McSorley's on East 7th Street. That's Charlie and John on the right.
… With a Delicious Ending.
9 a.m., Wednesday, April 21, 2010. My friend Charlie Reilly and I took off from suburban Philadelphia by car to Hamilton, N.J., where we boarded a Jersey Transit commuter train to New York City's Penn Station. Incredibly, every paved parking spot at the station was already filled, so we had to park in an old overspill lot. When we asked the conductor why so many people were heading for the Big Apple he replied "because it's Wednesday." It turned out that Wednesday is Matinée Day on Broadway, attracting thousands of Jersey housewives.
Once there, we took a Fifth Avenue bus past my old studio down to Washington Square, where by prearrangement we met Charlie's friend, John. From there we more-or-less followed a variation of the route I described in my 2004 guidebook, Daytrips New York.
After soaking up the atmosphere of Greenwich Village we headed over to the less-explored East Village, following The Bowery up to Astor Place and the old Cooper Union building of 1859. It was here, on February 27, 1860, in the Great Hall, that Abraham Lincoln delivered the historic anti-slavery speech that won him the presidency later that year. The very next day following our walk another president spoke here. That was Barack Obama, who addressed a group of Wall Street bankers, chiding them for their "failure of responsibility" and calling for tighter regulation of their industry. Lincoln and Obama were not the only presidents to have given speeches in this room — others include Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and Clinton.
By now we were hungry and, more to the point, thirsty. Fortunately, just around the corner from Cooper Union stands the world-famous McSorley's Old Ale House, here since 1854 and virtually unchanged since then. Oh, they do allow women in now, following a 1970 lawsuit. Tradition has it that Honest Abe imbibed here after his famous speech.
McSorley's serves their own ale, and only their own ale, dark or light, two mugs at a time. The prices are quite reasonable, but don't ask for any other beverage because they don't have it. They do have food, a selection of inexpensive sandwiches and hot meals from a daily menu on a chalkboard.
Prohibition, that vile social "reform" of the 1920s, hardly affected McSorley's, which continued to serve their own ale as if nothing had happened. The fact that this was a popular hangout for politicians probably helped avoid police raids. Back then it was brewed in the basement; today it's made by a major brewery and sold in bottles throughout the nation.
With an atmosphere reminiscent of Olde New York, McSorley's walls are covered with faded memorabilia, none of which has been removed since 1910. The floors are still covered with sawdust, the waiters and bartenders still emphatically Irish. And the suds, called "the ale which never lets you grow old," by the poet e.e. cummings, remains unchanged to this day.
McSorley's old motto, "Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies," however, is no longer in effect following a 1970 court ruling concerning gender discrimination. Its remaining mottos are "Be Good or Be Gone" and "We Were Here Before You Were Born."
The definitive book about McSorley's (and a few other New York oddities) was written in 1943 by Joseph Mitchell under the title McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. It is still in print and available on Amazon (see below). To learn more check out McSorley's own website (click here).
Thirst sated, we wandered through Cooper Square, passing Lafayette Street and Broadway to LaGuardia Place, where we stopped at an outdoor café for a final libation before returning to Penn Station and home. Near the café stood a statue honoring the "Little Flower," Fiorello H. LaGuardia, New York's exceedingly colorful mayor from 1934 to 1945. That's him on the right.
Text, top 2 photos and bottom photo copyright © 2010 Earl Steinbicker