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How San Francisco Sobers ‘Em Up
Golden Gate city, ashamed of having the highest
percentage of arrests for drunkenness, and alarmed
by the number of suicides in its drunk tanks, will soon
have the nation’s most fabulous clinic for alcoholics
TIME 15 MINUTES. Late on the after-noon of last
January 14 a housewife in Berkeley, California, observed
a car parked at a crazy angle. A woman was at the wheel
and she appeared unable either to park the car properly
or to get out of the vehicle. The observer called the police.
A policeman found that the woman driver was obviously drunk.
He suggested that she lock her car and go home in a cab.
She became belligerent. Having exhausted his powers of persuasion,
the policeman called for a patrol car.
The woman, wife of a minor government official, was booked
as a drunk and lodged in a cell by the woman’s portion
of the Berkeley city jail. Twice in the next two hours she
was granted permission to use the telephone, but her frantic
appeals to relatives and friends for help were unsuccessful.
At 8.55 P.M., the matron, making her hourly check, observed
the prisoner sitting quietly on the edge of her cot. She
wrote later in her report: “She seemed quite resigned.”
At the ten-o’clock check, the matron found the prisoner
had hanged herself with a strip of cloth torn from her slip.
She had used the iron grille of the cell door as a gallows.
And scribbled on the gray wall, in the crimson marking of
her lipstick, was this message:
don’t know. I’ve gone through a thousand hells
The suicide of this woman was the most spectacular of several
similar incidents in the San Francisco Bay area in which
persons confined for the night to various drunk tanks, as
they are called, ended their lives in fits of alcoholic
News of the woman’s death stirred San Francisco, and
at long last caused to burst into flame a plan for a revolutionary
treatment of alcoholics – a plan that had been smoldering
for several months.
And as this is written, San Francisco, the city with the
unhappy distinction of having the highest percentage of
arrests for drunkenness of any large municipality in the
nation, is well on the road toward the establishment of
a unique clinic to help those whose proximity to the bottle
has deprived them of the power to help themselves. The label;
of “alcoholic” will be intentionally omitted
from the clinic. It will be known simply as the Adult Guidance
plan involves more than the mere elimination of the drunk
tank. There will be provided everything from psychiatry
and vitamins, to lessons in what an alcoholic should eat
to calm his stomach nerves, and how he can get past the
swinging doors, provided, of course, he wants help and has
not extended his drinking career to the point to no return.
If he is not readily salvageable, he will be sent either
to a state hospital, where he can do a minimum of harm and
may still recover; or to a custodial farm, where he will
be safe from crime and accident.
As part of this modernized procedure, the alcoholic will
be able to receive treatment at cost and with the protection
of anonymity. The plan is no bluenosed formula for reducing
drinking, but a healthy arrangement for helping the person
who wants to stop and can’t. A city as robust as San
Francisco would accept nothing less. Its residents always
like to boast that San Francisco is the “city that
knows how,” and under this program it is being geared
to do more to solve the problem of alcoholism than any of
its sister municipalities.
The man behind this crusade is the city’s district
attorney, Edmund G. Brown, a 43-year-old prosecutor and
family man who always appears to be on his way to or from
a gymnasium locker room and has a habit of jumping out of
bed at 6 A.M. and exclaiming, “Boy! I feel great!”
The description suggests an overexuberant bore who rattles
the ribs of less hardy souls by slapping them on the back
and damaging their eardrums with sonorous greetings. Such
is not the case. Brown’s vitality springs from a hardy
Brown, as he is popularly known, can take a drink or leave
it alone. Actually, two circumstances, neither connected
with the idea of reform for reform’s sake, started
him on the road at the end of which San Francisco’s
Adult Guidance Center will rise. The first involves a two-block
route which Brown must follow daily from his office to the
Hall of Justice.
The district attorney’s offices are in a building
in a less expensive block of San Francisco’s financial
center, Montgomery Street. One block over and one block
up, on Kearny Street, is the Hall. In between, the neighborhood
degenerates rapidly into a series of taverns and tenements
outside of which drunks sprawl despite the nearness of the
drunk tank and the law.
The other circumstance was a more personal one. Liquor got
the better of a capable lawyer on whom Brown depended for
legal assistance. Another of Brown’s friends, also
a professional man, teetered on the edge of ruin because
he couldn’t stop drinking. Two others, one a newspaperman,
were in the same predicament.
Brown, of necessity, had to walk around the drunks who lay
in his path as he went from his office to the Hall. With
his friends, he tried tactful advice. When that failed,
he decided something had to be done, both for the street
drunk and for the alcoholic who is coming apart in a less
public but equally fatal manner.
