Joseph Mitchell is one of the earthiest journalists the
New Yorker ever produced, and if you've never read McSorley's Wonderful Saloon or Joe Gould's Secret, you've missed two of the most genuine, huge-hearted collections of essays ever written about America. Mitchell's ear for dialogue and his ability to naturally draw astounding stories out of real New Yorkers is nearly supernatural. This year marks the centennial of Mitchell's birth, and his work is being reissued in new editions. Ordinarily, this sort of thing reeks of a marketing ploy, but here it's an opportunity to celebrate the lesser-known work of a true great.
The Bottom of the Harbor begins with a Mitchell classic, "Up in the Old Hotel," the story of a restaurant named, through a series of unfortunate circumstances—involving a previous owner's unpleasant nickname and the perverse games of some local fishmongers—Sloppy Louie's. Mitchell frequents Sloppy Louie's and one day, he and Louie buck up enough courage to explore the building's long-abandoned second floor. And that's about it: For 43 pages, Mitchell discusses the history of the building and its surrounding waterfront block. Though the whole story spans maybe an hour and a half in real time, it lavishes the reader with engrossing digressions, from rotting cow corpses to a tiny widow who always brought her own silverware to the restaurant. Other stories in the volume, from a study of what the bottom of New York's harbor is really like to a piece aptly titled "The Rats on the Waterfront," are solid pieces of journalism struck through with humorous digressions and the ramblings of supporting characters, like secret passageways lining the work. The latter story almost backhandedly reveals a narrowly averted Black Death plague epidemic that nearly destroyed New York City in 1943 and was kept secret for over a decade afterward.
My Ears Are Bent is almost more interesting because it's the collected work of pre–New Yorker Mitchell, a newspaperman who's still figuring out his game but is a preternaturally gifted storyteller. There are some similarities with the later work—Mitchell got his start on the waterfront that would later make his name, but his newspaper stories feed more prurient interests, including interviews with strippers and evangelists and voodoo priests. Even with all the sensationalism, the most shocking elements of his stories are always the people who he meets, such as a waiter who "...was in the Italian army during the war, and he believes his head was shot off and that the doctors got the head of an Austrian and sewed it on his neck. He claims that the new head is not satisfactory because it is the head of a young man and often urges him into adventures in which the rest of his body is not particularly interested." There is nothing ordinary about Joseph Mitchell's New York.