“We were here before you were born”
No big night out in Manhattan or trip to the Big Apple is complete without a trip to the McSorley’s Old Ale House with its “snug and evil” allure. Once called the “The Old House at Home” by the original owner, the groggery dates back to 1854. In that time, McSorley’s has become a favorite of locals and world travelers alike, writers and artists, and maybe even a few U.S. presidents. Not bad for a tavern that has changed little in its 150+ years – you can tell it’s that old just by the dust accumulation on the lamp above the bar…
Contrary to popular belief, McSorley’s is not New York City’s oldest bar. That honor belongs to the Bridge Café, which originally opened in one form or the other in 1794. McSorley’s is actually New York’s 4th oldest saloon behind Bridge Café, Ear Inn (1817) and Chumley’s (1830s), and was opened by Irish immigrant, John McSorley, three years after being driven out of Ireland by the potato famine. Not much has changed at McSorley’s since its initial raison d’etre of serving the working class Irish from the neighborhood, except for when “The Old House at Home” sign blew off, prompting John McSorley to change the name of his pub to “McSorley’s Old Time Ale House.” “Time” was later dropped from the name.
McSorley’s first received notoriety when a play entitled, “McSorley’s Inflation” opened on Broadway at the Theatre Comique in 1882 that ran for over 100 performances. The painter John Sloan then used the drinkery as a subject for a series of works in the early part of the 20th Century, starting with “McSorley’s Bar” in 1913 (priced at $500 at the Armory show, which did not sell according to the McSorley’s website) and “McSorley’s Saturday Night” in 1928. The imbibery was also the subject matter for “Sitting in McSorley’s” written in 1925 by E.E. Cummings (see below for the poem’s entirety), and inspired the writer Joseph Mitchell to write a series of essays first featured in the New Yorker and then assembled into the book, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon and later profiled in Life Magazine in 1943. The book’s publisher described it as an American version of Dubliners by James Joyce. All of the above has been very good for business at McSorley’s Old Ale House.
McSorley’s is located in the East Village, on the same block as the odd and aptly named establishment Burp Castle, and at the base of a five-story, red-brick tenement, easily spotted by the forest green painted wooden barrels with “McSorley’s Ale House” painted upon them in white. A dark façade of black-painted wood and metal grating over both windows and doors is the outward face of McSorley’s. Gold stenciling on the windows advertises how long the watering hole has been in business—”This is our 152 year and all is well”—and that the current ownership of McSorley’s is held by the Maher Family, who purchased the taproom in 1977, thus becoming the third family to own McSorley’s after the O’Connells and the McSorleys.
You’ll not have to worry about a cover charge as you step through the pair of narrow swinging doors and into the long barroom that looks like it would be more fitting in the Old West, perhaps San Francisco. McSorley’s is filled with battered, low-slung wooden tables and chairs across from an equally worn wooden bar that runs along the eastern wall. The room is absolutely chockers with sepia-colored photographs hung crookedly on slanted wooden walls amongst ancient memorabilia including: a complete set of John Sloans works under the gold record for “Love Stinks” personally donated by the J. Geils Band, an original invite to the grand opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, an “autographed” portrait of Socks (the Clinton presidential pup), an original wanted poster for John Wilkes booth, a bullwhip, a rack of corncob pipes, and a pair of coconuts carved and presented to John McSorley by the French painter Gauguin, some of which has prompted, of all things, haiku poetry:
“Two coconuts hang
Gifts from Gauguin to big John
Musk scent of brown thigh”
– Jeffrey Bartholomew, The McSorley Poems
McSorley’s is well known for serving only two kinds of beer: light and dark. Like the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, the beer is procured from a third party (the Pabst Brewery) and branded as “McSorely’s Ale” not just for resale at McSorley’s but also at the finest dives throughout the country. Unlike at the Billy Goat, McSorley’s only serves beer and not the $20 Cosmopolitans like everywhere else in NYC (the Billy Goat charges $5). According to the McSorley’s website, from 1905-06: “A brief experimental period begins; McSorley’s serves hard liquor along with the ale. The experiment ends as suddenly as it begins. McSorley’s is an Ale house only from this point on.” McSorley’s is served exclusively in 8-ounce glass steins and when you buy one, you get two – exactly like Pizza! Pizza! at Little Caesar’s. It reminds me of a commercial that Little Caesar’s once run where the leader of a Boy Scout troupe orders a pizza and, when presented with two pizzas says, “Well, then we’ll pay for two pizzas.” He’s presented with four pizzas then, at which point he says, “Well, then we’ll pay for four pizzas.” You can see where that went… Beer! Beer!
