When I first read Up in the Old Hotel, I was too young to appreciate the great beauty of the last, latest and longest essay, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” but I was immediately captivated by the eponymous piece, in which Joseph Mitchell and a friend of his, the owner of a Fulton Market seafood restaurant, decide to explore the upper floors of the restaurant building. The building was an old hotel, shut up for at least twenty years, accessible only via a ceiling trapdoor into a dark, dangerous-looking dust-buried hand-operated iron-cage elevator. Mitchell was the first person the restaurateur had ever met who was willing to give it a try. Mitchell loved unearthing the city’s secrets – even, or especially, those which seemed to be the least important.
The New Yorker under Harold Ross was a miracle of American writing. The three greatest contributors – the three greatest essayists of the twentieth century – were EB White, AJ Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell started out covering Police Headquarters at night for the Herald Tribune, and discovered that he was more interested in the people he met than the newsworthy items he was supposed to be investigating. Mitchell did not have EB White’s supreme ear for language (nobody did) but whereas White’s great essays are usually autobiographical, Mitchell prefers profiling other people who wouldn’t normally rate a biography: the detective who specialized in gypsies, the “High Steel” American Mohawks who built the city’s bridges, shad fishermen on the Hudson and fishmongers at Fulton Market, street-prowling preachers, movie theater ticket-takers, bowery bums.
Mitchell was an extraordinary listener, good at making friends in low places. He preferred talking to someone who worked with his hands and had spent his life absorbing the father-to-son secrets of his trade. He was also exceptionally, astonishingly observant: On a trip to the graveyard of an old Staten Island Negro community, he mentions that he and his guide stopped in front of a marble gravestone covered with different plants and vines: “I counted them, and there were exactly ten kinds – cat brier, trumpet creeper, wild hop, blackberry, morning glory, climbing false buckwheat, partridgeberry, fox grape, poison ivy, and one that I couldn’t identify, nor could Mr. Hunter.”
Mitchell makes one reference to taking notes during an interview, but in most instances it is impossible to believe he could simultaneously have his head in a notebook and still take in all that he did. He captures a character’s personality through conversation – including the minor but revealing digressions that build a rich and deep picture. Many of the places and all the people he wrote about are gone now. And the few places that remain are so changed that Mitchell would hardly recognize them. (“McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” for example, made famous by Mitchell’s essay, still does peppy business in the East Village, but is a traitor to its original self and now allows women on the premises.) But that makes this collection of essays even more valuable – it is a work of art, and an experience of times gone by. It was Mitchell’s time, and New York was his city.
New Yorkness: 10/10
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9.5/10
Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell. Originally published 1964; this edition Vintage Books, 1993. 716 pages.