Up in the Old Hotel

Up in the Old Hotel



The Pequod Review:

Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel is one of the great books of old New York City, a warm and graceful collection of real life profiles published in The New Yorker between 1938 and 1965. Mitchell describes a number of odd and eccentric New Yorkers: Bowery preachers, tavern owners, drunks, con men, and especially the characters that worked in and around the Fulton Fish Market and the NYC waterfront. Here is Mitchell describing the area:

The Fulton Market smell is a commingling of smells. I tried to take it apart. I could distinguish the reek of the ancient fish and oyster houses, and the exhalations of the harbor. And I could distinguish the smell of tar, a smell that came from an attic on South Street, the net loft of a fishing-boat supply house, where trawler nets that have been dipped in tar vats are hung beside open windows to drain and dry. And I could distinguish the oakwoody smell of smoke from the stack of a loft on Beekman Street in which finnan haddies are cured; the furnace of this loft burns white-oak and hickory shavings and sawdust. And tangled in these smells were still other smells -- the acrid smoke from the stacks of the row of coffee-roasting plants on Front Street, and the pungent smoke from the stack of the Purity Spice Mill on Dover Street, and the smell of rawhides from The Swamp, the tannery district, which adjoins the market on the north.

Several other pieces are set in McSorely’s Old Ale House, an East Village bar that catered to the down-and-out: 

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.

The backbone of the clientele is a rapidly thinning group of crusty old men, predominantly Irish, who have been drinking there since they were youths and now have a proprietary feeling about the place. Some of them have tiny pensions, and are alone in the world; they sleep in Bowery hotels and spend practically all their waking hours in McSorley's.

These profiles are a joy to read, and at their best they touch something deep and essential about life itself.