Sneaky Pete: A Bowery Story
By Stephen Paul DeVillo
The Bowery emerged from the Depression greatly the worse for wear. But the old days remained the same at McSorley’s, despite some changes of ownership. When the childless Bill McSorley felt the heavy hand of age settling on him, he sold the place in March 1936 to a retired policeman named Daniel O’Connell. Bill McSorley died on September 21, 1938, and Dan O’Connell followed him in December 1939. Dan willed the saloon to his daughter Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan, who found herself inheriting a saloon that, as a woman, she had never been allowed to enter. After some reflection on the matter, Dorothy decided to continue John McSorley’s venerable no-women tradition. She allowed herself no exception to this rule, setting foot in the place only when it was closed on Sunday mornings to tally up the week’s receipts.
While the old days were maintained at McSorley’s, they were re-created at Sammy’s Bowery Follies.
Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, Sammy Fuchs took over an old saloon space once owned by John McGurk of Suicide Hall fame. With an eye on the prowling rubberneck buses as well as on the growing nostalgia for the Gay Nineties, Fuchs recreated an authentic 1890s Bowery concert saloon — minus the psychotic bouncers, chloral hydrate, bad liquor, pickpockets, peter players, and prostitutes. The music was for real, though, and Fuchs hired retired vaudeville veterans to perform the hit songs of the gaslight era, and Sammy’s became a hangout where nostalgic ex-vaudevillians sang and socialized.
Sammy’s was a center for hobos as well. Interested in preserving the remnants of the old hobo culture that still persisted along the Bowery, Fuchs convened a “Bowery Chamber of Commerce” that met monthly in a back room of the saloon. Unfortunately, the complete minutes of this remarkable body seem not to have been preserved, but some records have come down to us. The meeting of August 1946 was a notable one, during which they discussed a proposal for setting up a “Bowery College” to pass on such fading hobo arts as “dinging” (begging), “stemming” (panhandling), “boiling up” (cooking a hobo meal), and “jungling up” (camping out hobo style).
The past and the future came together at that August 1946 meeting. The noted hobo author “Boxcar Betty” nominated Harry Baronian, editor of the Bowery News, as president, and the young Linda Folkard of Toronto, Canada, who claimed to have hitchhiked some fifteen thousand miles, was elected “Miss Hitchhiker 1946.” It was a symbolic moment in hobo history, as the old-school railroad hobos such as Boxcar Betty greeted a new breed of hitchhiking wanderers.
Dave Gould, the executive secretary of the Bowery Chamber of Commerce, described the social scene as he found it along the Bowery in those years:
Among them are scissorbills — small town characters who came to the big city and can’t make the grade; ex-newspapermen and writers who permanently lost their weekends; doctors who wrote one prescription too many; brilliant eccentrics who find themselves unable to adjust to society’s rules; and congenital jungle buzzards who are satisfied to live with and off their fellow misfits. Here and there are also found occasional philosophic types who are sincerely concerned with lifting the level of those who call the Bowery home.
One of those philosophic types was Harry Baronian. From the late 1940s into the 1960s, Baronian edited the Bowery News, a monthly newspaper that chronicled the life along the street and once a year assembled the choicest items into a Bowery Social Register. With a jocular style that concealed a deep concern with the denizens of the Bowery, Baronian pulled no punches in pointing out some of the less savory characters working the street. In the Bowery Social Register for 1960, for example, he pilloried “Queen Bee Sally—for steering live wires . . . into darkened hallways on the pretext she’ll be cozy and cuddlesome with them. Her victims are lucky to be left on the floor in the hallways unconscious with their underwears on after Sally’s strongarm boys go to work on them.”
One would think that the pathetic derelicts shuffling along the Bowery would have little on them worth stealing, but Queen Bee Sally wasn’t the only character preying on them. “Tipoff Wally” worked as point man for a gang of “jackrollers” working skid row, beating and robbing incapacitated alcoholics.
And then there was “Sneaky Pete Mary.” By the 1950s, “Sneaky Pete” had replaced “Bowery Smoke” as a sidewalk swill. Selling for about forty cents a pint, it consisted of cheap muscatel, port, or sherry, heavily diluted with water and brought back up to proof with the addition of raw grain alcohol. The name came from the way its effects snuck up on its drinkers, especially those who commonly drank it on an empty or a nearly empty stomach. Sneaky Pete Mary’s trade came from New York State’s blue laws, which mandated the closing of bars on Sunday mornings and forbade the selling of bottled wine or liquor for the entire day. The improvident often found themselves waking up on Sunday morning dry, but far from high, and were happy to buy pints of Sneaky Pete that Mary and others vended from their coat pockets.
In publicizing Sneaky Pete Mary, Harry Baronian at least had the gallantry to print her side of the story: “All right,” she told the Bowery News, “I’m no angel but at least I gave the lushes what they want—not colored water in pint bottles, which is what some guys sell to grab a fast buck on a Sunday, then they run like hell.”
Walking the street alongside the exploiters were still those who sought to ameliorate or call society’s attention to the human degradation along the Bowery. One mysterious figure, known only as “the Sky Apostle,” pioneered his own city harvest program, daily gathering up the leftovers discarded by the Chinese restaurants and redistributing the food along the Bowery.
