Mitchell up in the old hotel
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph MitchellSaloon-keepers and street preachers, gypsies and steel-walking Mohawks, a bearded lady and a 93-year-old “seafoodetarian” who believes his specialized diet will keep him alive for another two decades. These are among the people that Joseph Mitchell immortalized in his reportage for The New Yorker and in four books—McSorleys Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Goulds Secret—that are still renowned for their precise, respectful observation, their graveyard humor, and their offhand perfection of style.These masterpieces (along with several previously uncollected stories) are available in one volume, which presents an indelible collective portrait of an unsuspected New York and its odder citizens—as depicted by one of the great writers of this or any other time.
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Comparing a journalist's oeuvre with the titanic Ulysses may appear presumptuous, but Mitchell shared Joyce's obsessive interest in the odd corners and overlooked eccentrics of urban life. His subjects include "the oldest saloon in New York City…a drowsy place", the overgrown cemeteries of rural Staten Island, the stupendous blow-outs known as "beef-steaks" and the title story some long sealed-off floors upstairs from a fish joint called Sloppy Louie's. From such an unpromising lode Mitchell produced pure gold. The odd characters of the mid-century metropolis — the bearded lady, the proselytiser against swearing, the shifty owner of a taxidermy collection, the "King of the Gypsies" — are depicted with meticulous sympathy. Reading this wonderful collection, you are transported to Mitchell's favourite spots — the sleepy New Jersey towns across the Hudson from Manhattan, flea-ridden corners of the Bowery and, most frequently, the rackety Fulton Fish Market in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge. An actual visit to these locales is liable to prove disappointing.
The hidden corners of New York and the people who lived there, in the cracks and margins and on the byways and waterways are Joseph Mitchell's subject. Mitchell bottled and preserved more of the soul of New York than anyone before or since.
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O n and off over the odd years that I have been trying to write journalism, I have carried around in my bag Joseph Mitchell's book, Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell grew up in rural North Carolina at the beginning of the last century, came to New York as a young man to work as a crime correspondent in Harlem, and subsequently became known at the New Yorker magazine as the pioneer of a particular kind of reporting that owed something to Mark Twain : extended portraits of people and places at the margins of the city, told with all the patience of a novelist, and the precision of a newspaperman.
The book opens with a description of a saloon named "McSorley's. From there, Mitchell moved on to tell the story of a woman named Mazie Gordon, who had spent most of her adult life working in a theater she owned as a ticket taker. But most nights after work, Mazie took some soap and change and went to the streets where she distributed both and checked up on anyone who seemed to be in distress. The stories continued with Joe Gould, who claimed to be able to talk to seagulls and was writing an extensive work he titled "An Oral History of Our Time. Many of Mitchell's stories were set along the water fronts.