Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ageless Writing

This brilliant seventy-six-year-old profile of McSorley's Old Ale House is the best beer-related article I have ever read.  The meticulous story was written by Joseph Mitchell, and appeared in the April 13, 1940, issue of The New Yorker.  Joseph Mitchell was a New Yorker staff writer from 1938 until he died in 1996.  He is best known for a thirty-two-year case of writer's block, where despite going into The New Yorker every day until his death, never submitted an article after 1964.  The quality of his writing, as shown in his McSorley piece, is, I am sure, why he was kept on staff.  Here are a few excerpts, but read the entire article:

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 clientele is motley. It includes mechanics from the many garages in the neighborhood, salesmen from the restaurant-supply houses on Cooper Square, truck-drivers from Wanamakers’s, internes from Bellevue, students from Cooper Union, clerks from the row of secondhand bookshops north of Astor Place, and men with tiny pensions who live in hotels on the Bowery but are above drinking in the bars on that street. The backbone of the clientele, however, 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 toward the place. Some of these veterans clearly remember John McSorley, the founder, who died in 1910 at the age of eighty-seven. They refer to him as Old John, and they like to sit in rickety armchairs around the big belly stove which heats the place, gnaw on the stems of their pipes, and talk about him.
Bill was an able bartender. He understood ale; he knew how to draw it and how to keep it, and his bar pipes were always clean. In warm weather he made a practice of chilling the mugs in a tub of ice; even though a customer nursed an ale a long time, the chilled earthenware mug kept it cool.
During prohibition McSorley’s ale was produced mysteriously in a row of washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer named Barney Kelly, who would come down three times a week from his home in the Bronx. On these days the smell of malt and wet hops would be strong in the place. Kelly’s product was raw and extraordinarily emphatic, and Bill made a practice of weakening it with near beer. In fact, throughout prohibition Bill referred to his ale as near beer, a euphemism which greatly amused the customers. One night a policeman who knew Bill stuck his head in the door and said, “I seen a old man up at the corner wrestling with a truck horse. I asked him what he’d been drinking and he said, ‘Near beer in McSorley’s.’ ”

When prohibition came, Bill simply disregarded it. He ran wide open. He did not have a peephole door, nor did he pay protection, but McSorley’s was never raided; the fact that it was patronized by a number of Tammany politicians and minor police officials probably gave it immunity.
The majority are retired laborers and small businessmen. They prefer McSorley’s to their homes. A few live in the neighborhood, but many come from a distance. One, a retired operator of a chain of Bowery flophouses, comes in from Sheepshead Bay practically every day. On the day of his retirement, this man said, “If my savings hold out, I’ll never draw another sober breath.” He says he drinks in order to forget the misery he saw in his flophouses; he undoubtedly saw a lot of it, because he often drinks twenty-five mugs a day, and McSorley’s ale is by no means weak. 
From what I have been able to find, McSorley's has not changed much in the seventy-six years since Mitchell wrote the story, except that McSorley's now allows women customers.  I found this marvelous story through bloggers Boak & Bailey's twitter feed.

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