The Home Front

The Wartime Traditions of McSorley’s Old Ale House

A personal history of New York’s oldest bar and its military legends.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

In September, 1979 I moved from Port Washington, Long Island, to Greenwich Village, to be a freshman at New York University. NYU in those days was not the gleaming powerhouse it is today; then, it was a large but not particularly distinguished or exclusive institution that catered largely to commuters, located in a cluster of—for the most part—shabby old buildings on Washington Square. The main reason I went there, besides the lucky fact that I got in (my high school record was, let’s say, uneven), was that it did actually have three or four dorms and I could live in one, which meant that my college town would be New York City, then at its peak of gloriously dysfunctional craziness. I liked that.

That decision paid off right away when, at the end of the first meeting of my freshman comp class, the grad student in charge—I wish I could remember his name—took a little survey: everyone who was over 18 please raise a hand. All eight or ten of us did. Good. What if, he proposed, rather than cramming into the shitty sliver of a classroom the school had allotted us in its old Main Building, next time we met instead in the back room at McSorley’s Old Ale House, just a couple of blocks away on East 7th street?

This was a fine idea. Sure, McSorley’s was even older and shabbier than Main Building—in fact, it was the oldest bar in New York—and the air inside had a unique funk, compounded of equal parts stale beer, old tobacco smoke and, we thought, damp codger, but it had big tables to sit around, you could smoke and the beer was cheap: two smallish mugs—you always ordered in pairs—of light or dark for $1.25. Now, I’d been to McSorley’s a couple of times as a high school student, when I was bouncing around Manhattan with friends who lived in the city. But I hadn’t paid much attention to the place—it was just another smelly old bar where they didn’t card you (in the suburbs, bars always carded you; in the city, they never did). We had gone in for a couple of quick rounds standing and on our way. I couldn’t have told you where it was or how to find it. But there’s nothing like sitting through a bunch of freshmen reading their English papers at you to acquaint you with the physical details of a place. Over the next couple of months—we met at the bar about once every other week, as I recall—I got to know those details pretty well.

There were a lot of them to take in, from the fully-operational potbellied stove to the bust of JFK and the “Be Good or Be Gone” sign behind the bar, to the endless profusion of yellowed newspaper clippings, ancient group photos, tarnished brass plaques and suchlike barroom flotsam, all framed and sealed behind glass and screwed to every surface.

And that’s not to mention the gaslight chandelier that hadn’t been used in so long that the couple dozen wishbones that for some reason or other were hanging from it were practically unrecognizable under thick, furry coats of agglutinated dust. As we sat there, inhaling the fug and sipping and smoking and talking about sentence structure, I would pick out one item or another and make up little stories about it. This college thing, it wasn’t so bad.

I had a new teacher the next semester and that was the end of that. By then, I was doing most of my drinking around the block from McSorley’s at Grass Roots, which had pitchers of Bass Ale and a good jukebox (it still has both, thank god). It also had more students, many of them female. That was a factor. But I still went to McSorley’s from time to time. I liked how nobody there seemed to give a shit what I looked like or that my hair was down past my shoulders. Nor did that no-shit-giving change when I cut my hair and dyed it into an explosion of punky, blue-black spikes. As long as you obeyed the sign over the bar, you were welcome, as far as their welcome went: the service was always…brusque, but it was that way for everybody.

The summer of 1980, I had to register for the draft. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan the previous December and refused to leave, so Jimmy Carter had the eighteen- and nineteen year-olds go to their post office and put their names on a piece of paper. I wasn’t for it—in fact, I even put a sticker on my form that the War Resisters’ League was handing out. “I am registering under protest,” it said. I was not, however, a particularly serious young man, and indeed a few weeks later when I registered for my classes at NYU I put one of those stickers on that form, too. I was playing in bands now, mostly punk, and that was more interesting to me than my classes or the sorry state of the world. If I got called up, I figured—well, I don’t know what I figured. I just didn’t think about it.

One day that fall, however, I was standing at the bar at McSorley’s with one of my college friends, a little older than me and a lot wiser, when I pointed to the fuzzy wishbones hanging over our heads and made some crack about the cleanliness of the place. He looked at me for a moment. “Do you know why those things are there?” I didn’t. “When a regular got called up for the army, back during the wars, he’d hang one there. When he got back, he’d break it off.” I could see that a number had been so broken. But a great many had not. “The ones that aren’t broken? Those guys never made it back.” That shut me up. I still didn’t want one to fall in my beer, but now it wasn’t just for sanitary reasons.