Above the bar hangs an ancient gas lamp, upon which soldiers would leave a turkey wishbone before setting off to the Civil War, World War I or World War II, whichever war depends on who you talk to. Should they have had the fortune to return, they would take their wishbone off and those left behind becoming an unintended memorial for those never to these shores again. They never dust these old bones at McSorley’s, and should you ever attempt to disturb it, you will be banned for life and probably worked over outside by the staff to boot with their garbage bag pants rustling in the struggle… Behind the bar is an old wooden ice chest that offers sodas for the occasional underage patron shielded by the law from McSorley’s demanding alcohol policies. McSorley’s does not take credit cards, but has an ancient cash register that replaced a series of bowls once used instead.
Not only do they give you double what you order, but the McSorley’s staff with their white aprons over garbage bags tied around their wastes and holes punched out for their legs, will openly chide you if you nurse your beer (preferably ordered 10 at a time), and they’ll actually throw you out if you stop drinking. They don’t even have barstools, though there is a bar rail to which a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs are still attached. The bar’s official motto, found carved into cursive script behind the bar is, “Be Good or Be Gone,” pertains to more than just attitude. After all, the place gets jammed on weekends during prime time, and they can’t put up with freeloaders. A group that didn’t have to worry about that was the New York Rangers who, after their victory, brought the Stanley Cup into McSorley’s and drank out of it only to have it reclaimed by the NHL commissioner later. Other notable patrons include John Lennon, Woody Guthrie, Teddy Roosevelt, Boss Tweed, Brendan Behan, Nat Fein (who took the famous last photo of Babe Ruth that hangs behind the bar), and an endless list of people that really never stepped foot in the place (like Abraham Lincoln). A payphone up front and a potbelly, coal-burning stove that, “has somehow eluded the city’s safety inspectors,” rounds out the décor.
“My clearest memory of McSorley’s was the night Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller dropped by and sat at the end of the bar. This had to be the early 60’s and a drunken patron made an unkind remark concerning Miller’s ex Marilyn Monroe. Miller walked up to the man, whispered something in his ear, and the man immediately left. Miller went back to his seat and continued his conversation with Mailer. Very bizarre.”
– posting by “Candyman” on Gotham Center (February 17, 2006)
While far from notable on its face, the backroom at McSorley’s has become infamous for its openly brazen serving of alcohol during Prohibition as the place was a popular spot for city politicians. The only woman allowed into McSorley’s during ale hours up until recent times was the portrait of a nude, who is kept warm by a nearby fireplace. A side door, once the admittance portal during its days of anti-temperance, now serves as an emergency escape hatch for the house cats and, more of the same paraphernalia can be found in the rickety backroom at McSorley’s but, as in the frontroom, you won’t find a jukebox, Golden Tee, or any big-screen TVs. Don’t worry, your fellow patrons will be entertainment enough.
Hungry? For the love of God, eat something somewhere else before you get to McSorley’s – even if it’s at the curiously named Gray’s Papayas. A small chalkboard behind the bar at McSorley’s illustrates a limited menu of burgers and sandwiches, including a horrifying liverwurst and mayonnaise concoction. Then there’s the inevitable complimentary plate of waxy yellow cheese, chunk of white onion and saltine crackers straight out of their rectangular bag served with a bottle of ketchup and spicy mustard also known as the “Mustard of Doom” that comes in a glass mug that is ironically larger than those you drink out of. As the great Tony Clifton once said, you need this, “like a shotgun blast to the face.” After all, do you really want to eat at a joint that is an open habitat for cats that hasn’t updated their bathroom facilities since the mid-1800s? While we’re on the subject the thick porcelain, full man-height urinals are as impressive as the 150 years’ worth of stench is strong. Just remember: if you drop anything in there, it’s a goner. Added bonus: those in the back can watch you pee through the door’s window, and being the only one that day to pull the chain that flushes the urinals.
Upon asking a good friend and inspirational barfly on whether he has any good stories about McSorley’s:
“Other than the surly bartenders kicking us out for not drinking fast enough, and getting in underage, and trying to read the old newspapers on the wall that have become a uniform nicotine color to the point where you can’t possibly read them, and their disgusting onion and mustard on crackers entrée which somehow always gets ordered even though no sane person should ever order it, to Rossi’s wedding across the street where you could occasionally smell the distinct McSorley’s aroma wafting in to the collective horror and shudder of those in the know.”
– B.M. (November 3, 2006)
I’ve been to McSorley’s more times than I care to admit and I can say that its policies have led me to observe the most sloshed people I have ever seen bunched together in one joint. People were literally falling out of the bar upon my first visit after enduring the upper deck at a Yankees game, where it took 45 minutes to get a beer. Needless to say, I was thirsty and a dozen or so McSorley’s darks hit the spot. A thick layer of sawdust is laid out and swept up from the worn wooden floor nightly, which helps to soak up the steady stream of regurgitation landing there. Back when they allowed smoking in public houses in Manhattan, I made the mistake of asking for an ashtray and was told to make full use of the floor.
