David C. Hamilton
David Hamilton

Fellowship Title:

“Life Without Wine is No Life at All”

David Hamilton
April 28, 1972

Fellowship Year

April 21, 1972 New York

Grappling in the semantic murk: “Leisure”, the word, is a hard one to handle. What does it mean? Ask around. “Spare time,” one says, or “the time when you’re not at work.” A third cautions that work, a job, an occupation, is implicit in the term. Man cannot have leisure without having come from a job.

Curious work, asking after the meanings of word-symbols without the aid of a standard dictionary, but interesting work, and important sometimes, for the language breathes and grows as a living being and those whose labor it is to chronicle it can be found lagging, sometimes. Webster, one such, has “leisure” as “freedom or spare time provided by the cessation of activities” or “a period of unemployed time.” Also: “apparent effortlessness” or “calm deliberation” and as “opportunity provided by free time” or the “duration of such activity.” The Oxford English Dictionary, tracing from the Fourteenth Century, lists “freedom or opportunity to do something specified or implied” and “opportunity afforded by freedom from occupation” and “the state of having time at one’s disposal; time which one can spend as one pleases; free or unoccupied time” as basic descriptions of the term.

What is interesting is that the common use of “leisure” has centered on just one of the offered understandings: Webster’s first, the Oxford’s second. “Leisure” describes to us something that is not; that is, the activities of a person who is not engaged in another activity: work. This secondary treatment ignores an acceptable primary concept: the state of having time at one’s disposal; time which one can spend as one pleases; free or unoccupied time.

What follows is an initial attempt — so far unsupported by any special or statistical information — to indicate that the lesser concept of “leisure” has currency; in fact, that it is necessary to an adequate description of the activities of a certain (growing?) population for whom leisure is not time away from work, it is a life.

The intersection of Lafayette and Houston Streets in Manhattan is an American crossroads: two gas stations, a factory/warehouse and an empty lot. Traffic seldom ceases — automobiles gliding uptown, pedestrians seeping from a subway exit, trucks grumbling to and from the surrounding warehouse district.

If it is notable, this conjunction of everyday forces, it is because the warehouse has inset in a corner of the third of its seven stories a gilded statue of Puck, as unsettling in its personal time warp as a freshly-painted house in a coal town.

Puck gazes down from three floors up, though, and it is doubtful that many of the passers-by notice. What they are more likely to see are close-set metal treads on the entrances to the warehouse whose teeth undulate three-quarters of an inch above surface level. Ask a loiterer at the corner what their purpose is and he says they are to aid workers carting heavy boxes in wet or icy weather. Perhaps he doesn’t notice that the treads also are placed on the ledges of the building’s sidewalk-level window easements; perhaps he cannot afford to.

They are put there to discourage loitering, in fact, for the corner of Lafayette and Houston Streets is an urban outpost for one of America’s mythical breeds, the bum (hobo, tramp, wino, drunk, vagrant — he has attracted many names). “Hobo” perhaps is a preferable term (“usually penniless. . leads a largely vagrant life often by choice . . . occasionally works at odd jobs”) but the men call themselves “bums” and their generalization for their lifestyle is “on the bum.” They don’t ask much of life — a dime for a cup of coffee, a few pennies to complete the purchase of a bottle of wine, occasionally a quarter — but they ask often. Thus Lafayette at Houston is a favored spot: The afternoon sun rests there and the care and the people never stop coming by.

Paul Williams, 53, 25 years away from Hardin County, Ky., agrees to sit for a spell on the metal gratings of the Puck building and talk. The talk is cheap; he will exchange his time and the chance to pick up some small change for my two dollars. It in superficially simple — he answers each question with an easy, soft manner — but subtly difficult — his answers are almost invariably single sentences devoid of contemplation. What emerges is bare description, with few inferences available.

How long has he been here? “’Bout three months.” Why is he here? “Well, I was workin’ over on the West Side, loadin’ in a warehouse. Too much help and business is too slow…naturally you’re gonna keep your older men. Everybody does.” Couldn’t he find another job? “You get so old they don’t want you anymore.”

Where does he live? Paul Williams pulls out his wallet and offers up a small, white card, identifying himself as a recipient of aid from the New York City Department of Social Services. (Read it: welfare.) In New York, a man out of work, ineligible for unemployment, can be put on the welfare rolls, entitling his to a room in one of the many seedy men’s hotels on or surrounding the storied Bowery, and three meals a day at the Men’s Care Center. The aid also has seen Paul Williams through care and medication for a recent mild case of tuberculosis.

