In the Time of COVID. Day 163
August 19, 2020.
Drama On the Night Patrol
The Dreadful Winter of 1974-75 Skid Row, Seattle
An alcohol culture pickled The Skid’s for a little over a mile from Belltown to Pioneer Square. Along First Avenue, it snaked through the warrens of the Pike Market, down Post Alley, oozed down Western and under the Alaska Way Viaduct. The fallen crashed in doorways and overhangs. The cold northwest rains came early , mixed with snow, and persisted for months. A sodden army of the damned clutched bottles of fortified Apple Jack and Loganberry wine and drank themselves into oblivion. They were the lowest rung. The shell-shocked, black or white or asian or off the Rez, lost in personal defeats. Unable to rise to the bell. Their saving grace was the Drunk Tank. They were lifted into police cars, and ambulances, charged with drunk in public, and taken out of the weather for a night or two. But, that all changed in late November, 1974.
The Pike Place Market was the hub of old downtown Seattle. During the day, shoppers came down from the outer neighborhoods for fish and meat, ethnic groceries, baked goods and fruit and vegetables. In the pre-dawn hours truck farmers brought produce to their stalls. Garbage trucks banged the dumpsters, and the market was swamped out and hosed down for another day. The winos were rousted from the doorways and they wandered off into the shadows.
Pensioners hotels, dozens of bars, burlesque theaters, XXX movie houses, lap dancers, pawn shops, card rooms, cheap eats, news stands, donut shops, pool halls, bookstores, and tattoo parlors fanned out to the north and south. During the day the bus stops were crowded with people making connections. The electric buses snapped as their pantos slid along the overhead electrified wires. The washed mingled with the unwashed. Winos panhandled, picked pockets, snatched bags, and sought their fellows to share bottles. With bag in hand, they slunk into the shadows. That was First Avenue during the day. The doorways, cleansed and businesses opened to the throngs of shoppers. During the day there was an optimism of commerce, jugglers, fire eaters and buskers, mime’s and street hustlers. The aroma of deep fried chicken and raw fish and the faint leavings of human waste that the hoses hadn’t caught. The doorways during the day were alive with possibilities. But at night they were the gatherers of doom, the reapers of the dead.
I lived, that dreadful season, in the Elliot Hotel, just across First from the entrance to the Pike Market. I walked those streets and alleys by day to my morning bartender job at the Victrola and by night to a chef job I had at a sea food joint down on Pier 70. I often helped close up the Vic at night. I said it was so that the night bartender wouldn’t get robbed, but actually, I did it because I couldn’t stop drinking. I did it because I thought that was what writers do. Then, drunk again, I stumbled up the stairs of the Elliot to my flop in room 34. I was a witness to the drama that unfolded that winter.
In 1974 the Washington State Uniform Alcoholism and Intoxication Treatment Act. Wash. St. Revised Code Chapter 70, 96A was passed. It decriminalized Alcoholism. It went into effect January 1, 1975, but the cops got a jump on it in late 74.The law was passed due to demands from the Federal Government to be more humane. Alcoholism was newly categorized as a disease and the emphasis was on treatment and recovery. The drunk tanks were shuttered. Federal funding was predicated on the new standards of treatment. The problem was that while they closed the drunk tanks, they had yet to open the treatment facilities. Drunks passed out in the cold and the Night Watch Cops were given discretion to deny “Taxi Service” to the fallen. Have you ever walked around the dead? Have you ever seen cops ignore winos in destress?
They looked like lumps of abandoned clothes until you came closer and saw the stretched kerosene sheen of their leathered flesh. Occasionally you might recognize them from their forays among the living during the day.
One night, about 3 AM, I was having a burger at the Silver Dollar Cafe. Sitting on a swivel tool, I swung around to the noise of laughing teenagers outside the glass door. They were poking a lump with their feet and having a big time. A wino had fallen just outside the door. I walked over to take a look, He lips were making shapes like a fish on the bottom of a boat. These kids, kids that sold themselves to adults by the Winchell’s Donut Shop, had found a dying wino to play with. At the curb was a Black Maria , it’s lights flashing, but the cops had come in for coffee, just waiting for the guy to die. The pool tables clacked , Jumping Jack Flash was on the jukebox, rain was falling and the hideous faces of those kids was a moment I have never been able to shake.
