New York's Skid Row

Skid Row, New York

Winter 1966


In November of 1965, I and 4 others activists burned our draft cards in Union Square, earning us six month prison sentences. Mine was served in 1972 at Danbury and Allenwood penitentiaries. Over that winter I occupied a bed in a dorm room managed by the Catholic Worker, the anarchist-pacifist movement founded by Dorothy Day in the 1930's. My room-mates were all draft resisters and militant pacifists. One of them, Roger LaPorte, would later immolate himself on the steps of the federal courthouse in Foley Square in protest against the war.

Between bouts of demonstrating, planning , and direct action I also helped out in the newspaper office of the Worker on the 3rd floor of the St. Joseph's House, then located at 175 Chrystie Street near the Bowery. I worked in a volunteer capacity. Besides myself the office held two regular staff persons: the painter Walter Kerrell, and Smokey. This account is about him.

Smokey was one of the legendary characters of the old Catholic Worker. He'd never been known under any other name. One might have described him as an alcoholic in semi-stable remission: from time to time he went on binges. By virtue of his many years of service to the Worker a dispensation had been granted whereby he, and he alone, was given the money to buy himself a 6 pack of beer every Friday night. Only Dorothy Day herself had been at the Worker longer.

Smokey's life-long residence on the Bowery ( New York City's Skid Row on the Lower East Side ) went back four decades. With the enactment of Prohibition all the legitimate bars were closed and the derelicts were too poor to afford the speak-easies. This seems not to have affected the economic health of the Bowery, which was even more robust then than it is today. Apart from the historical fact that Prohibition never succeeded in reducing the amount of drinking, the Depression also increased the numbers of desperate people out of work.

" They sold us this shellac!" The standard confection, one to which Smokey gave his stamp of approval, was a mixture of Coca-Cola with shellac bought at a paint store. Sometimes denatured rubbing alcohol was used. One could get a bottle of shellac then for 15 cents.

" They made out like they didn't know what we was gonna' use it for! No sir! We just told'em we was paint'n th'floors ! What th'hell - they didn't know the difference. So we was paint'n th'floors? They didn't care none."

When Smokey held court it was in a loud voice accompanied by arm-waving and dramatic gestures:

"We drank the stuff everywhere! In them days the 3rd Avenue Elevated was still standin' . We drunk it in the street; under the El; up on the platforms! They was the best places. If it was'a warm day, we'd be sitt'n or lie'n aroun' up there, from early in th' mornin' until it gets dark. In them days people got off at the Bowery at their own risk! It was okay, if you didn't mind stepp'n over bodies. Why, we was heaped up there higher'n a sinkful of dishes! If you was to ask me how I lived through it, 'till this day I can't tell you .

"But you take that Sneaky Pete 1 stuff they're drinkin' nowadays. That's wors'n anything! Nah .... I would'n touch'a stuff! That Sneaky Pete drives a man crazy! And it ain't nothin' but cheap wine! That's all it is! You know that guy, crazy Mike, who's always comin'in here makin' trouble? He got that way drinkin' that Sneaky Pete stuff! I won't touch it. I wouldn't touch it if you give me all'uh money in the world! I wouldn't touch a drop of it! No sir!"

The pickled eyeballs bulging above Smokey's much pleated and furrowed face glared at us over his thick horn-rimmed frames . He paused to take another long drag on the endlessly renewable cigarette that had earned him his nick-name, before continuing :

" Durin' th'Depression they turned some'a th'bars intuh soup kitchens. I used t'work at the one down'on'a corner, dishin' out soup. Later they sends me to Hart's Island. That's where they used to send us. They put us to work there, diggin' holes! Big ones, to drop corpses in. Yessir: even children ! Kids! One day we carries 80 corpses up there, drops'em innuh holes, and covers'em over with dirt." Walter Kerrell, who was in the office at the time, explained: "That's the Potter's Field. Dorothy wants to be buried there."

"Later they sends us back again to the Bowery, no better'n we was before. Them days you got all kindsah people on the Bowery, young and old. Yep: lots of'em inn'er twenties! Lots of the folks you see on the Bowery got families. They comes down here to escape the disgrace. Here you drinks as much's you like, and nobody gives a damn. Nobody knows who you is! They comes down here't'escape the disgrace. They comes down here to drink themselves t'death!"

