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April 2, 2010 / howardmestas

Up The Old Hotel

Old John Behind the Bar


Joseph Mitchell was a gifted writer who came to New York City from his native North Carolina just as the Great Depression struck in 1929.  He was just twenty-one years old but soon found himself as a feature writer and a police reporter for The Morning World, the Herald Times, and the World-Telegram.  He covered everything from New York cave dwellers to Albert Einstein and became one of the most popular newspapermen in the city.  His style was to establish a kinship with his subjects and was even known to take up a residence in a cheap hotel to better learn a neighborhood.  Unlike most feature writers Mitchell would seek out eccentric characters and personalities for his stories.  Where most would want to feature high class dining establishments, he would prefer feasts where patrons ate with their fingers and wiped their mouths with table cloths.  He especially felt at home in greasy spoon restaurants with unusual menus; preferably with clams or oysters picked in the bay.  As others aspired to feature the rich and famous, Mitchell would spend time with individuals who managed to eke out a living through difficult and sometimes curious circumstances.  His favorite haunts were lower East Side saloons, Greenwich Village, Harlem, and the neighborhoods near the numerous docks and piers of the city.  Regardless of where the story was told Mitchell made the reader feel as if they were a guest along for the ride and although there was a serious nature to every story, he managed a satirical poke at life’s hardships in what he referred to as “graveside humor.” Considering that most of his features were written in the middle of the nineteenth century during difficult times as Americans were recovering from the lasting effects of the Depression and World War II, his readers may have been looking for an outlet to laugh at themselves or to relish the fact that someone else was actually worse off than they were.

One of Mitchell’s most eccentric characters was a Greenwich Village nonconformist who pushed the definition of the “Bohemian” culture to extreme measures.  Upon meeting him he would introduce himself by saying, “The name is Joseph Ferdinand Gould, a graduate of Harvard, magna cum difficultate, class of 1911, and chairman of the board of Weal and Woe, Incorporated.  In exchange for a drink, I’ll recite a poem, deliver a lecture, argue a point, or take off my shoes and imitate a sea gull.  I prefer gin, but beer will do.”  Gould really was a Harvard grad, but shunned societal evils preferring a life as a street wanderer.  “A steady job would interfere with my thinking,” he claimed.  Gould’s main obsession was his mysterious book he titled “An Oral History of Our Time,” which was basically a mishmash of conversations he would hear between New York’s underclass that he would encounter in flophouses, park benches, and shelters.  By the time Mitchell first interviewed him in 1942, Gould boasted to have been working on his book for at least 26 years and proclaimed to have already written over 9,000,000 words, all in long hand.  “I’m the foremost authority in the United States on the subject of doing without,” he would say.  His diet consisted mainly of “air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried egg sandwiches and ketchup.”  Copious amounts of ketchup!  While Gould was having his egg sandwich it was customary to empty a bottle or two of ketchup on a plate and then eat it with a spoon!  Proprietors of diners and eateries in the Village would gather up and hide ketchup bottles when he was seen approaching.  Although he was usually a shy person, Gould was never one to pass up a good party.  And after a few free drinks he would put on a one man show with only the slightest encouragement.  He would strip to the waist and do a dance he learned while working on an Indian

Joseph Ferdinand Gould

 reservation and then take off his shoes and socks and do his incredible imitation of a sea gull; indiscriminately performing a routine with, “awkward, headlong skips about the room, flapping his arms and letting out a piercing caw with every skip.”  He was a loner and had an affinity for sea gulls ever since having one for a pet as a child.  He would say he understood the language of the gulls and that he could translate poetry into it.  When Mitchell did his first story on Gould, it was titled Professor Seagull.

Another of Mitchell’s interesting stories was about a saloon on the east side that was the oldest in all of New York City.  At the time of Mitchell’s feature in 1940 it had only seen four owners since its opening in 1854.  Originally called The Old House at Home, it eventually was renamed McSorely’s Old Saloon after its founder John McSorely affectionately known as “Old John” to his patrons.  This was a peculiar establishment for many reasons not the least of which were the clientele who Mitchell described as a “rapidly thinning group of crusty of men, predominantly Irish, who have been drinking there since they were youths and now have a proprietary feeling about the place.”  Most were lonely old men who would slept in Bowery hotels and spend nearly every waking hour in the dimly lit saloon cramped into chairs that were practically molded into their shapes.  These men had little money, mostly small pensions, and were such fixtures that their peers would assume that someone was dead when they did not show up in the saloon in a week’s time.  Owners and patrons alike were very opposed to change and a strong indication was that there was only one drink on the list, frosty mugs of ale poured perfectly from experienced bartenders.  These men were serious about their drinking and pipe smoking, to the point that women weren’t even allowed in through the doors.  As the story was told, “Old John believed it impossible for men to drink with tranquility in the presence of women.”  Between 1912 and 1930 an artist named John Sloan produced a collection of paintings that were published in national magazines.  All depicted distinctive scenes that could have been found at any given moment in the alehouse and were given titles such as, “McSorley’s Saturday Night,” and “McSorley’s Cats.”  These publications would generate many curiosity seekers to which the regulars were barely tolerant, offering only casual acceptance, “If they behave themselves and don’t ask too many questions.”


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