Good times in Suffolk

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 18, 2004

We’ve all heard the horror stories about seniors and the rising costs they’re paying for their medications. Some are forced to choose between food and their medications. Reports are common of seniors living on dog food in order to pay the drug bills.

Those stories aren’t just from other places. Right here in Suffolk, some of our own seniors find themselves forced to take drastic measures to pay for their healthcare costs.

But few have been as innovative as 60-year-old Maryland Wilkins.


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Wilkins was arrested Friday and is accused of operating a &uot;nip joint&uot; out of a shed behind his home. According to officers, Wilkins was very cooperative upon his arrest, going so far as to offer to help them load up the large quantity of spirits confiscated.

Lt. Steve Patterson said Wilkins told him he had to pay $200 a month for his heart medication and operating the nip joint was the only way he could come up with the money.

Between the lines, Patterson was saying that he doesn’t really consider Wilkins to be a criminal, merely someone trying to earn needed extra cash the easiest way he could.

For those of you – like me – who are generally unfamiliar with what a nip joint is, it’s typically a private residence that sells alcohol and is generally open all the time. Police said patrons pay just $1 for a beer or shot of something stronger.

I wondered why patrons wouldn’t just go to the store themselves and buy beer for about half the cost of the nip joint libations. I guess there’s something to be said for the camaraderie available at such establishments.

It’s my suspicion that nip joints such as Wilkins’ are prevalent in Suffolk, but I doubt police are out actively seeking to shut them down. They generally stumble across them when they receive calls from neighbors complaining about unusually large crowds, noise and fights.

Such wasn’t the case with Wilkins’ operation. His patrons were mostly elderly gentlemen like himself, men whose fighting days were behind them, but still enjoyed a moderately priced cocktail with friends.

It would have likely gone unnoticed by police and neighbors, too, had it not been for the foul odor of urine emanating from behind the shed. &uot;It about knocked me down.&uot; Patterson said.

When they find a nip joint, police are obligated to confiscate the contents and close it down. I wonder, however, whether that is the best thing to do. After all, Wilkins needs some way to buy his medication.

I think there is some sort of compromise solution that would benefit everyone involved – so that Wilkins could pay for his medication; the patrons could have a place to go and socialize; and the city could reap some benefit as well.

I propose that instead of shutting down our nip joints, the city should come up with a plan to help them thrive. They should be treated as potential tourist attractions – they are as firmly rooted in Suffolk history as any of the old buildings on South Main Street and no doubt more hospitable to human occupation than the Great Dismal Swamp, on which so much of the city’s tourism hopes are pinned.

Police said Patterson’s shed was equipped with cable TV and air conditioning. I believe there are many rugged, indoor types out there – again, like me – who would take that over the Dismal’s mosquitoes any day, or night, of the week.

Think about it. Color brochures could be printed up and dropped off at state welcome centers inviting people to come to Suffolk for midnight walking tours of our nip joints.

Visitors could enjoy a good evening of food and music at Baron’s or Kelly’s, then go partake in some authentic Suffolk nightlife until dawn, getting tanked just like our forefathers did during Prohibition.

It would give new meaning to the city’s new slogan: &uot;It’s a good time to be in Suffolk.&uot;

The city’s Industrial Development Authority is sitting on a $50,000 pot of money that is available to downtown businesses for facade improvements, money nobody is apparently interested in.

The IDA should make some of that money available to people like Wilkins so they could install adequate restroom facilities. In fact, Wilkins might even qualify for this money, since his makeshift bathroom was actually part of the shed’s rear facade.

That’s probably ridiculous. It’s just that we have so few thriving downtown area business establishments, I should think we should be helping – not arresting – entrepreneurs like Maryland Wilkins.

We need to send a message that in Suffolk, we’re open for business – and a good time – all night long.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611, or via e-mail at