Smokey was in his 60's. The Bowery had prematurely aged him, the facial skin dry and taut on his skull like the membrane of a drum. Though short and bony and clearly in poor health, he somehow appeared tough. Most of his teeth had fallen out; those remaining were charcoal black from accumulated nicotine. I never saw him without a lit cigarette in his mouth. Smokey had been laid up in the hospital shortly before I arrived. The first thing he said to Dorothy Day when she came to visit him was:

" Dorothy; has you got my coffin nails?" She wouldn't have dreamed of coming without a carton. Casual visitors to the St. Joseph's House were well advised to bring a pack in case they ran into Smokey. The brand didn't seem to matter. And no-one ever walked into the newspaper office without being cadged by him for 'coffin nails'. One reason for this was that he wasn't allowed much pocket money. What he earned through his office work was put aside in a fund for necessities. Even after 2 decades off the streets he was still liable to go on a drunk that ended only when he'd completely passed out. Walter Kerrell told me the following story:

Sometime in the early 50's Smokey slipped on the pavement in front of the St. Joseph's House and broke his leg. Despite whatever loyalty he may have felt for the organization that had rescued him from the streets, he sued the Worker. The judge ruled in his favor and he was awarded something like $10,000: a non-trivial sum even today. Although everyone knew it would go to drink, the CW had to pay up.

Over the next year Smokey did not step three times into the St. Joseph's House. Personnel and residents from the Worker would come across him lying against the buildings lining the Bowery, in the narrow alleyways and side streets, or under the tables of the local bars, out like a light. It took him a year to run through the award money. The CW picked up the pieces and eventually he was reinstated at his job in the newspaper office.

Smokey had even made the front page of the New York Times. Some years before he'd gotten a job washing dishes at an exclusive country club out on Long Island. While closing down the kitchen one weekend, someone accidentally locked him into the pantry. The following Monday morning his body was discovered, unconscious, in the liquor closet. Over this "lost weekend" he'd consumed the club's entire supply of Scotch! An ambulance took him to Bellevue Hospital. Walter didn't recall if Smokey was rehired.

To listen to him talk no-one at the CW took more pride in their work than Smokey. Visitors to the newspaper office were given the impression that he was in charge of everything. The truth of the matter was that Walter Kerrell had been managing the office for many years. A few years later, however, Walter retired from the Worker and went out of his way to avoid it. The organization aroused fierce loyalty and fierce antagonism, sometimes in the same person. I think Smokey had died by that time.

Smokey's job consisted of entering new subscribers into a ledger and sending them the first issue. The CW newspaper is famous for its subscription policies: 1 a issue if you can afford it. Once you get onto the mailing list you are there for life, sometimes even beyond. I commonly saw newspapers returned that had been sent out to persons who'd died years before .

My job was to work the stencil-maker, a typewriter that manufactured the waxed-paper stencils that imprinted the addresses of subscribers to the CW newspaper onto slips of brown paper. These were wrapped around the copies folded and sent out by the team of recovering, ( and sometimes not-so-recovering ) , alcoholics working on the second floor. It was also part of my job to remove stencils of deceased subscribers from the files.

One morning I arrived and found that Walter had placed a sign on the stencil-maker with Do Not Use written on it . The table and surrounding floor were buried in chunks of plaster both large and small, broken off as a mass from the ceiling not half an hour before. Had I been sitting there at the time I could have suffered a serious injury. Over the next month about 40 pounds of plaster dropped from the ceiling into the room. Whenever it rained water poured down from 3 places. City health and fire inspectors who harass and sometimes close down anarchist operations are not always motivated by political malice. Fortunately the roof was fixed before the fire inspector made his yearly visit in April.

One Friday night a number of us were sitting with Smokey on the steps of his apartment on Kenmare Street, keeping him company as he drank his weekly six-pack. Apropos of nothing, he said:

" You know that work I do in the office? Any 6-year old could do that!"

He paused, staring bitterly at the pavement, his mask down, willing to confess to persons he knew and trusted what he would admit to no-one else, the deep conviction that his life had been largely wasted:

"Any 6-year old could do that work."

II. A Bar in the Bowery

Curiosity led me one afternoon into the One Mile Bar located at the corner of Bowery and Rivington Streets.

The winter day was icebound, cold and cloudless. Despite the general tawdriness of the street, objects glittered in the snow as if polished. From the outside the bar looked like many another. Some of its trappings even indicated more ambitious aspirations: a juke box, cigarette machine, fans.

