Wednesday, August 18, 2010

McSorley's Old Ale House

March 17, 2005

McSorley's Old Ale House By Terrence Lavin

McSorley’s Old Ale House in the Bowery section of New York City evokes a flood of sentiment, and inspires men to engage in countless discussions about this dusty jewel -- this weathered Holy Grail of drinking establishments.

Just when that precise description leaps from your mug saddled fist to your sloshing brain about the perfection of McSorley’s, you soon realize that it has all been said before. Each time I put pen to paper to describe both the historic, comforting décor, and visceral bonding experience one encounters with each successive ale, I learn that the most ideal descriptions have found itself in print long before Prohibition, two World Wars, or even the Income Tax. I want to speak of this great saloon’s origins, and the institution that is its founder, the great Irishman, John McSorley, but it has already been written (Harper’s Weekly, 1913). Perhaps I might write a little verse? But no, I do not bother, great poets have already conquered McSorley’s with their odes (e.e. cummings, 1922). Sitting here amongst the richly dark and hardened colors of this fabled saloon I imagine painting such a scene which captures the steady peace of gentleman drinking ale, but, yet again, others far more talented and famous have thought the same thing (John Sloan, 1912). I long to regale you with the incredible tales and traditions of McSorley’s -- its baseball team, and chowder clubs, its world famous patrons, and most genuine characters, but it has already been beautifully written before (Joseph Mitchell, The New Yorker, 1940).

In fact, pick any decade over the last century and you’ll find a dozen stories in each, from The New York Times, the Post, and the Herald, to countless magazines, all of which pay homage to McSorley’s. The stories written in the 1920’s are markedly similar to those written today -- McSorley’s is an “institution”, a place “like none other”, and “lost in time.” There is good reason that McSorley’s Old Ale House, the most famous bar in America, has been written about habitually for well over a century. Obviously, a bar that has remained virtually unchanged since its opening in 1854 attracts both marvel and accolades, but another reason it is discussed so often is that it’s simply one of the greatest saloons in the world. The only thing changing about McSorley’s is age. It would be a mistake to label McSorley’s as “old school”; it’s older than old school, for McSorley’s built the university, designed the curriculum, and printed the text books for all bars to follow over these past 150 years.

Standing in front of this red brick tenement building at 15 E. 7th Street between 2nd and Bowery (3rd Ave), the first thing you notice about McSorley’s is the sign that reads, “Established 1854.” Could it really be that old? Well, yes. John McSorley, an Irish immigrant, opened this bar in 1854 modeling it after a pub he knew back home in County Tyrone, Ireland and called it The Old House at Home. But from the moment John first opened the place it was forever known by patrons as McSorley’s. So, when a storm blew the original sign down in 1908, the replacement shingle of the then 54-year-old tavern read, appropriately enough, McSorley’s Old Ale House.

To say that one merely “steps back in time”, as if in a museum, when they enter the swinging doors of McSorley’s ale house is not only trite, but dismisses a true accounting of this amazing tavern. More precisely, in can be said that when crossing the threshold and ordering a beer at McSorley’s you actually become a part of living history -- nothing separates you from the men whose elbows rested on that very same spot (be they returning Civil War veterans, or Teddy Roosevelt) other than air. But the magnificence is not in naming which famous war hero, sports legend, or celebrity drank at McSorley’s, seemingly everyone did, rather, the splendor in ordering an ale at this hallowed taproom is that you become immediately enveloped by the heartening and intimate environs of this old gentleman’s preserve. Within moments of your first mug of ale you’ll swear that, apart from being wrapped in a warm quilt in your mother’s home, you’ve never felt more comfortable in your life than at McSorley’s Old Ale House.

When entering McSorley’s your first instinct is to remove your hat in deference to all the men who have drank here before -- it has that effect on you, whether it is a raucous Saturday night, or a still weekday afternoon. To the right is a sagging bar, just long enough to squeeze in 15 men. There are no barstools, never have been. Behind the bar is a giant wood ice chest still in use today, and on the walls, on the walls everywhere, are framed photos, newspapers, trinkets and memorabilia. The wood floor is covered in sawdust and opposite the bar, just steps away, are gnarled and tired wood tables and chairs nestled up against the ancient potbelly stove which is lit all winter. Visually, McSorley’s is overwhelming, there is simply too much to take in within this tiny bar. And the smell, well, it is a pungent yet relaxing aroma of stale ale, onions, saw dust, and happiness. Walking into McSorley’s is like discovering your grandfather’s basement. It is filled with strange and amazing things, it smells of well-worn history, and you know that in any direction your eyes dart you’ll uncover something stained and scarred, but oddly comforting as if it’s connecting you with a glorious past.

Past the bar, in the back room, are a few more beaten but sturdy tables that ring the walls filled with more fading photographs, pennants and aged paintings. One of the best history lessons you can give yourself is to look at the old photographs of McSorley’s gatherings hanging on the wall, where you can stare into a photo of the exact spot were you are sitting now -- look at these men in their handlebar mustaches, or bowler hats celebrating one event or another -- look at the dates: 1890, 1904, 1926, and nothing has changed! Every picture on the wall, every political poster, every plume of dust is just where it’s been for well over a hundred years!

