"The New Yorker," yes, the New Yorker, has a short piece in this week's issue by my favorite writer, the late Joseph Mitchell.
Mitchell worked at the magazine for nearly 60 years but spent the last 30 years or so not publishing anything. For whatever reason, the magazine's editors accepted his lack of production and his presence in the office.
For the last few months or so, some pages of Mitchell's unfinished and unpublished memoir have been unearthed and the New Yorker has taken to printing short pieces. Last night, I read this week's installment, three pages of his third chapter called "A Place of Pasts."
Whenever I feel like I can't write, which happens, I turn to Mitchell. He seems to cut to the heart of the matter, to banish superfluity and to get the job done. He is plain, honest and clear.
The piece just published in the New Yorker wasn't my favorite of his. But here it is. You'll feel better, I think, for reading it.
A Place of Pasts
Finding worlds in the city.
BY JOSEPH MITCHELL
Joseph Mitchell was born in 1908 into a prosperous family of North Carolina cotton and tobacco growers. At the age of twenty-one, he came to New York City to pursue a career as a writer, and he started contributing to this magazine four years later. In the late sixties and the early seventies, he began writing a memoir. What follows was intended to be the third chapter but was never finished.
In the fall of 1968, without at first realizing what was happening to me, I began living in the past. These days, when I reflect on this and add up the years that have gone by, I can hardly believe it: I have been living in the past for over twenty years—living mostly in the past, I should say, or living in the past as much as possible.
And now, right away, before I go any further, I must interrupt myself and say that I am not entirely satisfied with the phrase “living in the past” as a description of my way of life—it makes me sound like some kind of sad old recluse—but living in the past is the closest I can come to it; I hope that my meaning will become clearer as I go along.
In my time, I have known quite a few of the worlds and the worlds within worlds of which New York City is made up, such as the world of the newspapers, the world of the criminal courts, the world of the museums, the world of the racetracks, the world of the tugboat fleets, the world of the old bookstores, the world of the old left-behind churches down in the financial district, the world of the old Irish saloons, the world of the old Staten Island oyster ports, the world of the party-boat piers at Sheepshead Bay, and the worlds of the city’s two great botanical gardens, the Botanical one in the Bronx and the Botanic one in Brooklyn.
As a reporter and as a curiosity seeker and as an architecture buff and as a Sunday walker and later on as a member of committees in a variety of Save-this and Save-that and Friends-of-this and Friends-of-that organizations and eventually as one of the commissioners on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, I have known some of these worlds from the inside. Even so, I have never really felt altogether at home in any of them. And I have always felt at home in the Fulton Fish Market.And I should also say that when I say the past I mean a number of pasts, a hodgepodge of pasts, a spider’s web of pasts, a jungle of pasts: my own past; my father’s past; my mother’s past; the pasts of my brothers and sisters; the past of a small farming town geographically misnamed Fairmont down in the cypress swamps and black gum bottoms and wild magnolia bays of southeastern North Carolina, a town in which I grew up and from which I fled as soon as I could but which I go back to as often as I can and have for years and for which even at this late date I am now and then all of a sudden and for no conscious reason at all heart-wrenchingly homesick; the pasts of several furnished-room houses and side-street hotels in New York City in which I lived during the early years of the Depression, when I was first discovering the city, and that disappeared one by one without a trace a long time ago but that evidently made a deep impression on me, for every once in a while the parlor or the lobby of one of them or my old room in one of them turns up eerily recognizable in a dream; the pasts of a number of speakeasies, diners, greasy spoons, and drugstore lunch counters scattered all over the city that I knew very well in the same period and that also have disappeared and that also turn up in dreams; the pasts of a score or so of strange men and women—bohemians, visionaries, obsessives, impostors, fanatics, lost souls, gypsy kings and gypsy queens, and out-and-out freak-show freaks—whom I got to know and kept in touch with for years while working as a newspaper reporter and whom I thought of back then as being uniquely strange, only-one-of-a-kind-in-the-whole-world strange, but whom, since almost everybody has come to seem strange to me, including myself, I now think of, without taking a thing away from them, as being strange all right, no doubt about that, but also as being stereotypes—as being stereotypically strange, so to speak, or perhaps prototypically strange would be more exact or archetypically strange or even ur-strange or maybe old-fashioned pre-Freudian-insight strange would be about right, three good examples of whom are (1) a bearded lady who was billed as Lady Olga and who spent summers out on the road in circus sideshows and winters in a basement sideshow on Forty-second Street called Hubert’s Museum, and who used to be introduced to audiences by sideshow professors as having been born in a castle in Potsdam, Germany, and being the half sister of a French duke but who I learned to my astonishment when I first talked with her actually came from a farm in a county in North Carolina six counties west of the county I come from and who loved this farm and started longing to go back to it almost from the moment she left it at the