From the Old Bowery to AA's Big Book

By Dee Young 01/18/16

Phil P. went from being a Southern Black Baptist to a Bowery drunk. Now 47 years sober, his story appears in the Big Book.

From Harvard to the Old Bowery to Sobriety

I met Phil decades ago. I’d left a Florida rehab in 1988 and returned to my native New York City. After trying many times to quit, I was terrified of being “struck drunk.” My favorite bars lined the Greenwich Village streets and my cocaine dealer was just a phone call away. 

As instructed, I called Intergroup right after setting my suitcase down. I was given the address for the Greenwich Village Group, which met at St. Luke’s Church on Hudson Street. My legs were shaky as I walked through the gate and down the path. 

At the door, a woman flashed a warm, toothy smile and said, “Welcome.” Pegging me as a newbie, she walked me inside, downstairs, and to a folding chair. That’s where I began counting days and soon found the sponsor who is still with me today. 

One night as we set up, there was a gleeful buzz about the speaker—words like “eloquent” and “benevolent.” A tall, elegant Black man walked in with an air of sophistication. As he began telling his story with perfect diction in a baritone voice, he startled me by declaring, “I was a shitty, pissy drunk.” 

Struck by his willingness to say something so embarrassing, I felt inspired to keep fighting for my sobriety. Now, nearly three decades later, I had the privilege of interviewing this man whose story, “He Lived Only to Drink,” is on page 446 of the fourth edition of the Big Book.

What year did you bottom out?

In 1968, on the Bowery before it was gentrified. Now it’s almost too expensive for me to walk through. There was a lot of drinking, and drugs down there—especially morphine addiction from war vets. There was only one shelter for homeless men for all five boroughs. 

I wound up as a ward of the city, having drunk my way out of my teaching career and into a flop house—euphemistically called a municipal lodging house—where you could get a meal and lodging for a night with poor sanitation, limited toilets and one 30-watt bulb for two- to three-hundred feet. It was where people went to die. 

Helen Ware, a social worker on the Bowery, immediately dragged me to my first AA meeting at the Greenwich Village Group. Sept. 16, 1968 is my sober date. I wanted to get back on welfare. I’d lost public assistance because I misused it. My aim was to manipulate Helen into getting me back on public assistance so I could get the check and drink. I was a crazy blackout drunk and my big thing was to show people my behind.

You mean take your drawers down and moon people—like a lampshade on your head but at the other end?

[Laughs] Right. It was one of those things I did. When I finally got sober, I got work with the city and was able to give back. I started a program called the Supported Work Program (SWP), for the homeless addicted to alcohol and drugs, to acquaint them with, and get them to AA meetings. It began in 1974 and lasted 30 years. They’d worked in shelters to get back on their feet.

What was it like in 1968, at the height of the hippies?

CBGB’s was going strong down on the Bowery and there were dens for drugs and alcohol. Tour buses went through as a moral lesson. They pointed and said, “This is where you can wind up, kids, if you drink.” People had no clue of the disease concept. You were a moral leper.

What were the moral teachings of your childhood religion?

We were what you’d call hard-shell Southern Black Baptists. Very orthodox—no smoking, no drinking, no card playing, no dancing. That was the mantra of the church and my father was my minister. 

When you had your first drink did it feel like a pinball machine and you thought, “Ah, this is what’s been missing?”

Oh yes. I grew wings and started flying and became a daily user immediately. 

What age did you go off the rails with alcohol?

I didn’t start drinking until I was in my 20s. Before that I was a little sunbeam for Jesus. I was introduced to booze in graduate school at Harvard.

Harvard? Wow, you must’ve done well in school.

Yes. I had to. My father wasn’t just my pastor, he was my school principal and my mother taught there. I was very well-protected. If there ever was anybody who could be an example of alcoholism being an equal opportunity disease, it would be me. Statistically speaking, I should not have been in any danger. I didn’t grow up around booze or drugs. There was a lot of love. It was strict, but it wasn’t burdensome because it was all I knew and I took to it well.

