Open main menu
 

THE FURTIVENESS OF LIQUOR

BY RAYMOND S. SPEARS

ONE thing prohibition has done: Liquor has been removed from the streets and highways of the country to such an extent that in more than twenty-five thousand miles touring from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Canadian border to Mexico—hundreds of miles along the south line—I, a roaming stranger, have seen none of the drinking. Before I could discover liquor. whether brewed, distilled, or fermented, I had to search for it; and even the indications, the signs of clandestine liquor traffic, are so indistinct and difficult of recognition that one must become practiced in his observations in order to recognize them.

Since prohibition went into effect I have been through places and across regions that I knew twenty years ago, during years before the idea of prohibition was anything but a joke and drys "queer birds." Let me say offhand that a traveler could not then cross the United States or go anywhere in the country and not find himself constantly beset by liquor and constantly witness its effects on men and women. Twenty years ago a man going seven thousand miles across New York, Pennsylvania (through Erie), Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming (through Cheyenne), Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana would see hundreds of places with music and bright lights and pullers-in reaching for customers for the tables and bars. And last autumn and this spring I went this route by automobile, and on all that journey, of more than seven months, liquor nowhere displayed itself. I did not see many men obviously under liquor's influence. I was not asked to take a drink even once.

Liquor is the most elusive game imaginable on the highways. Like elk or deer or mountain sheep, it can be found, but one must know the signs, must know the regions where it hides and ranges, and it is dangerous game, for those who watch its preserves are apt to be surly and suspicious, questioning one's motives in seeking it. Not only is liquor deadly, but one may be regarded as an enforcer of the law, and killed, or at least assailed, or fled from even though one's intentions are as dishonorable and illegal as possible.

Last autumn and twenty years ago 1 went through moonshine regions of Tennessee, and on the Mississippi at Memphis. In 1902 L went the length of the Ohio River. In Knoxville, Tennessee—well, in no part of the land could a man walk unchallenged, uninvited, even unassailed by the votaries of liquor in those old days. It flaunted itself even in the dry States, if one was white. Now even a rotund old fellow with some geniality of appearance and rather sociable in his ways goes from end to end of the United States, and the only place where any one ever asks him to witness liquor in its bottles is in his home town among people who know him.

On my travels twenty years ago, wandering into industrial regions, through feud lands, from corn belts to cotton bottoms, from timber jobs to mining regions, from hunting camps to trappers' cabins, from fly-fishing brooks to commercial fishing lakes—everywhere was liquor. State laws but slightly veiled its distributers and hardly awakened the doubts of venders or consumers.

And now liquor simply is utterly invisible from the highways. One must know what illicit liquor does to an automobile, to a building, to a town, or to a locality to see where liquor is "working." Consider Memphis, on the Mississippi. Twenty years ago from the shanty-boat colony on the slough to its busiest street in the oheerfulest corners liquor obtruded itself on men, women, and even children. To-day a man can walk every street in Memphis in the sunshine, and go unchallenged by liquor. The sign of liquor is in the murder record of the city; liquor can be found in road-houses; it can be discovered in its wretched sunless dens. But the stranger who does not know where it is may go far and snoop much before he can put his lips to the glass. Arrests of automobile drivers for intoxication are frequent in Memphis, but let me say I did not see one car in hundreds that, on the great drive or in the streets, seemed erratic from liquor. The wild alcoholic revelries of the highways may exist now, but not with curtains up and visible from the street.

We crossed Arkansas from Memphis to Little Rock. Two villages were dejected and surly, perhaps because of blind-tiger or moonshine-bootleg operations. South from Little Rock, which seemed not to be overly thirsty, we went through the southern Ozarks. Here, down approaching the Texas line, we came at night to a village where at least a dozen men were hilarious. We heard a moonshiner and a bootlegger talking in their lingo, not dreaming we could understand their talk of "pig" and "tied up" and "got out." And we saw two bottles in a single package handed over. By a coincidence, the sheriff and a posse three days later took more than a dozen stills in this very neighborhood about southeast of Hot Springs, as I remember. That was the only "hilarious" place, visibly so.

