Good ale, raw onions, no women

A number of New Yorkers in the past few days have asked me what place in the city has been my favourite. I haven’t had a good answer — I wasn’t really ranking them, I guess. But if I had to choose, it would possibly be the place I went to first: Madison Square Park, on 23rd and 5th. It’s not all that different from the many other oases that speckle the city… but then you sit down and look up, and there’s the Empire State, and the FlatIron gazes benevolently down on the square, and the gold-steepled New York Life Insurance building guards another corner. Shake Shack is within the bounds of the park itself, but tactfully, wrought steel rather than neon lights — they actually do make great burgers, I double-checked. Squirrels clamber up trees and rubbish bins, and bury their treasures under the thin hedge. Across the road is a comic book store up a flight of old stairs. This I found convenient.

It could also be the Chelsea Hotel, I guess.

But if we narrow the purview to drinking establishments, then it was probably McSorley’s Old Ale House, down in the East Village. I went there yesterday afternoon. Sometimes they claim to be the oldest tavern in the U.S. I don’t know if that’s true, but they have a solid case for being the longest continuously-operated pub in NYC, opened in 1854-ish. Authenticity is in surprisingly short supply in the dives of Manhattan, with their walls of flatscreens (basketball, basketball and basketball) and garish advertisements hanging from the ceiling. But McSorley’s makes up for all of them. There are green barrels out the front (near a worn old flagstone that says “McSorleys — please keep our neighborhood in order”), and a thick scatter of sawdust on the floor. The place, they say, hasn’t been dusted since 1854 — a bloke at the bar warned me that if you even reach out to touch any of the thick globs of dust that hang from low rafters and fittings, they’re likely to tackle you.

You have a choice at McSorley’s: “light” or “dark”. Those are their ales. That is all the liquid they sell. You can hear the bartender occasionally bellow “We don’t serve wine here!” to general mirth. (Or indeed, the louder and more perplexing “Who stole my tea kettle cosy?!”, which generated something of a chorus from the barflies.)

I asked for a light ale. The bartender came back with two foaming pitchers, approximately the size of pot glasses. “Four and a half” he demanded, and wouldn’t take my tip when I offered him $6. As he walked away, I asked the bloke standing beside me why he’d given me two. He shrugged. “Everyone gets two, I guess.” He seemed to say it like he’d never thought of it before. He’d been coming here for twenty-six years. “I guess it’s that the glasses are small – 7oz.” The barman yelled from the other end of the bar: “I gave you two cos I liked you!” and turned back to his conversation. The next time I came up for a drink, my barfly friend said “I dare you to get just one, go on, say it: I’ll have one please. Ha-ha, they probably wouldn’t even know what the price was.” It’s true — there’s an ancient sign above the bar, which reads:

  Light ♣ Dark
  Special Today
   2 for 4.50

The price is written in black marker. But the special itself is decades old. Everyone walks away from the bar with multiples of two.

My newfound acquaintance pointed out to me the fishbone wishbones hanging from the chandelier above the bar, covered in grime. “They’re for the men who didn’t come back from the First World War.” The wishbones were ninety years old. I asked him about McSorley’s day in the spotlight, when in 1971 they were the defendant in a Supreme Court case, for refusing to allow women admittance. In fact, their slogan for many years was: “Good Ale, Raw Onions, No Ladies.” They still serve raw onions, the ale is not bad, but there were certainly a number of ladies there, so times have happily changed.

Anyway, my friend said that the Supreme Court ruling was well before his time, although when he got there in 1981 they still only had one set of toilets. The bathroom opens out into the eating area, such as it is, and has clear glass panels on the door. It’s not a place to dine for those easily put off their meals, I guess.

The walls of the tavern are thick with history: newspaper cuttings, ironic cartoons, miscellaneous ornaments. Once an ornament is placed in McSorley’s, it can’t be moved — that’s the rules. The bartender washes the empty pitchers by sloshing them in a long trough under the bar.

So yeah, it’s also a candidate for my favourite place in NYC. I spent a couple hours there reading my book and working through three servings of the light and dark (6 pitchers, for those not paying attention), before I really, really felt like a soda water instead. I didn’t like my chances of getting one at McSorley’s.

