“Please come, say hello, and get breathed on,” read the email. “New Year’s Eve is typically slower than an average Saturday, for whatever that is worth. Everyone who goes out is spending $150 on an open bar somewhere, and we pick up the scraps.”
The message came from Rafe Bartholomew, an editor at the sports website Grantland who’s writing a book about McSorley’s Old Ale House, to be published by Little, Brown in 2014. Mr. Bartholomew (who is a childhood friend of the Transom’s) didn’t come by the assignment by chance. His father, Geoff Bartholomew, has worked behind the stick at the saloon for the better part of 40 years, and Mr. Bartholomew the younger takes a shift slinging beers from time to time. McSorley’s is a fine bar to have grown up around, of course, if you want to write a book about the experience.
The tradition-bound barroom was honored in a poem by e. e. cummings and made immortal by Joseph Mitchell, who thought the bar was a last vestige of the old town, even in the ’30s. McSorley’s has now long outlived cummings, Mitchell and other regulars as well. The originals are long gone—they started dying off in the late 1970s, the elder Mr. Bartholomew told the Transom on New Year’s Eve—replaced by tourists who duck in for a taste of old New York and young people looking for a down-market drink in the now-upscale East Village.
Nevertheless, McSorley’s still sells two quaffs and two quaffs only, light and dark beers pulled into short mugs from taps topped by silver-colored busts of the eponymous old man. It still closes at 1 a.m., still has sawdust poured on the floor.
“We never really were a big New Year’s bar,” Geoff Bartholomew told the Transom, and indeed, the end of 2012 produced a mild crowd. In the back room, patrons dined on leg of lamb and cheeseburgers; in the front, they swilled lights and darks by the armful.
Still, business was brisk enough to limit the Bartholomews to halting conversation.
Rafe, clad in the traditional gray waiter’s jacket, recounted a recent work trip to Las Vegas to watch Filipinoboxer Manny Pacquiao, who was knocked out by Juan Manuel Márquez last month, then wrapped each hand around eight mug handles and disappeared into the bar. Geoff, a strapping, bald-headed man with a trim mustache, kept his hands in near-constant motion, managing the phalanx of clean mugs before him, shoveling full beers to the end of the bar for a waiter to collect.
“That young man at the bar,” he said, pointing out a drinker in glasses and a Yankees hat, “is the nephew of one of the old-timers. He was a marine and a firefighter, the old man. I wrote a poem about him.”
Mr. Bartholomew sidled off, removed a chalkboard from in front of an ancient cabinet, took out a book and handed it across the bar.
Rafe isn’t the only Bartholomew with a literary bent. Geoff has written two books of poems—The McSorley Poems, volumes I and II. They sell for $10 a pop behind the bar, and around the corner from the bar at St. Mark’s Bookshop. “Otherwise, you have to order them online,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll quit my day job.”
“Your night job,” corrected a colleague behind the bar.
The midnight hour was approaching and McSorley’s was getting crowded. The time was nigh to abandon our piece of real estate.
Out on East Seventh Street, we caught up with Ben Fay, the young namesake of the old-timer in Geoff Bartholomew’s poem.
“McSorley’s is the greatest bar in New York,” Mr. Fay told us. “It will always be the first place I come on New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day, or anything like that.”
What did he think of the poem, we asked.
“It was perfect,” he said. “It was just how he was.” —Patrick Clark