Caring souls on the Bowery sometimes came from far afield. In the autumn of 1952, a Mennonite bishop from Gap, Pennsylvania, came to New York for a meeting at the United Nations, and took time out for a visit to the Bowery Mission. He returned home to organize what became an annual food drive among his community on behalf of the Bowery Mission. Eventually, the Mennonites of Gap dedicated an entire field to growing crops for donation to the Bowery Mission, and after the harvest was in they’d dispatch a truckload of food from Gap to the Bowery.
In 1962, Elmer Bendiner examined the life along the Bowery for the New York Times Magazine and drew a sympathetic portrait of the men he found there:
The Bowery man’s drinking style is less formidable than that of the respectable working alcoholic. The Bowery man rarely drinks alone with the single-minded objective of a quick knockout. He is a social drinker, and not only does he pass the bottle, but he must combine with his fellows to raise the price of one. He drinks to achieve a pleasant plateau from which he can survey the world and his fellows with some equanimity. He craves an illusion of friendship without the responsibilities that friends impose. His alcoholic haze fragments the harsh light of the world and diffuses it so that edges are blurred and the world is soft.
Other social workers were driven to the brink of despair by the men they sought to minister to, finding that many of them didn’t want to be salvaged or reformed, but simply left alone. “They only drink to keep on dying,” noted Ammon Hennacy of The Catholic Worker. Julian Raeder drew a portrait of the Bowery man in a poem published in the Bowery Social Register:
As he hunches his shoulders
Against winter’s sting
He harbors a memory
Of a greener spring . . .
Draped in the robes of discontent
He wanders about the city,
An unemployed soul, lost
In a complex society.
Alone without family,
A soul who once felt free;
Heavy lies his heart
Weary is his step
Devoid of all pep;
Shorn of all confidence,
Robbed of all respect.
Alone, dejected and forlorn,
An endless question
In his mind has formed:
Was it for this
That man was born?
There were various means for those seeking to get “mokus” (drunk). Apart from the aptly named rotgut dispensed in the various bars, or Sneaky Pete, other options were further down the scale. Street drugs appeared along the Bowery in the 1950s in the form of “goofballs,” or sleeping pills, that the daring or careless sometimes mixed with Sneaky Pete. That was no problem if the Sneaky Pete was one of those bottles of colored water, but mixed with real alcohol it could land the drinker in the city morgue or on the “flight deck” at Bellevue Hospital. The more desperate would make ends meet by drinking “bayzo,” or bay rum aftershave lotion. A small minority risked central nerve damage with “pink lady,” or canned heat squeezed through a handkerchief to separate the alcohol from the jelly, giving pink lady its more common western name of “squeeze.” At the very bottom were the “rubbydubs,” men who drank rubbing alcohol and who sometimes woke up blind.
Hustling up enough money to get by was a daily concern. A dollar or two would make the difference between sleeping in a flophouse or “carrying the banner” (sleeping out on the street). “Plingers,” or panhandlers, would “hit the stem” or “go on the stem.” But pickings were slim along the Bowery, and those venturing out into other parts of the city to “bum a card” would quickly run afoul of the police, or “stew feet,” who would tell them in no uncertain terms to get back to the Bowery.
More enterprising sorts would try to peddle scavenged or stolen goods “on the curb,” the continuation of the old “thieves’ market” that grew up on the Bowery sidewalks in the 1930s. “Sharks,” or employment agents, could sign up men in the “slave markets,” or informal street corner employment markets, for summer jobs in “the mountains” (i.e., Catskill resorts). Closer at hand were “hasher jobs” in one of the various Bowery restaurants, otherwise known as “slop joints,” “horse markets,” or “hash foundries,” where the hash was always, and with good reason, known as “mystery,” and fried eggs were termed “two shipwrecked.” A man might get a temporary job as a short-order cook or counterman, but more often the job was “pearl diving,” or dishwashing.
The “squeegee men” who drove New York motorists to distraction in the 1980s had their origin on the Bowery in the 1950s, working the traffic spilling off the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, which, with no place else to go, sat waiting for the lights to turn so they could swing up the Bowery and exit lower Manhattan as quickly as possible. But the hustlers at the Bowery intersections in the ’50s hadn’t worked their way up to such advanced technology as squeegees. The Bowery News commented on this phenomenon in 1960, singling out “Grease Rag Sam” as the type of fellow who was already bringing this emerging industry into disrepute.
With food and lodging secured, one could obtain secondhand clothes in one of the “cheap johns” still clustered above Chatham Square, around which the barber colleges offered haircuts—at your own risk—for fifteen cents.
There were many terms with which the characters of the Bowery described each other. The old-time hobos still held themselves somewhat apart from the derelicts, but postwar times were rapidly catching up with them in the 1960s. The classic hobo “boxcar riders” distinguished themselves from the newer breed of “rubber-bums,” or hitchhikers. “Steeple bums” still wandered from mission to mission, preached at by the “sky pilots.” A variety of terms, none complimentary, were directed at the minority of female derelicts along the Bowery. Apart from the “B-girls,” or barroom prostitutes, female Bowery denizens were described as “gluenecks,” “blisters,” or “hag bags,” but most often simply as “bags.”
