One part Eastwood,
One part Astaire.
Add a dash of Bogart.
Shake, strain and enjoy.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Be Good Or Be Gone

Image: McSorley's New York

The Sperry chukka boat shoe that embraced my foot slipped slightly as I entered the saloon style doors, forgetting that part of McSorley's allure is its sawdust strewn floor. A quick survey of the place and panic set in. Nearing 30 and my patience in serious decline, I tend to eschew crowded, loud bars for the refined hush of a classy cocktail lair. But I made an exception, in anticipation of Irene's wrath and inevitable solitude holed up indoors, to venture out on a Friday night to drink in the history of New York's oldest Irish bar.

As I weaved my way past the throngs of inebriated guests to the oasis of tables in the rear, I couldn't help but soak up the antiquated atmosphere and allow it to penetrate my psyche. The likes of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Boss Tweed had all imbibed in this very space so who was I to be weary of its charm? The floor trembled beneath me, signaling its age, as we approach the warped, carved table that would be our domain. Puddles of lager were swiftly wiped away and a command, not a question, was put before us.

"Light or dark?" bellowed the bearded scalawag of a man that would be our waiter. One part Cro-Magnon, one part grizzled sailor, his hair was long and as gray as his beer soiled smock. His abruptness was matched only by his surly disposition; his attitude providing continuity to the experience whereas a fresh-faced young lass would have sullied the vibe. The skin on his face and hands was aged and callused and his fingernails resembled those of a coal-mining pirate. This wasn't so much a job as a calling - his carved out niche on this earth. God forbid this landmark shutter, as his skill set would not be applicable for, say, a Walmart greeter.

"Light" I replied, caught slightly off guard but confident in my choice. After a week of dealing with demanding clients and finicky co-workers, this was a welcome moment of clarity. Smee disappeared into the crowd to fetch our ale and we settled in to discuss the week in review. A gentleman in a straw boater and his lovely lady appeared, taking a seat at the other end of our table. An old fight song rang out across the bar, male voices chanting in unison, complete with interlocking arms and mugs clanking in communal cheer. Then out of no where, 6 mugs of suds were gruffly slammed down before us, the frothy heads careening out on to the notched table refilling the pools that were earlier wiped away. For every one beer ordered two mugs arrive so the night was now well underway!

With time our party grew larger, and the next round brought 24 mugs, carried 8 to a hand by our esteemed barman and his colleague - quite the impressive feat to witness. As mug after mug was passed over and around me, I quickly realized my pristine white shirt had no business in this establishment - nice clothes were not only unwelcome, but potentially at risk. Had I been more in tune (and less rushed), my pressed linens would have given way to crumbled chambray to better align with my environment... I was a show horse in a sea of Clydesdales. This is workwear's haven.

Conversations started to splinter and I began to veer off into a mental dissection of the untouched treasures providing the decor for the historic bar. It's reported that no artifact has been removed from the walls since 1910. Paintings, poems and political pomp, certificates, clippings, carvings and clocks all serve as reminders of McSorley's place in New York history. At the bar area, an original "WANTED" poster from the Lincoln assassination shouts a national tragedy and Houdini's handcuffs swing freely from the bar rail. A row of dusty wishbones looms eerily overhead marking the loss of human life - these harbingers of fortune left by departing doughboys during WWI. The soldiers that returned snapped their talismans, all the while knowing their wish had already been granted. Those bones that remain haunt this hallowed ground with dreams unrealized.

There is no cash register, no bar stools, no liquor and until 1970, no women. "Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies" was its claim and I doubt they heard any complaints. One gets the sense that political correctness has never been enforced here.

With the rest of the spoiled masses panicked over Irene's pending visit, our stint in Olde New York was a welcome reprieve from their unsubstantiated anxiety. A hurricane seemed like small potatoes compared to the trials this place had seen. From the gangs of New York and the atrocities of war to corrupt political machines and the depths of tenement life, McSorley's has offered solace from far worse than a little rain storm.

The last of my ale slid effortlessly down my throat and I placed my mug with authority back onto the nicked up boards of the table. We surrendered our territory to the next army that approached and headed for the swinging doors that led back out to 7th Street. Passing regulars and newcomers alike, I looked around and realized that the people I was surrounded by could have given a shit about what Irene was to bring. Not one of them had thoughts of food or batteries or survival. Their only concern was for the next round and if their ale house would be open for business.

You don't get more rugged than this.

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