He began by persuading a friend, Emmet Daly, a former F.B.I.
agent and recently released Naval Intelligence officer,
to become a special assistant to the district attorney,
with the job of finding out how drunk San Franciscans get,
how they are treated, and what should be done about it.
Daly, in his oldest suit, headed for Skid Row, a stretch
of several bottle-clustered blocks south of San Francisco’s
broad Market Street.
Even the most cloistered clubman on plushy Nob Hill is vaguely
familiar with what happens to the men on the wrong side
of the Market Street trolley tracks when they panhandle
30 cents for a pint of wine and proceed to gulp it down,
But a district attorney needs more than a notion to win
a case. Daly went out after the equivalent of the corpus
He had no trouble finding drunks in Skid Row. They were
sprawled in doorways and some lay in the gutters. He stood
near one who had collapsed in a doorway and waited until
the paddy wagon arrived to haul the man to the precinct
station. He followed to see what would happen. He learned
that the custom is to lock up drunks at the station house
until another wagon arrives from downtown to take them to
the drunk tank.
If the drunk can pull himself together in the interval between
his arrival and that of the wagon from headquarters, he
goes free. Otherwise he faces a night in the tank. At times
there have been alternate results, as happened one night
when two drunks, collected at separate places, were lodged
in a single station-house cell. The jailer observed they
were too stupefied to engage in the jail-house chatter.
He expected no trouble. But later, one of the two made a
noose out of his shirt and hung himself while the other
stared glassily at the proceeding.
But the drunk whom Daly followed to the station had no suicidal
intentions. Neither could he pull himself together. The
wagon from the Hall arrived and the drunk tank automatically
became his destination.
The tank is not a single enclosure, as its name suggests.
It consists of a block of 14 cells, each six by seven feet.
Frequently seven or eight men are put into a single cell,
for the average drunk catch a night is more than 100. There
are no cots for the reason that a drunk might roll off and
fracture his skull on the hard floor. The men flop on mats,
some of them sitting up against the walls of the cell, their
legs overlapping their neighbor’s in a spectacle of
morning after Daly had watched his particular drunk from
the Row placed in a cell in the tank, he went to court to
see what would happen next.
drunk tank was bad enough, but what I saw in court the next
morning was even worse,” he remembered. “I took
one look at what was going on and called the district attorney,
telling him to come over and see for himself.”
Tank occupants are herded into a corner of the courtroom
and their cases disposed of ahead of the day’s regular
calendar. The clerk of the court rattles off half a dozen
names, and their owners shuffle inside the railing and stand
before the bench. There is a low-voiced mumbo-jumbo during
which pleas of guilty are entered and the panel is dismissed
with a brief admonition not to return. The second panel
is called, and so on until the last drunk has been disposed
are not fingerprinted,” said Daly, “so there
is no way to keep track of how often they come back. After
talking to several hundred of them, I’m satisfied
nine-tenths of those sent to the drunk tank are repeaters.
The average drunk can be in and out of court two or three
times a week and still nothing is done for or against him.”
But it was the handling of the drunks in panels instead
of singly that so disturbed Daly that he sent for Brown.
Because of subsequent publicity, this feature of the system
has been eliminated, but the revolving-door nature of the
process-arrested today, dismissed tomorrow, back next day-persists.
After their morning in court, Daly and Brown decided to
follow one of those who had been freed, to see what he did.
They selected a man about 60 who bore unmistakable evidence
of having been in a scuffle before he reached the tank the
night before. After walking several blocks, the man sagged
and fell into the gutter. Brown called an ambulance.
course, the point of all this is that nothing is being done
about the alcoholic, and we are still spending $500,000
a year in police man-hours alone, with no return,”
said Brown. “The number of alcoholics in the streets
has increased to the point where they can'’ be ignored,
even though there might be those who would attempt it.
is all this money being wasted on a worthless system when
for half the amount, say $250,000, we can operate a first-class
clinic for a year. And the $500,000 a year in police man-hours
now being spent for handling alcoholics obviously doesn’t
include the cost of crime or family poverty stemming from
our present arrangement for getting the drunks off the streets.”
a national basis, the latest figures on arrests for drunkenness
cover the year 1947. San Francisco led with 6,230 arrests
per 100,000 population. Thirteen of the larger cities were
included in the count. There is scant local pride in the
fact that Los Angeles is second, with 5,103 arrests per
100,000. The others, in order of descendency, are Washington,
D.C., New Orleans, Boston, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee,
Philadelphia, Detroit, Buffalo, Baltimore, and New York.
With the full picture before them, Brown and Daly began
a furious search for the right pieces to put together to
make a plan to correct the situation. They interviewed doctors
and psychiatrists from the neighborhood to the state level.
