Reading: Voices From the Lost City | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

Reading: Voices From the Lost City

Joseph Mitchell's stories pang us twice--once for the old-timers who lost the New York of their youths, and again for ourselves, for the loss of a world that Mitchell took for granted.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

I would tell anyone who wants to read Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel to take small bites of this 700-page beefsteak, which is about as thick and rich as a first-class filet mignon, and savor them--but that's advice I could never follow myself. Mitchell induces gluttony. The 37 stories in this book--which cover, among other things, New York's street preachers, freaks, gypsies, crackpots, ekers-out of various kinds and its somewhat less exotic calypsonians, barflies, Mohawk bridge builders, and fishermen--are all so spiced with the passion of one man for his city that it's hard to keep from stuffing them down one right after another. Many of the worlds they describe are strange, some are sad, and all are now utterly gone.

They were originally written for the New Yorker, beginning at the end of the 30s, when Mitchell, who apprenticed as a crime reporter for New York papers during the early years of the Depression, found a berth at the magazine and began to fish the depths and shoals of his old beats in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Over the years his "Profile" and "Reporter at Large" articles were collected into four volumes--McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943), Old Mr. Flood (1948), The Bottom of the Harbor (1960), and Joe Gould's Secret (1965). They've long been out of print, but now they've been reissued in a single volume unified by Mitchell's infatuation with the speech of the people.

Mitchell called his first book (not included here) My Ears Are Bent, and that describes his method exactly. On every page his ears are twitching like a deer's to pick up the softest nuances and rhythms--not to mention the gaudiest blasts--of that magnificent and superbly vulgar creation, the daily talk of Americans. Listen to Mazie, ticket taker at a Bowery "movie-pitcher theatre": "To hear them tell it, all the bums on the Bowery were knocking off millions down in Wall Street when they were young, else they were senators, else they were the general manager of something real big, but, poor fellows, the most of them they wasn't ever nothing but drunks." To a Harlem fish dealer buying his stock in the Fulton Street market, chanting as he walks through the stalls: "Ah got pompanos! Ah got buffaloes! Ah got these! Ah got those! Ah got um! Ah got um! Ah'm the ah-got-um man!" To the eponymous proprietor of Captain Charley's Private Museum for Intelligent People: "At one time I had nine big switch-tail women on my personal payroll and they all stole from me, picked me clean. Buzzards! One of these days I'm going to pack my grip and go up to Boston and die. Won't even bother to get me a cemetery lot; I'll just find me a convenient gutter and lie down in it and die. Sad, sad!" To Commodore Dutch, former Tammany errand boy, on the Occidental, a derelict hotel in the Bowery: "It gives me the awfullest feeling just to walk past it. In my time it had a beautiful barbershop and a beautiful barroom, and the ceiling of this barroom was one enormous painting of some dames giving theirselves a bath. The old Ox was a hangout for politicians, actors, gambling men, fighters, and the like of that, the sporting element." To Mr. Hugh G. Flood, a man who eats nothing but fish: "Here a while back I heard a preacher talking on the radio about the peacefulness of the old, and I thought to myself, 'You ignorant man!' I'm ninety-four years old and I never yet had any peace, to speak of. My mind is just a turmoil of regrets. It's not what I did I regret, it's what I didn't do. Except for the bottle, I always walked the straight and narrow; a family man, a good provider, never cut up, never did ugly, and I regret it." And to the Reverend James Jefferson Davis Hall on Gotham: "A lost city, hungry for destruction, aching for destruction, the entire population in a fuss and a fret, a twit and a twitter, a squit and a squat, a hip and a hop, a snig and a snaggle, a spism and a spasm."

I don't want to give the impression that Mitchell was just feasting on "character"; his book is more than a jumble of odd, forsaken voices. What he gives us is a singular portrait of New York, one that's not only peopled by these lost souls but also drawn by them as they render themselves and the corners of the city they inhabit in their own words. In an introductory note Mitchell wrote for this volume he describes almost all of his stories as factual and a few as fictional--that is, the characters are composites of real people--but they all aim, he says, to tell the truth. So the picture is faithful, but its likeness belongs to the past: the truth Mitchell tells was already gone, or going fast, the day he told it. His motif is nostalgia.

Everyone he talks to seems to be over 70 years old, or even 80, and their memories take us straight back to the turn of the century and before. Their charm is the charm of how it used to be in old New York. Bob Ellis, for instance, was one of the city's chief mavens of the "beefsteak." This gala ritual, like the fish fry, was devoted to the dogma of heedless and spectacular edacity, though instead of the battered mush yelping families consume in Wisconsin, only hamburgers (as hors d'oeuvres), steaks, kidneys, lamb chops, and beer were served at a beefsteak; following tradition, knives, forks, and women were all forbidden. But tradition, which wouldn't stand a chance in our day, was already giving way in the 30s when Mitchell found Mr. Ellis. He started overseeing beefsteaks in 1879: "I'm getting close to ninety years old," he said, "and I ought to know what's old-fashioned."

Then there's George Hunter, patriarch of Sandy Ground, a community on the southern end of Staten Island settled by free Negroes in the 1840s. When Mitchell wrote about it in 1956 it was decaying badly, but Mr. Hunter still remembered when the strawberries they grew were bought by fancy hotels in the city and when the oyster beds around the island gave the village a steady livelihood. But in 1916 the Department of Health condemned all the beds in New York harbor on account of typhoid, and it was downhill for Sandy Ground after that. All the old fishermen in this book mark a divide in their lives by this date: nothing was the same for them once the harbor got polluted. In Mitchell's New York, it seems, things got worse almost as a matter of course. It's a woeful, but not uncommon, view of life. The real enemy lurking in these pages is not women or pollution or anything else in particular, but modernity itself.

