A Report From the Bowery: The Boys in the Bottle
April 18, 1977
The stomach cramps hit at four in the morning, twisting Bubba out of his sleep. At age 27, Bubba needs a drink every two hours. It was his fourth Good Friday on the Bowery and as he lay in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel Bubba knew that he had slept too long. Unless he got a drink convulsions would soon follow the cramps. Bubba rolled onto the floor and groped for the quart of wine he had bought the night before. He took one taste and flung the bottle against the door. The bartender had sold him water.
Bubba stuffed a sock in his mouth to keep his tongue away from his chattering teeth and stumbled toward the lobby. Groans and cries from other cubicles echoed in the dark hallway. Bubba crossed the lobby to a six-foot window. He pulled the sock out of his mouth and wiped the soot off a few inches of the glass. Vinnie the bootlegger was across the street, in front of the Salvation Army mission. Every morning between 4 and 8, Vinnie stands on the Bowery and sells wine to men who need a drink to keep “well” until the bars open. Vinnie charges $1.25 a pint. Bubba only had 11 cents. He turned away from the window and walked toward the 11 men scattered among the rows of wooden seats that fill the lobby.
“I got 27 cents. Anybody want to go in for a pint'” Bubba asked. Nobody answered. The Social Security checks that support the old men had come eight days before. The catering businesses and temporary-labor companies that hire the younger men had been closed since the beginning of Passover. At 4 a.m., there are no cars or pedestrians on the street to panhandle.
“This early on a holiday at this time of the month, you’re the richest man in the Prince,” an old bum at the back of the lobby said.
Rube walked into the room wearing a towel around his waist and carrying a paper bag. A pair of BVDs were tangled in the joint of his artificial leg.
“I told them this new leg was too complicated,” Rube said as he sat down. Bubba bent over and freed the underwear from the plastic limb.
“Here,” Rube said, pulling a pint of Jack Daniels out of the paper bag. “I owe you from the hospital.” Bubba and Rube had been in the detoxification ward at Bernstein Institute together. During their first night on the ward, Bubba had produced a smuggled bottle of vodka.
“The nurses never would have found out if you hadn’t fallen out of your wheelchair,” Bubba said as he took a pull from the bottle. Bubba’s cramps subsided a half-pint later.
He borrowed a pencil and drew the outline of an airplane on a week-old copy of the Daily News. Five years ago, Bubba welded patches of titanium on Strategic Air Command bombers for a contractor at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Periodically, Air Force technicians checked the welds with an X-ray machine. In February of 1972, Bubba was summoned to his boss’s office. The first thing he noticed was a stack of X-ray film .
“I can take you missing three Mondays in a row,” Bubba remembers the boss saying. “But I can’t take the kind of work you’ve been doing. Look at these X-rays. If we’d let those welds go through, it’d be raining B-52s from here to California.” Bubba took a bus to New York the next day. He signed up for welfare and started drinking at uptown bars. He went for two weeks without a bath and was bounced by 23 separate uptown bartenders. It took the more tolerant Greenwich Village saloonkeepers six weeks to bar him. At the end of what he still calls “a record-breaking drunk,” Bubba was on the Bowery.
“It’s the lieutenant,” a man standing by the window shouted. Bubba and three other bums jumped from their seats and ran out to the street. A policeman was frisking Vinnie. The bums rummaged the pile of garbage in front of the mission and looted the bootlegger’s stash.
“Have a good Good Friday,” the policeman said over his shoulder as the bums crossed back to the Prince.
“We call that cop the lieutenant,” Bubba explained. “Whenever he busts a bootlegger, he gives the wine to the bums. He’s the only real Christian on the Bowery.” Over the next hour, Bubba killed two pints of wine. The Roadhouse bar opened at 8, and, when Bubba walked in at 8:05, Pete and Harold were already halfway through a quart of white port. Bubba shuffled through the quarter-inch of sawdust that covered the tile floor.
“Have a drink on Medicaid,” Harold said, beckoning from the back of the saloon. Eight weeks ago, 24-year-old Harold had been a patient at an upstate mental hospital. As part of an economy drive the hospital classified him as “stable” and offered him $25 and a Medicaid card if he would sign himself out. Since then, Harold and his 54-year-old partner, Pete, have been visiting hospitals and clinics throughout the city seeking prescriptions. On Thursday, the pair obtained scripts from St. Luke’s Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital, and Veterans Hospital for Elavil, Tuenol, and Valium. That night, they sold the pills on 14th Street for $200. Bubba elbowed his way past the 20 men standing at the bar and grabbed a glass.
