The Derelicts of Skid Row

A graduate of the public schools and of the College of the City of New York who look his law degree at Harvard in 1934, JOHN M. MUBTAGHserved as chief magistrate to the city of New York from 1950 to 1900, when he was appointed chief justice of the Court of Special Sessions.I first became concerned with the Bowery and its habitues in 1950, shortly after my appointment as chief magistrate,” he tells us.


THERE are at least half a million derelicts throughout the United States. Yes, there is a skid row in your home town, be it West Madison Street in Chicago, Mission Street in San Francisco, the Bowery in New York, the Tenderloin in Philadelphia, Congress Street in Houston, Main Street in Kansas, the freight yard on the outskirts of town, or the blighted alley up the street from the village theater.

My skid row is New York City’s Bowery. For more than a century, the Bowery has been a kind of magnet for the miserable, for men and women seeking a dark place of escape. It is dotted with scores of moldering tan, red-brick, and blackenedframe flophouses, some dating back a hundred years. On its lonely beat live thousands of grimy unfortunates in almost every stage of decay.

A goodly portion of the drunks currently arrested in New York City are arraigned in night court, held since 1940 in the modern Criminal Courts Building in lower Manhattan, a little to the south and west of the Bowery, and within a stone’s throw of the historic Five Points area. Court is conducted in an imposing, mahoganywalled, air-conditioned courtroom.

I remember vividly the evening I first presided in night court. Court had been in session less than half an hour when a platoon of derelicts from the Bowery, twenty in number, made their appearance. The procession was slow, solemn, and sad.

The court officer read the complaint: “. . . and that the said defendants did annoy and disturb pedestrians.” He recited in detail the words that accused the defendants of disorderly conduct in violation of Section 722, Subdivision 2, of the Penal Law.

I looked at the tragic figures lined up before the bench — unshaven, drunken, dirty, down-and-out. Notwithstanding the impressive judicial setting, one was aware only of a compound of smell, noise, dirt, drunkenness, and sweating people packed into a big, but crowded, courtroom.

“You have a right to an adjournment to secure counsel or witnesses.” The court officer went slowly on with the usual formula.

“How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?”

The twenty pleaded guilty, one after another. Most of them were still drunk. I recognized one of the derelicts, Joe Kelly — tall, rawboned, his coarse white hair worn long and raggedly cut, his clothes filthy and tattered — as having been before me previously in district court and as having received a suspended sentence from me earlier that same week.

When I inquired facetiously if he were following me around, he hesitated, and I added, by way of explanation: “It seems you manage to get arrested whenever I am presiding.”

At that, a mischievous smile crept over Kelly’s gaunt Irish face with its week’s stubble of beard, and a gleam of sardonic humor flashed in his pale-blue eyes. “Sure and you can’t blame me, your Honor, if you don’t get promoted,” he replied.

I joined in the laughter, and then sent the twenty defendants out to be fingerprinted.

An hour later they returned to the courtroom. Several received suspended sentences. The others, who had a number of previous convictions, received fifteen or thirty days in the workhouse and went on their way to jail like a shadow parade of the hulks of sunken ships. Sunken men, gone. Their collective smell still fouled the air.

Almost of necessity I had followed the traditional sentencing policy that if a drunk is not too seedy and says he has a job, he is given a suspended sentence; otherwise, he is given fifteen or thirty days, depending on his condition. When l finished imposing the sentences, it occurred to me that most of them would be back again in a matter of days or weeks after their release.

This brought to mind Joe Kelly. But Kelly was gone. He had not returned from the fingerprint room with the other nineteen derelicts. Consternation reigned.

“Relax,” I said to the court staff. “Sentence suspended.”

The suspension of Kelly’s sentence for a second time within a week, this time in absentia, dispelled the panic and spared the arresting officers, Roy Nelson and Bob McCoy, the necessity of accounting to their superiors for the escape of a prisoner.

“Next case!” called the clerk explosively. “Officer Riley and ten peddlers.”

Night court was itself again. One arraignment followed another until shortly before 2 A.M., when the last arraignment was over.

“Good night, Judge,” said the clerk.

“Good night,” I responded as I proceeded into chambers with the court officer.

And there on a sofa was Joe Kelly in a deep sleep of peace.

“Don’t disturb him, let him sleep,” I whispered as I donned my coat and departed.

NIGHT court is truly the dismal dumping ground for the also-rans of society. The faces that had stood before the bench that night haunted me in the days that followed. Not fully appreciating the enigmatic nature of the problem, I vowed, somewhat naively, not only to do something about it but to do it quickly.

