How San Francisco Sobers  'Em Up.

Liberty Magazine, 1949


The Golden Gate city, ashamed of having the highest percentage of arrests for drunkenness, and alarmed by the number of suicides in its drunk tanks, will soon have the nation’s most fabulous clinic for alcoholics.

By CLINT MOSHER

READING TIME 15 MINUTES. Late on the after-noon of last January 14 a housewife in Berkeley, California, observed a car parked at a crazy angle. A woman was at the wheel and she appeared unable either to park the car properly or to get out of the vehicle. The observer called the police.

A policeman found that the woman driver was obviously drunk. He suggested that she lock her car and go home in a cab. She became belligerent. Having exhausted his powers of persuasion, the policeman called for a patrol car.

The woman, wife of a minor government official, was booked as a drunk and lodged in a cell by the woman’s portion of the Berkeley city jail. Twice in the next two hours she was granted permission to use the telephone, but her frantic appeals to relatives and friends for help were unsuccessful. At 8.55 P.M., the matron, making her hourly check, observed the prisoner sitting quietly on the edge of her cot. She wrote later in her report: "She seemed quite resigned." At the ten-o’clock check, the matron found the prisoner had hanged herself with a strip of cloth torn from her slip. She had used the iron grille of the cell door as a gallows. And scribbled on the gray wall, in the crimson marking of her lipstick, was this message:

"You don’t know. I’ve gone through a thousand hells tonight."

The suicide of this woman was the most spectacular of several similar incidents in the San Francisco Bay area in which persons confined for the night to various drunk tanks, as they are called, ended their lives in fits of alcoholic depression.

News of the woman’s death stirred San Francisco, and at long last caused to burst into flame a plan for a revolutionary treatment of alcoholics – a plan that had been smoldering for several months.

And as this is written, San Francisco, the city with the unhappy distinction of having the highest percentage of arrests for drunkenness of any large municipality in the nation, is well on the road toward the establishment of a unique clinic to help those whose proximity to the bottle has deprived them of the power to help themselves. The label; of "alcoholic" will be intentionally omitted from the clinic. It will be known simply as the Adult Guidance Center.


The plan involves more than the mere elimination of the drunk tank. There will be provided everything from psychiatry and vitamins, to lessons in what an alcoholic should eat to calm his stomach nerves, and how he can get past the swinging doors, provided, of course, he wants help and has not extended his drinking career to the point to no return. If he is not readily salvageable, he will be sent either to a state hospital, where he can do a minimum of harm and may still recover; or to a custodial farm, where he will be safe from crime and accident.

As part of this modernized procedure, the alcoholic will be able to receive treatment at cost and with the protection of anonymity. The plan is no bluenosed formula for reducing drinking, but a healthy arrangement for helping the person who wants to stop and can’t. A city as robust as San Francisco would accept nothing less. Its residents always like to boast that San Francisco is the "city that knows how," and under this program it is being geared to do more to solve the problem of alcoholism than any of its sister municipalities.

The man behind this crusade is the city’s district attorney, Edmund G. Brown, a 43-year-old prosecutor and family man who always appears to be on his way to or from a gymnasium locker room and has a habit of jumping out of bed at 6 A.M. and exclaiming, "Boy! I feel great!" The description suggests an overexuberant bore who rattles the ribs of less hardy souls by slapping them on the back and damaging their eardrums with sonorous greetings. Such is not the case. Brown’s vitality springs from a hardy constitution.

"Pat" Brown, as he is popularly known, can take a drink or leave it alone. Actually, two circumstances, neither connected with the idea of reform for reform’s sake, started him on the road at the end of which San Francisco’s Adult Guidance Center will rise. The first involves a two-block route which Brown must follow daily from his office to the Hall of Justice.

The district attorney’s offices are in a building in a less expensive block of San Francisco’s financial center, Montgomery Street. One block over and one block up, on Kearny Street, is the Hall. In between, the neighborhood degenerates rapidly into a series of taverns and tenements outside of which drunks sprawl despite the nearness of the drunk tank and the law.

The other circumstance was a more personal one. Liquor got the better of a capable lawyer on whom Brown depended for legal assistance. Another of Brown’s friends, also a professional man, teetered on the edge of ruin because he couldn’t stop drinking. Two others, one a newspaperman, were in the same predicament.

Brown, of necessity, had to walk around the drunks who lay in his path as he went from his office to the Hall. With his friends, he tried tactful advice. When that failed, he decided something had to be done, both for the street drunk and for the alcoholic who is coming apart in a less public but equally fatal manner.