Pete took a head of lettuce from under his overcoat and tossed it onto the table. A half hour later, Bubba reached out and squeezed the lettuce.
“It’s lettuce,” Pete said. “I told Harold that he was so smoked on pills that he couldn’t do anything. He told me that he could still buy a head of lettuce. Well, here it is.”
“Jesus,” Bubba said. “I’ve been sitting here all this time thinking that it was a hallucination.”
A fight erupted at the far corner of the bar.
“You’re too ugly to be in here,” Johnny, a former schoolteacher from White Plains, screamed at Liam. Liam’s face had been severely burned in a fire three years ago.
“And you can’t teach anybody anything,” Liam shouted, raising his fists. A one-eyed man named Arthur pushed the two men apart.
“That’s some crew,” Bubba said. “Johnny’s down here because he got caught playing with one of his students. Liam’s here because he got his face burned up and he thinks he’s too ugly to live with regular people. And Arthur, he lost his eye after it got infected by A-200.” A-200 is a delousing agent.
Harold pulled three dollars out of his pocket and went to the bar for another quart. Red stumbled into the saloon, his bare feet bloodied by the glass that litters the Bowery sidewalks.
“She stoled my shoes,” Red mumbled as he collapsed into a chair. Red had met a 24-year-old woman from Puerto Rico the night before.
“I don’t have any place to stay,” the woman had said when the bar closed.
“I don’t either,” Red had answered.
“I don’t have any money,” the woman had said.
“Well, I sure don’t,” Red had said. “I’m just going over to the empty building and sleep under the stairwell.”
“Can I sleep with you?” the girl had asked. Red woke up without his shoes.
“I need something to calm my nerves,” Pete said. “I’m going to get some more pills.” He left the bar and walked three blocks to visit a doctor on Bleecker Street. The doctor’s “office” was equipped with a desk, a chair, a stack of Medicaid forms, and a prescription pad. He handed the doctor his Medicaid card. The doctor wrote down that he had just given Pete a complete physical, four X-rays, a blood test, a urine-sugar test, and a test for venereal disease.
“I’ll take 300 Valium,” Pete said after signing the form. On the way back to the bar, Pete met Victor the Driver. Until last month, Victor visited the Bowery only once a week. Every Saturday, he parked his car in front of the Roadhouse and paid bums to fetch quarts of wine. Occasionally, he would invite Pete into the car to discuss women and skeet shooting. On the last Saturday in March, Victor climbed on top of his car and announced that he was holding an auction. A wino named Jumbo got the car for three bottles of port. Victor hasn’t left the Bowery since.
“You look tense,'” Pete said to Victor. “How about a few of these.” Pete poured 25 Valium into Victor’s cupped hands. He gobbled the pills and walked into the bar with blue chunks of Valium stuck to his beard and mustache.
“Am I good for credit?” Victor asked. The bartender pulled a thick blue ledger from under the bar and ran his finger down a long list of names. The men listed in the book have their Social Security and pension checks mailed to the saloon. On the first and third Wednesday of every month, the owner calls out the names on the checks. After the men endorse the checks, the owner deducts the bar bills and gives the men the remainder.
“Sorry, Victor,” the bartender said. “You already drank the next check.”
“I did not,” Victor said, pulling a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket. “I wrote down each wine and the schoolteacher over there added it up. I only drank $43. My check is for $87.”
“You got some kind of nerve, calling me a liar,” the bartender said, leaping the bar.
“You shouldn’t cheat people,” Victor said. The bartender pushed Victor to the floor and picked up a stool.
“Maybe this will settle the account,” he said, crashing one of the legs of the stool into Victor’s mouth. The bartender picked him up by the collar and shoved him out the door.
“You don’t see much of that,” Bubba said. “Everybody knows that these guys cheat. They always get an extra $40 or $50. But nobody says anything. Everybody down here’s got their hand in somebody else’s pocket. The only honest person I know is Betty. She used to own a bar down here. She wouldn’t steal a dime. She went bankrupt.” Bubba slugged back half a glass of wine and pointed to a gray-haired man and a burly youth sitting at a nearby table.
