McSorley's Old Ale House
on a Wet Afternoon
"i was sitting
in mcsorley's. outside
it was New York and beauti-
reads the first line of an
E.E. Cummings poem written in 1925, in that fractured grammatical
style as only he could. This historic ale house was only 71
years old at the time.
When I sat there one afternoon
last month in its now 160th year, in lieu of poetry, a live
violin solo of Bach's Adagio in G minor broke out at our table.
Followed by other classical pieces that cut through the din
of voices that spilled across the room. Outside it was New
York and beautifully raining.
where I sit, so too might have Lincoln. He was invited here
by Peter Cooper, at whose college across the street, Cooper
Union, Abe had given an important campaign speech back
in 1860. Or maybe Ulysses S. Grant, known to take a drop or
two, had a few in this back room on his visit. Or Teddy Roosevelt.
Or John Lennon. Or Woody Guthrie. Or the enigmatic writer
Joseph Mitchell, who frequented and immortalized the bar,
in a 1940 piece in The New Yorker and in a subsequent
book three years later, McSorley's Wonderful Saloon.
Or those renowned Irishmen of letters from the old sod, Brendan
Behan and Frank McCourt. And if here on a cold day, they may
have sat near the still working pot bellied stove.
John Sloan was a regular,
and among the five paintings he made of the place, his 1912
classic McSorley's Bar, hangs in the Detroit Institute
And I wondered where exactly
the New York Rangers had clustered when they drank ale from
the Stanley Cup they had won, on that June night in 1994.
The cup allegedly got dented in the festivities, causing the
National Hockey League to take the trophy back for several
days. Boys will be boys and such things will happen when they
gather, even though embossed in metal above the fireplace,
is the house motto: Be Good or Be Gone.
And here once was a place
where only boys and men could be good or be gone,
as it also had a slogan which used to boast: "Good
Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies."
On my first visit fifty years
ago—when the legal drinking age in New York was 18—I
must admit to a somewhat heady feeling, of being in a place
of male exclusivity that wasn't a locker room— a place
of decidedly sweatier feelings. Though any sort of alpha male
euphoria coming from standing at the bar (there are no stools)
talking "man talk," man to man, would all end on
August 10, 1970 after the National Organization for Women
won their anti-discrimination case against McSorley's
in District Court.
The ultimate irony here, was
at the time, the place was owned by Dorothy O'Connell Kirwin,
who never stepped foot on the premises while it was open for
business. When her son suggested that she now be the first
woman served following the court's decision, she refused citing
the promise she had made to her father who had left the her
the bar, following his death in 1939. Dorothy died in 1974.
The men's restroom (with urinals
to make you weep so dramatically sculptured in fine porcelain
are they, and here since only 1910), would go coed for 16
years. Finally in 1986, a women's restroom was put in. One
far less awe inspiring I'm told.
McSorley's is nothing
if not about dates and passing through time. It is nothing
if not a preserve of a gritty culture, that tells us by the
pictures and artifacts that hang from its walls— an
original WANTED poster for John Wilkes Booth— by the
sawdust on the floor, by the restrooms themselves, something
about who we were and to where we've come. And that it is
still standing in the same spot it always has, is remarkable
Go to London and stop in a
pub that was around in Shakespeare's time, and it's no great
shakes. In our still young country, establishments boast of
being around since Reagan.
But perhaps its most unique
and endearing feature, is that in a modern world which revels
in its having infinite choices, McSorley's offers
but two: light or dark. The house ale. That's it. And served
two at a time from the tap. No bottled beer, no wine, no Apple
Martinis. (A soda for those who insist.). And as Cummings goes
"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
When Annette the violinist
put her violin away, our table went back to its eclectic conversations.
The guy next to me was a chess teacher, because of course,
that's the sort of profession one runs into every day. And
before long, we were talking about the great chess match of
Fischer vs. Spassky in 1972. Which was about twenty minutes
ago in McSorley time.
When I left, it was still beautifully
raining. And I couldn't get a cab. And I couldn't care less.