When I went into the bar after that, I won’t say I always avoided standing under the wishbones—bar space at McSorley’s is precious—but when I did I didn’t like it. I’m a quarter Sicilian and it’s a strong quarter. I don’t put hats on the bed or let a black cat cross my path and I don’t like being reminded of death.

McSorley’s in 1980 was famous, of course—it was New York’s oldest bar, and had been celebrated for almost a hundred years—and during the evenings and on weekends it drew a crowd of bohemian types, visiting firemen, and such. But the weekdays, when I liked to come in, still belonged to the locals. This was long before the East Village, where the bar is, got gentrified and rents got driven up to the point that you needed a finance job or a trust fund to live there. Back then, most of the people who lived in the East Village had grown up there. Which meant that some of those old-timers drinking away the afternoon at the tables in the front room, now mechanics and shopkeepers and cops and maintenance men, normal things like that, had once broken off their wishbones; had been eighteen or nineteen, just like I was, had registered for the draft and been called up; had shipped out to Anzio or Peleliu or ridden out the flak in the terrifying skies over Germany. Somehow, they made it back to East 7th St. It also meant that some of those ominous, unsnapped wishbones had been hung up by their brothers, their cousins, their neighbors and friends.

McSorley’s has always been more than just a bar. In its stubborn, even fanatic resistance to change and its accumulation of random artifacts it’s like a physical version of the memory-palaces that scholars of old used to build in their minds, where each room was furnished and each piece of furniture brought forth a story. Through McSorley’s, you can reconstitute a whole, vanished New York, a sooty, low-rise city of brick and brownstone that smelled of hay and horseshit and cheap oysters where men wore hats and women shawls and everybody thronged and seethed and practically lived on the street. And, of course, where their sons stuck wishbones up on a gas lamp before going off to war and wished that they would come back to snap them.

Memory, though, is a tricky thing—the furniture in those palace rooms has a way of rearranging itself over time. In December, 1940, Malcolm Johnson wrote a little piece about McSorley’s in the old New York Sun. “This is the season of the year,” it began, “when the regular patrons of McSorley’s Old Ale House…bring in the whishbones from their holiday turkeys and hang them on a rod back of the bar as a good-luck gesture, There is always a new crop of wishbones after Thanksgiving Day and again after the Christmas Holidays.” This inconvenient fact is confirmed by Joseph Mitchell’s famous piece in the New Yorker, “The Old House at Home.”

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In fact, strictly considered the wishbones have nothing to do with the boys from the neighborhood offering themselves to death. I don’t know when the story started, but already in 1956 the United Press was identifying them as being from “an 1865 victory dinner,” so it’s easy to se how it might snowball from there.

Still, the wishbones worked like memory itself works. In writing this piece, I called up what I could. But I don’t have any idea what my class did at McSorley’s or how often we went. I don’t remember who told me about the bones, either, or how it happened or when it was. I know those things took place, and I can see flashes of them in my mind, but they’re mixed in with more recent memories and contaminated by years of gassing nostalgically about the old days with whoever would listen. Stories cohere in our brains, pulling in random details that seem like they must belong there. People hung those wishbones up to bring them luck, and nobody needs luck more than young men going off to face death. So if the wishbones became the symbol; the focus of that need and its memory, that’s only right.

There’s plenty of that memory in the bar calling out for a focus. If you look closely at the items in McSorley’s memory palace; the “crap on the walls” (to use a technical term of the drinks-writing business), you find among the racehorses and baseball teams and whatnot there is a surprising number of items commemorating war and those who served in it, from the Civil War to the War on Terror. Plaques, unit markings, random war souvenirs carried home in some veteran’s kitbag. There’s even a plaque from the CIA, dedicated “to the Staff of McSorley’s” in 2006 for their “Outstanding Support.” McSorley’s has always had a room dedicated to these young men, and now young women.

In 1899, New York’s 69th Regiment—the Fighting Sixty-Ninth (yes, it’s got a plaque)—was returning from the Spanish-American war, one of the city’s papers met them in Huntsville, Alabama, and asked each soldier what he was going to do when he got back to New York. Thomas Moran said he was going to go to McSorley’s “and have a mixed ale.” I think I’ll join him. I won’t stand under the wishbones, though.