It Ain’t All Drugs: Fortified Wine, Vienna Sausages, And Liver Death

It was somewhere on Capitol Hill, early in my career as a police writer. I forget who I was walking with, but it was a DC foot cop on an afternoon beat. We were on a block of what had been nice houses, and still would have been with a lot of rehab.

We came to the end of the block and found several old black men sitting on a stoop with brown-paper bags nearby. They were drunks. The streets have a fair number of them, of all ages, colors, and sexes. They don’t get a lot of attention in the press. Drugs are sexier than booze.

The cop told them to move along. That’s the law. He didn’t make them pour out their hooch, which is the usual practice. Technically he should have. I don’t know how old they were. Decades of fortified wine and a diet of Vienna sausages and Ritz crackers make you look older than you are. I remember they stood up painfully and moved off slowly as if their joints didn’t work very well.

This was years ago and details have gone to wherever they go. I remember the cop said something approximating, “Why pour it out? It’s all they’ve got. They’d just get more.”

Go to a bad section of DC and count the liquor stores. I think I found 13 in a region four blocks on a side on that day. If I’m wrong, I’m not very wrong. Walk the alleys. Count the empty bottles lying among the condoms. Go out at night and watch the old women staggering and wetting themselves, the men sprawled in alleys, passed out. Talk to the ER people who get them when something quits.

Liver-failure isn’t always what does them in. Immune systems go down, whether from the ethyl or from the diet, I don’t know. Things that you or I would brush off take hold. Their blood pressure can get scary.

Crack isn’t the only problem out there.

It was in 4D somewhere that some officer and I answered a call and found the old lady lying on her floor with what seemed dozens of empty pint vodka bottles around her. She was white, white-haired, overweight, looked dead, and had saliva running out of her mouth. I remember he said she was a regular call.

You wonder what went wrong. I know all the psychobabble but somehow it doesn’t account for the facts. Once, for all I know, she was a pretty girl of nineteen and maybe had a boyfriend and went to a prom. Now she was unconscious human gunch. Detox might take her if it had space and she’d do it again by week’s end.

The places drunks live in are appalling. Abandoned houses are a favorite. You find floors covered with filth and sausage cans and sardine tins. They stink because the denizens often use the floor for a bathroom. Sometimes there are decaying mattresses stained by I’d rather not think what, and newspapers serving as blankets. Bottles lie everywhere.

Some of these guys-most of them are guys-panhandle for a few hours until they get the price of a bottle. They drink it, sleep it off, and do it again. Food gets forgotten. They’re messes.

From a cop’s point of view, the question is what to do with them. What do you do when you find a terminal drunk lying on his back at night in a snow-covered street? On a slow night, jail represents warmth and survival, and cops will sometimes arrest drunks for that reason. Sometimes jails are full, and detox too, and neither will take them. Then what? I’ve seen a cop take a guy out of the street so he wouldn’t get hit by a car, lean him against a fence, and leave. He didn’t like it, but didn’t know what else to do.

Society talks a good show about compassion, but doesn’t seem to do much for these folk. Of course, what one might do for them isn’t clear. Rehab seems chiefly a way to let nice people feel that they are helping, or at least to make it easier for them to ignore reality. You can’t put them all in Betty Ford. When they came out they would still have no life, no prospects, and no hope of either, so they would go back to the bottle. It ain’t pretty, and ain’t fixable, but cops have to deal with it every night of the week.

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