Shreveport showed peace and good will. There is an atmosphere about a drinking town that is unmistakable. A neighbor of this Louisiana city had the hard and suspicious bearing of unrestrained but covert liquor trade.

Across Texas conditions of illicit liquor traffic did not obtrude themselves. At Houston one is introduced to this or that man, and later the explanation is made that "he's a bootlegger." One sees no drunken men. He meets men who had a drink last week, or are going after a drink next week. Nobody invites one out to have a drink. It costs too much. In Galveston, which in the old days was a terrific town, three or four outlying resorts "have all kinds," but neither the automobile, drivers nor the pedestrians show general consumption of liquor.

In none of the towns of Texas, on a 1,200-mile circle segment from Marshall to El Paso, were there any open or flagrant indications of liquor. Two or three small places did show the earmarks of being sapped in vitality by illicit liquor. In one of these several I men had the bearing of being "lit up." But even here the blatant, boastful, insolent, and aggressive habit of liquor known so well in the old days was absent. The drinkers had a furtive, rather anxious, and even dreading air. And I may say that of all the violators, I know of only three or four anywhere who even maintain a semblance of carelessness in their bearings.

Liquor has shrunk from the communities of the land. The casual passer-by through Texas, through any New Mexican town, sees no indication of it except in about two out of a hundred communities. Main Street is rid of liquor. In the old days, if three or four men gathered in a hotel in a town, even on a street corner, the first thing was, "Let's go have a drink." The only time this happens now, judging from my own experience, is when personal friends foregather, and one of them, knowing of the meeting, will bring a bottle. Strangers in New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, and even in California, are not asked to "have a drink."

There is some liquor along the border. No one denies that quite a few drinks are brought across. The amount, compared to consumption in the old days, is trifling. The Ku Klux Klan has settled the liquor question as regards selling to Negroes, and though one meets ranchers, merchants, and cowboys—all those types supposed to be wallowing in bootleg—he may hear about liquor, but it isn't forthcoming.

In Nebraska and Iowa one can dig up a little bootleg talk. He may even hear how dreadfully "real nice people" are carrying on at Cedar Rapids, or Clinton, or North Platte. But it isn't a spectacle visible from the street. Indeed, the only part of the Lincoln Highway from Cheyenne to Chicago where the liquor traffic intrudes itself on the passer-by is in Illinois, west of Chicago. There the great transcontinental automobile highway is seen to be used in liquor transportation. If one knows the signs, one sees them.

The bootleg expression is plainly marked on all those engaged in it. The mark is as plain as the brand on Cain. All over the United States, and I have been automobile touring in more than twenty-five of them since prohibition came, the bootleg brand is the same. What is that mark?

Ask any motor-cycle cop, stand for a time with any town marshal, go into any bootleg thoroughfare and watch the cars going by. Watch the people in the streets. Recognition becomes curiously inevitable. But to put the description down in words is difficult.

No better place for becoming familiar with the bootlegger's appearance can be had than on the main thoroughfares out of great cities. The very best place in the country west of the Hudson is just west of Chicago on any of the several good roads. In one town the motor-cycle cop talked with engaging frankness.

"They drive big cars, and one man sits in the leading car, with the cases loaded around him. Behind him comes another car, loaded down with men, all with their guns—"

"For the police?"

"No-o, not that. But for hijackers—booze robbers, you know."

Fear makes the liquor runners drive fast. They go forty miles an hour, say. They don't slow up when meeting other cars—one sign. They have the hard, set faces of violators. They make quick stops, with screaming brakes. They may have new, beautiful cars, but the cars are apt to be untidy and carelessly driven. They draw up to certain gasoline pumps, where stores, garages, and gloomy soft-drink roadside businesses stand, none of them showing much business activity. None of the outfits are easy under scrutiny. Curtains are apt to be up, caps or hats drawn down to hide features, collars turned up, and the license numbers are generally bedeviled, plastered with mud or spattered with paint, tar, or other veil.