Upon entering I realized that nothing else bore any resemblance to the traditional neighborhood bar. The large room was dirty, dark, filled with smoke, the air evil and stale. About a dozen tables filled up all the space to the back of the main room . Over, around and on top of these were sprawled innumerable beings , sleeping, wheezing, snoring, with misery and destitution were apparent everywhere. Around this cauldron of sodden flesh staggered a sluggish sea of bodies, shorn of dignity and very drunk, stumbling, pushing each other around, breaking out here and there into spontaneous squabbling. The cast-away clothing they wore had been assembled in idiosyncratic concatenations: lumber jackets, vests, torn shirts, trousers with or without flys, caps, overcoats, frayed scarves. If some women were among them I didn't notice them.

Descending from translucent windows smoky beams of light gilded their flabby and desiccated faces. Their rags fell together to form a continuous patchwork of contours and mounds. Here and there an individual face with a bit of character might emerge as a pinpoint of light in the ocean of damnation and despair.

I walked to the counter and bought a bottle of beer. Behind the counter worked two bartenders; enormous brutes, both of them. One could have imagined them cousins ( maybe they were): grotesquely obese, with big jowls and hammer fists, their shifty eyes set in heavy folds of fatty tissue and darting with fear. They worked rapidly, and in a manner brusque and humorless.

My entrance had been observed by an emaciated, timorous individual. I watched him as he made his way through the mob in my direction. He wore a blue coat several sizes too large for him, without buttons, secured around the waist by a grey raincoat belt tied as a sash. His unbuttoned workshirt revealed a hairy red chest . Atop his ears stood a floppy, beaten-down hat. Stumbling a step at a time, with outspread arms, he lurched towards me . Terrified I pushed my bottle along the counter: " Here. You can have this."

He faltered, Mustering his tardy reflexes he picked up the bottle, stared at it for a minute or two , then back again at me. Then he mumbled something in a faint whisper and took a few sips. The voice with which he addressed me was scarcely audible. His facial muscles moved, but no sound emerged. Finally I realized that he wanted me to buy him some wine. I declined.

His face was swollen, flushed with the cold. Thickly chapped lips curled up sharply to the right, like the caricature of someone who always speaks out of the same side of his mouth. Most disturbing were his eyes. The gleam that poured from their depths was broken, even crazed. Deep creases lined his battered features, although unlike many in the room, they were free of scars and cuts. The focal point of the face was the gaping hole that formed when he opened his mouth to smile. About 9 front teeth were broken down completely . The hole was filled with tartar and thin slivers of teeth, one of which, a fang tapered to the sharpness of a needle, projected upwards from the lower gum.

Our conversation was rather patchy, given that I could just barely make out what he was saying. Born in Brooklyn he'd been raised in Norway. Technically he was a Norwegian citizen. A brother and other family still lived there. For much of his life he'd been a merchant seaman. I asked him how long he'd been back in the States. The reply was too faint to decipher.

By now the environment was really beginning to get to me. Everything projected the dreadful sensation of a world gone out of control. The room was noisy and congested. Above the groundswell of conversation one heard the whirr of fans and the dreary sound of the jukebox ( even in Hell there must be a juke-box ) , snoring, quarreling, shuffling, sniffling of phlegm. Three men were stretched out over a table against the far wall. They appeared to be asleep. Then one of them stood up abruptly with someone's coat under his arm, and began making his way towards the door through the stew of rags and humanity.

One of the bartenders shouted:

" Hey, there! Don't take that man's coat!"

" That ain't his coat. It don't belong to nobody !" A dubious contention, given that the man was already wearing a coat, neither more nor less threadbare than the one he was stealing.

" Yes it does! Leave it there!"

The man looked wildly around the room. Caught red-handed!

" All right, damn it!" He threw the coat back on the table and resumed his seat. The man he'd tried to rob had slept through the entire incident.

A rag-pickers market operates daily along the Bowery from Houston to Delancey Streets. The trade starts early in the morning and is very brisk. It services an unscrupulous, relatively well-heeled clientele who have discovered that they can often pick up good quality, almost certainly stolen, clothing for little more than a bottle of whiskey. In this neighborhood one will also observe bartenders standing before the doors of their establishments with a bottle of wine in one hand and a glass in the other. They wait at the ready for the small change that the alcoholics can sometimes collect from cars stalled at the street intersections. The men stand by the curbside holding rags. The instant the light turns red they rush into the road. Indifferent to the drivers' consent they wipe down the windshields of the cars and beg for tips. What money they receive is quickly carried over to the bartenders who, in the act of filling their glasses, reward them instantly for having done their part in the defense of Capitalism.

