Homeless public drunks have been a fixture of urban life since urban life began. If you live in a city you've seen them, stumbling, eyes fallen, skin erupting, speech slurred beyond comprehension--and that's when they're standing. When they're not standing, they're passed out, fallen like rubble on the concrete, rancid, venal. These are not the waste-oid "spare change for beer" punks, nor the quasi-romantic poets found in the works of Charles Bukowski. These are the men and women who drink not to forget, nor to medicate, but to obliterate themselves, all day, every day, until the days become one eternal day, measured out in pints and liters, unbroken by real sleep or real sobriety. There's no mistaking a drunk of this magnitude, and as anyone who has ever tried will attest, there's no reaching them either.

These are the people who are meant to be--what, served?--by the proposed ban on the sale of 40 ouncers and fortified wine in Pioneer Square. The disquieting presence of these drunks on streets meant to be commerce zones presents an obvious civic problem (one that shows no signs of slowing down), so the city is taking measures. Of course, no rational human being would suggest that drunks will stop drinking if you take away their bottles; it doesn't take an alcoholic to know that there's always another bottle, another park. The city's priority is cleaning up a neighborhood, not curing a disease. Everyone else knows that the real issue is not where the drunks get their liquor, but what they are doing to themselves. And so we wind up in the primary conundrum of city living: How do you protect the basic human rights of people who have abdicated--or been cast out from--their basic human responsibilities?

In the debate surrounding this problem, talk inevitably turns to helping the drunks, and the same frustrating truths inevitably thwart the discussion: outlaw 40s in neighborhood X, and the 40-drinkers will move to neighborhood Y; prohibition is a farce; there are too few shelters; and so forth. Conservatives carp that the drunks are a menace and an eyesore, while liberals whine about the dehumanization/racism/classism of treating them like a herd, of even calling them a "them." Neither side is wrong. But what few are willing to accept is that no matter how many shelters or social programs are put in place to help the diseased, there is a particular strain of the disease that defies help. Not resists--all alcoholics resist being helped--defies. And as any successful recovering alcoholic (or anyone who has known an unsuccessful one) will tell you, the only way a person can stop drinking is to want to. People who don't want to can't be helped. Period.

Trying to help an obliteration drunk isn't like trying to save a person from drowning, it's like trying to save an anchor from drowning. Many of the causes may be socioeconomic, and the condition is certainly compounded by the brutal inertia of street life, but the fundamental problem is a personal one; it only becomes a social problem when the numbers start to swell, as they will in times of recession. The issue transcends class, for while the drunks occupy the economy's lowest layer, not all of them came from there. It transcends race, though the most visible sufferers are ethnic minorities. And it transcends social programs, though those programs are often the only things keeping the drunks alive. But as we've seen, the shelters and hygiene centers, soup kitchens and street ministries are little more than stopgaps between bottles. Despite the large Christian influence on the social-assistance front, the phrase "past praying for" comes to mind.

This is why the city's attempts to "do something about the drunks" can never be more than a finger in the dike; certain desires can't be governed. The drunks, despite their pathos, are in fact acting out a right more fundamental than life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness: the right to destroy themselves. For many, it's the only act of will they can muster. No amount of legislation, charity, conservative menace, or liberal concern can stand in the way of a drunk with a death wish.