Up in the Old Hotel By Joseph Mitchell

The last – and finest – word on the curiosities of urban life

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The Independent Culture

Comparing a journalist's oeuvre with the titanic Ulysses may appear presumptuous, but Mitchell shared Joyce's obsessive interest in the odd corners and overlooked eccentrics of urban life.

His subjects include "the oldest saloon in New York City…a drowsy place", the overgrown cemeteries of rural Staten Island, the stupendous blow-outs known as "beef-steaks" and (the title story) some long sealed-off floors upstairs from a fish joint called Sloppy Louie's.

From such an unpromising lode Mitchell produced pure gold. The odd characters of the mid-century metropolis – the bearded lady, the proselytiser against swearing, the shifty owner of a taxidermy collection, the "King of the Gypsies" – are depicted with meticulous sympathy. Reading this wonderful collection, you are transported to Mitchell's favourite spots – the sleepy New Jersey towns across the Hudson from Manhattan, flea-ridden corners of the Bowery and, most frequently, the rackety Fulton Fish Market in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge.

An actual visit to these locales is liable to prove disappointing. Instead of "the stands heaped high and spilling over with 40 to 60 kinds of finfish and shell fish", the original Fulton Market is now a fish-free tourist trap. When I visited McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, instead of "the rapidly thinning group of crusty old men, predominantly Irish" I was hoping for, the joint was packed with drunken students.

For some unknown reason, Mitchell's prodigious inkwell suddenly dried up. Though he went into work "almost every day" for the last 31 years of his life, only one piece appeared in the New Yorker. Entitled "Joe Gould's Secret", it is a sequel to an earlier essay about "a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay…" that a Greenwich Village eccentric claimed to have gathered in book form. The book turned out to be a scam. Mitchell may in some curious way have been blocked by this discovery. Probably he had said all he wanted to say. In my view, this book has some of the finest feature writing published.