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.

McSorley’s Old Ale House. “We were here before you were BORN.”

Joseph | 22 Mar 2008

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