Why, if he has welfare, is he on the street? “They give you your room and your meals,” he says, “but nothin’ else. You got no way of getting’ a haircut. I get tobacco money and expense money…razor blades, soap.” How often is he here? “One, two days a week. I quit after getting’ seventy-five cents, a dollar, just enough for tobacco, razor blades, soap.” He pulls a blue packet of Sailor tobacco from his jacket. “Can’t afford tailor-mades,” he says, smiling for the first time. I offer him a Pall Mall. “Used to be my brand,” he says.

There has been another kind of life for Paul Williams. It is difficult to trace precisely, and the point at which he abandoned it is impossible to get to.

“My regular work is short-order cookin’ and there’s none of it around,” he says. “I do some steam cookin, deep fat or the grill, but I rather do fry cookin’. Wintertime, those jobs are few and far between — so many guys come back from the resorts.” He mentions another job, back in Kentucky; “drivin’ crosscountry.” “Me and two other fellas formed a road cab company to take the soldiers from Ft. Knox to their homes. We was sittin’ in a bar across the street from the bus station, corner of Fifth and Broadway in Louisville, and we noticed the soldiers standin’ around waitin’ for the bus. ‘Why not get some cars and haul ‘em out there?’ So we bought out a used car lot at the corner, lot and all — the other two, they had the money, I was just along for the ride. Of course, we charged them more, but…” He made good money, Paul Williams says. “Four-day trip, you could make $500. But you don’t get those trips every day.”

“Ft. Knox,” he says a little later, “just little old muddy roads through there. Now it’s a city. You can get lost in Ft. Knox.” The road cab business, begun in 1942, lasted about three years.

Other jobs: “I was in Cincinnati for three years, the Gibson Hotel Coffee Shop, Hub Café…” How he got there is interesting. “I was tendin’ bar on an excursion boat on the Ohio. We put in for a four-day stay at Cincinnati, runnin’ moonlight excursions. I got off the boat one night and I guess I had a little too much money in my pocket. Got mixed up with a broad, you know, messin’ around. Came back to the boat next day and I guess I was about half looped and it had left an hour before. But I guess I was lucky. They went up to Pittsburgh and blowed up — killed 77 guys.” That was 15 or 20 years ago, Paul Williams says, and he can’t remember if it was the “Island Queen” or the “Ottawa” that died it Pittsburgh.

He mentions coal mining in Hardin County “but the coal mines are worked out. My brother-in-law has a 200-acre farm down there with a coal mine on it. I used to go down there for a little vacation and hold say, ‘Say Paul, I got somethin’ for you to do.’ and I’d know what it was. He wanted to got enough coal outta there for the winter.” Would Paul Williams consider exchanging his New York City welfare for farm work? “Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” he says, “but what do I know about farmin’?”

He turns down the offer of a second Pall Mall — a small first sign that there is a careful, if blurred, system of ethics at work in the man. He smiles again, suddenly, and makes the only statement of the conversation that is not a response: “Say, this is somethin’ like livin’ my life over again — I don’t think about it too often.”

What does he do, in this remainder of a life? “Well, they feed you breakfast at 7 AM, so I got up by about 6 or 6:30 AM.” What then? “Go back to the hotel and do a lotta readin’.” What? “Books. . Get me a newspaper. I like detective books, Perry Mason…I guess I read them all. Westerns…Zane Gray…I guess I read them all.”

Two days a week, usually, he says, he is on the street, begging. “I don’t got down here ‘til 10 or 10:30, mostly.” What is his method? “Very seldom ask a woman, ‘specially if she’s in a car by herself.” (Ethics, again.) “Truck drivers are nice…they’ll usually give you a dime or a quarter. If they can smell wine on you nothin’.”

He gets the half-dozen blocks uptown for lunch (in his Midwestern parlance, “dinner”) between 11 AM and 1 PM. Afterwards, it’s the same routine, “or go up to bed and go to sleep.” Dinner (supper) is between 5:30 and 6. “I let that first rush get through, ‘cause I can’t move too fast.” After dinner, “most of it I sit in the TV room.” “A comedy or a Western…somethin’ like that” is what he watches. Only a hotel employee may change the channel; the men are at the mercy of his critical taste. Paul Williams believes that “Bonanza,” a TV favorite, has gone off the air. His favorite program is “I love Lucy,” a re-run staple. He usually goes to bed, he says, around 8 PM.

