I HAVE an extensive acquaintance among bootleggers. Not, let me hasten to admit, among those plutocratic gentlemen who arrive in limousines at the doors of great office-buildings to solicit orders for ‘genuine pre-war and imported stuff’; my acquaintance is among the men and women who manufacture the liquor up narrow dirty alleys and who sell it in small delicatessen-shops and cigar-stores.
I know them fairly intimately, for I know them through the social work I do with their children, and so am regarded as a family friend; and I know how much romance, how much power and plenty, ‘selling it,’ as they term it, puts into their dingy lives.
I am a social worker, not a propagandist, and I speak entirely without malice or preconceived opinion. What I have learned on the subject of Prohibition — and bootlegging — has been because it is continually under my eyes, because it is part of the existence of these boys and girls whom I am trying to help. There is little reticence about the matter; the children, and indeed the parents, are quite willing to tell one all about it — even to the best methods of evading the police. For those to whom the information might be useful, I may state that it is useless to bribe the police; they take the fifty dollars, but ‘they don’t give you no warning no more.’
There are many bootleggers for me to know; opposite our Neighborhood House, which is in the heart of the polyglot foreign district, there are three small shops in a row, all ‘selling it.’ Scattered up and down the block there are nine more, and up the four small alleys opening off the block there are more. How many I do not know, but at least two to each alley.
And all this in spite of rigorous lawenforcement. Ours happens to be the city recently declared to be the dryest in the United States, and the police are under a strong director who dismisses for the slightest neglect of duty. There are raids without number. And yet —
Law-enforcement is like going out with a shotgun to destroy a mosquito. These little businesses are so small, so insignificant, so slippery, that it is almost impossible to catch them, or, catching them, to break them up. A shop is closed and its proprietor is fined and sent to prison. Immediately a new shop opens next door, run by his wife or his brother, or by his eighteen-year-old son. The new shop is raided. Grown wary, the acting proprietor has taken care that there is nothing for the police to find but half a gallon of whiskey, a little homemade wine, parts of a still. In his turn, he of course has to pay a fine, which he can very well afford to do. The little shop makes so much money that a fine or two is a very small overhead expense. The man comes home, and a friend calls several times during the evening, each time with his pockets well filled; perhaps he carries a bundle as well, and business is ready to begin again.
The profession is carried on so that the risks are slight and the chances of detection are few. And even if he is caught it does n’t make much difference to the bootlegger. He can afford the fines and he accepts a term in prison with the same philosophy that other people accept a sojourn in the hospital — unpleasant but necessary. The little shops sell ‘it’ — as whiskey is always delicately referred to in humble bootlegging circles—by the drink or the small bottle. There is never more than a gallon on hand in these little shops. Occasionally there is a small still and a little is manufactured; but as a rule it is distilled in small quantities and in private homes. This is brought all day long to the distributing centres.
A buxom widow of my acquaintance, a German Jewess, runs a small delicatessen-store. Her son of twenty and her thirteen-year-old daughter help her. In the little kitchen back of her shop she sells whiskey by the glass to the rowdies of the neighborhood and to college boys; occasionally the car of a prosperous-looking man of sporting proclivities will stop there. Her son has a car in which he dashes up to the door every half-hour or so, his arms full of packages. He has established a number of small stills tended by boy friends of his — less progressive souls who are glad to be in the bootlegging game without the responsibility — in the cellars and garrets of their homes. What is not sold in the shop is taken at night once or twice a week to the nearest large seashore-resort. In dull times the widow clears five hundred dollars a week, in good times more. Her expenses are light: the upkeep of the car, the cheap and adulterated materials used in making the whiskey, the few bottles she fills, the wages of the boys who tend the stills. These have to be heavy, of course, for there is always danger that they may blow themselves up, and a certain amount is lost through the boys selling it on the sly. The widow complains that ‘you can’t trust nobody no more.’
Time and time again the widow’s shop is raided by the police, and the widow in her best feathered hat and fur coat rides away in the patrol; but little whiskey is ever found, and there is nothing that can be legally proved to connect her with the chain of small stills.