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
at 4:32 pm EDT on April 17, 2014 (the emboldening, mine),
came this dramatic announcement from the Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence (SETI) organization:
discovery not only
proves the existence of worlds that
might be similar to our own but will
undoubtedly shape future investigations of
exoplanets that could have terrestrial
Undoubtedly , I could
prove they might be wrong.
The search for intelligent
life goes on.
A Prompting of Remembrance
of a World's Fair
The 22nd of last month marked
the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1964-65 World's
Fair. In commemoration, they allowed the public brief access
on that date, to the ruins of the New York State Pavilion
for the first time in 27 years. 2,500 people waited on line
for a peek. This is said to be but a beginning in a series
of events for the general public, that the World's Fair Anniversary
Committee has planned over the next six months.
This pavilion was a featured
site in the movie "Men in Black" some seventeen
years ago, but otherwise, the three extra-terrestrial looking
towers on its premises— the tallest at 226 feet which
offered the best view of the fair grounds — have been
standing there as if on death row awaiting some sort of culturally-inspired
project to save them. So far, at an estimated 45 million dollar
restoration cost for the entire pavilion, there have been
Truth be told, aside from
the "Picturephone" exhibit by Bell Telephone wherein
you could actually see the person to whom you were speaking—
imagine that!— there is not much about the fair that
I remember in "real time," including this pavilion.
Yes, I recall "Great
Moments With Mr. Lincoln." And along those same Disney
lines, so too, "It's a Small World." This was a
ride whose torturously repetitive theme song could induce
suicidal thoughts, as I would one day come to experience as
an LA parent in proximity to Disneyland, where it would wind
up along with the "animatronically correct"
I might have eaten a Belgium
waffle there, which as legend erroneously has it, was introduced
to America at the time. All the same, they were going like
hot cakes. And of course, I have continued to see that still
standing Unisphere, usually in transit to and from
JFK or LaGuardia. But in the main, my memory has been prompted
and my facts have been found, by web searches and a book or
two, most notably The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair
by Bill Cotter and Bill Young. (Arcadia Publishing 2004).
Granted, fifty years is a
long time. Memory may no longer serve as well as it once did.
But if the fair's impact has long since faded, it may be grounded
in the realization that not only do so many things we predict
never come to pass, but there are so many more astonishing things
we never saw coming. And that for me epitomizes the '64/'65
World's Fair. Somehow I think I would have remembered someone
holding up a prototype of an iPhone and speaking of killer
apps while taking a "selfie."
the fair's theme was after all, "Peace Through
Understanding." Rather ironic given our increasing involvement
in Viet Nam at the time, with the horrendous war that would
follow. In any case, it was not: "This Can't Miss."
So is it "fair" to take it to task for some of its
wildly off base predictions? Huge underwater dwellings? Ubiquitous
jet packs that would propel us as we went about our day? Colonies
on the moon and Antarctica?
It was after all the Space
Age and we were in a race for the moon, which no doubt tended
to shape the conventional wisdom about the future. The emphasis
was still on machines and structures, bricks and mortar, and
that blessed monorail which was going to transform the way
we got from point A to point B. Here in New York in 2014,
they're still working on a traditional subway line along 2nd
Avenue, which apparently no one alive now will ever live to
see completed. But speaking of transportation, the Ford Mustang
was introduced at the fair. It was a sight to behold.
Yes, of course computers were
represented and demonstrations were given at the IBM pavilion
on how they could be used to access massive amounts of information.
Today we call this sort of thing "Googling." But
there seemed to be no real inkling of how technology would
evolve to shape our lives transactionally and socially.
No discussions or demonstrations about a world wide web, with
all its implications of turning the world into a global village
(though Marshall McLuhan was prophesying that very thing as
early as '62; no place for a man like that at a World's Fair?),
social media, video games, eBooks, eBanking, E-tailing. Heck,
no one even saw Post-its coming. Or stamps you didn't have
to lick. (Insert LOL here).
