ROW – U.S.A.
WILLIAM J. SLOCUM
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
ONE OF TWO PARTS
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
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
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.
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.
the Cause or the Result?
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
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
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 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
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.
Names for Flophouses
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
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
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
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.
Earns All He Gets
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
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.
Trampdom’s Upper Crust
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
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
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
Trade with Blood Banks
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
Women Among the “Down”
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
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
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
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.
Much Mama” May Harm Son
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:
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.
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
Jones, being on Skid Row and being in the presence of
the law, cowered. “Do I have to go out?”
But they’re real rich looking kids. Furs and everything.”
there a redheaded old woman with them, Officer?”
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.
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
Collier’s, August 27, 1949)