The Army of Despair


By Fred Isler, Teamster, Secretary Local, Chicago.

Barrel Houses. – To many of the members of the Army of Despair the barrel house or cheap saloon fills the place of the club of their more fortunate fellow citizens. Welcome nowhere because of their generally dilapidated appearance and sadly depleted pocketbook, having no home, no place they can call their own, hounded off the street corners by vigilant policemen, barely tolerated in the lobbies of the cheap lodging houses, and most of the time suffering intensely from the effects of the cold, they naturally flock to barrel houses, where they have an opportunity to meet their companions in misery, get acquainted, exchange views and, above all, a chance to be in a warm place. Besides, for a nickel one can get a big ‘foaming schooner’ and either soup or free lunch. And cheap whisky, known by the name of ky, a shot of houtch, katy-flyer, beachy-flip, sky rocker, one on the sleeper, rocky mountain fiz, and other nicknames can be gotten for five cents.

Although the liquid is strong enough to burn the entrails of a hog, many men, in fact too many, will drown their misery in it and for the time being imagine themselves to be perfectly happy. And sometimes a man with a few dollars in his pockets, ‘a live one,’ comes in and treats others to something to drink. When such an event happens few are those who refuse.

Paradoxical as it appears, it is a well-known fact that a starving man can get a drink easier than a meal. The effects of strong drink upon an underfed stomach can be imagined. It leads to chronic drunkenness, delirium tremens and an early grave. It really looks as if circumstances would combine in a huge conspiracy to push those unfortunates down the social ladder to the gutter and keep them there, Only the strong can retain their balance and not sink.

When you enter a barrel house you see a motley crowd of men of all ages either sitting around tables or else standing singly or in small groups around the walls. The majority wear clothes that long ago have ceased to afford protection to the wearer. The life of the homeless is such that clothes soon lose their original shape and before long look like a shapeless mass of rags, only fit to decorate a scarecrow. Some of the most ragged have to tie up their clothing with pieces of string, and often a safety pin picked up on the street, or even a small stick of wood to replace a missing button. Many wear shirts that have not seen the inside of a laundry for sometime, and no doubt vermin keeps them busy. It is not always an easy matter for one who has no home and no money to clean up, especially in the winter time.

A full description of their footgear would fill a chapter. Unpolished, misshapened, leaky, heels worn out on the side, sometimes a toe sticking out, some of those shoes, if they could only speak, would tell a sorrowful tale of the trials and tribulations of the owner. For they have been the constant companion of the man and to the last are making a heroic attempt to keep together. Soon they will be completely worn out and discarded and the wearer will likely follow them, Big, foaming ‘schooners,’ together with steaming bowls of soup, are placed before the men who are in a position to pay, by active and swift-footed waiters. At the long bar neat-appearing bartenders dispense drinks to the thirsty customers. The conversation is general and the topics under discussion are varied, but generally cen


ter upon the last job or the prospsects of getting another, or shipments of men to construction work by employment agents. Sometimes experiences with the police are related. The listeners then pay strict attention to the story.

Men are coming in and going out and their slouchy gait and the chasing of their feet tell a tale of  crushed ambition and departing hope. Some, who are evidently hungry, cast, animal. like, longing eyes toward the bar and the corner where the free lunch is stored. They wish for those things but the wish cannot be gratified without the necessary nickel, and the precious nickel which would put them in possession of the ‘good things’ is not to be ‘dead ones,’ the free lunch spotters. They are also the ‘detectives’ of the free lunch counter, and for the price of one drink will found in the empty pockets give the man who seeks information on the

subject the name and location of the saloon where the biggest ‘schooner’ and lunch can

be gotten. They are also experts in the art of getting at the lunch counter without buying

a beer. They have reduced it to a science. As a rule they are professional bums.

“One up, special, a plate of lunch for a live wire, one stew for a bum,” come a chorus of discordant notes from the waiters. This does not in the least disturb the habitues of the place.

A combination composed of smells from the kitchen, stale beer and the various brands of tobacco smoked form a stench that grips you at the throat. This particular smell cannot be properly described, but is enough to give in person who is not accustomed to such places something akin to an attack of vertigo.

The faces of the men do not as a rule have the contented, joyful expression of those who,

being blessed with better conditions, can afford to patronize a higher grade of thirst and idiotic laugh of those in an advanced stage intoxication, the rest of the men appear to be plunged into an ocean of gloom. That look of despair and God-forsaken expression is plainly noticeable. It is the badge of the the life of the wretched creatures is hidden. It would take the pen and imagination of a Victor Hugo to describe it.

Note.- This is the first of a series of twelve articles on the bo’s city life. Keep this story till you get them complete.

Crutchy Gus just blew in to report that he has a High Jinx Doctor now and he wants no more dispensary dope. Another dude.