It’s no secret that a lot of my favorite books these days are lent from the shelves of a certain well-read lady in Dupont Circle. I’ve always been someone who doggedly clung to the classics, choosing to re-read Shakespeare or Kafka or Plato or Doyle. To each their own, I suppose, but over time reading remained what it was in school – hard work. I’d gotten into a rut of a half dozen books a year, with a sprinkling of modern science fiction and Wired Magazine. Alison opened me up to a whole world of contemporary lit, a world I’m a little chagrined to realize that I missed out on for so long: Chabon, Toole, Franzen, Zafon. Turns out the Pullitzer Prize is frequently an indication of pretty good fiction. Go figure.
Recently, I finished a book that was neither classical nor fiction, but excellent. Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell, is a compilation of four books and a series of New Yorker profiles. Each of the books is a compilation of pieces he wrote over the years and they are grouped by common themes. A dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, Mitchell knew the old Lower Manhattan of the 1920s through 1950s better than anyone I’ve ever read, and much of its history through all the people to whom he talked. Not the high rises of the stock brokers or the mansions of the robber barons, but the South Seaport docks, the fisherman of Long Island, the varied and gritty and fascinating characters that made up the typical streets of New York. A review in the San Francisco Examiner pegged it exactly: “A poetry of the actual, a song of the streets …”
They say that to write well, you should write what you know. Mitchell wasn’t really choosing to follow that axiom because his work is a collection of journalistic pieces, but as someone so close to his subjects, he was the right person to be making the observations he did. In his writing, he is both native and observer. When asked whether he likes clams while aboard a vessel headed for one of the shoals of New York Harbor, he responds that he once won a clam-eating contest on Staten Island. When on the Jersey shore wandering among cemetaries, many of the names of centuries-old NY-area families are already known to him, even before the ancient resident describes them. When researching the gypsies that move consantly among the five boroughs, running their time-tested confidence games, he has access to the real facts that bring them to life because of a long friendship with a NYPD beat detective who was one of the foremost national authorities on the Gypsies of New York.
The book is fascinating in retrospect because it really has no plot (with the exception of The Secret of Joe Gould, which ends the compilation and while not fiction, tells an exceptional story). Nevertheless, Mitchell’s recitation of detail after detail connected with his subjects has the quality of anecdote that is at the heart of any good human interest reporting.
Up in the Old Hotel, the first of the books in the compendium, is the most varied. Up in the Old Hotel reads like listening to Tom Waits, except that the pigment on Mitchell’s canvas are the commoner and quirkier elements of New York instead of a coven of hookers, pimps and criminals. For example, you’ll read about:
- The gypsy women of New York and their bajour con;
- King Cockeye Johnny, the self-proclaimed “king” of a group of Gypsy families;
- “The Commodore,” a man who has made a living for 40 years by throwing a ball for his own benefit;
- The muddled and suspicious proprietor of a basement museum, who claims fantastical pedigree to each item in a collection of junk spanning decades;
- Lady Olga, a bearded lady;
- Anthony Colborne, the founder of the Anti-Profanity League;
- Santa Claus Smith, a drifter of dubious sanity who travels the country passing bad checks;
- A band of Quebecois Mohawk Indians who were some of the best high-altitude construction workers New York ever saw;
- A woman proprietor of a movie theater, toughened and bitter by the years, but compassionate to the less fortunate among her community;
- Deaf-mute societies, proprietors of movie theaters and restaurants, fishermen, gifted children, Black Ankle county natives, chefs for classic “beefsteaks,” and many more.
I won’t review The Secret of Joe Gould because his secret makes the story, but The Bottom of the Harbor is a wonderful insight into the various fishing communities that grew up with and around the rest of the city. All three of the books within Up in the Old Hotel center on several themes, to wit: a varied take on the different characters that made up the Big Apple; an incisive observation of the details that give you a terrific idea of who those people actually were; and a view of how times gone and current were changing the circumstances of the city.
All in all, if you have the endurance for 600 pages of fact, you will emerge from Up in the Old Hotel feeling like you have a view of early 20th Century New York that you have not gotten from modern focus on Prohibition, the stock market crash, the Depression or popular pieces about flappers. The work instead paints a magnificent picture of the unstoried elements that helped make the city who she is today. This book has imparted one of the most interesting bodies of knowledge I’ve ever gained in one place.