While social workers labored in frustration, Colonel S. H. Bingham, executive director of the New York City Transit Authority, had his own proposal for bringing a ray of sunshine to the Bowery. “The Third Avenue Elevated Line,” he flatly reported to the transit authority on May 4, 1954, “has outlived its usefulness.” The ill-starred Third Avenue El had somehow managed to outlive the other three elevated lines in Manhattan, but an engineer’s inspection had led Colonel Bingham to what was perhaps a foregone conclusion, with the report bluntly subtitled, “Demolition of the Third Avenue Elevated Line South of 149th Street.” The El had grown and evolved since its opening in 1878. After the line was electrified in 1902, it was extended to Bronx Park in 1902, and in 1920 extended once again to White Plains Road, allowing trains from the Bowery to go all the way to the northern border of the city. A third track was added for express service in 1916.
But by the 1950s, decay and deferred maintenance were taking their toll, and like a dying tree the El had been shedding its branches for years. The 42nd Street branch to Grand Central Terminal had ended in 1923, and the 34th Street branch to the East River was shut down in 1930. The stretch south of Chatham Square to South Ferry was terminated in 1950, followed by the branch line from Chatham Square to City Hall in 1953.
What remained of the truncated El was in increasingly poor shape. Since March 1952, the El ran only weekday rush-hour and midday service. Three months later, the Board of Transportation Maintenance Engineers reported that the life expectancy of the structure was only about five or six years more, unless an estimated $80 million reconstruction was carried out.
The engineers described the El as a “mongrel” structure, with sections of varying ages and types of construction. This wasn’t a new revelation, either; as far back as 1924, inspecting engineers had reported that the stresses borne by some spans were above what were currently allowed by industry standards.
But with money lacking even to clean the windows of the cars, nothing could be done other than limiting the loads as much as possible, forcing the El to rely on long-obsolete wooden-bodied cars, some dating back to 1904. Even with these efforts the weight of the cars was still too high once they were jammed full of people, so rush-hour cars were run on the center track to distribute the weight, then returned empty down the local tracks. This practice made rush-hour service uncertain and frustrating for people waiting on platforms and seeing full cars go past them on the express track. Passenger numbers abruptly declined, falling from some eight-six million in 1946 to thirty-five million in 1953, a loss of over half its passengers in only seven years.
To make things worse, the local tracks still didn’t have automatic signals, a safety feature that had been standard on other lines for many years. Dogged by delays, the automatic signaling conversion project was supposed to have been completed by 1936, but automatic signals, like a lot of other things on the line, fell off the scale of priorities when the IRT went into receivership in 1932.
On May 12, 1955, the Third Avenue El south of 149th Street came to its end. “The Third Avenue El is dead at 87,” proclaimed the Daily News. It “couldn’t have picked a nicer day or a more graceful way to die.” While Transport Workers Union chief Mike Quill sought a court injunction to stop the closing, the old El spent its final day carrying crowds of passengers for a last sentimental ride. With photographers on every car, the passengers waved to people lining the tenement windows and the conductors called out farewells to the familiar stations. The last train pulled out of the Chatham Square station exactly at 6:00 p.m. with veteran motorman William W. Foy at the controls. Eight hundred people filled the five-car train and stripped the cars of any souvenirs that could be detached, destination signs being an especially sought-after prize. Kids had fun pulling the whistle cord as the train moved up the express track and crowds packing the bypassed stations cheered and threw paper streamers.
“We doubt whether we ventured to ride on the dusty, dying ‘L’ more than three or four times in the past ten years,” the New Yorker opined. “Perhaps in another ten years we will begin to miss it sorely. Twenty more years and a brand-new ‘L,’ the ‘L’ of recollection, will go darting among the rooftops, at a speed the old ‘L’ never reached, through a city fairer than any of us has ever seen.”
Silence of a sort now fell again over the Bowery, but the old El seemed reluctant to disappear. For the next two months, the city dithered over bids for the El’s demolition before accepting Morris E. Lipsett’s offer to pay the city $330,775 for the privilege of tearing down the El. Lipsett had previously demolished the Second Avenue El, as well as the Fulton Street El in Brooklyn, and he figured that the sale of the forty thousand tons of scrap steel would fetch him a tidy profit. With an almost audible sigh of relief, the city fathers gave Lipsett the go-ahead.
Throughout 1955, demolition crews worked their way up the Bowery, turning the once innovative Third Avenue El into scrap. Though the tracks quickly disappeared from Third Avenue, the stumps of the upright girders were left standing for months along either side of the Bowery street like rows of denuded iron trees before the city got around to the troublesome task of uprooting them.
Stephen Paul DeVillo is an historical tour guide, and the author of The Bronx River in History and Folklore. He lives in the Bronx.
The Bowery: The Strange History of New York’s Oldest Street is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.
This post excerpted with permission from The Bowery: The Strange History of New York’s Oldest Street by Stephen Paul DeVillo. Copyright © 2017 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.