Following an excellent literary pub crawl through Greenwich Village, offered by the Bakerloo Theatre Project, we popped into McSorley’s for “a” beer (famous last words, I know). There we met “Dan & Smitty,” two legendary McSorley’s characters from Connecticut that can be found every St. Patrick’s Day at the corner of the bar, just as you walk in (they get there at 6:00am). On the day we met them, Dan & Smity came in to fill the gap between wedding and reception with a sea of McSorley’s dark. They bought more beers than I can count, and handed them out for free to patrons as they walked in. Dan & Smitty also taught us to answer the payphone that actually serves as the McSorley’s house phone. Many call up thinking they are talking with the bartender. The fools! Instead, patrons answer the phone and entertain themselves by taking fake reservations, falsely claiming to have recovered lost green cashmir scarves, and giving bad directions. Dan & Smitty also coaxed my friend to do the McSorley’s waterfall, where you grab four mugs (two in each hand) and drink from the lower mug while beer pours from the higher mugs down into the lower mugs, thereby creating a waterfall effect. Smitty also made sure he caught any “run-off” in another mug. My friend was able to do the McSorley’s waterfall with only one break. He capped off the achievement by running out of the bar and vomiting in an alcove at the church across the street. Ah, sweet memories of McSorley’s…
Old McSorley’s motto: “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies”
A “Please Respect Our Neighbors” stone lies embedded in sidewalk as you fall out of McSorley’s, which is ironic considering that women were not respected at McSorley’s until August 11, 1970, when the place was forced to admit the fairer sex by court order. A framed headline of the Daily News hangs in the frontroom at McSorley’s to commemorate the event. Just because they could enter, ladies certainly were not welcome. A women’s restroom was not added until 1986 and they used to have a bell over the door that would be unceremoniously rung whenever a female would enter, which was followed by open verbal abuse. This was actually a step up from their being quickly escorted out prior to allowing them, as was the case before 1970. Though now admitted into the place and being relatively welcome, women are about as common at McSorley’s as men at a Tupperware party, but I had the opportunity to talk with a girl from Long Island there who, though straight, helpfully explained that even lesbian women still need penetration.
McSorley’s is a legend. Not even Prohibition could stop them. Being a Chicagoan, I find McSorley’s to be quite similar to Chi-town’s Old Town Ale House and the aforementioned Billy Goat Tavern, two dives of our very own as rich in history and character as New York’s finest wetflateries. For more information and a complete historical timeline of the joint, check out the McSorley’s website, and for more information on the pissers at McSorley’s, check out the Urinals of McSorley’s website. Otherwise, be good or get out!
“No matter how long you’ve live in Fun City, you can’t really claim residency until you’ve helped out a carful of Jersey kids demanding directions to ‘Mig-sahw-leez!'”
– Bruce Bennett, New York Magazine
The complete, stream-of-consciousness poem by E.E. Cummings, “i was sitting at mcsorley’s,” with its original bizarre punctuation, word usage and capitalization:
i was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.
Inside snug and evil. the slobbering walls filthily push witless creases of screaming warmth chuck pillows are noise funnily swallows swallowing revolvingly pompous a the swallowed mottle with smooth or a but of rapidly goes gobs the and of flecks of and a chatter sobbings intersect with which distinct disks of graceful oath, upsoarings the break on ceiling-flatness
the Bar.tinking luscious jigs dint of ripe silver with warm-lyish wetflat splurging smells waltz the glush of squirting taps plus slush of foam knocked off and a faint piddle-of-drops she says I ploc spittle what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo
he’s a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple together eyes pout gestures stickily point made glints squinting who’s a wink bum-nothing and money fuzzily mouths take big wobbly foot
steps every goggle cent of it get out ears dribbles soft right old feller belch the chap hic summore eh chuckles skulch. . . .
and I was sitting in the din thinking drinking the ale, which never lets you grow old blinking at the low ceiling my being pleasantly was punctuated by the always retchings of a worthless lamp.
when With a minute terrif iceffort one dirty squeal of soiling light yanKing from bushy obscurity a bald greenish foetal head established It suddenly upon the huge neck around whose unwashed sonorous muscle the filth of a collar hung gently.
(spattered)by this instant of semiluminous nausea A vast wordless nondescript genie of trunk trickled firmly in to one exactly-mutilated ghost of a chair,
a;domeshaped interval of complete plasticity,shoulders, sprouted the extraordinary arms through an angle of ridiculous velocity commenting upon an unclean table.and, whose distended immense Both paws slowly loved a dinted mug
gone Darkness it was so near to me,i ask of shadow won’t you have a drink?
(the eternal perpetual question)
Inside snugandevil. i was sitting in mcsorley’s It,did not answer.
outside.(it was New York and beautifully, snowing. . . .