AT CITY COUNCIL last week, a woman wearing showy earrings and a pendant showed up with her neighbors to support a city plan that would ban the sale of cheap, mind-altering alcohol in and around downtown.
She gave her name, Shirley Rackner, and she called downtown "traditionally a place that attracts tourists, shoppers, theatergoers, and diners." She also decried the ills of public drunkenness—"constant" panhandling, trash, and even masturbation on park benches. With lurid zeal, she made it seem as if you couldn't walk a block downtown without stepping in vomit or—worse!—semen.
The testimony was meant as an endorsement; even Commissioner Amanda Fritz, pushing the ban on malt liquor and fortified wine sales, praised Rackner for making the case "more eloquently" than herself—high praise from someone with a Cambridge education.
But it sounded a lot like something else: an indictment. And with a week to go before city council takes up Fritz's proposal, Rackner's words put one of the nastiest pieces of the debate in sharp relief.
Is this just an out-of-the-box attempt at easing alcoholism at its most vexing, among people who won't otherwise be helped? Or is this an urban antiseptic, one more tool for the business community to drive away "undesirables"?
A few weeks ago, after hearing what Fritz and others had to say, I might have answered the former. Now that I've heard what someone like Rackner had to say? I'm not so sure.
Of course, even if you allow for good intentions, the proposal raises several other questions.
Merchants complain that creating a state-controlled "alcohol impact area" downtown would spread the problem elsewhere. The borders of that zone, including parts of Goose Hollow and the Pearl, zag questionably around high-end outlets like Zupan's and Whole Foods.
The proposal also doesn't come with enough focus on the issues that lead so many street drunks to drown themselves. And 16-ounce tallboys of regular beer, popular with upstanding citizens who keep six-packs in the fridge, would be forbidden.
Fritz jokingly swore she didn't invite Rackner to speak last week. Fritz, in fact, has done little to solicit feedback or revise her proposal, her staff says. Instead, she wants to wait until after public testimony at next week's council discussion, set for 6 pm on Wednesday, September 15.
Shirley Rackner has had her turn. Now it's yours.