He began by persuading a friend, Emmet Daly, a former F.B.I. agent and recently released Naval Intelligence officer, to become a special assistant to the district attorney, with the job of finding out how drunk San Franciscans get, how they are treated, and what should be done about it. Daly, in his oldest suit, headed for Skid Row, a stretch of several bottle-clustered blocks south of San Francisco’s broad Market Street.

Even the most cloistered clubman on plushy Nob Hill is vaguely familiar with what happens to the men on the wrong side of the Market Street trolley tracks when they panhandle 30 cents for a pint of wine and proceed to gulp it down, But a district attorney needs more than a notion to win a case. Daly went out after the equivalent of the corpus delicti.

He had no trouble finding drunks in Skid Row. They were sprawled in doorways and some lay in the gutters. He stood near one who had collapsed in a doorway and waited until the paddy wagon arrived to haul the man to the precinct station. He followed to see what would happen. He learned that the custom is to lock up drunks at the station house until another wagon arrives from downtown to take them to the drunk tank.

If the drunk can pull himself together in the interval between his arrival and that of the wagon from headquarters, he goes free. Otherwise he faces a night in the tank. At times there have been alternate results, as happened one night when two drunks, collected at separate places, were lodged in a single station-house cell. The jailer observed they were too stupefied to engage in the jail-house chatter. He expected no trouble. But later, one of the two made a noose out of his shirt and hung himself while the other stared glassily at the proceeding.

But the drunk whom Daly followed to the station had no suicidal intentions. Neither could he pull himself together. The wagon from the Hall arrived and the drunk tank automatically became his destination.

The tank is not a single enclosure, as its name suggests. It consists of a block of 14 cells, each six by seven feet. Frequently seven or eight men are put into a single cell, for the average drunk catch a night is more than 100. There are no cots for the reason that a drunk might roll off and fracture his skull on the hard floor. The men flop on mats, some of them sitting up against the walls of the cell, their legs overlapping their neighbor’s in a spectacle of Dickensian bleakness.


The morning after Daly had watched his particular drunk from the Row placed in a cell in the tank, he went to court to see what would happen next.

"The drunk tank was bad enough, but what I saw in court the next morning was even worse," he remembered. "I took one look at what was going on and called the district attorney, telling him to come over and see for himself."

Tank occupants are herded into a corner of the courtroom and their cases disposed of ahead of the day’s regular calendar. The clerk of the court rattles off half a dozen names, and their owners shuffle inside the railing and stand before the bench. There is a low-voiced mumbo-jumbo during which pleas of guilty are entered and the panel is dismissed with a brief admonition not to return. The second panel is called, and so on until the last drunk has been disposed of.

"Drunks are not fingerprinted," said Daly, "so there is no way to keep track of how often they come back. After talking to several hundred of them, I’m satisfied nine-tenths of those sent to the drunk tank are repeaters. The average drunk can be in and out of court two or three times a week and still nothing is done for or against him."

But it was the handling of the drunks in panels instead of singly that so disturbed Daly that he sent for Brown. Because of subsequent publicity, this feature of the system has been eliminated, but the revolving-door nature of the process-arrested today, dismissed tomorrow, back next day-persists.

After their morning in court, Daly and Brown decided to follow one of those who had been freed, to see what he did. They selected a man about 60 who bore unmistakable evidence of having been in a scuffle before he reached the tank the night before. After walking several blocks, the man sagged and fell into the gutter. Brown called an ambulance

"Of course, the point of all this is that nothing is being done about the alcoholic, and we are still spending $500,000 a year in police man-hours alone, with no return," said Brown. "The number of alcoholics in the streets has increased to the point where they can'’ be ignored, even though there might be those who would attempt it.

"Here is all this money being wasted on a worthless system when for half the amount, say $250,000, we can operate a first-class clinic for a year. And the $500,000 a year in police man-hours now being spent for handling alcoholics obviously doesn’t include the cost of crime or family poverty stemming from our present arrangement for getting the drunks off the streets."


On a national basis, the latest figures on arrests for drunkenness cover the year 1947. San Francisco led with 6,230 arrests per 100,000 population. Thirteen of the larger cities were included in the count. There is scant local pride in the fact that Los Angeles is second, with 5,103 arrests per 100,000. The others, in order of descendency, are Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Boston, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, Buffalo, Baltimore, and New York.

