When he was young, Sam was a debonair and dashing man. As a stock clerk in a Mobile, Ala., men's store, he was one of a handful of young blacks in his community earning a decent living. He had to enter and leave the store through a back entrance, he says, but he gave that little thought at the time. On Fridays, there were paychecks, drinks and young women, and Sam began to sample a lifestyle far different from his strict Southern Baptist upbringing.
It was the liquor, most often drunk with other young men in rural back-porch setting, Sam enjoyed most.
Today, slight traces of a handsome youth remain in Sam's smile, which still begins easily at the corners of his red-rimmed eyes.' The laugh, still hearty, is often interrupted by a hacking, persistent cough.
Sam sits now on an overturned orange crate near the corner of 18th and S streets NW, clad in an ill-fitting overcoat despite the heat of the spring morning. Broken blood vessels form a road map beneath the surface of his once smooth skin and as he adjusts himself for the long day ahead he takes a sip of whiskey from a "floater" -- a dirty bottle which gets name from street-corner drinkers who pass it among themselves, often concealing it in a wrinkled paper bag. Returning the bag to an inside coat pocket, he consents to talk about himself a little more.
At 9:30 in the morning, Sam has just had his first drink of the day. In a couple of hours he will be as he usually is -- totally and thoroughly drunk. It is, he says, "just my way of passin' time."
Sam is one of an estimated 129,000 alcoholics in the District of Columbia, where the steadily rising rate of alcoholism is the highest in the United States. This means that one of every six men, women and children in the nation's capitol is likely to be an alcoholic.
Perhaps nowhere is the severity of the problem as visible as it is within the District's black community. But Sam, like many blacks who abuse alcohol, will not allow himself to be called alcoholic, nor will he admit that he was a problem. Though he cannot articulate it, there is a very clear distinction in his mind between drinking a lot and being a drunk.
Perched atop his orange crate, Sam is simply floating in a river of alcohol that ebbs its way through much of D.C.'s black community. He seldom leaves the area near the liquor store he frequents, one of 355 in Washington licensed to sell hard liquor for consumption off the premises (Class A). Most surveys show, are located in mainly black areas, where they have become an integral part of the fabric of life and contribute heavily to the sociological, health and environmental problems fraying the lives of many black people.
"There is," says Dr. Frederick D. Harper, a Howard University professor on the subject of alcohol and blacks, "a long tradition of black neighborhoods weighted down with liquor stores, and an equally long tradition of the drinking communities which have grown up around them."
He traces the social acceptability of heavy drinking in the black community to the days of segregation and beyond.
"There was a time when drinking, in the alleys, the doorways, on corners, was the only portion for a lot of blacks who had nowhere else to go. Not because they wanted it that way, you understand, but because so many of the recreational activities available were closed off to black people.
"This happened everywhere. We got liquor stores instead of movie houses, theaters or restaurants, and slowly they began to serve the same social function."
Those living in blighted areas of black Washington "don't drink the same way K Street Pennsylvania Avenue businessmen do," Harper says, noting that many black people fall victim to what he calls the "paper bag syndrome."
"You see a lot of it up here near Howard," he added matter-of-factly
Indeed, the streets near Howard University provide public reinforcement of many of the stereotypes about blacks and alcohol.
The area near the intersection of Florida Avenue and 7th Street NW is thick with liquor stores, abandoned buildings vacant lots and drunks.
Standing three or four deep along the sidewalk with paper bags, uncovered bottles and open cans in hand, they sip themselves into either oblivion or hostility. Some stand languidly in doorways or on corners, while other curse and torment every sober passerby. The odors of cheap booze, urine and unwashed flesh collide unnoticed by those drinkers who sleep in the alleys, beside buildings and near curbs.
These visible signs of drinking problems are so firmly rooted in the community's lifestyle they go unnoticed by many. According to Harper, the oversight is not uncommon.
"One of the major problems blacks have is the lack of an awareness that what appears to be heavy drinking may, in fact, be alcoholism," he says. "And part off that problem exists because where liquor stores are in residential communities -- next to the school, behind the church, on every corner -- drinking becomes an integral, and unremarkable, part of community life."
The high concentration of liquor stores within the District's black community was the subject of a study conducted by Dr. Marvin P. Dawkins of Johns Hopkins University with help from geographers Walter C. Farrell Jr. of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and James H. Johnson Jr. of Michigan State University.
Dawkins says the idea for the survey, which is believed to be the only one of its kind, stemmed from his own interest in alcoholism -- something he dates back to his childhood curiosity about an alcoholic relative.
He undertook the project to determine the placement of outlets licensed to sell alcoholic beverages of any kind in the District, and found ("unsurprisingly," he adds), that there is more liquor available in predominantly black parts of Washington than in other parts of the city.
Using a ward map of the District, Dawkins pinpointed each place where any type of alcoholic beverage is sold.
"I didn't rule out the corner store," he said, "Because a lot of people go there to cash a check, talk with friends, get some cigarettes and buy a little beer or cheap wine while they're at it."
He found the heaviest concentration of these outlets in census tracts with a black popluation of 60 percent or more and discovered as many as 82 different places where liquor could be purchased in one black area.
Harper, who defines alcoholism as heavy and consistent drinking which a person does anytime he or she can and which results in medical or social complications, separates this from problem drinking, which he calls "situationally different." The heavy or problem drinker, Harper says, may drink only at certain times, such as on the weekends or in social situations, but could become an alcoholic if this drinking pattern were to become consistent. Taken together, problem drinking and alcoholism represent the number one health problem within black community," he said.
Alcohol aggravates many physiological conditions common to blacks, such as hypertension and heart disease, plays a part in most homicides that involve black people, and is connected with 50 percent of all automobile accidents. Though it is viewed by many to be the most dangerous of all readily available drugs, Marvin Dawkins says that blacks historically have "been unaware of the role that alcohol has played in the destruction of black lives."
He theorizes that many well-established liquor stores in a single residential community can throw the area into decline and permanently alter the quality of life. Such places may encourage drinkers to gather in the streets, become a target for crimes such as robbery and contribute to a negative image of the area. Once this happens, Dawkins further speculates, residents may begin to avoid the street where the liquor store is located, and in so doing bypass other businesses as well. Over years, this can cause shops and restaurants to leave the area, and with them may go many of the opportunities for social interaction without alcohol.
But the liquor store remains a community fixture.
It is agreed, however, that attempts to remove such stores from the black community will not solve the problem. Often, they are meeting places for those who do not buy liquor themselves, but simply need a community gathering place.
"I don't think," says Dawkins, "that an accusatory finger can be pointed at the liquor store owners, per se. They are in a profit-making enterprise just as other merchants are. I do think that liquor should be more closely regulated in the District, but the real focus should be on the prevention of alcohol abuse. We need to zero in on youth in particular and wake them up to the fact that alcohol is a drug which can be abused."
If the problem of alcohol abuse by young people is not adressed, it is predicted that the next generation of black Americans will be the most seriously affected. Children who come to view alcohol abuse as an everyday activity are less likely to grow up with a working knowledge of the dangers of alcohol, and more likely to begin drinking heavily at an earlier age.
"Children tend to act out the things they see around them," Harper they see around them," Harper noted. "We can't say for sure what causes alcoholism, but we do know that the childen of heavy drinkers are more likely to become alcoholics. When you see people drinking all around you, it's that much easier to develop an attitude which says that's what you're supposed a surprising resemblance to the adults who form their social models."