McSorley's Old Ale House

McSorley's Old Ale House

When I tell people that I go to school in New York City, one of their first questions is usually, “Have you heard of McSorley’s?” It seems that there are very few people who have not heard of McSorley’s Old Ale House, which is located at 15 East 7th Street in “Little Old New York.” With the proud motto, “We were here before you were born,” McSorley’s has become one of the most famous bars in the country. In truth, I have become very familiar with the place over the last few years.

On any given night, McSorley’s can be both local pub and tourist hub. Fortunately, I could see through the window that this particular Thursday was fairly quiet, with clusters of patrons sitting comfortably around a collection of wooden tables, and only a few men standing patiently while waiting for their drinks at the long bar, all in the main front room.

Before I walked inside, Brendan appeared beside me. A tall, middle-aged Irish man who wears a cowboy hat no matter the weather, Brendan has been working the door at McSorley’s for as long as I’ve been going there – certainly longer – and we have gotten to know each other over the years.

“It finally got cold today,” he said in his thick Irish accent.
“Yeah, unfortunately.”
“No, no, we need it. If it doesn’t get cold enough to kill off all those bugs, we’re in trouble. Remember the scare with that West Nile Virus?”
“Even if we need it, that doesn’t mean I like to be standing outside in the freezing cold.”
“Well like it or not, it’s better for us to have a real winter.”

I got the sense that our brief conversation had come to an end, and I went inside to sit down. My feet brushed through the layers of sawdust spread over the hardwood floor, and the smell of the place hit me like the inside of a fake leg. But it also felt familiar and welcoming, with its walls over-crowded with memorabilia, news clippings, photographs and bric-a-brac, pictures of former presidents next to the medals and badges of retired firemen and policemen, and even a dusty bronze bust of JFK behind the bar wearing a Navy sailor’s hat.

I immediately saw Timmy, the bartender, who directed me to a table near the coal oven that provides heat for the entire room. Timmy is middle-aged and Irish, like everyone else who works at McSorley’s, and like the other bartenders he wears the shapeless grey jacket that has been their uniform for ages; but he is noticeably shorter than the other barmen, with long salt and pepper hair and a well-groomed beard.

“Light or dark?” Timmy asked, referring to the only two types of beer served at the bar – McSorley’s Light or McSorley’s Dark.
“Half and half, Timmy.”

McSorley’s is always crowded, even on a quiet night, and on that night nearly every seat was full. I was sitting at a table with strangers. To my right was a French couple; an old man with long gray hair who slightly resembled Spalding Gray, wearing a black jacket and a gray shirt and tie, was chatting with a pretty young woman wearing a white scarf. To my left, a young man and woman in trendy T-shirts and glasses were sipping their beers. At the next table I noticed two 30-year-old men debating sports and enjoying the beer. McSorley’s certainly attracts a diverse crowd of people, all of whom are simply looking for a good time.

In moments Timmy returned with the beer, one half-pint of light, amber liquid, the other half-pint thick and dark.
“This one’s on us. Cheers.”
“Thanks, Timmy.”

*****

McSorley’s Old Ale House is as much a landmark of Manhattan as is Central Park. Both are over 150 years old, and tourists always pass through them when they come to town. Part of the reason for its popularity is that McSorley’s is the oldest “continually operating establishment of its kind” in the entire country. And they are proud of this fact. Painted on the window are such messages as “We were here before you were born” and “In our 151 year, and Ale is well.”

When you walk inside McSorley’s, designed like a classic Irish pub, it feels as if time has stopped. Its hardwood floors are covered in sawdust, which in my observations has been used to hide the sight and smell of the vomit which some patrons occasionally leave behind. The musty smells of dust, body odor and alcohol get stuck in your nose as soon as you step inside, but they somehow combine to create a uniquely comforting scent. The walls are overflowing with memorabilia of the last century and a half: American and Irish flags, portraits of former presidents, badges, medals, stickers, news clippings, and photographs of all sizes. Behind the bar, the collection is eclectic enough to include both a bust of John F. Kennedy and a stuffed jackalope, side by side.

Standing at the bar, you will be certain to find a plethora of middle-aged and retired drunk men, with gray or graying hair, who are anxious to give advice to young people. Listen intently for as long as you must while you wait for your beer, which can be one of only two varieties: McSorley’s Dark or McSorley’s Light. Beer costs $2 per half pint, but don’t try to order just one. They come two at a time, and they come quickly. Drink up.

And as it is engraved above the bar, “Be good or be gone.”

This story was written Jan. 2006 for the NYU Journalism class “Literature of Journalism.”

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