Which raises a question about
world's fairs in general: what are they supposed to be about
What is said to have been
the first World Fair (or Expo), took place in the Crystal
Palace at Hyde Park in London in 1851. Its theme of "Great
Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,"
is self-explanatory. Since then, some 63 world fairs or expositions
have followed. The U.S. has hosted 20 of them.
While these expositions have
tended to emphasize new technologies and advancements which
promise a better life going forward, they have also served
as venues to promote cultural and artistic achievements, offering
participants the opportunity to "brand" themselves
in the process. The Vatican Pavilion in 1964, for example,
"just" offered Michelangelo's Pieta for
viewing. Need it have said more?
A smorgasbord of iconic structures
and life altering products, have come out of various fairs
over the last 160 years, including perhaps first and foremost,
the Eiffel Tower erected for the 1889 World's Fair. Others
of some note in some regard, have included the 1893 fair in
Chicago with the first Ferris Wheel that was a hit beyond
all expectations …the 1939 fair with its formal introduction
of TV sets, air conditioning and florescent lighting (not
to mention Nylon) … Seattle in '62 offered the Space
Needle … the first ever IMAX film was shown in 1970
The U.S. will participate
in the next fair to be held in Milan in 2015, but we have
gotten out of the fair hosting business. Various reasons have
been offered for this, including one that suggests that since
modern technology affords us such easy access as to the goings
on in the world, there is no need for such on-site extravaganzas.
But it just might come down to that ultimate reason—
While 51 million visitors
came through the turnstiles in 1964/65, that number was far
below the 71 million needed for the fair to turn a profit.
Even the much heralded forerunning 1939 fair wound up in the
red. And as for the last one ever held in this country, 1984
in New Orleans, it had the dubious distinction of being the
only exposition to declare bankruptcy during its run.
Meanwhile in this regard,
the world has gone on without us. The Expo 2010 in Shanghai,
China with its theme of "Better City— Better Life,"
set a record for attendance with 73 million visitors. And
with 246 countries and international organizations participating,
it would seem to disprove any suppositions that world fairs
have become passé.
Yeah, but do they have Wafels
& Dinges carts like we do? I rest my case.
Quote of the Month
basic purpose of the Fair is to help achieve "Peace
through Understanding," that is assist in educating
peoples of the world as to the interdependence of nations
and the need for universal and lasting peace."
Invitation of Foreign Nations to the New York World's
Photo by Ron Vazzano, 2014 ©
Chinatowner in the 4th
I was placing bets at college
In my swag sharkskin suits
On the phone through my uncle
Playing hunches on the horses.
The brothers of the Jesuit
In their cardboard collars would have frowned.
This was after all a Catholic college;
Theologically I was on
Between courses in the lunchroom
Or smoking Pall Malls in the hall
I would contemplate the odds of just
One long shot coming home.
Others might wait for their
ships to come in
On docks with planks built on spines of books.
I sensed a ship somewhere strewn on the rocks.
Hence the horses; hence the calls.
"At the 'Big A,' Chinatowner
in the 4th."
"Win, Place or Show?"— his perfunctory reply.
"To win." And it did at 40-1!
My uncle was murdered that day with a gun.
Only stories written
In great big fonts
Beneath great big pictures
Have an ending and moral to tell.
But here, the horses are
And there, my uncle is still dead.
Or there, the horses are still dead.
And here, my uncle is still running.
In April, I performed a group
of my poems under a collective title of "The Poem as
W. 23rd St, NYC
April 22nd, 7pm.
Violinist Annette Homann,
recording artist and multi-instrumentalist Matt Turk, actress
and playwright Michelle Macau, singer and pianist
Sasha Papernik, the "Cajun Duo" Charles Perkalis
and Michel Henry, actress and playwright Michelle Macau,
poet Ron Vazzano, and writers Jim Rodgers and Richard
Deane. Charles R. Hale, emcee.
This month, as a featured
reader, I will be doing a number of my poems at:
19th Annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts
Community Space Theater)
155 First Avenue, NYC
May 25th, 4pm-7:30pm