What happened after Harvard?

I became a teacher but an unsuccessful one. I taught all around Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina. I got fired a lot for being drunk.

What age group did you teach?

I started with adults, but later taught wherever I could get hired as my disease progressed. Then, when I couldn’t teach at all, I did whatever I had to until I wound up in a South Carolina nuthouse. Back in those days we didn’t have detoxes and rehabs. If you were lucky like me, you wound up in a nuthouse. They didn’t give me a diagnosis of alcoholism, just the opposite. It was all half-truths. 

What do you mean?

The Big Book tells us half-truths avail us not. Things they told me were true in themselves, but not the whole truth. “You’re Black, and you’re bright,” they said. “But you grew up in the South which was segregated, therefore, you were psychologically and socially repressed. You grew up in an overly religious family. You need to get away from your family. Go do something you really love. You never should’ve taught school because you don’t like people.”

Did you feel you brought shame to your family?

That was one of the terrible things about getting sober. The remorse and guilt. I had opportunities and I squandered them. I didn’t know alcoholism was a disease. I wound up on 42nd Street in the '60s when it was known as 40 deuce [slang for 42nd Street when it was filled with prostitutes, porn shops, triple-X theaters and drug dealers]. It wasn’t gentrified like now. I was smack in the middle of it and went anywhere with anybody to do anything as long as a drink was involved. In a gradual descent, I got so sick from this disease that I wound up on the Bowery.

Did you look down on others at the Bowery?

Of course! I thought I was better. I wasn’t there because I had to be, I was there writing a book. We are so full of denial.

How did you meet Bill Wilson?

In 1968, the year I got sober, millionaire R. Brinkley Smithers started the Christopher D. Smithers Foundation in his father’s name. One project was The Fellowship Center for homeless drunks, where I went. They had job referrals and a lounge for AA meetings. Every year Smithers provided tickets to the Bill W. Dinner Dance for guys who were making meetings and staying sober. Helen gave me my first ticket in 1968. 

Bill Wilson always came during the afternoon to talk, then gave his message in the evening. I met Bill and Lois. Both were kind. Bill was very tall. He shook my hand and asked how I was doing. I never would have washed that hand if I’d understood who he was.

I also got to know Marty Mann very well. She started the National Council on Alcoholism and understood it was a health issue more than a moral one.

At my first meeting at St. Luke’s I was really in bad shape physically, mentally. Spiritually, I was a derelict. At my first meeting I had on clean clothes thanks to Helen, but I was still crazy, angry and disruptive and didn’t understand anything about AA. I knew you weren’t supposed to drink. My purpose was to get back on public assistance so I could drink. But for my first 90-plus days I couldn’t get off the Bowery. So I went to meetings.

Was that solely to get money from the government?

It was a mixture. From my very first meeting, I knew that you folks in AA were sincere, and that you believed what you were saying. I didn’t understand what you were saying but knew you were talking about not drinking and about God. I didn’t want any part of either. I had questioned God for years before I got to AA, and I wanted no part of God or preachers, social workers, or do-gooders. I was very angry and had no intention of giving up drinking, but figured I had to hold out long enough to get money from public assistance.

I could make no sense out of the steps or traditions. Forget about it. My brain damage was such that I couldn’t remember anything. I could read a paragraph and by the time I got to the end I couldn’t remember what the paragraph was about. I was really frightened I had permanent brain damage.

What a long way from Harvard.

Oh yes. My ability to read, analyze, and give back was gone. Drinking was the only thing I thought could keep me sane. My terror was that without it, I’d go over the line into complete insanity. I remember seeing the second step and saying, “Oh my God, if this is where people come to be restored to sanity, then maybe I should stick around.” Gradually, I realized it was the alcohol that had caused the insanity. That’s how it all started for me—I backed into the first step. After that first meeting with Helen, I never drank again.

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