Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Old New York

#7 -- "Up In the Old Hotel" by Joseph Mitchell

I need to start marking down where I initially hear about writers, because I'd like to give a thankful shout-out to whoever it was that hinted I should read this. Mitchell was a venerable New Yorker writer from the 1930s to the 1960s, and this collects profiles and features from that time span.

Mitchell chronicled lifestyles and personalities that were -- even if not explicitly stated -- in danger of extinction. Bowery bums, bohemians, rivermen, denizens of the fish market. And he does it really well, with sympathy but also a sense of humor.

The most appealing pieces for me are kind of obvious to anyone who knows my interests -- the opening piece on McSorley's Ale House (still open, 70 years after Mitchell's piece), and the titular story, in which a restaurateur takes Mitchell into the long-abandoned upper stories of his building, trying to find some clues about what the building's previous incarnations were like.

And there's also the Joe Gould pieces, which (I guess) are Mitchell's most famous -- the story of a local personality, who claimed to be writing the world's longest book as he solicited money from friends and acquaintances. The first is rather romanticized and jovial -- the second, decades later and after Gould's death, much more honest, sad and sweet.

Two links to point out, for more NY stuff -- Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, which tracks the disappearance of the city's older buildings and businesses, and old favorite Forgotten NY.

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