Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Latest Walk Up The Bowery

SoHotel on the Bowery and Broome Street.
Avalon Bowery Place on the Bowery between Houston and 1st Streets.
Lately I've been reading "Up In The Old Hotel", a collection of stories by The New Yorker columnist Joseph Mitchell. All written around 1938-43, they're mainly human-interest stories of elderly, slightly off-beat New Yorkers whose heyday was about thirty years earlier. The latest one I finished was on a Commodore Dutch, an eccentric old man who wore a well-preserved but ill-fitting suit and survived solely off of the generosity of others. He was president of an "association", a hold-over from the rackets of the Tammany Hall days, that had "members" and "officers", who paid him dues regularly, and each year he would hold a ball. Dutch created the association because he owed a debt to Boss Sullivan after a long night of drinking along the Bowery, but long after the Tammany Hall machine had lost most of it's power, and the parties and fundraisers it held became a thing of the past, Commodore Dutch continued to hold his ball each year well into old age, relying solely on people around the city who seemed to get a kick out of his eccentric personality.

According to Mitchell, Dutch got the title "commodore" from John McGurk, a bartender who proudly owned "the roughest joint in town", McGurk's Suicide Hall. Every time I've read about this place, it has always been mentioned that at least five "back room girls" killed themselves by drinking carbolic acid there in 1901, thus giving the place its infamous name. Mitchell mentions this, too, in this 1941 story, and how Dutch got one of his best jobs around that time from McGurk, when he would round up sailors from the South Street Seaport and bring them up to that rough saloon at 295 Bowery at East 1st Street. Unfortunately, it was demolished in 2005. Despite a small fight to give the building landmark status, the Landmark Commission didn't feel that it had enough architectural significance.

The other day I got a well-needed haircut from my cousin who's salon is a block west of the Bowery on Elizabeth Street. So I walked around for a while while down there, noting the big new glass building that was built in place of McGurk's, and, half a block up, at Bowery and Bleecker, John Varvados, a ridiculously expensive clothing store, which used to be CBGBs. You've got to hand it to them, though -- they let people walk around the place without having to buy anything. So I walked around the old rock club, noting the old band posters and the drum set they had set up where the stage used to be, now covered in very expensive shoes.

I then walked around the corner to Marz Bar on East 1st Street and Second Avenue. This place has been long known as a beloved dive bar of the punk rock scene. Wow, what a dump this place was -- and I consider myself someone who likes dive bars. I looked around briefly and said, "Forget this, I've got to get out of here," or something like that. I read recently, though, that that bar and another one called Max Fish were going to be closed down in a matter of weeks, so I felt I had to pay them a visit.

A guy I met a few months ago who worked full-time at Lord and Taylor told me that the ill-fitting suit he was wearing was the only one he owned and that he was a punk-rocker at heart. He told me about the glory days of how those two awful little holes-in-the-wall Marz Bar and CBGBs were around the corner from each other, and how the city just isn't the same, etc., etc. If Lord and Taylor had considered me worthy to partake in their minimum wage payroll, it may have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship with this punk rocker, but as it turned out I don't even remember his name.

Mitchell's story of Comodore Dutch also mentions Big Tim Sullivan's unofficial headquarters, the Occidental Hotel on the corner of Bowery and Broome Street, which around 1911 was one of the fanciest hotels in town, but, as Dutch had bemoaned, by 1941 had become a run-down flophouse (like countless other on the Bowery) where one could stay for three dollars a week. Still standing today as a two-star hotel called "SoHotel", it is the city's longest continuously-operating hotel, dating back to at least 1805, with a chandelier store on ground floor.

Dutch recalled how the beloved, seemingly invincible boss of the Bowery slowly began to lose his mind as he got older, and was put in a home up in the Bronx, where he would occasionally escape, and cops would often find him a few hours later sitting in the lobby of the Occidental. Until one day he escaped for good. A body was found on railroad tracks up in Westchester, and remained unidentified for fourteen days. When it was about to be put in a potter's field, a cop identified him at the last minute. A funeral mass was held for him at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott and Prince Streets, where Dutch marched in the procession and as he put it, cried the whole time. Sullivan's funeral, according to Dutch, spelled the end of the racket scene on the Bowery, as the gambling dens and bars migrated uptown and then started to dwindle away. Dutch, though, kept the dream alive buy continuing to hold his ball each year. And in 1941, he was able to rent out the back room of a bar on 3rd Avenue near 50th Street. Some people would stick around out of fascination, but would leave out of frustration when Dutch's crazy friends got out of hand. Among them were Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald, long time radio talk show hosts who my grandfather listened to for years.

Reading Joseph Mitchell's stories, I'm always amazed at how relatable they are considering they were all written about seventy years ago. As I walked around downtown, I was able to point out all sorts of places that Dutch mentioned. A hundred years later, although a lot has changed, other places haven't changed at all. It just goes to show that despite progress and technology and the like, people, and the streets they walked, rarely change at all.