With the full picture before them, Brown and Daly began a furious search for the right pieces to put together to make a plan to correct the situation. They interviewed doctors and psychiatrists from the neighborhood to the state level. Members of the clergy were called on and asked for suggestions. The leaders of Alcoholics Anonymous were sought out for their views. Business men who take an occasional drink and drunks who hit the bottle all the time, police who are plagued with alcoholics and want to be rid of them, teachers who find an increasing number of their older students red-eyed at morning roll call, everyone who had any reasonable notion about what to do about the alcoholic was given a chance to speak his piece.

Daly, entering the lobby of his club on day, was accosted by a member. "So, you’re becoming a prohibitionist," he said. "A fine thing!" Daly, who expected that sort of reaction when he took over the job with Brown, replied, ,"Let’s go get a drink and talk it over." Daly convinced the man the surest way to prevent the return of prohibition is to solve the problem of the chronic alcoholic, and another San Franciscan was jogged out of his lethargy and prejudice. He told his friends and a chain reaction began. Brown and Daly kept it going with speaking engagements before clubs of housewives and industrial leaders and educators and city planners.

While all of this was in progress, Daly was sending letters to every city in the country which had made any attempt to treat the alcoholic as a medical problem. The replies to the letters and data gathered at the interviews were distilled into a procedure for an alcoholic clinic.

Under the San Francisco plan the alcoholic who is arrested will not be classified as a misdemeanor offender. The California legislature is making such a change in the law. The drunk will be held for quarantine. He will be in the same relative position as a person roaming the streets with a communicable disease, a hazard to himself and to others. The purpose of this change in classification is to give legal recognition to the theory that a drunk is a sick person, not a lawbreaker.

"No person will be given employment at the clinic, from the psychiatrists to the elevator operators, who does not first give proof that he believes a drunk is a sick person and not a moral leper," said Brown. "This proposition is the cornerstone of the whole plan.

When a drunk is arrested, he will be taken directly to the clinic. Once there, he will be fingerprinted so that a record of his case may be kept. The clinic will have no cells or bars, but wards. The fact that the drunk is in custody will not be emphasized. After he has been logged in, he will be given whatever immediate medical attention is necessary. If he is lucid, the doctors will talk to him. If not, that part of the procedure will come later.

Within twenty-four hours a preliminary appraisal of his case will have been made. If he is a one-night drunk, he will be shooed out, but advised to return for consultations and help if liquor is becoming a problem. If he has been on a two-week binge and hasn't eaten much, he will be given five days in bed and fed a diet high in vitamins.

The one-nighter who is released in the morning, or the man who is hospitalized for five days, will have his fate determined by a judge who will sit at the center-not on a bench, but at a conference table. The patient and the doctors will be the witnesses. The judge will be guided by what they have to say.

The clinic will concentrate on those who accept help and are salvageable. During the five-day period of hospitalization there will be simple lessons in dietetics: The course will be elementary. A drunk, the experts emphasize, is a man trying to learn to walk again after having been bedridden for a long time. In the case of the alcoholic, it is his thinking processes which have to be retaught.

In between lessons and baths and wholesome meals, the psychiatrists will attempt to sell the patient on the idea it is not only possible but very pleasant to live without drinking, if a man is an alcoholic. They will tell him very emphatically that an alcoholic cannot drink so much as a jigger; that it isn’t the last drink that is important but the first one.

"I may be an optimist, but I’m satisfied a lot of cases that now look hopeless will make some progress when the problem is put to them as a medical one," say Pat Brown. "Alcoholics Anonymous has proven that. Of course, Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t pretend to help everyone. For those cases in which it is not the answer, we will try psychiatry. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. And all the time it will be cheaper for the taxpayers and infinitely better for the drunk."

Brown is equally concerned about helping the drunk who doesn’t get arrested. It will be possible for a man who believes liquor is getting him down to go to the clinic, have an examination and diagnosis, and return for outpatient care by the simple process of paying whatever his visits cost the city. He will not be booked, nor will his employer or friends be advised of his problem.

"We hope these people will come into the clinic the same as they would to another clinic if they felt ill," said Brown, "There are several of my friends who I hope will be among the first.

The clinic will also be open to the wife who can’t take another of her husband’s binges and who otherwise would visit a divorce lawyer. She will be given guidance.

"We’re not getting fancy or reformish; we’re just getting sensible." Said Brown. "I’ve sent a lot of people to jail since I’ve been in office. I hope when I get through I will be able to say I’ve made a lot of people happier."

San Francisco is moving fast to escape remaining at the top of the list for drunkenness. It would just as soon forgo that dubious honor.

Source: Liberty, July 1949


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