Friday, November 20, 2015

THE HOUSE ON CLINTON STREET

In the early 1930s, Bill Wilson was living with his wife Lois in her parents’ house at 182 Clinton Street,  Wilson had college education and served in the Army during WWI.  He had already built a successful career on Wall Street when he came up with the idea of physically visiting and researching companies to make informed stock recommendations about them.  He'd made a fortune and lost it.

During the Roaring Twenties, Wilson made his employers, their clients, and himself quite a pile of money.  The 1920s was also the time of Prohibition, yet liquor, especially bad liquor, was as profuse as ever and more enticing because one had to visit a speakeasy.  Knowing the secret code elevated one’s status – perhaps only internally.  And Bill Wilson was a terrific drunk.  When he was drunk, he wasn’t always nice.  In fact, he insulted his bosses and their clients.  He was an embarrassment to himself, the company he worked for and his wife.  But as long as he predicted stocks that soared, he was a rock star, and therefore his behavior and his obvious psychological problems were ignored.

It was a high time - figuratively and literally - and everyone, including the local paper boy, was buying stock on margin.  Having a compulsive personality, Wilson invested heavily on borrowed funds and when the crash came, his lifestyle crashed with it.  And, worse for him, he was no longer a rock star to be lauded and tolerated.  He was fired.

On account of the stock market crash, Wilson and Lois lost their upscale apartment in Brooklyn Heights and moved in with her parents on Clinton Street.  When Lois’s mother died, her father remarried quickly and moved to another house in Brooklyn Heights, leaving his daughter and her dissipating husband to live in the 4-story brick row house he’d bought as a young doctor.

Had he developed a more resilient personality, he might have found a way to rebuild a stable life, but he turned to liquor during tough times and could spend days inebriated when he suffered an emotional blow. Wilson had a lot of help to recover, and he would do that for a time, but soon he’d relapse.  He was known to pass out on Schermerhorn Street near a speakeasy and not very far from the Quaker Meeting House.  In fact, he was on the street or in alleys in so many places in Brooklyn Heights, that a “Bill Wilson Tour” could be developed.

Finally, when the hospitals couldn’t help him, his wife’s yelling couldn’t help him, his own shame and destitution couldn’t stop him from drinking, it was the talking cure that saved him – talking to another drunk who had found and kept sobriety.   That, and surrendering his arrogance in favor of humility and seeking spiritual help.  Bill Wilson stopped drinking and wanted to help others.  His initial way of doing that was to invite drunks to live at the Clinton Street house, his wife Lois becoming chief cook and bottle washer, while he encouraged and aided men to get and stay sober.  At the house they experienced the gamut from fights to theft.

Wilson had lost his business reputation and could only get temporary mercy jobs from friends.  He decided to write a book and Lois took a job.  He and Lois lived on the edge from the meager contributions of the people they were helping, until finally unable to meet their mortgage obligation, the bank foreclosed on the house. 

Bill and Lois Wilson were homeless for a year – living with friends – until someone who admired their work made it possible for them to afford to buy a house in Westchester County.  The sales from the book eventually took off and the Wilson’s were able to live comfortably without financial worries. 

The house at 182 Clinton Street is still there and has a plaque on it letting the world know that this was where Bill W. started what we now know as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Post by Alana Cash

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