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The Bones Could Stay

Inside McSorleys

Part of the first 100 beers of the night

Every year around this time, I like to take a trip to McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village. It’s kind of a tradition. In fact, McSorley’s is a place that’s built on tradition. The bar has been in existence since around the time of the civil war. No one knows exactly when they first lay down sawdust. It could have been 1854. Maybe 1861.

It doesn’t matter, because the purpose of a good tavern is to promote legend over fact. It is a place where memory necessarily gets hazy. Stories merge on retelling.This is role of a pub. History and bullshit are slapped together like bumper stickers.They overlap and give each other unintended context.

When the sun is out, McSorley’s gets plenty of daylight, pouring over top of the Orthodox church across the street. But at night the light comes from low wattage lights along the walls. The chandelier that hangs above the front room doesn’t put off any light. For the past hundred or so years, it’s been holding wishbones, left by soldiers on their way to war. Some say they started during the Civil War, but most likely it was WWI. Either way, the dust was thick. Every year, every war, more got kicked up. Problem is, sometimes it came down, and it looks like the health department didn’t appreciate that.

Joseph Mitchell, the inimitable chronicler of old New York, once wrote that the founder, John McSorley, simply liked to save things, including the wishbones of holiday turkeys. But Mr. Maher, who has worked at McSorley’s since 1964 — he predates some of the memorabilia — insists that the bones were hung by doughboys as wishful symbols of a safe return from the Great War. The bones left dangling came to represent those who never came back.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, a city health inspector gave the establishment a grade of A, but strongly, strongly, encouraged the removal of those wishbones above — or, at the very least, removal of the dust enveloping them.

“The chandelier had numerous strands of dust,” said a health department spokeswoman. “The inspector encouraged the operator to clean the dust, or at least avoid storing or serving open drinks directly beneath it — to avoid the dust from falling into the drinks of their bar patrons.”

The way Mr. Maher heard this was with a faint touch of hope: At least the bones could stay.

The dust was a tradition, but not the important one. The real meaning was in the bones. A soldier leaving for WWI didn’t think about the dust that would end up there. Somehow it got tied into the myth, took on a life of itself. Going into McSorley’s is gonna be different now, no doubt. But I wonder what it’s gonna be like, seeing the bones, not the dust.

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