The Norwegian lifted his right hand to show me his thumb. It was set in a splint and bandaged. This was followed by an incoherent and whispered attempt to explain to me how he'd broken it.

" You talk so softly I can't always hear you." I told him.

" I know. I just talk softly. I can't help the way I talk."

Facial expressions around the room ranged from crazed silliness to drunken hatred. The constant stumbling around was menacing and naturally made me uneasy. It would have required more nerve than I possess to have induced me to mingle with the crowd at the back of the room.

" Hey! Bud! You got a cigarette?" A man had come over to the bar and was standing by my right. I gave him one and put the rest of the pack on the counter. Awkwardly , looking up at me frequently for approval, the Norwegian reached for the pack. He took two cigarettes, lighting one up for now and putting aside the other for later. This new acquaintance stood somewhat apart from the population of aged derelicts that filled the room. He did not make a pleasant impression. His manner was rude and cynical, a man clearly out for himself. His face was sweaty, with a mustache and several days growth of beard. He wore blue jeans. Over a red turtleneck sweater with the message " Grant's Softball Team" he wore a light Army denim jacket. As he spoke to me he kept a tight grip on his bottle of Scotch.

He explained, " I work over at the Volunteers of America." ( one of the many Christian missions in the neighborhood). " I get 50 cents a day and a place to stay. I got messed up last night because I was broke. You see, I found this whore, you get my drift? She was ready to put out for nothin' ! But, damn, we needed to rent a room! It was no go." He moved closer to me:

" You see, guy - when I got the money there ain't no girls around. Then, when there's some girls, I ain't got no money! That ain't no good, is it?" I nodded for want of a reply. Finally I asked him:

" How much did you say you make at the Volunteers of America?" "Fifty cents a day." He probably realized I wasn't buying his hard luck story, so he turned away, indicating the conversation was over. The next minute his manner changed completely when he saw a friend walk through the door:

" Hey! Joe! Come on over here! Hey! Joe! Over here!"

Joe was elderly, frail, clean-shaven with fine, even aristocratic features. Judging from his hands and face he was not accustomed to manual labor. He must have had independent means, possibly a pension. His clothes were relatively new and made to fit. His coat was in good condition, and he wore a vest. Even his shirt was clean. Cigarettes were handed all around as soon as he got to the bar. Despite these evidences of affluence there was no doubt that he was a regular, and an alcoholic. I was in the presence of an example of the class of persons described by Smokey, those with good families who come to the Bowery to hide.

The man to my right began a new version of the tale of last night's adventure, with slight variations. As the two of them spoke together, they were joined by a third. This was a tall man on crutches. Both of his feet were in casts and heavily bandaged: frostbite. His grey, dirty face was lined with deep furrows. Spitting and cursing, he stumbled painfully, clomping his crutches as he moved. I remarked that he was clothed in an assortment of odds and ends: blue vest, soiled shirt, dumpy trousers, and, for a belt, a piece of rope. An oversized, grey coat, ripped in several places and without buttons, hung open at the front.

As with the Norwegian, it was all but impossible to make out what he was saying. His words got mixed up with the phlegm that he coughed up and swallowed at regular intervals.

The aristocratic gentleman, wobbling and intoxicated, put his hand on his shoulder: " I want to introduce...." Then he put his arms around the two of them and pulled their heads in with his. They were joking and singing.

As these boon companions tried to recall familiar melodies, the newcomer beat time with his crutch. His voice, which carried a wistful, tired resonance, lifted:

" I was in the Army. In the Pacific. "

The man to my right roared: " In the Pacific? Where? "

" In the Philippines!"

" Philippines, huh? - What Division?"

Rather than answering, he repeated:

" I was in the Philippines!"

" Yea. I was stationed there too"

" That wasn't my war, boys....."

It could have been any typical night on the town. The Norwegian tugged at my sleeve:

" Will you take me with you?" I moved to the door. He followed in my traces. I walked out the door and turned around. He was standing next to me. I started to close the door on him.

" Can you let me have some money?"

I gave him my change and left .

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