Nelson and McCoy, the arresting officers, were known to the Bowery habitués as “ragpickers.” Their daily assignment was the rounding up of derelicts along the Bowery from Chatham Square to Cooper Square, the most miserable mile in the United States. A tour of duty with them a week later made more vivid the tragic picture I had witnessed in night court.

Nelson was a tall, lean man in his fifties, with closely cropped brown hair, a sallow face, and amiable brown eyes. He wore a gray suit on the job and was always chewing gum. McCoy, a small, stocky man in his forties, was the pugilist of the pair. They worked from a patrol Wagon known as the “pie wagon.” Nelson, the more gregarious, did most of the talking.

“There’s one,” said Nelson. We were proceeding up the Bowery and approaching Rivington Street. We pulled over to the curb and parked. A man lay sprawled on the sidewalk. Nelson and I went over to him. McCoy went to have a look up the street.

The derelict was a huge man. He was only about forty-two, but grime, malnutrition, and a graying stubble on his sunken cheeks made him look much older. An unlabeled pint bottle containing a pinkish fluid lay at his side. He had no socks, and his bare feet protruded through holes in the soles of his shoes, his big toes sticking out of the uppers. A zephyr of alcohol confirmed an already obvious diagnosis.

“Well,” Nelson said, “darned if it isn’t Andy. He’s been around for years. Let’s go for a ride, fella.” He pointed to the man’s hands. “See the pink stains between the fingers? Canned heat.”

McCoy returned, and Andy tottered wearily into the wagon. With that we resumed our tour, and before we reached Stanton Street, Nelson pointed out the Salvation Army shelter. “That’s the ‘Sally,’ ” he said. “The Army is truly dedicated; they run a clean flop. But it’s not cheap — most of the guys pay seventy-five cents or a buck.”

In front of the Sally was a line of sodden unfortunates waiting patiently and silently on the street. “They’re waiting for the gates to open next door at the Bowery Mission,” said Nelson. “No grub and no flop unless you first listen to the preacher,” he observed. “The mess line winds through the chapel.”

At Third Street we turned east, and in a doorway just off the Bowery sat two drunks surrounded by cans of refuse. An empty bottle lay on the sidewalk in front of them. Nelson and McCoy roused them, loaded them in the wagon, and drove off. They, too, were well known to the police.

Down the street we passed the “Muni.”

“Anyone can get a warm flop and some grub here,” said Nelson.

The “Muni” is the Men’s Shelter conducted by the city’s Department of Welfare. Formerly a Y.M.C.A. residence, the Muni is the hub of Bowery life. In the winter several thousand stand in line for chow. Some six hundred are given lodging; several thousand are sent to commercial flophouses with a ticket for a night’s bed, courtesy of the city.

“Drunk or sober, any time of the day or night, a guy is welcome at the Muni,” mused Nelson.

When the pie wagon was full, we proceeded with our quarry back down the Bowery into Chinatown and to the Elizabeth Street station house. As I prepared to leave, Nelson made a parting observation: “These bums are endless,” he said. “Arrest fifty tonight, and you’ll find fifty more tomorrow night. And the next night. And the next. Sometimes I think we ought just to drop them at the Muni, rather than bother you judges.”

SINCE that time, I have tried to fathom the enigma that is the Bowery mile of misery. I have visited social agencies and missions in and near the Bowery. I have made the acquaintance of many of those whose lives are dedicated to helping the unfortunate. I have become fascinated by Alcoholics Anonymous, which has helped many whose problem is primarily alcoholism. I have been inspired by the spiritual zeal of men such as the Right Reverend Monsignor Charles B. Brennan, who conducts the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men on Bleecker Street. I have become acquainted with the personnel of the Department of Welfare, who operate the Muni and who conduct Camp La Guardia in Orange County, a rest home for the aged and infirm. I have come to realize that, as inadequate as the city’s program may be, it is properly regarded by the experts as “probably the most highly developed community program for the care of the homeless” in the United States.

I have attended the Summer School of Alcohol Studies ol Yale University (I now boast I got my law at Harvard, my alcohol at Yale). I collaborated with the commissioner of welfare in the establishment of a rehabilitation center at Hart Island and had my colleagues suspend sentence on all who volunteered to go to the center. I also created a special court known as the Homeless Men’s Court to make the entire proceeding more humane.

The problem is almost as old as the city itself. In the early 1800s, when Broadway and Chambers Street marked the outskirts of town and Times Square was a wilderness, members of the City Watch (New York City did not yet have a police department) spent virtually all of their time rounding up derelicts in the Five Points area of the old Sixth Ward.

