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That old refrain from Thunderbird Lane

Updated on October 4, 2014

Alcoholics Phenomenon-us: The Police Perspective

As I begin this article, I am reminded of the late George Orwell. The author had achieved fame from writing daring novels on the horrors of the State versus the Individual. Animal Farm and 1984 were mandatory reading in most school literature classes. But what should have been read more than these was his first work: "Down and Out in Paris and London", for this book told the truth about the problems of alcohol, addiction, and the relationship with poverty.

To explain the problem, let us go back in time to the nineteen eighties, and gather around a legendary liquor store, formerly located at Camac & Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. By reputation alone, there should have been a bronze plaque outside reading: "What's the word? Thunderbird. What's the price? Fifty twice!" The reason? This prime location catered to low-income alcoholic professionals; as the best cheap swill was right up front in quantity for your shopping pleasure.

Now let me familiarize you with the local terminology of the period. Thunderbird was a standard 750ml. bottle of wine that was priced at one dollar. The nicknames for the wine were: "The junkie monkey", "Thunder-chicken", "T-Bird" or simply, "Bird". The next most popular was a wine known as Night Train Express, affectionately expressed as "loco-moco". The reason that these wines were popular was not due to being the cheapest priced drink. There were other wines that were much cheaper. Bali Hai, Ripple, and Boone's Farm come to mind. No, the reason was that these two products of the vine registered at twenty percent and eighteen percent alcoholic content respectively.Therefore the "cheap high", or to quote Ogden Nash's: "candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker" stamp of approval applies here.

Now the store was arranged in such a way that you entered standing in an irregular line immediately. The clientele were inconsistent with the surrounding neighborhood business district. Local homeless, "Super-fly" style pimps, ladies of the evening, disturbed personalities and people in the slow downward process of addiction were your collective patrons. Nearly everyday, there were disturbances inside the store. So many in fact, that the State was forced to hire an armed security firm to protect the store clerks from patrons fighting or incidents of robbery or theft.

The employees became rather fond of the guards. One of them was a man from a country somewhere in the Middle East. He knew only six words of English, but they were very effective. When a fight would break out, the guard would respond by pulling his weapon and sticking it into the ribs of the person causing the problem, and say: "Leave now or I gill you" (with the accent on "G" instead of "K".) This always ended the incident, because they knew the man meant business.

Some of the local addicts were in such bad condition that they spoke even less English than the guard. One man who came into the store everyday, had a remarkable resemblance to a famous Hollywood comedian. He would come to the counter and point his extended index finger at the row of bottles and say one word: "Bird" in a drawn out manner. Another customer, who obviously was employed as a pimp would order a bottle of "The junkie monkey", pay for it, and then throw the small leftover change at the clerk shouting: "Keep the change .....boy." as he turned to leave. Yes, it was a wonderful place to work.

From a police perspective, carrying an open container of liquor on the street was expressly forbidden, and subject to arrest and fines. Most addicts did not play the "bag over the bottle" game but would carry their prize to some structure coined by us as an "abandominium", that was either an abandoned car or house somewhere along the way. Many would play the "Tunnels and Trolls" game by going into the subways and hiding in the numerous underground stairwells and cubby holes, out of sight and weather related issues.

The citizens in that era expected the police department to deal with this particular form of vice. The problem was that our Central Division jail cells were overcrowded with hard core criminals. Handling a "DK" for "drunk" was a nuisance issue. We would always receive a call from some charitable minded person, who would see a "lobster man" (steam vent homeless, who, over time, turned red from the steam) sleeping on a sidewalk steam grate and want us to do something to help. We could not explain to them that the man had rights to be there. The city had also initiated a policy that all cases of possible alcoholic related arrests had to be confirmed first by a doctor from a local hospital. You can imagine how the average doctor in a busy downtown emergency ward desired to see us bringing in a drunk to be confirmed as if we were bringing a sinner to receive absolution. We also were told that under no circumstances would overtime be allowed in handling such matters. The local turn-key, in charge of prisoners, would also not accept any prisoner who had not been declared officially drunk by a local doctor, and he was not happy to see you anyway, because he was constantly dealing with potential suicides in the jail and had to keep watch over every cell, every ten minutes.

Alcoholism can reach a sad state of affairs, especially when two drunks make an agreement to purchase a bottle of T-Bird and each consume half of the acquisition. I was sitting in my patrol car one afternoon and observed 2 such individuals open the bottle in an abandoned yard. After a few swigs one of them placed the bottle on the ground, but it toppled over and spilled nearly three quarters of the contents. The argument that followed looked like an old comedy routine with them yelling at each other and pulling their hair out. You would have thought the end of the world was nigh.

There is also a local church nearby that was open twenty four hours a day. The reason for this was that people involved in various vice activities would seek to go to Midnight Mass or have their confessions heard just after the bars and entertainment places closed at 2AM. The Priests called their place: "Confessions a go-go". This was due to a Go-Go Bar called "The Bird Cage" just down the street that featured provocative women dancing inside cages. Potential penitents would enter confessionals without checking if a priest was residing therein (they were often called out to hospitals to give last rites to the dying) and make their confessions. These confessions were, at times, heard not by a priest, but by local drunks who had snuck into the confessionals to stay out of the cold! Absolution was often given with slurred speech and a "buddy can you spare some change?" comment on their way out.

So how do you take action and avoid the pain of policy requirements that the public is not aware of? The "strategic re-location trick" was one way. Transport the intended to another location and let them out. In some cases, due to time, the re-location would be to a "walking distance" locale, like something out of The Twilight Zone. The person would be taken to an area and let go; where it would be several hours of walking toward the lights of center city for him to return and making it highly probable that he was sober by then. Another was the "Over the border trick". Districts are divided into zones of control and borderline districts are on another radio frequency. If you could get the person to walk, and you were close enough to a border, you would coach the person to continue north or south until they "crossed over" and then it was no longer your problem. Another was called the "Stop and Prop". If it was very late and you were forced to "do something" about a drunk you would move the person to a bench or tree somewhere on your way back to report off.

The truth is that this is a social problem that should be handled like other addictions. It is not a crime and certainly is not a Police matter in most cases. The shame of it is that even today, liquor stores still cater to the lowest common denominator of alcohol sales. If we really want to do something about this problem, one way would be to inhibit the availability of cheap liquor getting into the hands of the young and down and out homeless alcoholics by cutting back the stock available. Of course, the greatest profit is in these sales, so most liquor establishments would be disinclined to participate. But ask yourselves seriously, is this profit really worth it? Or does it cost us all more in the long run? As a retired officer, I beg you to consider the consequences to our society over the short and long term, and remember, this came from someone with first hand and first response experience.


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