With a place like McSorley’s you are bound to be awash in stories, legends, and folklore. One of the most famous stories is that Abraham Lincoln drank here! Well, it is absolutely true that Abraham Lincoln, while running for President in 1860, made a speech at Cooper Union, a university which still stands today just down the block from McSorley’s. Lincoln was a good friend of Peter Cooper, who in turn was a most frequent patron, and very dear friend of John McSorley (in fact, Cooper’s personal chair from McSorley’s is immortalized on top of the ice chest behind the bar), so the story which has been passed down is that Cooper took Lincoln after his speech to McSorley’s. Being that it was a mere half block away, the closest open place for food or drink at that hour, and it was a cold February night, chances are that Lincoln definitely stepped foot inside McSorley’s as described these past 145 years! But he was not the only President to visit. McSorley’s had two guest books filled with the signatures of many of the famous men who darkened her door -- politicians, statesman, actors, and athletes. One of the books was stolen decades ago which featured the famous signature of Theodore Roosevelt, New York’s Assemblyman, Police Commissioner, Governor, and of course, U.S. President. But of all the famous people, be they actors, war heroes, politicians, or athletes, from the turn of the 20th to the turn of the 21st Century, who came into McSorley’s, their treatment was and is the same -- just one of the regulars.

Beyond the history and lore of McSorley’s, the reason it is still the greatest tavern in America is found in its simplicity, which has remained constant for generations -- they serve only two types of ale, light and dark. Period. And, it is cheaper to buy two at a time -- currently, two mugs of ale will cost you a total of $4. The rule of the house is equally simple, “Be Good or Be Gone!” During Prohibition the New York Times, while remarking on the beautiful painting of McSorley’s by John Sloan twenty years prior (which can still be found in the Detroit Institute of Art), quoted the strict accord for the bar which was passed on from John McSorley to his son, and on down to today. It encapsulates this old ale house beautifully:

Nothing but ale was ever sold over this bar – no beer, no mixed drinks, no “drunks.” A place where the world seems shut out, where there is no time, no turmoil. Had all American saloons been of this kind, no 18th Amendment would now be driving us to ‘hard liquor.’

Another rule that was adhered to, which was adhered to in the strictest of terms for 116 years, the rule which stood until a Federal Court and the City Council forced McSorley’s to abandon it, making front page news across the country, was the rule of…NO WOMEN! From 1854 until 1970 no woman was ever allowed to drink in McSorley’s, nor even enter this musty sanctuary of a gentleman’s ale house. This brings up another century’s old McSorley’s motto, ‘Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Women.’ Anytime a lady would try to enter, the bartender would scurry around and block her entrance before she even got four steps in, usually no farther than the potbelly stove. There is a large brass bell behind the bar, which from the very beginning has rang to mark the start and the end of each day -- it was also used to alert the bar if a lady had crossed the threshold. The older drinkers still pine for the days before McSorley’s “changed”, and changed for the worse in their opinion -- that dark day when the courts, and the New York City Council forced McSorley’s to break one of its golden rules. These men speak with the ferocity of old West Point alum who laments the irreparable damage caused by the admittance of women into to their ranks. It is an angry sadness that’s conveyed by some of these old timers; grumbling about inevitable change, and the loss of men only institutions, be they the hallowed halls of our military academies or our cherished drinking respites from the world outside. It was the summer of 1970, and after a protracted legal fight in the courts, the New York City Council passed a bill 34 to1 baring discrimination against women in public places, effectively opening McSorley’s up to the fairer sex. The lone dissenter, surprisingly enough, was a liberal Jewish councilman from Queens, who explained his negative vote, which was greeted with loud hisses from his fellow Democrats, this way: “In this troubled world there has to be an oasis in the desert for men. If a man wants to drink all by himself, it should be his prerogative. If they take this away from us, what have we left?” Indeed. When all hope was lost, the manager, Danny Kirwan, noted the historic occasion of the inevitable and invited his mother, Mrs. Dorothy O’Connell Kirwarn, the owner of the bar, to have the honor as first woman to drink at McSorley’s, but she declined noting that she did not want to break with tradition! Even still, it took another 16 years before McSorley’s even added a restroom for the ladies, which supplanted the original kitchen. The lonely window in the far right corner of the back room that once looked out into the backyard of the tenement, made famous by paintings and photographs through the decades, is now gone, and in its place, the greasy entrance to the new kitchen. In the left corner, the new ladies room replaced the old kitchen. In resisting the demarcation of restrooms, and with a not so subtle hint to the past, the original privy is still labeled only as, ‘Toilet.’ When entering this door you grasp the iron handle, letting your digits slip into the four, finger wide, well-worn groves in the wood, replicating generations of fists before you. It is here that relief is found in two giant porcelain urinals.

