Story type: Essay
This afternoon we have been thinking how pleasant it would be to sit at one of those cool tables up at McSorley’s and write our copy there. We have always been greatly allured by Dick Steele’s habit of writing his Tatler at his favourite tavern. You remember his announcement, dated April 12, 1709:
All accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment, shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate-house; poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; learning, under the title of The Grecian; foreign and domestic news, you will have from Saint James’s Coffee-house; and what else I have to offer on any other subject shall be dated from my own apartment.
Sir Dick–would one speak of him as the first colyumist?–continued by making what is, we suppose, one of the earliest references in literature to the newspaper man’s “expense account.” But the expenses of the reporter two centuries ago seem rather modest. Steele said:
I once more desire my reader to consider that as I cannot keep an ingenious man to go daily to Will’s under twopence each day, merely for his charges; to White’s under sixpence; nor to The Grecian, without allowing him some plain Spanish, to be as able as others at the learned table; and that a good observer cannot speak with even Kidney[*] at Saint James’s without clean linen: I say, these considerations will, I hope, make all persons willing to comply with my humble request of a penny-a-piece.
[* Evidently the bus boy.]
But what we started to say was that if, like Dick Steele, we were in the habit of dating our stuff from various inns around the town, our choice for a quiet place in which to compose items of “gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment” would be McSorley’s–“The Old House at Home”–up on Seventh Street. We had feared that this famous old cabin of cheer might have gone west in the recent evaporation; but rambling round in the neighbourhood of the Cooper Union we saw its familiar doorway with a shock of glad surprise. After all, there is no reason why the old-established houses should not go on doing a good business on a Volstead basis. It has never been so much a question of what a man drinks as the atmosphere in which he drinks it. Atrocious cleanliness and glitter and raw naked marble make the soda fountains a disheartening place to the average male. He likes a dark, low-ceilinged, and not too obtrusively sanitary place to take his ease. At McSorley’s is everything that the innocent fugitive from the world requires. The great amiable cats that purr in the back room. The old pictures and playbills on the walls. The ancient clocks that hoarsely twang the hours. We cannot imagine a happier place to sit down with a pad of paper and a well-sharpened pencil than at that table in the corner by the window. Or the table just under that really lovely little portrait of Robert Burns–would there be any more propitious place in New York at which to fashion verses? There would be no interruptions, such as make versifying almost impossible in a newspaper office. The friendly bartenders in their lilac-coloured shirts are wise and gracious men. They would not break in upon one’s broodings. Every now and then, while the hot sun smote the awnings outside, there would be another china mug of that one-half-of-1-per-cent. ale, which seems to us very good. We repeat: we don’t care so much what we drink as the surroundings among which we drink it. We are not, if you will permit the phrase, sot in our ways. We like the spirit of McSorley’s, which is decent, dignified, and refined. No club has an etiquette more properly self-respecting.
One does not go to McSorley’s without a glimpse at that curious old red pile Bible House. It happened this way: Our friend Endymion was back from his vacation and we were trying to celebrate it in modest fashion. We were telling him all the things that had happened since he went away–that Bob Holliday had had a fortieth birthday, and Frank Shay had published his bibliography of Walt Whitman, and all that sort of thing; and in our mutual excitement Endymion whisked too swiftly round a corner and caught his jacket on a sharp door-latch and tore it. Inquiring at Astor Place’s biggest department store as to where we could get it mended, they told us to go to “Mr. Wright the weaver” on the sixth floor of Bible House, and we did so. On our way back, avoiding the ancient wire rope elevator (we know only one other lift so delightfully mid-Victorian, viz., one in Boston, that takes you upstairs to see Edwin Edgett, the gentle-hearted literary editor of the Boston Transcript), we walked down the stairs, peeping into doorways in great curiosity. The whole building breathed a dusky and serene quaintness that pricks the imagination. It is a bit like the shop in Edinburgh (on the corner of the Leith Walk and Antigua Street, if we remember) that R.L.S. described in “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured”–“it was dark and smelt of Bibles.” We looked in at the entrance to the offices of the Christian Herald. The Bowling Green thought that what he saw was two young ladies in close and animated converse; but Endymion insisted that it was one young lady doing her hair in front of a large mirror. “Quite a pretty little picture,” said Endymion. We argued about this as we went down the stairs. Finally we went back to make sure. Endymion was right. Even in the darkness of Bible House, we agreed, romance holds sway. And then we found a book shop on the ground floor of Bible House. One of our discoveries there was “Little Mr. Bouncer,” by Cuthbert Bede–a companion volume to “Mr. Verdant Green.”
But Dick Steele’s idea of writing his column from different taverns round the city is rather gaining ground in our affections. There would be no more exciting way of spending a fortnight or so than in taking a walking tour through the forests of New York, camping for the night wherever we happened to find ourself at dark, Adam-and-Evesdropping as we went, and giving the nearest small boy fifty cents to take our copy down to the managing editor. Some of our enterprising clients, who are not habitual commuters and who live in a state of single cussedness, might try it some time.
The only thing we missed at McSorley’s, we might add, was the old-time plate of onions. But then we were not there at lunch time, and the pungent fruit may have been hidden away in the famous tall ice box. Hutchins Hapgood once said, in an article about McSorley’s in Harper’s Weekly: “The wives of the men who frequent McSorley’s always know where their husbands have been. There is no mistaking a McSorley onion.” He was right. The McSorley onion–“rose among roots”–was sui generis. It had a reach and authenticity all its own.
We have said a good deal, now and then, about some of the taverns and chophouses we enjoy; but the one that tingles most strongly in our bosom is one that doesn’t exist. That is the chophouse that might be put in the cellar of that glorious old round-towered building at 59 Ann Street.
As you go along Ann Street, you will come, between numbers 57 and 61, to an old passage-way running down to a curious courtyard, which is tenanted mostly by carpenters and iron-workers, and by a crowded store which seems to be a second-hand ship-chandlery, for old sea-boots, life preservers, fenders, ship’s lanterns, and flags hang on the wall over the high stairway. In the cellars are smithies where you will see the bright glare of a forge and men with faces gleaming in tawny light pulling shining irons out of the fire. The whole place is too fascinating to be easily described. That round-tower house is just our idea of the right place for a quiet tavern or club, where one would go in at lunch time, walk over a sawdusted floor to a table bleached by many litres of slopovers, light a yard of clay, and call for a platter of beefsteak pie. The downtown region is greatly in need of the kind of place we have in mind, and if any one cares to start a chophouse in that heavenly courtyard, the Three Hours for Lunch Club pledges itself to attend regularly.
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