Thursday, April 19, 2007

Down on the Bowery

Elizabeth Zelvin

Death Will Get You Sober starts with my protagonist waking up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day. The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, has long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter.

I first went there in 1983. For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right. I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street.

The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison. They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

One elderly gentleman slid off his stool and announced, “I’ll go!” He was small and grizzled, and I remember his baggy black and white checked pants. Chatty in the police car as we drove the short distance back to Third Street, he told me he’d once been a social worker himself. Not likely, the cop told me.

I kind of telescoped the gentrification of the Bowery in the book. But the shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

1 comment:

Regina Harvey said...

What a great description of your setting, Liz. I can really see it (and almost smell it). Can't wait for the book!