The saving grace of McSorley’s, and the reason that the tradition, décor, and function have not changed much in 150 years, is that in all that time there has been but a few owners. When old John McSorley died in 1910 at the age of 83 the bar passed to his quiet son Bill who had been running the place for a number of years. It finally left the McSorley family in 1936 when Bill sold it to retired New York City policeman, Daniel O’Connell. Mr. O’Connell died just a few years later, and in 1939 the bar passed to his daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan who never set foot in McSorley’s during business hours in all her 35 years of ownership. Her husband Harry ran McSorley’s, and after her death in 1974 and his a year later, the bar was passed to their son, Danny Kirwan, in 1975. Now, ten years earlier while traveling in his native Ireland, Harry’s car broke down and solicited help from a traveling sausage salesman by the name of Matthew Maher. Grateful, Harry mentioned to his new friend that he’d have a job for him in a saloon if he ever dreamed of coming to America. Well, Mr. Maher took him up on the offer, arrived in NYC about a year later, knocked on the door of 15 E. 7th Street, and began bussing tables, and pulling mugs of ale. He soon worked his way up to manage McSorley’s and in 1977 Danny Kirwan sold it to that kind Irishman, Matty Maher, who is now the current proprietor; steadfastly keeping the traditions intact.

The fare at McSorley’s is, as with everything else, directly descended from John McSorley’s tastes. The traditional and most famous dish at McSorley’s was ripe Liederkranz cheese, thick slices of onion, and bread or crackers. Today, the odoriferous Liederkranz is extinct, but you can still order a cheese platter in which you’ll get a full sleeve of crackers, white cheddar cheese, and a sliced whole onion. The mustard, a special mixture, is served in a beer mug with a tongue depressor for a knife and is delicious, if not eye-wateringly spicy. Washing it all down with cold mugs of light or dark ale is not only in the tradition of John McSorley, it is unbelievably delectable. When enjoying this feast with a group of friends you’ll notice that repository of empty glasses in the middle of the table quickly growing larger and larger until the waiter swoops down with one hand clearing the ravaged mugs, simultaneously setting down another dozen with his other hand. Glasses clinking, foam dancing, and your McSorley’s experience happily continues on. The traditional mugs are found behind the bar and were originally pewter up until 1912, then ceramic until the late 40’s early 50’s. Now they are glass, and since they are smaller than a pint, you’ll end up ordering them by the handful! Another tradition that has survived since the days of John McSorley, albeit in constantly newer life forms, is that you share this tiny pub with permanent inhabitants -- an assortment of cats. On a cold winter day any number of three chairs clustered around the warm potbelly stove is occupied by the outrageously fat McSorley cats -- they pay no rent and eat for free so feel obliged to shoo them off, that’s your coveted seat, not theirs.

To look at these walls around you is to look at authenticity. These are not trinkets and antiques that one buys in a yard sale to decorate pub walls, as modern, suburban faux-bars do. What you see in McSorley’s are the items from her customers. Whereas many an old Irish bar has a memorial to the slain President Kennedy, McSorley’s has, in addition to JFK, memorials for each President killed during its time in business -- Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley! McSorley’s connects the past to the present by virtue of her habitué’s; were else could a fireman’s helmet from the 1870’s sit next to a rescue helmet worn on 9-11-01? The connection goes beyond working for the same department in the same city -- it goes to the very heart of McSorley’s, both nameless men stood in the same spot, spanning 130 years, and ordered either a light or a dark.

Another solemn tribute to the drinkers at McSorley’s is found on the old gas lamp that hangs above the bar. There you will find a dozen and a half wishbones caked in dust. Every regular from McSorley’s who was in the service put a good luck wishbone on that once shiny lamp as they headed ‘over there’ to fight in World War I. Upon each man’s return in 1918, a big cheer let out from the regulars, handshakes and backslaps all around, and with thanks to the Almighty, he takes down his wishbone, and orders his cold ale -- thank God the war is over, great to be back in America, and great to be back in McSorley’s! But today, the lamp still hangs, it is smudged and silent, and on it are the undusted and untouched wishbones of the men that never came back.

All around McSorley’s are oft told stories about the objects and photos and press clippings -- too many to count, and too many now forgotten. There are handcuffs hanging from the ceiling, next to shackles from a Confederate prisoner, are those cuffs Houdini’s? Perhaps, he did live in the neighborhood. Or, are those his handcuffs attached to the brass rail next to your foot? No, I believe those were NYPD issued circa 1930, there were Mr. O’Connell’s. This living history book would be nothing but the Smithsonian Institute if not for the pleasure of drinking ale, and conversing with friends. For that is what McSorley’s is all about -- the perfect place to converse and to listen. To be shut out from the cacophony outside and to live amongst the ghosts and your friends at McSorley’s -- to discuss your politics or your loves, your favorite stories, or to just read the paper in solitude. To sit in a place and be unhurried, and to have the waiter ask you the only question that matters, “light or dark”, is to truly enjoy the experience of McSorley’s. It is a wonderful saloon because it takes you back to your most primal needs, comfort, companionship, and ale.