Anyway, I have a twenty-two hour flight to catch. Tom Waits ought to see this diary out with appropriately sentimental fanfare:

Most vagabonds I knowed don’t ever want to find the culprit, that remains the object of their long relentless quest. The obsession’s in the chasing and not the apprehending; the pursuit you see and never the arrest.

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Joseph | 22 Mar 2008

Maundy Thursday

I wonder how many people in this city
live in furnished rooms.
Late at night when I look out at the buildings
I swear I see a face in every window
looking back at me,
and when I turn away
I wonder how many go back to their desks
and write this down.

Leonard Cohen, I wonder how many people in this city

I spent most of my last full day in NYC holed up in my room trying to write a pome. It seemed like the thing to do.

Joseph | 21 Mar 2008

Toffy Apple

Sometime around the 1920s, with a continuing epidemic of tenement fires, the City of New York passed a very practical ordinance that had an unintended aesthetic side-effect. They required that any building above a certain height (3 storeys or so, I think) have a water tank installed on the roof, providing downward water pressure to assist in the extinguishing of flames.

You can generally see two or three of these water towers anywhere you look upward in the city. They're iconic in their own right now, but when the by-law was enacted, a lot of New Yorkers considered them an eyesore. Here's a view of the Upper West Side from the Hudson River (taken on the Circle Line) — I'm talking about the chubby little rocket ships dotting the skyline:


Developers in some of the more fashionable residential areas of Manhattan began to demand architectural solutions to these galvanised iron blights on their grand chateaus, especially around the streets and avenues that guard Central Park. Hence the distinctive spires of Gotham, like this example I shot from the park:



I heard that Arthur C. Clarke died overnight. He wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Hotel Chelsea, where I'm staying. Here for posterity is a picture of me in one of the rooms far below his former abode:


Okay, enough pictorialising I think.

Joseph | 20 Mar 2008

Old hat

You wouldn't even have known it had snowed at all. There was hardly any snow on the sidewalks. But it was freezing cold, and I took my red hunting hat out of my pocket and put it on--I didn't give a damn how I looked. I even put the earlaps down.

Old Holden Caulfield didn't make me want to come here. I didn't even think of coming to New York until a lot later. But since the first time I read Catcher in the Rye, on my own, not having to study it and leech the life out of it, I've wanted a red hunting hat with earlaps. With one of those very, very long peaks.

This morning I went up to J. J. Hat Center on 5th Avenue around 32nd, one of the oldest millinery emporia in the city, going on a hundred years, looking for my hat. They have about 10,000 hats there. Seemed like it too, but I found just one that was red with earlaps. It was right at the bottom of the glass case. I had to point it out to the old man about five or six times before he found it.

Too small, he said. I have a big head? You have a big head. Let me try it on. Okay. It was a bit tight. A bit tight, or a lot tight? A bit tight. I can fix that, you don't have to take it, I'll make it fit your big head. Okay.

He moved over to an ancient contraption that emitted jets of stream, and used a hemispherical crank to loosen the wool for a few minutes.

Here, try now. It felt about the same, but this time I decided it was not tight, it was snug. It fits you great now. Okay. I mugged in the mirror for a few minutes with this big red hat on my head. I took the flaps down, and I thought he frowned. Maybe he didn't. I fastened them back over the top again.

You'll never see another hat like that one. Why? The company that made it went out of business twenty-five years ago. So this is an old hat? Yes, look. He pointed to the label on the inner crown. 1975. It was an old hat, older than me. Pure wool, he said. Made in England. These days they only make hats like that in Singapore, China, you know.

What's it worth? 50. Okay. You're getting an antique hat there, sir. I laughed.

We talked for a bit about the distance from Melbourne to Sydney, and his sister who lived there forty years. I put the hat on my head and walked half a block til I was safely out of sight, then pulled the flaps down over my ears so that they whipped up into my face with every gust of wind. Then I strode all of fifty blocks up 5th Avenue to the Met Museum of Art, grinning like a damn fool.

