SKID ROW BLUES
The more things change. . .
By Paul Weeks
“I got the Skid Row Blues in a boogie-woogie beat,
I got a belly full of booze, and there’s blisters on my feet,
Can’t go back to my mamma – there just ain’t anyplace to go,
Don’t you ever tell my mamma that her boy was on the Row,
I got the Skid Row blues,
The boozy-woozy Skid Row Blues.”
I never told my mother I was a Skid Row song writer,
either, but, at 84, it’s never too late to ‘fess up, is it?
June 1955: My pal, Vernon MacPherson, and I were on the Row. Rumpled
clothes. Unshaven faces. Scarred shoes desperately in need of half-soles. We
tried to look bleary-eyed, hungry and forlorn. Maybe we could have mastered
the masquerade if we’d have had to stay another day over the three months we
Our greatest handicap? It was mostly a daytime assignment from the Los
Angeles Mirror. At night we could go home to our families while denizens of
the Row had to put up with a dormitory of snores and groans of drunks, with
mattresses seething with bedbugs – orfor a better place, a blanket on the
cold, hard sidewalk or an empty box in an alley.
Some days we left to check County records of property owners in the
40-block maze known at the Row, not much more than a stone’s throw from City
Hall –owners of flophouses, owners of 57 bars and 19 package stores on eight
blocks of 5th Street. The bars, with “B-girls” and, yes, “B-boys,” attracted
mostly out-of-town suckers seeking sex and thrills in the Big City.
The package stores drew patrons from the street, who carried cheap wine out
in bottles in paper sacks – the empties littering the curbs and the alleys.
Overworked cops afoot or with the paddy wagon never ran short of duty. If it
weren’t for the shortage of booze, the street people could enjoy a couple of
nights in the lockup with better accommodations.
Also thriving on the street were the “soul-savers” – operators of
missions that fed gospel and soup and provided some overnight dormitories.
(“You sit for an ear-beatin’ and then they feed you the soup.”)We met a few
who were good, honest, dedicated missionaries, but more who qualified with
little paper work as churches, sending the homeless out in the better
neighborhoods to beg for donations.
Mac and I tried it, with moderate success. We were promised 50 to 60 percent
of our collections, We lied the opposite of most collectors, dipping into
our expense accounts to fatten the take.
Our newspaper played our 10-day series big – headlines, editorials, City
Councilmen vowing to clean up the mess. Stories that would wrench your
heart: broken families, a man and a woman who checked in one night with only
a bundle in the woman’s arm. They disappeared in hours, leaving a crying
newborn babe behind.
A prostitute rushed in and swept up the baby, wanting to keep it and give it
a home, dipping into her savings for gifts. But the City took the child
away. It would take days for me to recite the human tragedy we encountered
Yes, I know that the story was also selling newspapers. So popular
did it become that the publisher needed dramatic “art” to tout the series on
his television program. He wanted us to document the “B-girl” situation –
ladies who tantalize bar customers into buying them drinks, undoubtedly
watered down while the night strips the customer of his money. One lady felt
so sorry for a customer she bought him a beer from her own “take” when he
sadly ran out of cash.
We couldn’t persuade any B-girls to re-enact their business for the TV
cameras. But – and I am embarrassed to admit it now – two prostitutes took
on the assignment for $10 each – then complained when the minutes stretched
into a long night of re-takes and cut the “take” they could have gotten on
I don’t remember how the office described it on our expense accounts.
Did the City reform Skid Row? I have never revisited it. The Row’s
population was estimated at 15,000 when we were there. I have just looked it
up on the Internet. It is estimated at 30,000 now.
And the newspaper which published our story expired seven years later.
Paul Weeks is a distinguished veteran journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Daily
News, Mirror, Times, and later the RAND Corporation. He lives in Oceanside and works as a
freelance writer and columnist for the Stockton Record.