Up in the Old Hotel

I love Joseph Mitchell for many reasons, including his declaration that on his way back to the office (New Yorker magazine) after lunch on a sunny day, he may just wander past the door, hop on a bus and explore the city instead of returning to his desk. His writing style elevates true stories of the under-reported denizens of the city to high art. It has been joyous to read (or re-read) the stories collected in this complete collection, especially as I poked around the Bowery, Chinatown, South Street seaport, Staten Island, and the Village, decades after the time he recorded. He breathes life into a stunning array of characters, from fish market bosses, to retired old men living near the South Street seaport, to oystermen, clammers, circus freaks, members of a deaf club, fortune tellers, movie ticket takers, restauranteurs, preachers, drunk poets and hobos. He describes mouth-watering clam-bakes and turtle stew and boiled lobster breakfasts aboard pre-dawn boats and beefsteak dinners where you pay $5 for all you can eat and drink. It’s chock full of boozy philosophers, fights, jokes, and life lessons. Mitchell migrated from North Carolina to NYC, and includes a story about growing up with the Klan, painting them as buffoons with little to do except terrorize the town, but who fall apart when citizens begin to protect themselves. In NYC, his friendship with police detectives gives him access to the extensive backstory of gypsies in the US. He covers the skilled Mohawk Indians dancing on skyscrapers as welders and uncovers the stories of rivermen working on the New Jersey shore directly across from Manhattan. A map of his peregrinations would have a high concentration of lines across lower Manhattan, with arcs all around the waters of Staten Island, Jersey, Connecticut. Fantastic, setting the bar high for stories of all kinds.