Members of the clergy were called on and asked for suggestions.
The leaders of Alcoholics Anonymous were sought out for
their views. Business men who take an occasional drink and
drunks who hit the bottle all the time, police who are plagued
with alcoholics and want to be rid of them, teachers who
find an increasing number of their older students red-eyed
at morning roll call, everyone who had any reasonable notion
about what to do about the alcoholic was given a chance
to speak his piece.
Daly, entering the lobby of his club on day, was accosted
by a member. “So, you’re becoming a prohibitionist,”
he said. “A fine thing!” Daly, who expected
that sort of reaction when he took over the job with Brown,
replied, ,”Let’s go get a drink and talk it
over.” Daly convinced the man the surest way to prevent
the return of prohibition is to solve the problem of the
chronic alcoholic, and another San Franciscan was jogged
out of his lethargy and prejudice. He told his friends and
a chain reaction began. Brown and Daly kept it going with
speaking engagements before clubs of housewives and industrial
leaders and educators and city planners.
While all of this was in progress, Daly was sending letters
to every city in the country which had made any attempt
to treat the alcoholic as a medical problem. The replies
to the letters and data gathered at the interviews were
distilled into a procedure for an alcoholic clinic.
Under the San Francisco plan the alcoholic who is arrested
will not be classified as a misdemeanor offender. The California
legislature is making such a change in the law. The drunk
will be held for quarantine. He will be in the same relative
position as a person roaming the streets with a communicable
disease, a hazard to himself and to others. The purpose
of this change in classification is to give legal recognition
to the theory that a drunk is a sick person, not a lawbreaker.
person will be given employment at the clinic, from the
psychiatrists to the elevator operators, who does not first
give proof that he believes a drunk is a sick person and
not a moral leper,” said Brown. “This proposition
is the cornerstone of the whole plan.
When a drunk is arrested, he will be taken directly to the
clinic. Once there, he will be fingerprinted so that a record
of his case may be kept. The clinic will have no cells or
bars, but wards. The fact that the drunk is in custody will
not be emphasized. After he has been logged in, he will
be given whatever immediate medical attention is necessary.
If he is lucid, the doctors will talk to him. If not, that
part of the procedure will come later.
Within twenty-four hours a preliminary appraisal of his
case will have been made. If he is a one-night drunk, he
will be shooed out, but advised to return for consultations
and help if liquor is becoming a problem. If he has been
on a two-week binge and hasn't eaten much, he will be given
five days in bed and fed a diet high in vitamins.
The one-nighter who is released in the morning, or the man
who is hospitalized for five days, will have his fate determined
by a judge who will sit at the center-not on a bench, but
at a conference table. The patient and the doctors will
be the witnesses. The judge will be guided by what they
have to say.
The clinic will concentrate on those who accept help and
are salvageable. During the five-day period of hospitalization
there will be simple lessons in dietetics: The course will
be elementary. A drunk, the experts emphasize, is a man
trying to learn to walk again after having been bedridden
for a long time. In the case of the alcoholic, it is his
thinking processes which have to be retaught.
In between lessons and baths and wholesome meals, the psychiatrists
will attempt to sell the patient on the idea it is not only
possible but very pleasant to live without drinking, if
a man is an alcoholic. They will tell him very emphatically
that an alcoholic cannot drink so much as a jigger; that
it isn’t the last drink that is important but the
may be an optimist, but I’m satisfied a lot of cases
that now look hopeless will make some progress when the
problem is put to them as a medical one,” say Pat
Brown. “Alcoholics Anonymous has proven that. Of course,
Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t pretend to help everyone.
For those cases in which it is not the answer, we will try
psychiatry. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try
something else. And all the time it will be cheaper for
the taxpayers and infinitely better for the drunk.”
Brown is equally concerned about helping the drunk who doesn’t
get arrested. It will be possible for a man who believes
liquor is getting him down to go to the clinic, have an
examination and diagnosis, and return for outpatient care
by the simple process of paying whatever his visits cost
the city. He will not be booked, nor will his employer or
friends be advised of his problem.
hope these people will come into the clinic the same as
they would to another clinic if they felt ill,” said
Brown, “There are several of my friends who I hope
will be among the first.
The clinic will also be open to the wife who can’t
take another of her husband’s binges and who otherwise
would visit a divorce lawyer. She will be given guidance.
not getting fancy or reformish; we’re just getting
sensible.” Said Brown. “I’ve sent a lot
of people to jail since I’ve been in office. I hope
when I get through I will be able to say I’ve made
a lot of people happier.”
San Francisco is moving fast to escape remaining at the
top of the list for drunkenness. It would just as soon forgo
that dubious honor.
Liberty, July 1949)