Are there alternatives to this life? Family? “My wife’s dead,” he says, “and we didn’t have no children. I got a brother in Wadsworth, Ohio. He’s not workin’ no more. . He don’t do nothin’ no more.”

Billy is just into town from Boston and he wonders if you could help him out. The lips that say the words are split and a half-dollar scab on the left cheekbone testifies to need. “Got messed around last night,” he says, smiling enough to threaten the broken lips. His slurred tone testifies, however, that a pint of port has already answered some of the need. What was he doing in Boston? He shrugs. Is fifty cents enough?

Unknown male, a.k.a. drunk, stands uncertainly on the Bowery boulevard at the Houston Street intersection. (The term is as ungainly as the man, but as “boulevard” is to tree-lined streets, “Bowery boulevard” is to the littered concrete that divides lanes of traffic on the Bowery.) The man is willing to talk, but only on the green light; the red summons him to the cars and the chance of a dime.

His topcoat is ill-fitted, and he complains of the day’s (first spring) sun. He has been around here three years running, part of six years beyond that, and he admits cheerfully, lives in the streets most of the time. In the winters, he sleeps behind a cardboard shield in narrow store entrances, on the steps of subway exits, or standing up in apartment building foyers.

The conversation has natural punctuation marks: the red/green traffic signal pulse. He is hot to tell about his past loves, especially a women with one kidney and one ovary and (his hands transcribe a road map) scars all over her belly, Another is 80 years old. “Hey, you should see this gal!” He also describes himself in detail as the inheritor of $400,000, which, in the narrative, is transformed in a night into many bottles of wine and fifty cents with which to purchase a rose for the grave of a love at whose death he was unfortunately absent.

He has a question for the questioner: “Are you Jewish?” No offense intended.

He is black, his clothing all shades of grey, and his shuffle, slope-shouldered and tilted down the sidewalk, worthy of a slow-motion Muhammed Ali. He want, let’s see, 13 cents, I’ve already eaten, just 13 cents toward a bottle of wine. Here’s a quarter, sir, get some coffee, too. Say, thanks, say, you want me to bring you back some? No thanks, I’ve got some at home; you drink yours, I’ll drink mine.

He walks away in straight, sure steps, to the wine store.

Charles H. Smith (“Call me Smitty”) is banging windshields, as usual, on the eastward Houston side of the Houston/Bowery intersection. Steve is waiting, as usual, in the shade of the building on the south side of Houston.

(“Banging windshields,” to the uninitiated, is, loosely, cleaning them. Doubtless, no one knows where the practice originated, but I have heard that pro-teenagers in Harlem, servicing automobiles on the exit ramps of the Harlem River Drive, were the pioneers. The practice is abomination (flinging a usually greasy rag across what might be a cleaned windshield and hoping for payment); its practitioners audacious. It is commonplace in the Bowery district.)

Smitty agrees to stop into the shade to talk. He explains to Steve, his friend, with whom he will share his booty, that be is about to be interviewed by a newspaperman. “Here,” Steve says, “let me start this story, out.”

“Naw,” Smitty says. “He’s the reporter, he knows what he’s doing, let him alone.”

Steve, undeterred, motions again for my pad and pencil. “Let me,” he says. I give him the equipment, and he carefully prints the following:

To whom it might Concern.
This wiping windshields is quite a thing (It is an experience that you don’t see everywhere. (This is New York) But another thing you can have a wonderful time (in good weather) doing this — just wipe & say Have a good day.)

“Yeah,” Smitty says in response to a question, “I been here since about nine-ten months ago, been here before, on and off for three years. My father died and left me fourteen-hundred in the will, left five-hundred to my son too, and five-hundred to some church groups. Blew it in four months. Went to my head.” Smitty talks staccato like that, but, like Paul Williams, is unwilling to make any eye contact, or to pursue an answer very far past a sentence. “I drank,” he says, “and gave it to my buddies. Went to my head. Then it was beek to New York, wipin’ windshields and deliverin’ circ’lars.”

