
question you ask us. Of course we’re ashamed of our
Skid Row, but if you can figure out an answer, you’re
smarter than I think you are. We give the bums all the protection
we can. It’s not enough, I guess. Still, if you assigned
a cop to every bum on Skid Row, the bums would still get
In San Francisco, Captain Leo Tackney of the Southern Station
glowered at me and said, “I’m not going to tell
you anything and neither is any of my men. It’s bad
for San Francisco. If you go into Skid Row, you go at your
own risk. If you take any pictures, you’ll 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
Three separate times I walked all over San Francisco, rated
by many as America’s 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 Tackney’s 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
The first day in town I had asked kind and expert friends
to tell me where New Orleans’ 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 Chicago’s Steve Wilson and Los Angeles’
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 nation’s
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 didn’t matter. If McGinnis sent out the
word, McCarthy came ambling into the police station within
Every morning, when the unhappy contents of a jail’s
drunk tank were lined up before a judge, McGinnis would
stand at the court’s 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. He’s been working and only been on Skid
Row a couple of days. Let him go, Judge.”
The next might hear, “Judge, this fellow’s a
nice lad but he’s been laying around six months. He
needs a doctor, Judge. Send him away for a while.”
But John’s favorite expression and the basis for his
nickname was, “Now here’s a lad been laying
about drunk for six months. But a nice lad. Let me take
care of him, Judge. I’ll 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.
Chicago’s Steve Watson is in the McGinnis mold. He’s
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 Watson’s 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, “You’re
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.
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 York’s 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. “I’ve got relatives in Detroit and I’m
going back to see them.”
The judge said, “You’re 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-ain’t-just-talking-judge”
grins. “Hitler and Mussolini” are a couple of
Detroit policemen who have dedicated themselves to keeping
Detroit’s Skid Row population as fluid as possible.
No city overpatrols 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 couldn’t 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,
“I’ll meet you around the corner. If those guys
see you give me anything, I’ll 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
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 ‘em 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 bum’s pocket.
Keep Watchful Eye
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 night’s 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 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
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
A few of the old-timers shrug, plead guilty and hope for
the best. Most of them give it a bit of battle: ”I’ve
got a job waiting for me, Judge,” or, “I’m
getting out of town tonight, Your Honor,” or “I’m
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 it’s a desperate
effort to get sober or something to eat. But generally the
men are frantic to avoid jail.
It’s 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 it’s just a waste of money.”
His father left, weeping, as the boy took another 30-day
A twenty-one-year-old ex-G.I., hungover 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, “I’m going to send
you to jail to sober up.”
Judge, please don’t do that,” she begged. “I’m
in Sister Essie’s show tonight. I’ve got a big
part. I’m a very important angel.” The important
angel was freed to take her place in the religious pageant
at Sister Essie’s 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, “I’m
sick and tired of meeting boyhood friends, college pals
and members of the Chicago bar whom I once idolized. Sending
these people to jail doesn’t 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 Francisco’s realistic district attorney, Pat Brown,
is in complete agreement with Judge Pluczak. Brown’s
theories are particularly apropos because his bailiwick
is the drinkingest city in the United States, according
to surveys published by Brown’s 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 won’t straighten
out very many, but if we can rehabilitate 10 per cent, the
experiment will be cheap.” All four of San Francisco’s
newspapers support Brown. Alcoholics Anonymous, Stanford
and California universities are behind him, too.
Brown laughed and said, “I’ll probably never
be elected dogcatcher after saying this, but they’re
doing a magnificent job across the bay in Oakland.”
Brown isn’t the only one with an eye on the Oakland
project. They are watching iy at Yale, too. And they are
watching it wherever municipal officals do not feel that
Skid Row is something that should be kicked under the rug
and ruled out of public discussions.
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 won’t say how well the plan is working because it’s
too new. Give me two years. But it looks pretty good, so
To spare their sensibilities, the Skid Row patients at Santa
Rita were separated from other inmates. The Skid Row group
complained against this discrimination. “We’re
as good as they are,” they argued. Now all mix together,
and psychiatrists and policemen agree it is better that
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.
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 doesn’t
To that, and to all that went before it, I can add only
this: I didn’t meet anybody on Skid Row who liked
it. I didn’t meet anybody who ever expected to leave
it alive. I didn’t meet anybody who deserved to be
there. It is a world of the living dead and an utterly fantastic
exhibition of man’s 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.
row, U.S.A., is the end of the line. When a man gets there
he can’t 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
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. Slocum’s 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.
Collier’s, September 3, 1949)