SKID ROW - U.S.A.
by WILLIAM J. SLOCUM
Within our cities there is a world of living dead where
Lonely, despairing Americans seek escape from themselves
The 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?
A 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Captain Joseph Graney quieted the woman and told them the morgue had originally made a mistake in concluding the body was that of their father, and the family had compounded the error by identifying the strange corpse.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 corpse.
One drunken derelict preying on another, sudden death and the completely broken family, these are Skid Row-the American jungle.
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.
“I 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.
Experiments in Rehabilitation
Sammy 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 Skid Row.
“You can’t let ‘em live on Skid Row and expect ‘em to stay sober when they see all their friends drunk,” says Fuchs.
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 and bread.
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.
Alcoholics Anonymous Gives Aid
Hard–working 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 uses.
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 alcoholic.
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 now.
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 ear.
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 lodging.
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 a minute.
Employed Make Contributions
No 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 employed."
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 trouble.”
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 Skid Row.
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 stumped.
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 Skid Rows.
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 an hour.
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.
Out-of-Bounds for Bums
Most 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 cracked skull.
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.
Police Keep Watchful Eye
In 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 bar.
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 it.
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 wife.
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 sentence.
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.”
“No, 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.
California Experiment Promising
Alameda 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 far.”
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 way.
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.
“But,” 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 exist today.”
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.
Skid 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 level.
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.
(Source: Collier’s, September 3, 1949)