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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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Categories: Dive

History’s Pisser

Ron’s West End Tavern has been in existence, in one form or another, for well over 100 years. When President James Garfield was shot in 1891, and he was brought to Long Branch to recuperate this was where his doctors would get drunk after their shift watching over him. Probably explains why he didn’t make it.

The men’s room was a living piece of that history. For a hundred years, men had carved names and insults into every inch of the dark wood walls. When they ran out of fresh wall space people began carving into older carvings. The room marked time like geological strata, preserving incomplete moments from random points in the past.

It felt like some place special. The old wooden walls had absorbed punches, cigarette smoke, and just about every bodily fluid known to man. The urinal was some sort of historical artifact, shaped like a pelicans beak. The faucet creaked when you turned it on or off, and there was nowhere to dry your hands.

The room was small, but two people could fit inside, making it as much as a place for private conversations as it was for doing your business. It was a quiet, safe spot in a bar that can get as loud and raucous as any other.

The bar is still there. The same bartender has been minding the shop for as long as anyone can remember, and it’s still a patchwork of it’s different eras. Old books and novelties sit on the shelves next to framed pictures of 80’s b-list celebrities. The Soprano’s pinball machine is still in the corner. The crowd is still a mix of older regulars and college kids, and the music is either a classic rock station or an anything goes spin at the jukebox. But the bathroom’s gone.

Don’t worry, after drinking your 4th mason jar full of beer, you won’t have to go piss outside. There’s still a restroom. But it seems like it’s been grafted on from outside, like you just stepped out of the bar. The room was gutted. The wooden walls torn out and replaced with gray knife resistant tile, held immaculately in place with white grouting. The strange protruding urinal is gone, and in it’s place is a standard Home Depot bargain toilet. There’s a small, white sink wedged in the corner and a stack of paper towels placed neatly on it. It’s only been there a couple of weeks, and looks like no one’s bothered using it.

I asked the bartender what gives. That was a room with character. Now they have an impersonal, industrial rest room. She said that old bathroom was a pain to clean (wait… they cleaned it?). The new one they just hose down every night. Voila! Instant sanitation. As she was explaining this, another customer came running up to the bar. What happened to the bathroom, he asked. What did you do?

I get the feeling that Ron’s tends to change mostly by addition. New nicknacks are added to the pile next to the old ones. This was a major subtraction. Those walls could have been the subject of history thesis papers for years to come, as grad students tried to make heads or tails of what was recorded on it. But she didn’t seem troubled by it. She didn’t share our sense of loss. But she did tell me that the ladies room has not been touched.

Categories: Dive