“Those two are supposed to be best friends,” Bubba said. “The old guy’s buying the drinks for the young guy because he’s a fag. Three-quarters of the guys down here are fags. You don’t see a lot of women in here. So the old guy’s trying to pick the kid up. The kid is just taking the drinks and seeing if he’s going to have a chance to rob him.” The older man handed the youth a five-dollar bill and staggered over to the toilet. The youth went to the bar and returned with a bottle of wine.
“The kid isn’t going to give him any change,” Bubba said as the old man returned to the table. “He knows that the fella’s forgotten about it. Now, notice that the old man’s missing one of his socks? That means that he took the rest of the money out of his shoe when he was in the toilet and was too drunk to put his sock back on. The kid’ll see that and know that it’s time for him to make his move. The kid saw the old fella take the five out of his left jacket pocket. You can bet that’s where the money from the shoe is now.” The old man leaned forward and vomited on the floor. The youth patted him on the back with his left hand. Then his right hand flashed into the old man’s jacket pocket.
“That,” Bubba said, “is how Social Security benefits get to young people on the Bowery. The young down here live off the old. If the kid hadn’t gotten the money that way, he would have waited till night and then hit the guy in the head. The old-timers are scared all the time. A lot of these young kids get twisted on pills and like to hurt people. We call them jackrollers.”
A tall man in his twenties threw open the door and walked the length of the bar, asking for change.
“Take a walk,” Pete said to the man. “We don’t want you here.” The man glared at Pete and left.
“The guy’s a jackroller,” Pete said. “Something’s got to be done about him.” Something was. The jackroller was beaten to death later that night.
Pete and Harold drained their glasses and left. Ten-Day Red came in with two quarts and sat next to Bubba. Ten-Day owns a dairy farm in upstate New York. Once a year, he comes down to the Bowery with $2000, At the end of 10 days, he gets deloused at the municipal shelter for men on East Third Street and goes back home.
“It’s only been four days, and I’m down to 90 cents,” Ten-Day said to Bubba. “I don’t know what happened to it.”
“It can get expensive living on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “We’ll drink these, and then we’ll panhandle.” Twenty minutes later, they were in the middle of the Bowery, hitting cars for change.
“Please, young sir,” Bubba said to a man in a Corvette with a Queens College sticker.
“A nickel, a dime, or a quarter to help us get an Easter jug.” The driver shook his head and rolled up his window.
“Most young guys and all hippies are terrible,” Bubba said to Ten-Day. “The only people worse are the Chinese and the pimps.”
“Please, young lady,” Bubba said to a middle-aged woman in a battered Ford. “I am here with a smile to ask you to help us get an Easter jug. Just a dime with a smile, or a quarter with a frown.” The woman smiled and gave him 50 cents. He moved on to a couple in a Cadillac. The Cadillac’s electric locks clicked down. The driver brandished a sawed-off baseball bat. Bubba approached a truck driver.
“Wish I could get out and join you for a drink,” the trucker laughed, tossing a quarter.
“Unless you get them at the beginning or the end of the day, working people are the best,” Bubba told Ten-Day. “In the mornings and evenings they hate you because they’re going to or coming from work. Any other time, they understand a guy on the skid.”
Ten-Day walked up to two men in a Pontiac. The car changed lanes and roared away.
“You got it all wrong,” Bubba said. “Never walk up to a car with your hands in your pockets. And always smile. Otherwise, people get afraid.”
Ten-Day took his hands out of his pockets, put on a smile, and sauntered over to a Cadillac. The driver handed Ten-Day a penny.
“Your generosity overwhelms me,” Ten-Day said. The driver produced a .32 calibre automatic.
“Maybe this will overwhelm you, too,” the driver growled. Ten-Day ran back into the bar. Bubba came in an hour later. Red was sitting at a back table with Jimmy.