If one watches the automobile traffic for a few hours where there is bootleg traffic, certain outfits stand out prominently. Down the Mohawk Valley, down the highways into New York City, across New Jersey, out of Boston, east and west between Erie, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, around Sandusky, and between Toledo and Detroit, any one can soon learn to distinguish the illicit traffic. And the places where the traffic finds its customers, the hotels, the soft-drink places, the drug stores, the restaurants, the tailor shops, the candy stores—they cannot keep from showing the signs of their wretched and clandestine trade. The signs are not all legal evidence. The place of ill feeling may photograph exactly like an honest business; but the police, the prohibition agents, the sheriff's appointees, newspaper men, and the drinkers all become familiar with what they know is but a hunch, for they cannot often trace the identification to positive indications.

But liquor, the work of liquor on its drinkers, can be found only by hunting for it and watching for it. In hundreds of communities it does not obtrude itself upon any one. That much prohibition has done for the country. I drove my two sons and my wife seven thousand miles last winter, and before that eight thousand miles on a round trip from coast to coast, and in all that distance there wasn't any place that would invite any of us in to have a drink.

Tell me the country is wide open? I've seen twenty thousand miles of highways, from San Diego to Portland, Maine, since prohibition came, and in all that distance I have been invited into just two blind tigers. A lot of my friends are patrons of bootleggers, at that. They can find it. They do find it, but they have to hunt for it.

Tell me conditions are "worse than ever"? I tripped the Mississippi; I rode a bicycle thousands of miles; I drove a motor cycle through a dozen States; I walked and skiffed and railroaded from the St. Lawrence to Alabama, and from New York City to western Dakotas. I was a reporter in New York City and up State, and traveled for magazines and went on my own, gathering data, notes, experiences, for my writing before the country "went dry." I know what conditions used to be. I've had liquor come at me in a dozen States in the old days, where now it is utterly furtive and invisible.

Now, going alone to look towns over, up and down, on back streets and down main streets, of country hamlets and of great cities, I can find the blind tigers. They tell me right in my own town there are from eighty to one hundred bootleg joints or venders, that our prohibition enforcers are "making a million." But I can walk the streets of my town and not see ten drunks in six months, when in half an hour before prohibition came I saw and counted thirty-odd in fifteen minutes. And, with my eyes open, I drive tens of thousands of miles and see no drunken men, and the pitiful dejection or recklessness that is the mark of illicit liquor on property and community and individual appears only at long intervals, and one must know it to recognize the sign.

The boy and girl who "go to town" or away from home do not find the camaraderie of wide-open saloons waiting for them when they are lonely. The movies, lunch-rooms, and churches await them. Let me remark that the chances are nearly ten to one that a stranger will now be asked to go to church rather than to have a drink. And in the automobile camp-grounds, which are found in most of the towns strung along the automobile trails like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trail, the Mohawk Trail, the Chicago-New York, and other familiar automobile routes, the tourists ask where restaurants, or groceries, or motion pictures may be found, and rarely seek liquor. A few do sometimes ask caretakers where liquor can be found. But for one such a hundred ask for "sights," churches, good places to eat. Almost no one even thinks of liquor.

And the traveler twenty and ten years ago had trouble finding good places to eat. Many a time I have found in cities that the free-lunch counter was the only or the best meal, with a glass of beer inevitable beside one's plate. In even crossroads hamlets of the land now short-order places are found, and every town has its eating-place for the passer-by. They do a thriving business where they couldn't survive the saloon free-lunch competition in liquor States, or even in blind-tiger States. In my own town, of 12,000 inhabitants, there were sixty-seven saloons before prohibition, and not one restaurant—a hotdog wagon alone survived free-lunch competition. Now there are three or four excellent lunch-rooms and restaurants, doing a good business, in spite of alleged eighty or ninety bootleggers.

Tell me prohibition isn't working? If it isn't, why don't we see the liquor game played everywhere, instead of only furtively and at rare intervals? Drive from ocean to ocean, from border to border—ten or twenty thousand miles. The stranger will not see liquor in any form. It has vanished from sight. The stranger takes his life in his hands if he tries to find it. so afraid is liquor of, being found out. Compare that with legalized sale!


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.