Random Thoughts

more on up in the old hotel

... get your smile out

by Ed Boyd

I put this article in about three years ago. Every time I read Joseph Mitchell’s writing, I find myself smiling. Here in this frigid February, I thought these stories would loosen your face up from this frozen winter and produce a smile.    

                    UP IN THE OLD HOTEL: and other stories.

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 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 stunning 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.”  

Joseph Mitchell was truly fascinated with Joe Gould as he wrote so much about him.
You should get a copy of Up the Old Hotel to learn more about this extra-ordinary
writer of nonfiction.   

March 4, 2016

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