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Joseph | 19 Mar 2008

Boston or bust

It was Palm Sunday, so I went to church.

Not even dour Catholicism could stop the people of the Church of Saint Charles Borromeo from rejoicing — that very Christian word actually has some validity in the congregations of Harlem. The music, while not the southern soulful gospel of the Baptist churches, was upbeat and inspiriting, sung by a choir of young black girls and boys. People snapped their fingers to the rhythm and swung from side to side as they joined the choir. At the end of each song people applauded, which is something I find I always have to refrain from doing in Catholic mass. The sermon, on the likeness of the holy week (you know, Easter) to post-Christmas sales, was delivered by a giant of a man with a booming voice and a piercing gaze, who cracked jokes to general laughter and then turned them into stern, no-laughing-matter expositions on the woeful state of the modern soul, which expects mercy and gives none.

I gave them twenty dollars.

There was Central Park and nibbling on knishes and blintzes from Zabars, and then the sales of Soho, where fulfilling the prophecy of the pastor I scored a bargain on a raincoat. I have now navigated so much of the island that I can confidently direct tourists when they ask me. It seems like 30% of Manhattan's daily occupants are foreigners or interstaters, which is my theory on why New York is so extraordinarily narcissistic. I mean it: this city loves itself, considers little but itself, dreams of itself. You sit eavesdropping at the bar or a cafe table, and New Yorkers just talk and talk and talk about the city: its shape, its history, its politics, its best features. Every other shopfront has "NYC" (or sometimes "Brooklyn") in its business name. Those are brands too — and just because your t-shirt or cap is emblazoned with them doesn't mean you're a naive visitor. But because so many people here are, and because like me they ask a lot of stupid questions, the city — which seems to me one of the most extroverted in the world — is constantly introspecting.

I like that.

I had to get some dinner before an early rise to catch my bus to Boston (it left downtown at 7am), so I walked to John's Pizzeria on Bleecker St. The queue was twenty people deep, and I hate queues, so I kept walking, down south of Houston to the Ludlow district, to a bakery that doubles as a bar and music venue, called Cake Shop. I grabbed a croissant and headed downstairs to see if a band was playing. It was empty, and they were playing Archers of Loaf (Vee Vee, always my favourite), so I was sold. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer and tried to explain to the bartender what was so good about the Loafers. She was remarkably patient. A guy called Luke Wesley eventually wandered in and played a short set of wistful piano pop songs, then took up a stool at the bar. We talked a lot of shit about New York (versus Melbourne, versus San Francisco, versus Lima, Ohio) while he knocked back glass after brimful glass of brown liquor. I asked him what he was drinking in those giant tumblers, and he said "Scotch, with an ice cube."

I don't know if I ever saw an ice cube, but I saw at least nine of those tumblers.

I may have been, at this point, in my parochial way, cheerfully complaining about the flatness of the draft beer. The bartender (kind as well as patient) shouted me bottles of Grolsch, and other folks at the bar joined in the conversation. I yakked and jabbered and nodded and loudly agreed with a lot of assertions from a number of interlocuters through the next two bands. I hadn't hardly spoken for two days, and though I don't normally like talking, in this foreign land I am stupidly effusive. Folks kept buying me drinks. I've loved the idea of this city for years, but last night I loved its inhabitants, at least the random sample around the bar at Cake Shop. At 2am I was still there, gabbing away to the only person left in the room, the bartender again, who (gracious as well as kind and patient) hailed a cab and gave the driver directions to my hotel.

At about quarter to 3, back at the Chelsea, I may have thrown up.

Anyway, I missed my bus to Boston. That's alright. St Paddy's day was a bright blue day in New York, and following the parade of cheerleaders and men in tartan skirts up town, the sun burned away the worst of my hangover. I think I looked rather green though.