That's why McSorley's alehouse, opened in 1854, was so beloved by Mitchell. It was just like it had been in the early days--the same sawdust on the floor, the same memorabilia on the wall, the same ban on women ("Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies" was John McSorley's motto), even some of the same steady customers, master drinkers who were just putting in their apprenticeships when Old John gave up the ghost in 1910. When his son took over the place his sole aim, according to Mitchell, was "to keep McSorley's exactly as it had been in his father's time." The young woman who was running the place in 1940 (the daughter of a retired policeman who oversaw a brief interregnum) was also a strict constructionist who promised "so long as I am owner, no changes will be made. I won't even change the rule against women customers." Inside McSorley's it was possible to keep modernity at bay, to inhabit old New York as Mitchell imagined it: not the New York where immigrants toiled for pennies in fetid slums, where blind tigers needled beer with paint solvent, where crooked and sadistic cops ran their precincts like rackets; it was the one full of colorful pols, Bowery Boys dressed to the nines, and ripe but comfortable old saloons in which everyone is a character and a friend, where the harbor yields delicious clams and oysters by the bushel, and where blacks live in proud, self-sufficient fishing villages and grow strawberries for Manhattan.

Outside McSorley's the guardians of tradition were less vigilant. In a piece called "Obituary of a Gin Mill," Mitchell laments the remaking of Dick's Bar and Grill, a "lawless, back-street gin mill," into a "modernistic bar" with "a lot of chairs made of chromium tubing." "Dick's old place was dirty and it smelled like a zoo," he wrote, "but it was genuine; his new place is as shiny and undistinguished as a two-dollar alarm clock."

What, we may ask, is genuine? Mitchell doesn't trouble himself over this question, nor should he. He knows what he likes and he makes no apology. But for us there is an irony, because today that same clock would probably fetch $200 and a spot in a museum show dedicated to the flowering of democratic art deco industrial design. So it is with all his stories: their nostalgia pangs us twice, once for the old men who lost the New York of their youths, and again for ourselves, for the loss of the world Mitchell himself took for granted. Even the early pieces, despite a distinct whiff of hard times, describe a world that is less nervous, and in a way less burdened than our own. It's hard to imagine, for instance, that Mitchell's mockery of a Mohawk's honest attempts at self-improvement, his dissection of the sorrows of a circus freak, or his report on the testy clannishness of the deaf would make it into today's New Yorker. It was simpler for him. He just plucked bits of old New York from oblivion and gave them a shine in his stories, but in the half century since he wrote them they've taken on a second, darker patina. The time when mere oblivion was the worst threat to the past now seems long gone, and even Mitchell's anxieties about modernism look quaint since that too has fallen by the way, leaving history to be recycled endlessly--but as parody. Why worry about McSorley's when there are plenty of ye olde alehouses around to choose from? Some even have sawdust on the floor, and anyway the food is better and they all take credit cards. When nothing is created, nothing can be forgotten.

"They have to be old," says Mr. Flood about the cooks who fix his fish. "It takes almost a lifetime to learn how to do a thing simply." But Mitchell's writing casts doubt on the universality of this maxim. He wrote his best stories when he was in his early 30s; his prose was never more chaste and evocative. The trail he marks through the 27 years covered in this book--from buoyant, slightly bemused detachment toward obsessively detailed reporting--is the same one followed by the New Yorker itself; but even in his later phase Mitchell, unlike many of his imitators, is never boring. For reasons that remain obscure, it seems that the first time a form is fully worked out it's also perfected in a way that later efforts in that line can never match. Did a greater historian follow Gibbon? What artist after Jackson Pollock could squirt paint with half his cunning? Can you doubt that in the years ahead all those who play the role of president of the United States will be compared to Grandpa Reagan, and found wanting? So it is with Mitchell's reportage: his pieces on dragging for clams in Long Island Sound, terrapin farming, or rats on the Manhattan waterfront are models of the informative New Yorker article. Although that form eventually degenerated into windy dissertations on subjects like the history of the screwdriver--a problem that the publishers are apparently now looking into--in the hands of a classical master like Joseph Mitchell, it sings.

But it's still the early stories that are most impressive. They are stripped down to that peculiar mix of wit and pathos that is the essence of Mitchell's style, what he calls his "graveyard humor." It comes partly from his prose, which has such a beguiling and easy swing that you're often not looking when it connects, so its slap stings even more. Tour buses, for instance, are called "rubberneck wagons," whose cargoes "often come down to Bowery joints to see life." Lady Olga, a 69-year-old bearded lady, "has not only a beard but side whiskers and a droopy mustache. In a white, loose-fitting house dress, she looks like an Old Testament prophet." "Some years ago," he writes, "one [of McSorley's regulars] had to leap out of the path of a speeding automobile on Third Avenue; he is still furious."

But mainly it's the current of despair running through these stories that gives them their special stamp. What we see is a lot of the debris dumped at the bottom of the glittering metropolis: old men who go into the same bar every day to drink themselves into a stupor; a brassy spinster, jealous of her past, who hides her heartache by caring for bums; and the obsessed--religious, bohemian, and garden-variety--either driven mad by the city or forced to take refuge in it. Mitchell is a champion voyeur, but he is not crude and he does not condescend. In a short note to the original edition of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon he wrote: "There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are." Mitchell had an unsparing eye that sought the human truth in loneliness and pain, and found it. It's a melancholy truth but not an uncomfortable one. As he said of his favorite alehouse: "It is possible to relax in McSorley's. For one thing, it is dark and gloomy, and repose comes easily in a gloomy place."

Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories by Joseph Mitchell, Pantheon Books, $27.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

Add a comment