Tuesday, November 06, 2012

New York City Haunts

Up in the Old Hotel

Up in the Old Hotel 

“Also, I had not yet found out about time; I was still under the illusion that I had plenty of time - time for this, time for that, time for everything, time to waste.”  ― Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel

This is a wonderful and readable collection of Mitchell's essays, in which he lovingly describes haunts like the Fulton Fish Market and McSorley's, one of the last bars in America to admit women, and profiles various folk and colorful denizens of New York City's nether regions, most famously, Joe Gould, the bohemian character with whom he is inevitably and eternally linked. Mitchell demonstrates great skill as a writer by letting his subjects seemingly speak for themselves, all the while rendering their words in compulsively readable fashion. This works best with Joe Gould who was a fountain of words anyway. The story tells of Gould, a Harvard grad, subsisting on practically no money (one of his tricks is to make a soup out of the ketchup in restaurants), with a propensity for making a spectacle of himself as he starts flapping his arms and declaiming poetry in the "language" of sea gulls. It shows how he works on his nine million word Oral History of Our Time. Within the pages of hundreds of composition books, of the kind we used to use in school, Gould claimed to be writing a history of the world in the form of the conversations of ordinary people as he heard them speaking every day ""What people say is history." (Reminds me of Studs Terkel). It was this idea that beguiled Mitchell and his readers, made Gould into a minor celebrity, and ultimately formed a tragicomic link to Mitchell's own career.
All of this and more is included here from his reportage for The New Yorker and his four books—McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould's Secret—that are still renowned for their precise, respectful observation, their graveyard humor, and their offhand perfection of style.

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell.  Vintage Books, 1993 (1992).

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