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Grand Old Men of Letters : UP IN THE OLD HOTEL, By Joseph Mitchell (Pantheon Books: $22.50; 718 pp.)

August 16, 1992|John Schulian | Schulian is writing a screenplay about Mike Tyson for HBO

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 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 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 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 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 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 Mitchell wrote about it.

He could look at a Fulton Fish Market restaurant, as he does in the title piece of this new anthology, and turn its walls into a story within a story: "Like the majority of office buildings in the market district, it is made of hand-molded Hudson River brick, a rosy-pink and relatively narrow kind that used to be turned out in Haverstraw and other kiln towns on the Hudson and sent down to the city in barges."

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."

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