The collected eccentrics of Joseph Mitchell come alive in the 'Old Hotel'

August 30, 1992|By John Schulian | John Schulian,Los Angeles Times

UP IN THE OLD HOTEL.

Joseph Mitchell.

Pantheon.

718 pages. $22.50.

Getting hit on the head with a dead cow isn't necessarily a bad thing -- provided, of course, that you survive the experience. It can heighten your appreciation for the absurdities of life as well as for the people who revel in them. For the stalwart bearded lady and the saloon keeper who closes up because the joint's too crowded and the ticket taker who brags that nobody ever got fleas in her Bowery theater. For the homeless Harvard man who imitates sea gulls and the Gypsies who live on a mixture of gin and Pepsi called "popskull," and the street preacher who says, "The gutter is my pulpit and the roaring traffic is my pipe organ." For all the raving eccentrics Joseph Mitchell knew and loved and wrote about in The New Yorker, which, when you think about it, seems no less amazing than having the late Bossy come crashing down on your noggin.

Considering what a bore the magazine can be on any given week, it would be easy to assume that Mr. Mitchell risked being sent packing for admitting that a cow laid him low when it was supposedly hung for butchering. Too weird, too wonderful. But he had the great good fortune to arrive at The New Yorker in the late '30s, not long after A. J.Liebling had begun to spice its pages with tales of honest rainmakers and telephone-booth Indians. There was room for more madness, and Mr. Mitchell was only too happy to expand on the lessons he had learned in the subject down home in small-town North Carolina.

For the next 25 years, Liebling and he were 1 and 1A in The New Yorker's writing stable -- two guys named Joe dueling in print, drinking in every bar that would give them a tab, and debating Liebling's contention that Christopher Marlowe was a better writer than Shakespeare. But after Liebling died in 1963, a strange and troubling thing happened: His work lived on, primarily because of his press criticism and boxing essays, while Mr. Mitchell, who is still alive, seemingly ceased to exist for all but the most passionate devotees of magazine journalism.

The only place I could learn anything about him was "Wayward Pressman," Raymond Sokolov's biography of -- Liebling, who else? Far more disturbing, however, was the fact that the four anthologies of Mr. Mitchell's prose -- "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon," "Old Mr. Flood," "The Bottom of the Harbor" and "Joe Gould's Secret" -- were nothing more than the stuff of used-book stores.

It took years, but I tracked them all down, and ever since, they have held an honored place on my bookshelf. Now I find that an editor at Pantheon shares my passion. Better yet, he has gathered Mr. Mitchell's books in this heavyweight volume called "Up in the Old Hotel," complemented them with previously uncollected reportage and short stories, and even gotten the great man, at 84, to write an introduction. Part of me wishes Joseph Mitchell were still a secret treasure, known only to a few of us, but in my heart I know it is better this way.

To read these pieces, some written as long ago as 1938, none more recently than 1965, is to be taken back to a New York that is not America's answer to Calcutta, a New York where nocturnal drifters could sleep on park benches without being set on fire by kids with no hope, a New York where a thirsty man didn't have to fear being politically incorrect when he drank in a bar where the motto was "Good ale, raw onions and no ladies." There was joy in the city back then, and there was joy in the way Mr. Mitchell wrote about it.

With grace and attention to detail, he could draw a word picture of the proprietor of Captain Charley's Private Museum for Intelligent People: "He is small, grimy, and surly. His eyes are always bleary. He wears a white, waxed mustache. He had on his customary outfit -- ragged duck pants, a turtleneck sweater, a pea jacket, a captain's cap, and tennis sneakers painted with silver radiator paint. He was decorating some seashells one day with the silver paint and decided it would look good on his sneakers."

What Mr. Mitchell did best, however, was listen. The man he listened to most was Joe Gould, Harvard, class of 1911, a lecherous, boozy, old poet-panhandler who imitated sea gulls -- "Scree-eek! Scree-eek!" -- and considered himself the last of the bohemians. "All the others fell by the wayside," he said. "Some are in the grave, some are in the loony bin, and some are in the advertising business." Mr. Mitchell kept going back to him because Gould claimed to be writing an oral history of his time that he estimated at 7.3 million words, then 8.8 million -- until Mr. Mitchell simply called it "the world's longest unpublished book." But when he figured out what Professor Sea Gull's oral history really was, Mr. Mitchell wasn't afraid to call a con a con.

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