Random Thoughts

Up the old hotel

... nonfiction at its best.

by Ed Boyd

McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon

“ McSorley’s occupies the ground floor of a red-brick tenement at 15 Seventh Street, just off Cooper Square, where the Bowery ends. It was opened in 1854 and is the oldest saloon in New York City. It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls-one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves-and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is 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.”

So begins the book that was published in 1992 when the writer, Joseph Mitchell was then 84. In the Author’s Note Mitchell tells us that this is made up of four books, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, 1943; Old Mr. Flood, 1948; The Bottom of The Harbor, 1960; Joe Gould’s Secret, 1965. “All of the stories in all the books were originally printed in The New Yorker”, says Mitchell.

Joseph Mitchell goes on to say, “In going over these stories-rereading some of them for the first time since they appeared in The New Yorker-I was surprised and pleased to see how often a kind of humor that I can only call graveyard humor turned up in them…this is because graveyard humor is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.”

From the southeastern North Carolina in 1929, Joseph Mitchell, at twenty-one, came to New York looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. For eight years he jumped from place to place like The World, The Herald Tribune, The World-Telegram until he went to The New Yorker. From then on all his stories were published in The New Yorker.

I truly cherish Joseph Mitchell as the most literate writer of observations he has made, over the years, often the strange but beautiful things he sees and wants to tell us about. He is the most masterful writer of writing nonfiction, ever. In what follows I hope to show though presenting a small sample of Mitchell’s work, so you will see what I mean.      


A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P, Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery. In the nickel-a-drink saloons and the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name. She makes a round of these establishments practically every night, and drunken bums sometimes come up behind her, slap her on the back, and call her sweetheart. This never annoys her. She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any other person in the city. Each day she gives them between five and fifteen dollars in small change, which is a lot of money on the Bowery.

“In my time I have been as free with my dimes as old John D. himself,”she says. Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre, at 209 Park Row, a few doors west of Chatham Square, where the Bowery begins.

The Venice is a small, seedy moving-picture, which opens at 8A.M. and closes at midnight. It is a dime house. For this sum a customer sees two features, a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, and a serial episode…Most Bowery movie houses employ bouncers. At the Venice, Mazie is the bouncer…Mazie is small, but she is wiry and fearless, and she has a frightening voice. Her ticket cage is in the shadow of the tracks of the City Hall spur of the Third Avenue elevated line, and two decades of talking above the screeching of the trains have left her with a rasping bass, with which she can dominate men twice her size…Her threats are fierce and not altogether coherent, “Outa here on a stretcher” she yells. “Knock your eyeballs out! Big baboon! Every tooth in your head! Bone in your body!” Mazie is an alarming sight. Her face becomes flushed, her hair flies every which way, and her slip begins to show. If a man defends himself or is otherwise contrary, she harries him out of his seat and drives him from the theatre. As he scampers up the aisle, with Mazie right behind him, whacking away, the women and children applaud. A longer version of this was published in The New Yorker in 1940.  

This story is typical of how Joseph Mitchell writes. There is no mistaking who Mazie is, how she behaves, and the atmosphere she is in, the time that the story is being told.  I can feel the flow with all the fine details of this writing.

Also, in the author’s note, Mitchell mentions the two stories about Joe Gould, “Professor Sea Gull in 1942 and “Joe Gould Secret” in 1964. “Joe Gould’s Secret” is at the end of this book and is 95 pages long. Mitchell was no doubt fascinated with Joe Gould he takes so much pain to mention him. Here is a little from “Professor Sea Gull.” “Joe Gould is a blithe and emaciated little man who has been notable in the cafeterias, diners, barrooms, and dumps of Greenwich for a quarter of a century…He is five feet four and he hardly ever weighs more than a hundred pounds. Not long ago he told a friend that he hadn’t eaten a square meal since June, 1936, when he bummed up to Cambridge and attended a banquet during a reunion of the Harvard class of 1911, of which he is a member. “I’m the foremost authority in the United States,” he says, “on the subject of doing without.” He tells people that he lives on “air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches, and ketchup.”    

All these stories sparkle like Lady Olga, the bearded lady, The Deaf-Mute Club, The Don’t Swear Man, A Mess Of Clams, On The Wagon, The Rats On The Waterfront, all in 700 pages.   

Rush to get your copy of Up The Old Hotel: and other stories at the Melrose Library.

April 5, 2013

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