NEW YORK. Mel Sewanicki, Columbia class of ’51, still can’t buy a drink in this town even though it’s been sixty-eight years since he made “The Catch,” a diving grab of a fourth-quarter pass that enabled the Lions to defeat Army, 21-20, ending the Cadets’ 32-game unbeaten streak. It put him in the College Football Hall of Fame along with the pigskin that he clutched to his chest as he hit the cold October turf. The victory is still counted as one of the greatest upsets in college football history.
“Everywhere I go, that’s all people want to talk about,” he says with a smile and a shake of his head. He moved on to a successful career as a banker with four kids and now thirteen grandchildren. “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” he says, and it’s clear from the expression on his face that he means it.
As he strides powerfully into Dominic’s Steak House in Manhattan it is par for the course that other men signal their waiters or the bartender that they want to buy Mel a drink, and by the time he reaches his regular table and sits down there are six vodka martinis, two beers and a glass of merlot waiting for him.
“Hello, Adolf,” he says to the waiter who regularly patrols Sewanicki’s corner of the room. “Take care of these in the usual manner, please.” “Yes, Mr. Sewanicki,” the club employee says as he places them on a tray and takes them back to the kitchen, where he will pour them into empty milk cartons and return them to Sewanicki’s table when he finishes lunch.
Sewanicki has a passion for New York’s homeless but he refuses to indulge in euphemisms. “They’re winos, plain and simple,” he says bluntly. “My old man had the same problem–he could never get enough to drink–so I know what they’re going through.”
More drinks arrive as Sewanicki makes his way through a Cobb salad with smoked scallops on top, and with each delivery Adolf appears as if by telepathic command to take the libations back to the kitchen. “I like a glass of wine with lunch,” the ex-football great says, “and a scotch when I get home at night, but that’s it.”
Sewanicki dabs at the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin as he finishes his meal, and Adolf reappears bearing four gallon jugs filled with a dark brown mixture composed of beer, red wine and hard liquor. “If you served this at one of my grandkids’ parties they’d call it ‘Long Island Iced Tea’, drink too much of it and puke their guts up,” he says with a tone of disapproval in his voice. “But for the guys out on the street who know how to handle it, this can be a life-saver.”
We leave the restaurant and Sewanicki hails a cab. His long arms extended over his 6’4″ frame make him an easy figure to spot, and in half a minute we are sitting in the back seat of a taxi. “Take us down to the Bowery,” Sewanicki barks, the New York neighborhood that has traditionally been the home of the transient, the vagrant, the down-on-their-luck. “We used to call ‘em bums,” Sewanicki says. “Now they’re ‘homeless’,” he says with evident distaste for a feel-good sociological term that he says carries the implication that all a man needs is a roof over his head. “A man is more than flesh and blood,” Sewanicki says with almost religious fervor. “He’s got a soul, too.”
We stop at a red light and one of the neighborhood’s “squeegee” men comes up to the car to wipe the windshield, hoping to cadge some change out of us. Sewanicki rolls down his window. “Here you go, buddy-try some of this!”
The ex-football great takes a plastic cup from a bag and pours out a slug of the brownish liquor mix that resembles the water in the East River.
“What is it?” the hobo says. “Diet Coke?”
“Name your poison and it’s in there,” Sewanicki says with a sympathetic smile. “Whatever they want you to remember, it’ll help you forget.”
The man takes a sniff and, after the alcohol fumes hit his olfactory cells, begins to drink.
“Ah,” he says after taking a long pull. “God bless you, sir.”
“Don’t mention it,” Sewanicki says. “Let me pour you another–I’ve got to make my rounds.”
He refills the man’s cup and the grizzled denizen of the streets accepts it with gratitude. “Take it easy, partner,” Sewanicki says as we drive off.
“I’ll be here tomorrow, too!” the man yells after us.
Sewanicki instructs the driver to slow down as we roll through the dark streets where hope returns only rarely, like a prodigal son with a maxed-out credit card. “You see those guys sitting over against that building? They’ll probably spend the rest of their lives within a block or two of here. Think of that.”
I do as instructed while Sewanicki tells the driver to stop and he opens his door. I follow him, party cups in hand.
“How we doin’ today, guys?” the aging athlete calls out as he approaches three men sleeping under an arch. One looks up warily and starts to scramble away before Sewanicki reassures him. “No need to get up,” he says, “my partner here’s got the cups.”
“Oh-good. I thought you was the cops.”
“No–just a humble little mission of mercy.” I again hold out cups as Sewanicki fills them up. The men each shiver a bit as their first sip goes down; one polishes off the remainder in a single gulp. “That’s the spirit,” Sewanicki says, then reaches into his pocket. “Here, I forgot,” he says. “I’ve got some beer nuts.”
“Thanks, man. I haven’t eaten for days,” one of the men says.
“Then you better take it easy–go slow at first,” Sewanicki says. “You want to lay down a good foundation of liquor. Otherwise, it’ll come right back up.”
“Okay-thanks for the tip,” the man says. We leave them with one of our four jugs–”They need it,” Sewanicki declares–and climb back in the cab.
How exactly did you come to adopt this particular mission as your life’s work, I ask Sewanicki as he scans the streets for more mouths to fill.
“Well, I got so tired of people buying me drinks, knowing it was just going to be poured down the drain. I’d say to myself–there’s people going to bed sober all over this city tonight, and you can’t finish half the booze that people put in front of you.” The lessons of his hardscrabble youth have stuck with him. “‘Waste not, want not’, mom used to say,” he says with a audible lump in his throat. “I had to eat what was put in front of me, even if it meant I missed The Lone Ranger” in the early days of television.
That thought–the waste of precious alcohol and the potentially harmful effect it was having on oysters and other shellfish in the Hudson River watershed–persuaded Sewanicki to take the unpopular step of seeing to it that no man goes without a nightly drink in lower Manhattan. “Not on my watch,” he says with unmistakable seriousness.
We turn a corner and Sewanicki sees something that causes him to lean forward in his seat. What is it, I ask?
“The enemy,” he says. Two women and one man dressed in practical clothes make their way deliberately down the street, looking for “homeless” men they can persuade to give up lives of freedom on the street in exchange for food and shelter. “Do-gooders,” he says with undisguised contempt.
He rolls down his window and, as we pull even with the three, lets go with a shout.
“Hey–why don’t you leave them in peace,” he yells.
The three–not social workers, as it turns out, but N.Y.U. students doing field research for an advanced sociology lab–turn with looks of surprise on their faces.
“Yeah, you,” Sewanicki continues. “Do you think those guys want to go back to living with people like you watching them all the time?”
“Well–yeah,” the male says hesitantly, his world-view suddenly called into question.
“Gimme a break,” Sewanicki continues. “They’ve spent their whole lives running away from milquetoasts and school marms. They haven’t got much longer to live-let them drink themselves into oblivion if they want.”
The three are quiet for a moment, as they consider the public policy and philosophical aspects of what they are being asked to do.
“You mean–do nothing?”
“Right–just . . . go . . . away.”
The three look at each other, then the male looks at his watch. “There’s a 2-for-1 Bud Light special at McSweeney’s in the Village tonight,” he says to the women. “You guys up for it?”
“I’ve got a mid-term in Stochastic Variables in Quantitative Research,” the woman begins, but Sewanicki cuts her off.
“Listen sweetheart,” he says. “Once you get a job you’ll never touch another stochastic variable in your life. Believe me–I worked for four decades, and the only thing I needed to remember from college was one lousy football play.”
“Is that so?” the male student asks.
“In that case,” he says to the women, “let’s party!”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Spirit of Giving.”