As does the widow, so do her neighbors on either side of her. Not until her friend and rival across the street, Mrs. Donelli, had been hauled into court for the ninety-third time and had been ‘away’ — the polite expression for a jail term — several times, did she grow discouraged. Now she has retired from bootlegging, and with her earnings has set up a prosperous butcher-shop in another neighborhood. Her daughters, swathed in handsome fur cloaks, with the latest in hats atop, parade back and forth from their home to the butchershop, and drop in on their old friends to discuss the happy and romantic days when they too were selling it. Black Joe, who has one of his numerous stills up one of the alleys, has progressed to a limousine and a white chauffeur. He no longer sells it by the drink; his whiskey is now sold by the case, ‘imported stuff’ with forged labels on the bottles.
The conditions under which the whiskey is made are foul and dirty. The dirtier the court or alley, the less chance there is for the sniffing official nose to detect among odors rich and rare the peculiar acrid odor of raw whiskey being distilled. The materials are, of course, the cheapest possible. If the customer feels that he has been cheated in his drink he can scarcely complain into the ear of authority. One shudders to think what these poisonous compounds must do to the human system.
If bootlegging is bad for the consumer, it seems to be of great benefit to the bootlegger. It is like a socialist’s dream gone mad. It is as though the great fortunes of the brewers and distillers had been confiscated and split up among the submerged, for which in good Red fashion they neither toil nor spin.
By a curious paradox the lawbreaker is lifted into the ‘good citizen’ class. From being a social problem, a drain on the relief organizations of the city, he stands on his own feet. He achieves a new decency. He ceases to live with his entire family and a boarder in one room. The children go to school with clean and whole clothes — galoshes and overshoes on his family’s feet are usually the first sign to the observant that a man has gone into bootlegging. The children are better nourished, the cheap and sensational movies are abandoned for the higher-priced ones showing ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ or ‘Peter Pan’; the public bathhouses with their fee of from five cents to a quarter are patronized oftener. Daring souls, after they have bought fur coats and an automobile, even install a bathtub. There is a little shy contribution to charity and plans are entertained for the children to ‘make the education.'
Nor is there any feeling of shame about the matter. Rather is there pride and self-satisfaction. Most of the bootleggers are foreign-born, without any inherited love for America or respect for her institutions. If Americans make these, to them, silly laws, which the Americans themselves don’t pretend to obey, why not profit by so delightful a state of affairs? This, indeed, is the America they came here looking for, a land in which a great deal of money can be made with practically no effort at all. The only thing that does worry them is what they consider the capitalistic greed which makes them pay fines and serve in prison when the proprietors of the big hotels and committees of rich men’s clubs go scot-free.
The bootlegger is a big man to his friends, able to take his place with the ward-boss as a dispenser of benefits. He is generous and he builds up an atmosphere of good will. When he is forced to go to prison, he is regarded with sympathy and the respect due to a sufferer in a worthy cause.
The children of the bootleggers have a not unenviable position among their mates. Here and there a youthful nose may be turned up at them in disdain, but there is a certain envy in that disdain. The son of the widow mentioned above is engaged to a well-to-do young Jewess of a respectable Jewish family. Before his engagement he ‘took out,’ with the entire consent of their families, two pretty, respectable young highschool girls, Christians — girls that he would scarcely have met if it had not been for the prestige of his car, his good clothing, his ready money, his supposedly dangerous and dashing life-work.
Of the absolute lowering of standards, of the twisted point of view, of the distaste for honest work and contempt of authority, which all this money made so easily, this pleasant reward of unrighteousness, is going to give the boys and girls, it is dreadful to think. The little boy who told me that the greatest thing in the world is to be rich, and that the easiest and best way in the world to get rich is ‘to sell booze to bums,’ expressed an opinion lamentably common.
Those who are trying to set in motion an effort to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment wall have two factors to fight: the sincere and earnest, believers in Prohibition, — there seems to be little doubt that in some parts of the country it is a success,— and the bootlegger.