“I would have stayed out longer,” Bubba said, pouring $7.43 onto the table, “but the rag men came out. I don’t like them. I used to do the rag, but then I learned that people are going to give you what they’re going to give you, whether you wipe the windows or not. You taught me that, right Jimmy?” Jimmy raised his glass and smiled. Jimmy had been Bubba’s “professor” when he first hit the Bowery. He taught Bubba how to panhandle, avoid jackrollers, and frustrate pickpockets. Jimmy can’t remember who his “professor” was. Jimmy has been on the Bowery for 39 years. Six other men drew chairs up to the table and helped drink Bubba’s change.
“I can’t hold onto money,” Bubba said. “A guy needs a drink, I got to buy him a drink.” At 3 p.m., Bubba went back to the street to panhandle. As he left, two of the bums at the table grabbed for the half-inch of wine in Bubba’s glass. The larger of the two men smashed a bottle into the other bum’s face. The smaller man fell to the floor, screaming.
“It never used to be this way,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “It just used to be regular bums. You had a bottle under your coat and you slept in hallways. Now you got the young guys and the pills. They go crazy, and they make everybody else crazy.”
Bubba made two dollars in half an hour. He quit when a policeman in a squad car handed him a dollar bill.
“The police are the most compassionate people on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “Now I got enough to pay in for the night.” On the way to the Prince Hotel, Bubba hit a woman pushing twin girls in a perambulator for a final 15 cents.
Bubba could hear the shouting from the entrance to the hotel. An elderly black man was standing at the chain-link door at the top of the stairs. A caseworker at the municipal shelter had told him that his “Muni Ticket” was good for any flophouse on the Bowery.
“Get lost, nigger,” the manager shouted at the black man, pointing to a cardboard placard taped to the wall. “The sign says ROOMS FULL.” Bubba walked up to the gate.
“Keep the nigger out,” the manager said as he buzzed Bubba in. Bubba slid $2.25 through the through the six-inch opening in the wall and brass bars surrounding the manager and grabbed his receipt.
“You must be new around here,” Bubba said as he walked past the black man. “Around here, ‘no rooms’ means no niggers and no spics.”
“You want some pink lady?” the black man said, offering a can of Sterno. “I only drank a little bit. Twenty cents.” Bubba he shook his head.
“You just get disgusted,” Bubba said to his friend, Robert, as he walked away from the hotel. “I’ve been to 20 detox centers. I keep trying to get out of here. But they dry you out and throw you back in. You’re like a dry sponge. You just soak up more wine.”
“Let’s go up to Al’s,” Robert said. “Willie’s across the street at the Providence. He’s got my coat and he’s sitting on $500.” Ten years ago, Willie had been an organist at Radio City Music Hall. He was fired when he started mixing Wagner, Beethoven, and white port. On his last day at the organ, he rolled up the rubber mat at the entrance to the theatre and carted it down to the Bowery. Willie’s favorite saloon still boasts the largest welcome mat of any gin mill in the city.
Robert had gotten work through a temporary labor pool the previous Thursday hauling steel. As they passed Delancey Street, Robert ducked into a liquor store to cash a $20 labor paycheck.
“This is the only place you can cash the check,” Robert explained as he waited for the clerk. “You go to the labor pool and pay 10 per cent of what the job is. You want $20 a day, you give them two dollars. Then when you’re done, you got to come here. The labor-pool people own the liquor store. You got to buy something when you cash the check.” The man behind the counter took the check and handed Robert $14 and a four-ounce bottle of brandy.
“Tell Hanson that he’s behind a payment,” the clerk said. The clerk is also the local loan shark. Recently, a reporter a daily newspaper interviewed him for the workingman’s view of the Bowery.
“You wouldn’t believe all the rip-offs around here,” the clerk said.
“Tell Hanson that I’m going to twist his prick if he doesn’t cough,” he said as Robert pocketed the money.
Bubba was staggering by the time they reached Al’s. He didn’t touch the glass of wine an elderly homosexual poured for him. Bubba was sick. He did not need a drink. He needed food. Bubba had not eaten in four days. Brushing the silk lapels of his secondhand tuxedo, the homosexual prattled about silverware. Bubba fought to keep his head off the table and finally vomited thin stream of clear bile splashed onto floor.
“You can’t do that in here,” Robert said, slamming his fist onto the table. “Go into the bathroom.”