In 1845 a police department was created, primarily to deal with Bowery derelicts. Originally an amusement center, the Bowery had declined and by this time was well on its way to becoming the city’s skid row. In the first ten years of the department, the number of drunk arrests totaled more than 100,000. By the 1870s the number exceeded 40,000 a year; one out of every three of the derelicts arrested was a woman; children as young as eleven years of age were arrested; the usual penalty was ten dollars or ten days in jail.

In his memorable vice crusade of the early 1890s, the fabulous reformer, the Reverend Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, called upon the police to make even more drunk arrests. He was shocked by the widespread inebriety that prevailed in the Bowery. One evening in 1892 he gained admittance to a flophouse and beheld dozens of drunks asleep on bare canvas cots, breathing heavily in the foul air. He put his handkerchief to his nose and exclaimed: “My God! To think that people with souls live like this!”

Since the turn of the century, there has been an increasingly tolerant attitude toward the Bowery derelict, but from time to time the conscientious —some in wicked triumph, some in honest pity, some because they recognize a community responsibility — call upon the city fathers to clean up the Bowery, More arrests follow for a week or two.

In the fall of 1935, during one of these periodic drives, a group of derelicts was brought into night court, then located in an old courthouse on West Fifty-fourth Street. They were charged with public intoxication. Many of them were still drunk. They were defeated men. They had no desire to fight constituted authority. One after another, they pleaded guilty. Then the court officer called the next case.

The charge was read: “. . . and that the said defendant did then and there commit the offense of . . .”The court officer rolled out the words that accused the defendant of public intoxication because he had been lying on the sidewalk while under the influence of liquor.

“How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?” The court officer’s final question was quiet, but insistent.

The defendant remained silent; his eyes seemed to be reflecting on something lying at his feet.

Magistrate Frank Oliver scrutinized him. He was long unshaven, dirty beyond belief, clad literally in rags, but younger than the others. He would not take his eyes off the floor.

“Look at me,” the judge said.

“Yes, your Honor.” He spoke with a refinement of accent that startled even the court officer. His brown eyes were gentle and questioning as he looked up. Then he seemed to find confidence somewhere, and he smiled as though the judge and he shared a little deprecatory joke. Only then, in the wrinkles of his smile, could it be seen how fully caked and black was the dirt that matched his beard.

“How do you plead to this charge, guilty or not guilty?” the judge asked.

“Not guilty, your Honor,” he answered slowly and almost in a whisper, as though he were talking to himself.

Then, his confidence again returning, he revealed himself as Louis Schleicher, a once promising assistant district attorney, and he moved to dismiss the complaint as being insufficient on its face.

To the obvious delight of the whole crowded courtroom, the judge granted the motion. He ruled that the police must allege and prove not only that the defendant was drunk in public, but that he was disorderly, that his conduct caused or tended to cause a breach of the peace.

And who, indeed, is less disorderly than a Bowery derelict? He sleeps on the sidewalk or in a doorway. In repose, he looks to be in his fifties. The mouth hangs open, and some of the upper teeth are missing. His face is streaked with clotted blood from a gash on his forehead. He wears work shoes without socks, and khaki trousers. A big safety pin holds his ancient brown coat together at the neck. His clothes are dirty and much slept in. The skin is gray, the lips are brown. The eyes are squinted shut, perhaps against the cold morning light, perhaps against a dream. He is part of the street scene. He disturbs no one. Visitors who stroll through the Bowery expect to see him.

It was not long after Louis Schleicher’s brief moment of glory that Chief Magistrate Henry H. Curran directed that all forms of complaint and commitment dealing with the charge of public intoxication be forwarded to judicial headquarters. He then had the forms destroyed. He was seeking thereby to implement Judge Oliver’s decision and to preclude the police from thereafter invoking the statute against public intoxication, confining the arrest of derelicts to instances in which they are at least allegedly guilty of disorderly conduct. As a result, the public-intoxication statute has never since been used in New York City, and drunk arrests made under the disorderly-conduct statute constitute only approximately 3 percent of the total arrests.

This is what Police Chief William H. Parker of Los Angeles had in mind when, in arguing against a proposed reduction in the annual budget of his department for the year 1959, he suggested wryly that perhaps the department should abandon its policy of harassing drunks in favor of the “New York system, where drunks arc left to lie in the gutter.”

Los Angeles each year has nearly 100,000 public-intoxication arrests, in marked contrast with New York City, where no such arrests are made. In New York, arrests of skid-row derelicts arc limited to instances in which the drunk is at least allegedly disorderly or dangerous and amount to fewer than 15,000 a year.

