September 23, 2012

"Up in the Old Hotel" - New York Stories by Joseph Mitchell

When I moved to New York at the tender age of 21 it was a dream come true.  I was in love with the city, and the fact that it was dirty and dangerous in many places only added to the allure.  I couldn't believe that I was actually going to a Broadway show, shopping at B. Altmans, eating bagels and lox, and being a "New Yorker".  Now, nearly thirty years later, the city has changed but the romance for me continues and I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Recently, a friend was astonished that with my unwavering infatuation with the city I had not read "Up in the Old Hotel".  I ordered it immediately and have been engrossed ever since.

Although Joseph Mitchell was born in North Carolina in 1908, he, like me, moved to New York when he was 21 and made it his adopted home.  He began working as a reporter for The World, The New York Herald Tribune and The New York World Telegram before being hired by The New Yorker in 1938.  It was here that he produced his best work - sage and witty observations of New York City and its inhabitants, and it is the best of these essays that comprise "Up in the Old Hotel".

The 37 short stories reproduced in this volume are divided into four books and cover the period from the Great Depression through 1964.  The prose is simple and judicious but very descriptive.  With short sentences written in the present tense, Mr. Mitchell creates tension and suspense as the readers wonders what fate will ultimately befall the characters.   Some are factual and some are fictional, but all contribute to the color of Old New York.

Take, for instance, the story of "Mazie", a "bossy, yellow-haired blonde" who works as a ticket seller at The Venice Theatre on Park Row.  By no means a wealthy woman, Mazie has a heart of gold and when her shift is over, she wanders The Bowery giving money and food to anyone she finds who is down on his luck.  Or "The Don't Swear Man" whose mission in life is to rid the world of cussing, one convert at a time.  Or "Old Mr. Flood", a 93 year old "Seafoodetarian" who firmly believes that a diet of shellfish will keep him alive for another twenty years.  Or the compelling description of the Mohawk Indians, originally from Quebec, who gained fame and fortune as steel beam riveters working on the high rise building for which the skyline is now so famous.

It was all I could do not to race through the book and read one story after another so they finally blurred together.  Instead, I practiced what was for me remarkable discipline and savored one or two essays at a time.  It would be impossible to pick a favorite, but I must say the story of an itinerant called John S., or "Santa Claus" Smith, would be a contender.  Mr. Smith was in the habit of rewarding those kind folks who gave him a lift or a meal or simply a smile, with a "check".  Written on the imprint of the already defunct Irving National Bank in amounts ranging from a thousand to over a half million dollars, these check were sheepishly submitted by the recipients to its successor, the Irving Trust Company on Wall Street.  The fact that the checks were bogus is completely overshadowed by the exuberance and generosity with which they were written and offered.

Reading "Up in the Old Hotel" was like stepping back in time.  Not necessarily a nicer time, but an epoch in the rich history of this wonderful, ever-changing city.

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