Robert leaned back and explained his theory about the Bowery’s social strata. “Delancey Street is an invisible border. Bubba hangs out in the Roadhouse. You can do anything up there. You spit up on the floor here, you’re out. The Bowery’s divided into three social groups. You got the blacks up by Houston Street. Then you get the panhandlers and lunatics. Then, below Delancey, you got the minority of bums that work the labor companies and the caterers.”
“Out,” the bartender growled as Bubba returned from the bathroom. Bubba stumbled back up the Bowery. A block beyond Delancey, he ran into Rosemary. Last February, Rosemary had found him asleep in her hallway. Bubba had awakened with a pillow under his head. She gave him a glass of wine and told him that he could continue to sleep outside her door if he agreed to sweep the stairway. Then, in March, one of Bubba’s friends defecated in the hallway.
“It’s a holy day, and if you didn’t have such dirty friends, I would take you back,” Rosemary said. “You look bad, Bubba.”
“The Italians around here were always kind until the jackrollers and the wild ones started to come in,” Bubba said as he slid into a chair in the Roadhouse. The nausea passed, and, by nightfall, Bubba was drinking port again. By 8 o’clock, he was out panhandling.
“You don’t look like you belong on the Bowery,” a man in a station wagon said to Bubba.
“Why don’t you let us adopt you?” a woman sitting next to the man said.
“Not even for money,” Bubba said.
“At night, you get couples coming down,” he said as the car drove away. “You get gays. You get lonely women. They all want to pick up a young bum. They think they can just give him a shower and do whatever they want with him. One time a guy came back with brands on his ass.”
By midnight, Bubba was in the Roadhouse with $11 in his pocket. Jimmy was standing on a chair with 16 hours of drinking behind him.
“I’m Mrs. Wallace’s boy, Jimmy,” he exulted. “And I’d rather drink wine here than be governor of Arkansas.”
“Shut up and sit down,” the bartender shouted.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I played marbles in Brooklyn?” Jimmy asked. The saloon closed at 2. Jimmy went up to the dormitory above the bar to sleep. Bubba and Big Bill went on to the Follies Saloon.
Sitting at a side table, Bubba watched the bartender shortchange the men who ordered bottles and pick the pockets of the men who fell asleep. Big Bill shot pool for an hour and a half. He failed to sink a single ball. By 4, Bubba was lying in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel with a quart of wine under his cot, hallucinating B-52s.
He was sick again at 6. It took the entire quart of port to quiet the muscle spasms that gripped his chest, stomach, and legs. At 8, he was across the street at the Roadhouse. Jimmy came down from the dormitory.
“I was real scared,” Jimmy said. “I was lying up there and I ached in my arms and my legs and my stomach. I got to stop drinking. Yesterday was Good Friday and I’m going to die by Easter.”
Robert took Jimmy into the bathroom for a shave. “I had to use six blades,” Robert announced as he came out of the bathroom. “But look what I did for Jimmy.”
“Robert doesn’t care about Jimmy,” Bubba said to a newcomer. “He’s just always got to be the big brother. He’s always breaking up fights and settling arguments between old men. He’s got to be where he’s the strongest. Outside, he’d just be another weakling. Everybody’s got a fantasy that they let loose down here. And it’s hard not to fall into it and never come out.”
“I’m sick,” Jimmy moaned. “That Friday wasn’t so good.”
“I’m sick, too,” Bubba said. “I’m going to the holy mountain. They’ll let me in now. It’s been a year.” “Holy Mountain” is the detoxification camp at Graymoor, run by the Franciscans in Garrison, New York. Bubba had enrolled in the 21-day program a year ago. On his way through town to the camp, he spotted three saloons and a liquor store. The following morning, he stole a set of monk’s robes and stood outside the church that adjoins the camp, asking the local citizens for “alms for alcoholics.” He had $65 in his cup when the camp officials spotted him. Bubba was back on the Bowery the next day.
Bubba gave Jimmy a hug and left.
At 3:50 Saturday afternoon, Bubba boarded a train at Grand Central Station bound for Graymoor.
“The young and the old,” the bartender said back at the Roadhouse. “I’ve been down here 43 years. We always get a crop of new ones after a war. If there isn’t a war, what else is there for a lot of young fellas to do?” The bartender carried a case of eggs into the kitchen. On Easter morning, each bum at the Roadhouse receives a colored Easter egg and a glass of wine.