You’d of thought I’d stop drinking, that I’d get the hell out of town but alcoholism is a cunning destroyer. I saw myself apart, insulated by my intellect, an observer, but I too was in the throws. Bolt upright at 4 AM picking bugs off my skin in room 34. Delirium tremens. I told no one.
My favorite pensioner was a guy named Chester E. Webb. He was a WW II veteran with shell shock. He roomed at the Pine Street Hotel in the Market. The Victrola Tavern was part of his rounds. He was slight of build and had that yellow tint that foretold cirrhosis. When his Vets check came he was off to the state bottle shop and locked himself away in his room until he drank his pockets dry. Then, out he’d come, panhandle some spare change and drop in for a Loganberry flip. He’d sidle up to the pool table when attention was averted and snake quarters. When he got too loaded the horrors came back. Agitated fear, mumbling, incoherence, again a tail gunner on a B27 crew. Again in the skies over Nazi Germany.
In those days Washington State had Blue Laws. Bars closed at 12AM Saturday night and didn’t open until 10 AM Monday morning. One night Chester passed out in a booth in back and Bill the night bartender didn’t notice. He stacked the chairs, stowed the till, locked up and went home. When Chester woke he must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven. By the time Butler the owner showed at 8AM Monday, there was Chester, passed out on the pool table. He’d messed his pants, stunk up the place, drank everything in reach, an ate the pickled pig knuckles and hard boiled eggs.
A few weeks later an underage kid tried to buy a drink and Bill carded him. The kid gave him shit. Bill gave the kid the bum’s rush. The kid found a stone and crashed the window. Bill ran out and as the kid ran, he stumbled, pulled a 22 and let off two shots. One caught Bill in the left bicep, six inches from his heart. Night time on First Avenue was not for the faint of heart.
The winos kept falling. The winter got colder. The Night Watch was impassive. Social Darwinism.
One night a group of longshoremen left the Union Hall, and chose the Victrola for a drinking hole. All was good, they bought pitcher after pitcher, laughed and kidded each other and plugged the jukebox with coins. They drank like this for a couple of hours. There was also the usual crowd, shooting pool, drinking, I was perched on a stool at the bar.
Without provocation, everything went sideways. Those guys grabbed pool sticks and started swinging at heads. They fast-pitched pool balls at people. It was silent and deliberate. I tried to grab a couple of them off my friends and found myself pinned by two of them each holding one of my arms. They hustled me over to the stairs that dropped down to a brick wall and the emergency fire exit to the alley. They tried to hurl me, head first, down at the wall. I went limp, sagged, gave no resistance, they lost their grip. I rolled under the pool table. They grabbed pool sticks and jabbed at me. One said “Let’s drop the pool table on this motherfucker”.
Someone yelled “The cops”, the longshoremen beat an exit. I can’t remember how I got to Harbor View Emergency. Two stoved in ribs, a fat lip, a soar back from kicks and jabs, and a black eye. The other regulars may have been treated at the scene, I had been knocked out.
My next morning shift at the Victrola, someone passed me a loaded pistol. One of those guns that shows up when you need it and you don’t ask questions. There I was, torn up and paranoid, with a gun. I didn’t even know how to use it.
A day or two later I was walking down 3rd and ran into Larry, a guy I knew from a theater group I’d been in. I called out to him. He looked at me like I was a stranger. He didn’t recognize me. He said “You can’t be Stan”. Larry had permanently fried himself on psychedelics and was a walking ghost. I too was a ghost, an alcoholic that didn’t see that I was. We two went our separate ways.
The winos continued to die in the doorways, the winter came with a vengeance. Within a week, I had cashed my chips. Had a road poke and a backpack. I was 27 and didn’t have clue but for two things I knew. 1. If I stayed in Seattle, I would die. 2. The southbound on ramp to Highway 5 south was walking distance. I have never really been back. Sobriety didn’t come for 4 more years.