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Joseph | 18 Mar 2008

All Points East

When the Long Island Railroad train finally dawdled into Montauk, three hours from Penn Station NYC, I leapt off the platform and charged up the hill with the big, interesting building at its peak. As I crested it and stood for a moment admiring the matronly grandeur of Montauk Manor, a fluffy red bird bounced through the brushes — doink, doink, doink — and like a damn fool I followed it, past the tennis courts and up to the cemetery gate, where it fluttered into the woods. So I ambled over to the road, recording the foreign chatter of birds on my camera. I had no plans for Montauk, really, just a half-assed idea on the train to pick up a flask of whiskey (guessing correctly that the peninsula would be cold) and go walking. I figured that if I followed the more frequently trafficked streets for a mile or two, I'd inevitably find someone willing to sell me some liquor and directions.

An hour and a half later, I had not even seen a house of commerce, much less one purveying grog. I was, in fact, pretty much lost. My stupid impetuousity and disdain for paper maps is to blame, but a few other factors compounded the problem: first, the residential streets of Montauk were laid out by a retarded child with an Etch-a-Sketch; second, Montaukers thought it would be fucking hilarious to name all their streets "South F_" (Fulton, Fairview, Fairmont, Forrest, Forbes...); and third, the day was so overcast that saying with any certainty where the sun sat in the sky was a mug's game.

Eventually a sign pointed to a golf course, and two or three miles later in the Pro Shop lobby I found a map. Of sorts. Captain Kidd's map to his undiscovered Montauk treasure was likely better. This was a cartoon map, drawn to a variable scale, where some parts were intentionally ten times bigger than other parts, and where really I'm being generous in using the word 'scale' at all. Rarely have reality and its cartographical representation so radically diverged. Still, it was enough to get me in to the E streets (Ellsworth, Essex, Edgemere, Edison, Embassy...), which if I'd followed south would theoretically have landed me in the Plaza, where I'm certain merchants were just lining up to sell me a drop of Scottish ambrosia.

But I was jack of Montauk. The penultimate train out of town left in twenty minutes, so I hooved north back to the station.

It wasn't a complete loss, though. The birdsong on those otherwise silent backstreets is worth hearing. I almost walked straight into a bevy of deer, grazing someone's front lawn. I saw hand-painted signs that read "Hippies, use back door" and "Freedom is not free", and a hundred million U.S. flags. Plus, the train ride is beautiful, in its idiosyncratic way, threading through skeletal woods with their thick orange carpets, punctuated by discarded Budweiser cans and fridges and car doors and water bikes — all the oddly harmonious detritus of pragmatic humans living on the fringe of beauty and the metropolis.

Joseph | 16 Mar 2008

A hole in the sky

The clearest view of the WTC site, the future home of the 1776 ft Freedom Tower, "Ground Zero" to us tourists, is from the mezzanine level of the Winter Garden. At first sight it's just a complicated hole with a giant expanse of sky above it; both unusual and welcome in downtown Manhattan. Then you think about it, and realise that this is the place that changed the world, that ushered the twenty-first century and ruptured it from the last. Few histories will be written of our milieu that do not begin here, on Vesey and Trinity Place. So why don't I feel anything?

Because it's a hole in the ground, steadily being gorged with concrete. It was six and a half years ago on Tuesday that the towers came down, and it's still just that: an absence, a missing piece in a complex iron-and-glass puzzle. As someone who never really knew what stood there, the greatest ego in a town of egos, it's really impossible to find anything much, unless you want to imagine 3000 ghosts. I found that fruitless. It's just a construction site.

Then I did find something there, and I'm abandoning the second person because I don't know how many people would feel this way. But it seemed to me that a lot had been done in the last six-and-one-half years. The invaded space — alien to a nation whose soil was never before attacked — had been reclaimed by New York City. Ground Zero was, like most other corners in this vast, restless metropolis, just a construction site. It was all orange with yellow stripes: the sanguine stain beneath the rubble had been incorporated and subsumed. The monument was ready. Few other cities could do that in six years.

Of course the sanctity of the place is not lost. It's the one place in Manhattan where you must not give money to beggars, and no-one begs there. Bizarrely, nothing is for sale; the authorities have deemed it sacrilegious. But this is a city that looks to the future the same way it looks out upon the Atlantic — with a deep yearning — and after the vigil, New York inevitably renews.