age of twenty-one to work in a circus but who made her relatives uncomfortable when she went back for a visit (“ ‘How long are you going to stay’ was always the first question they asked me,” she once said) and who finally quit going back and from then on thought of herself as an exile and spoke of herself as an exile (“Some people are exiled by the government,” she would say, “and some are exiled by the po-lice or the F.B.I. or the head of some old labor union or the Mafia or the Black Hand or the K.K.K., but I was exiled by my own flesh and blood”), and who became a legend in the sideshow world because of her imaginatively sarcastic and sometimes imaginatively obscene and sometimes imaginatively brutal remarks about people in sideshow audiences delivered deadpan and sotto voce to her fellow-freaks grouped around her on the platform, and (2) a street preacher named James Jefferson Davis Hall, who also came up here from the South and who lived in what he called sackcloth-and-ashes poverty in a tenement off Ninth Avenue in the Forties and who believed that God had given him the ability to read between the lines in the Bible and who also believed that while doing so he had discovered that the end of the world was soon to take place and who also believed that he had been guided by God to make this discovery and who furthermore believed that God had chosen him to go forth and let the people of the world know what he had discovered or else supposing he kept this dreadful knowledge to himself God would turn his back on him and in time to come he would be judged as having committed the unforgivable sin and would burn in Hell forever and who consequently trudged up and down the principal streets and avenues of the city for a generation desperately crying out his message until he wore himself out and who is dead and gone now and long dead and gone but whose message remembered in the middle of the night (“It’s coming! Oh, it’s coming!” he would cry out. “The end of the world is coming! Oh, yes! Any day now! Any night now! Any hour now! Any minute now! Any second now!”) doesn’t seem as improbable as it used to, and (3) an old Serbian gypsy woman named Mary Miller—she called herself Madame Miller—whom I got to know with the help of an old-enemy-become-old-friend of hers, a retired detective in the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad, and whom I visited a number of times over a period of ten years in a succession of her ofisas, or fortune-telling parlors, and who was fascinating to me because she was always smiling and gentle and serene, an unusually sweet-natured old woman, a good mother, a good grandmother, a good great-grandmother, but who nevertheless had a reputation among detectives in con-game squads in police departments in big cities all over the country for the uncanny perceptiveness with which she could pick out women of a narrowly specific kind—middle-aged, depressed, unstable, and suggestible, and with access to a bank account, almost always a good-sized savings bank account—from the general run of those who came to her to have their fortunes told and for the mercilessness with which she could gradually get hold of their money by performing a cruel old gypsy swindle on them, the hokkano baro, or the big trick; and, finally, not to mention a good many other pasts, the past of New York City insofar as it is connected directly or indirectly with my own past, and particularly the past of the part of New York City that is known as lower Manhattan, the part that runs from the Battery to the Brooklyn Bridge and that encompasses the Fulton Fish Market and its environs, and which is part of the city that I look upon, if you will forgive me for sounding so high-flown, as my spiritual home.
I know the exact day that I began living in the past. I didn’t know it then, of course, but I know it now. The day was October 4, 1968, a Friday. I had recently been in what I guess could be called a period of depression, during which, on the advice of a doctor, I had begun keeping a detailed diary, really a journal, and I have continued to keep it, so that I have a record of everything of any consequence that happened to me on that day and on almost every day of my life since then.
On that day, according to my diary, a dream woke me up around 4 A.M. In this dream, I was standing on the muddy bank of a stream that I recognized, because of a peculiar old slammed-together split-rail bridge crossing it, as being the central stream running through Old Field Swamp, a cypress swamp near my home in North Carolina. I had often fished in this stream as a boy.
In the dream, I was fishing for redfin pike with a snare hook hung from a line on the end of a reed pole. I was watching a sandbar in some shallow water out in the middle of the stream that the sun was shining on, and I was waiting for a pike to show up over the sandbar where it would be clearly visible and where I could maneuver my line until I had the hook under it and could snatch it out of the water. I was intent on what I was doing and oblivious to everything else. And then I happened to look up, and I saw that the bridge was on fire. And then I saw that the mud on the opposite bank was beginning to quiver and bubble and spit like lava and that smoke and flames were beginning to rise from it.
And then, a few moments later, while I was standing there, staring, fish and alligators and snakes and muskrats and mud turtles and bullfrogs began floating down the stream, all belly up, and I realized that the central stream of Old Field Swamp had turned into one of the rivers of Hell. I dropped my pole and spun around and started running as hard as I could up a muddy path that led out of the swamp, but the mud on it was also beginning to quiver and bubble and spit, so I plunged into a briar patch beside the path and tried to fight my way through it, whereupon I woke up. I woke up with my heart in my mouth. ♦
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