"Brothers and sisters, Hell is growing. Hell is growing by leaps and bounds..." the preacher's voice droned on. Paul sat as far back as he could, wishing the asshole would shut up so he could get the bowl of soup that he had come there for and he could join his buddies drinking wine in the park a few blocks away.
"I wish I didn't need to eat so I wouldn't have to listen to this fucking ear-banging," he groused to himself. He knew he had to eat, though, so he tried to shut the voice out as well as he could.
It wasn't all that hard because the preacher had a very dull and monotonous voice and Paul was almost dozing after a while. Finally, he stopped talking and the collection basket was passed around. As usual, none of the winos sitting on the folding chairs put any money in. Paul had almost five dollars in his pocket and some of the others probably had a little money but, like Paul, they were saving it to buy wine, not to give to some stupid preacher. There were a few men who had come there with the man who had just finished boring his audience, and they dropped their contributions into the basket. After a prayer of thanks for the money they had just donated to themselves, the service was over. It was time for soup, but first the preacher had to give a prayer of thanksgiving for that. Not that he would ever eat any of it, and nobody who would eat it was even the least bit thankful.
Mostly the soup was carrots and celery but it was warm and the stale bread was more palatable after being soaked in the broth. Paul ate everything he had, looked around for more and left after finding none. He and some others headed for the park; others went to other places where they would drink cheap wine for a while, and still others headed for Market Street or other places where they hoped to beg enough money to buy cheap wine. The wine they drank had two virtues; it was fortified so the alcohol content was 20% and it was cheap. A fifth of the rotgut cost 65 cents.
Before he got to the park, Paul rolled a cigarette from his sack of Bull Durham, and considered buying some actual cigarettes, known as tailor-mades to Paul and the other winos he was going to hang out with. He decided against spending the additional money but he did buy more Bull Durham as well as a fifth of white port at the liquor store on the way to the park. The white port would be shared with the other winos because they shared their wine with him when he was broke and needed to get well. Just then, with about four dollars in his pocket, Paul was fairly well off for a Skid Row wino so he would probably buy another bottle later.
At the park, Paul joined a cluster of men sitting on benches under a tree. Some of them were known to him by name and others by sight. "Hi, Paul," Duke greeted him, looking around for the cops. Seeing none, he handed over a brown paper bag that contained a bottle of wine. He was called Duke because he claimed to have graduated from Duke University and to have once been a CPA. Nobody believed him but they didn't express any doubt because everybody there claimed to have been a professional or successful businessman of some kind before ending up on Oakland's Skid Row. Paul also looked all around to see if any police were in the vicinity. There were none around just then so he opened the bottle, took a healthy swallow and passed it to the man next to him, who drank from it and passed it on. In a few minutes, when this bottle was empty it would be thrown in the trash and the bottle that Paul had just bought would make the rounds the same way.
Out of habit, every man looked for the police before drinking. In most cities, the police ignored the winos in a place like this park where they were hanging out. In some cities, the police were actually protective of them but in Oakland, winos were considered to be easy prey. Periodically, in order to pad their arrest records, or maybe for some other reason, nobody knew why, the cops would sweep into places like this and haul everybody off to jail, charged with public drunkenness. Every man there had served short stretches in the county jail. It was a fact of life, a nuisance that they accepted like other people accepted ants at a picnic.
Conversation was desultory, mostly about women they claimed to have fucked or about how well off they used to be and would be again if they only got a decent break. "I owned the biggest car dealership in L. A.," Paul bragged, uttering not a word of truth. "Had a big fucking house and a butler and three maids. Used to fuck the maids all the time. Good-looking cunts they were, too." The others nodded solemnly, believing not a word.
"If I get a chance, I'll leave this fucking place and go back and open again. Good business, a car dealership. I'll be rich again in no time."
Three days earlier, President Kennedy had been assassinated but nobody talked about that. They were all aware of it but it didn't impact their miserable lives in any way so they didn't say anything about it. Their conversation was limited to lies about sex, their former finances, and what they would do if they "got a break".
When Paul's wine was all drunk and the empty bottle joined the previous one in the trash can, he offered to buy another. "Who wants to make the run?" As a matter of custom, except under unusual circumstances, the person paying for the wine did not go to the store after it. Usually, some person who had not contributed financially did that, and there was some risk in it, from cops, of course, and from muggers, who also preyed on winos, usually when they could catch them alone.
This time Carter, who claimed to have been a doctor, returned safely with the new bottle of white port and handed it to Paul, who ceremoniously turned it upside down and shook it. There was a good reason for doing this. The worst tasting and most unhealthful part of the white port tended to rise to the top as the bottle sat on a store shelf and shaking it distributed it so the whole bottle was equally bad. "Runner gets the first drink," announced Paul, handing the bottle back to Carter who, after checking for cops, unscrewed the top and took a healthy jolt of what he knew would eventually kill him if he drank it for a long time. As the man who had paid for the wine, Paul took the second drink and after that, it made the rounds as the others had.
After Paul's second bottle was empty, he decided he had paid his dues for now and left the group. He had no need to give a reason so he didn't. In his pocked was still more than three dollars and Paul knew he would need another bottle of wine before he could fall asleep in the abandoned house where he and some other winos were staying, so he left the group to avoid treating anybody else.
As he walked around the corner, three young men swarmed out from an alley to attack him. The first one grabbed him from behind and the second one punched him in the stomach. Paul doubled up, allowing the third one to kick him in the head, stunning him. He went down and repeated kicks in the head and sides kept him there. Paul didn't know it when the three men cleaned out his pockets, taking whatever money and tobacco they could find, and ran off, leaving him soaked in him own vomit and bleeding from his head and nose. Paul had fallen victim to muggers, the other menace to winos in Oakland.
When he came to his senses, Paul was lying on a smooth cement floor in a well-lighted room. Looking around at the others there with him, he knew he was in a holding cell in the drunk-tank of the Oakland jail. Nobody ever told him what had happened and he never asked but he assumed the cops had driven or walked by and seen him lying unconscious on the sidewalk. From his appearance and the smell of the wine, they had assumed he was passed out drunk and hauled him away to jail. His injuries were messy but not life-threatening so the cops had ignored them. That he might have been an assault victim may have entered their minds, but if it did, they ignored the possibility.
After getting off the floor and sitting on a bench to await processing, Paul groaned, partly from his injuries and partly because, on his last arrest, he had been given a thirty day suspended sentence. That meant that this time he would do the thirty days in the county jail with no money, no tobacco and no way to get any. Paul leaned forward, hunched his shoulders and cursed his luck.
* * * * *
This is not a true story but it is a true to life story of winos living on the street in Oakland.