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Joseph | 15 Mar 2008

Where I'm staying


Looking downtown from the observation deck of the Empire State Building, with the FlatIron building and Madison Square Park in the foreground. The Chelsea is on the same street (horizontal) as the FlatIron, a couple of avenues (vertical) to the west.

That's not smog, it's fog, by the way. New York is cold but I like where I'm staying.

Joseph | 15 Mar 2008

NYC randoms

  • Favourite building: the new NY Times premises, of which we obtained a private tour. It is very modern, designed to the hilt, and has a hushed atmosphere perfectly appropriate for the heart of the old Grey Lady. Walking through the newsroom was, well, kinda sublime, as was seeing the "Page 1 meeting room", where twice daily they hammer out the shape of the front page and the home page.

  • Favourite quote from last night's Larry King Live that I can remember: "So, just how good a prostitute was she?" That's Larry talking to a pasty white guy who is called "the King of All Pimps". The Spitzer scandal seems to have got decent global coverage, but it's a supernova here. Larry in last night's hour interviewed two ex-prostitutes, two madams, and a former pimp. The glee is palpable. On the street people have begun to refer to things and courses of action as a 'Spitzer', although there's yet no consensus that I can tell. Seems like it comes up in 3 out of 4 conversations, mostly revolving around the tragic cut of his wife Silda, who is that rare bird: a pretty middle-aged woman, and thus stealing the show.

  • New favourite thing: Ginger Altoids.

  • Other new favourite thing: Ms.Shira.

Honourable mentions: MOMA, Midtown Comics, Tom Wolfe reading at Union Square.

[View the map]

Joseph | 15 Mar 2008


In an effort to get a compass on Manhattan, I've now scaled the heights of this city, descended to its underground, circumferenced it on water and zigzagged through its midtown grid.

From high up on the eighty-sixth floor, it's hard to look out over this seat of the empire and not be seduced by it. The industry and the egotism that has put up these countless edifices across an entire island -- two by seventeen miles -- is powerfully affecting. It really feels like a challenge or a siren's call to contribute your own creative energy to its cause.

Circling it on a boat, down the Hudson past Ellis and Liberty Islands, up the East River to the forests of Inwood, and back down the Jersey side reinforces the scale and the diversity of the enterprise. East, west, upper, lower, central: these aren't just directions in Manhattan, they're semaphores. Take one or combine any two and you have a unique character, built on long histories of community identity.

From these vantage points, you can think in this grand way about the ancient American city. You can pause and reflect on the Gormenghastian imperial headquarters built with and for money and stupendous narcissism. Or on the city of clusters of communities of families who have struggled and risen or fallen in the tenements and apartments, and produced, like a silkworm eventually produces a shirt, the historical strata of the island.

But on the streets, none of this reflexive pondering is possible. You careen, buffetted by the crowds, dragged forward by some next thing, down wide avenues and narrow streets. The streets are gloomy, not dark or shadowy, but sunk in the wells and valleys between massive buildings hiding most of the sky. I got the sudden sense of being in Gotham this afternoon scurrying in midtown, passing* the main branch of the New York Public Library, the sense reinforced by the grand statues and architecture of the midtown area.

I think I've adjusted to the pace and restlessness of the city, but Times Square was too much for me. Tourists, beggars, actors and office workers march in phalanxes down the pavement, as a swirl of screens and lights spin around you. Times Square is sort of a square, but there's really no place to stop for a moment to absorb it. I ducked down a side street.

* Well not quite passing. The Kerouac exhibit was on there, and though I was late to collect my washing from Nice Laundry opposite the hotel, I could hardly not pay homage.

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Joseph | 13 Mar 2008

stuff & nonsense

  • Topographic viewTopographic view
     shows elements on a webpage according to how deeply nested they are. It's a bookmarklet for web development.
  • The qualifierThe qualifier
     renders controversial statements on this page harmless. Reinstate the slings and barbs by refreshing. Also a bookmarklet.

  • jjmap
    American Diary

    Two weeks with the apple and the lone star (illustrated).

all posts, ordered by month in reverse-chronological order:

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