When I went to live for a short time in New York in the mid-1990s, a friend gave me a copy of Up in the Old Hotel, a selection of the 1940s and ’50s New Yorker writings of Joseph Mitchell. I shall always be profoundly grateful to him: if I hadn’t read Mitchell, my experience of the city would have been a thinner one, a bemused tourist’s view enlivened only by a few real-life encounters.
It seemed as though Mitchell had peeled off the shiny exterior of the modern city and prised out the lives that still gave New York its particular, rackety allure: he wrote about eccentrics and obsessives, barflies, shad fishermen, gipsy fortune-tellers, shysters, fraudsters, evangelical street preachers, fairground freaks, clam-diggers and ratcatchers. The urban veneer suddenly appeared very thin: Mitchell’s New York was built upon engagingly cranky and precarious human foundations and a few chance historical encounters; all the glittering skyscrapers were merely recent scaffolding. For Mitchell, who had come to New York in 1929 as a young reporter from South Carolina, Manhattan was a salty, low-lying, marshy island surrounded by ancient encrustations of clam and scallop beds, and peopled by desperate but fascinating oddballs.
I was glad to find that Mitchell’s New York hadn’t altogether disappeared. I was once dragged into a dank apartment on the Lower East Side to have my fortune read by a gypsy woman; despite the ignominy of being spotted for a sucker and thankful to have escaped without handing over $90 for specially mixed oils from the Holy Land, I was rather pleased – relieved – that gypsy bajours like the ones Mitchell describes in his conversations with Cockeye Johnny, Manhattan’s gypsy king in the mid-1950s, still existed. Mitchell would have been pleased too – the world he was writing about then seemed on the brink of extinction, which is what gives his writing an elegiac melancholy.
Mitchell loved talkers, and as a listener without peer he must have been to his subjects the ideal conversationalist. They rant and ramble at him, their lives emerging piecemeal from long and tantalizing digressions. Mitchell h
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