Chief Parker implied that the policy of not harassing derelicts is peculiar to New York City. He is right. Night after night in other cities, the police pick up drunks on the street — filthy, battered, sick, unutterably pathetic — and lock them up in the “drunk tank.” In the morning they are released or sentenced to a short term in jail, only to be picked up again soon after their release. Virtually all of these chronic drunks are recidivists. Many of them have been arrested several hundred times. Approximately one million arrests annually — almost half the criminal arrests in states throughout the country — are so-called public-intoxication arrests. More than half of the population of county jails throughout the United States is comprised of persons committed for public intoxication.

WHY do cities other than New York persist in an inhumane and unchristian approach to the skidrow derelict? Can we properly bear malice in our hearts for the poorest among us — empty, bewildered souls, born in the image of God — whose degradation our society and our culture helped create?

Incarceration never cured a derelict, never did and never will. The problem of the skid-row derelict is basically social, medical, and spiritual in nature. Whether the derelict is a true alcoholic or merely a problem drinker, he usually has a much more deep-seated pathology, an emotional disturbance, if you will, that is an enigma to all of the disciplines. The penal approach to his problem is at best but a feeble attempt to repair damage done in early childhood.

Why, then, do judges go right on sentencing men and women through an endlessly revolving door? Don’t they know the folly and futility of it all? Of course they do. But they say, “This is what the public wants. It wants these bums punished.”

But why? What drives people toward the urge for punishment? Ask them, if you will. Tell them how useless jails have been historically when it comes to reforming derelicts. And they will ask you, “How can you let such men go unpunished?” You might ask, “Arc they hurting you? Are you being threatened? When they overindulge, who are the losers, except themselves?” After you have made your most persuasive arguments, they will look you in the eye and reply, “It’s justice.”

But the obligation of a judge of a criminal court is to dispense mercy as well as to administer justice.

Psychiatrists who have studied the motivations of the urge to punish say this talk of impersonal justice is more often than not an outlet for people’s repressed aggressiveness. It is never he who is without sin who casts the first stone. Is it not likely that people cast their own sins, their own miseries, guilts, and hatreds along with the stones they throw? This is not to say that the derelict, abandoning all that is sacred and leading a life of utter degradation, is attractive or nice. But what right do the rest of us have to become so furious with him? Those who wish to see him treated as a menace to society ought to look into their souls and gauge their reasons.

So should the law. It is time to put the hostile public in its proper place and to stop dignifying its thirst for vengeance and instinct for hate, it is time the police and the judiciary, instead of following in the wake of a misguided public, assumed the responsibility of providing leadership toward understanding. Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the world’s greatest intellects, stated that the human law was limited to violations of the moral law that affected the common good. He taught that personal sanctity was a matter between the individual and the Lord Himself; that the function of the human law was not to make men saints but to give them peace and a chance to work out their own individual perfection, their individual sanctity. Sanctity will always remain an individual affair. Blackstone reflected the same wisdom when he pointed out that the purpose of the original public-intoxication statute, which was enacted in England in 1606 and which provided for commitment to the stocks for six hours, was to ensure that the individual did not “do mischief to his neighbors.” And, of course, this was the reasoning of Judge Frank Oliver and Chief Magistrate Henry H. Curran when they sought to restrict the arrests of derelicts to instances in which their conduct was disorderly.

We can help some derelicts by a modern therapeutic program. Alcoholics Anonymous does have the answer for some. We can help all of them by a more humane program of day-to-day care and relief. But we must seek the fundamental and ultimate answer in an improved society, a society that will produce fewer misfits, fewer inadequate human beings. We will neither solve nor ameliorate the problem by more vigorous police enforcement or sterner justice.

Chief Parker may well ask: “Would you then continue to permit the derelict to lie in the gutter?" The answer is simple. I would arrest the unfortunate who is a menace to the community, such as the derelict who is loud and boisterous or assaultive. I would have the police escort others for their own safety to a public shelter, to the Muni, as Officer Nelson suggested, there to remain, perhaps, for the cooling-off period of six hours. But there is no moral justification for the present program of wholesale arrests. Its only function is to keep depravity from becoming too assertively public.

Once we appreciate these almost self-evident truths, we must realize how farcical our primitive justice is and has been over the years. Today we recoil at the manner in which past generations used burning and whipping to curb crime. Is it not likely that future generations will read of our imprisonment of drunken derelicts with a similar sense of shock and outrage?