“I’m an entertainer.” How’s that? “Singin’ in bars for tips, passin’ the hat. Used to work right around the corner here at the Gay Nineties, but the owner died. Used to deliver the Hobo News, you remember that?, but the owner died.”

Smitty, who is 49 and is from Baltimore, used to do a lot of things. He was a pipefitter’s helper in the Baltimore shipyards, has washed dishes and done odd jobs in the Catskill resorts, driven truck, worked on a farm, and, well, by the manner in which he reels off job titles and the way new ones keep popping up in his tale, it is certain that he has performed just about every manual task available.

The one he keeps returning to, his favorite, is entertainment. “I’m a mimic,” he says, “Tennessee Ernie, Inkspots, Spike Jones, Al Jolson.” He performs a finger-pop and tongue-click imitation of an Inkspots tapdance as proof. “In 1944, ‘45, ‘46, I worked USO shows, six-week contracts, $120 a week. Worked out of Chicago — “The Windy City”.” He lost his wife that way: “I was workin’ a contract and she run off with my best friend. I just went in and signed the papers.” That was about it as far as family in concerned. He has a son — “Clifford H. Smith Jr.” — who lives in Columbus, 0., is married and has a job with Western Electric. “They’re very religious,” Smitty says. “I saw them last summer, that’s when my father died, he was a carpenter. My son got me a couple jobs but I got drunk, got drunk arrests here and there — three in Columbus, Ohio. Yep.”

Smitty wouldn’t follow his father into carpentry — “I took up show business.” And he hasn’t much prospect with his only other relatives, an aunt and uncle in Thurmont, Md. They’re farmers. “It’s too hard of a work,” Smitty says. “I’m gettin’ old.”

Age is getting to be a problem as concerns work. “I’m too old now,” Smitty says. “Manual labor is all.” He, too, is on welfare, and gets his lodging paid for. What does he do all day?

“Well, I got up about 7:30 for breakfast, or 6:30 if I’m gonna try to deliver circ’lars. Shape up’s at 6:30. Then I come up here and bang windshields, make a buck here and there, honest work. Make a buck or two, dependin’ on my mood. Hippies are pretty good, give you a quarter or a half a dollar. They know what it’s like to be poor. Wipe windshields, screw around, have a couple bottles with my friends. Just screw around.” Smitty prefer’s white port and sunny days. If the sun’s not out, his schedule is changed. “I mostly stay in the hotel. Take a shower, shave.” He inspects his fingernails, which are clean. “I listen to the radio, hillbilly music, classical — anything with rhythm, go to sleep, take it easy. Don’t read much — I only went to the fourth grade.” In response to a question, he says, yes, he goes to the movies often, and mentions a house on 14th Street that specializes in pornographic fare.

How long can this last? Smitty is pretty sure forever. “I’ll just stay here, I guess, screw around, take it easy.” Is he happy? “Yes.” Does he lack anything? “A pretty woman.” He laughs.

Smitty has criticism for his peers. “Most of these guys you see around here are jack rollers, penny ante crooks, muggers. All these flophouses you see around here are from the Bowery down to Chinatown are full of ‘em, put up by the Department of Social Services.” He has plans to get away, sort of. “I’m goin’ up to the mountains this summer, save up two-hundred dollars,” he says. “Goin’ up to the mountains, save up about three-hundred dollars.” He pauses. “Coupla days, I’m broke again, back on the bum again.” Then it’ll be back to his old style, and Smitty has one: “If someone don’t want his window washed, I just say, ‘Thank you — have a good day,’ and I don’t bother ‘em.”

Steve, who has sat a few feet away through all of this, rouses as we stand up. “How ‘bout it, Smitty, are you gonna split?” he says. “Tell you what,” smitty says. “I’ll give you one dollar.” At the eight of money changing so many hands at once, a small, very interested group gathers. One is distinguished by the tears welling in his eyes and his outstretched palm. A bearded, 20ish youth who has been shadow-boxing a lamp post through most of the conversation — waiting for a buddy who is banging windshields — approaches. Two bums, by their appearance and accent Cuban, stop to request/demand “one big jug.”

“Leave him alone,” Smitty tells them. “He wants the same thing you do.”

Received in New York on April 28, 1972.

©1972 David Hamilton

David Hamilton is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from Newsday. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Hamilton, Newsday, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.