Daily Archives: March 17, 2011

Be Good or Be Gone

McSorley's Old Ale House, via website. As a woman photographer, BERENICE ABBOTT had to get special permission to enter McSorley's on November 1, 1937 to take this photograph.

There’s an old country saying—from the cradle to the hearse, things are never so bad that they can’t get worse—well, that’s the way I see the world.” –Joseph Mitchell

I’m not going to lie—my favorite American holiday is not St. Patrick’s Day, it’s Thanksgiving. The founding idea behind Thanksgiving appalls me, but its modern aberration allows me to do all of my favorite things, namely hang out with family and friends, watch movies, eat copious amounts of food, take naps, and yes, give thanks (mostly for family, food and naps). I don’t have anything against St. Patrick’s Day as an idea (I’m at least 1/3 Black Irish according to suspect reports), but it’s a boisterous and extroverted holiday, on par with the 4th of July, and my quiet soul cannot abide. I am tempted to talk about the myth of the mighty leprechaun in this post, or perhaps, a brief history of Irish music, but fear this will not suffice.

So how does a person such as myself approach talking about one of the loudest and rowdiest of American holidays? Why, by talking about beer of course! Beer, that lovely, full-bodied American beverage is dear to my heart, and not just because it is a nice weekend respite. Beer and beer drinking have led to some of the finest American literature our libraries have to offer. It is with beer in mind that I can think of no better way to honor St. Patrick’s Day than by raising a pint* to one of my favorite American writers, Mr. Joseph Mitchell.

To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Mitchell is not himself an Irishman, but rather one of the finest reporters who has ever written for The New Yorker. Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of both fiction and nonfiction essays, ranks among my top ten favorite books. Where does the Irish part come in? Up in the Old Hotel begins with an essay Mitchell wrote in 1940 called “The Old House at Home,” which chronicles the history and characters of McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest bar in New York.

McSorley’s opened in 1854, and was started by an Irish immigrant named Old John McSorley. According to Mitchell, Old John fashioned the saloon after a public house in his hometown in Ireland, and believed it was impossible for men to “really drink in tranquility in the presence of women.” McSorley’s remained a males-only establishment until 1970, which is long after Mitchell wrote his essay. Aside from this fact, the McSorley’s portrayed in “Old House” is a charmingly anachronistic establishment, described as “a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years. The clientele is motley.” Old John always set out a “lunch” of soda crackers, raw onions and cheese, and had a rack of communal corncob pipes (the theory being that any man who buys a pint is entitled to a free smoke on the house). A visit to the McSorley’s website also provides a chance to glimpse proof of Old John’s obsession with memorabilia—many of the items he hung on McSorley’s old walls are still there today, including paintings, photos and, my favorite, a sign that simply reads: “BE GOOD OR BE GONE.”

If you are as charmed as I was with “The Old House at Home,” I recommend you continue reading the rest of this fine book. Mitchell has his own special, delightfully dry brand of humor (often affectionately referred to as “graveyard humor”) and tends to write about what he knows best—outsiders living in 1930s through 1960s New York. Mitchell himself has exclaimed, “I specialized for years in writing about outcasts and cranks and unusual groups—the fishmongers and fishwives in Fulton Market, the people on the Bowery, a band of gypsies, a band of Mohawk Indians who have no fear of heights and work as riveters on skyscrapers and bridges.”

The characters populating Mitchell’s stories (in both fiction and nonfiction, although the line between the two is blurry) are what one might refer to as tough old birds. There is Mazie P. Gordon, blunt but kind-hearted, who manages the ticket booth at the Venice theater in the Bowery and acts as de facto den mother to all the bums and drunks in the neighborhood. Or the bohemian barfly Joe Gould, “an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over 35 years.” He immortalizes gin mills, a social club for deaf people, a terrapin farm in Georgia and the rats on the New York waterfront. He has profiled everyone from calypso singers, to the Mohawk Indians who helped to build New York’s many skyscrapers, to a man who ran something called Captain Charlie’s Museum for Intelligent People. Throughout, Mitchell is clearly in awe of his strange (and occasionally drunken) subjects, and always treats them with delicate respect.

If Mr. Mitchell were still around today, I would gladly brave the hullabaloo of St. Patrick’s Day to buy him a beer and trade a story or a smile. As he is no longer with us, I will have to settle for the words he left behind.

Happy Saint Patty’s,

* Of course, no imbibing of alcoholic beverages is permitted on library premises. By “raising a pint,” I really mean “checking out a book.”


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