Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Old New York

It's rare that I feel a visceral thrill when reading a passage of prose, but this one made my synapses spin. It's by longtime New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who was famed for his portrayals of New York City establishments and their denizens. On a recent trip there for a book expo, I experienced so deeply what he relates below that all I wanted to do was to go buy a high-end camera with a huge zoom lens so that I could begin capturing some of the enchanting architectural details of which he speaks. I wish he was still around so I could beg to accompany him on his perambulations. But Mitchell lives on, in these timeless observations. I know I'm not alone, yet I felt that Mitchell had, uncannily, expressed my own innermost sensibilities and perceptions in the most perfect language possible.
Ever since I came here, I have been fascinated by the ornamentation of the older buildings of the city. The variety of it fascinates me, and also the ubiquity of it, the overwhelming ubiquity of it, the almost comical ubiquity of it. In thousands upon thousands of blocks, on just about any building you look at, sometimes in the most unexpected at out-of-the way places, there it is. Sometimes it is almost hidden under layers of paint that took generations to accumulate and sometimes it is all beaten and banged and mutilated, but there it is. The eye that searches for it is almost always able to find it. I never get tired of gazing from the back seat of buses at the stone eagles and the stone owls and the stone dolphins and the stone lions' heads and the stone bulls' heads and the stone rams' heads and the stone urns and the stone tassels and the stone laurel wreaths and the stone scallop shells and the cast-iron stars and the cast-iron rosettes and the cast-iron medallions and the clusters of cast-iron acanthus leaves bolted to the capitols of cast-iron Corinthian columns and the festoons of cast-iron flowers and the swags of cast-iron fruit and the zinc brackets in the shape of oak leaves propping up the zinc cornices of brownstone houses and the scroll-sawed bargeboards framing the dormers of decaying old mansard-roofed mansions and the terra-cotta cherubs and nymphs and satyrs and sibyls and sphinxes and Atlases and Dianas and Medusas serving as keystones in arches over the doorways and windows of tenement houses….. [They] have lasted for a hundred years or more in the dirtiest and most corrosive air in the world, the equivalent of a thousand years in an olive grove in Greece, and there is something triumphant about them…. Furthermore, they have triumphed over profound changes in architectural styles. I revere them. To me, they are sacred objects. The sight of a capricious bit of carpentry or brickmasonry or stonemasonry or blacksmithery or tinsmithery or tile setting high up on the fa├žade of a building, executed long ago by some forgotten workingman, will lift my spirits for hours.

Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker from 1938 until he died in 1996. This passage is excerpted from a longer article that appeared in the Feb 11–18 issue. That's the annual one that used to run the original "Eustace Tilley" cover (right), but now does riffs on it instead. I loved the ingenious "spots" throughout the issue done by Jaen (left and below), but the cover left me cold. What do you think?
 


10 comments:

  1. Love Joseph Mitchell's work and am looking forward to this piece and to the entire memoir! And, for what it's worth, I wasn't crazy about this year's cover either; way too New York, maybe?! Usually that's okay; in this case...not so much.

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  2. I think the cover is paying tribute to the people struggling with the effects of Sandy. Ironic, and symptomatic of a chronic affliction, that for once The New Yorker makes an outer-borough reference, and non-New Yorkers, so used to the Manhattan circus, do not understand it.

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    1. I have to add that I think they could have done a better job on this cover. Needed is a visual icon for the outer boroughs, like the roller coaster remnants in the Atlantic surf.

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  3. I do believe that he is perambulating around Brooklyn (or maybe Queens?), based on where the Chrysler Building seems to be ... and is that a taco truck, making me hungry?

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    1. You are spot on, Cathy! The cover is "Brooklyn's Eustace", an entry by an Australian turned Brooklynite. It has nothing to do with Sandy. The artist does ride around Brooklyn on a bike.
      I wonder what a Queens Eustace would be like? A mall shopper? An Oriental from Flushing, perhaps? Or a gambler at the new Aqueduct racino?

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  4. It's so funny that you would post about this today, because I just came across this last night

    http://newyorker.tumblr.com/post/42972973138/thanks-katy-baldwin-for-sharing-your-reaction-to

    Looks like the cartoon on the cover has a twin!

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    1. Wow, Molly--that is one ugly cover boy!

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  5. Joseph Mitchell wrote a wonderful book--which became a film, actually--called Joe Gould's Secret. Yezierska also wrote about this Joe Gould character, which is how I came across the Mitchell work.

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    1. Thank you for this. Reading Wikipedia's account gives the impression that Joe Gould's writer's block was contagious, and afflicted Mitchell in his last years.

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  6. Some years ago the Baron purchased "Up in the old Hotel" by Joseph Mitchell, for the Baron's esteemed paterfamilias. Later, when permitted entry to the relatives' spacious hovel, the baron tried to re-claim the book as his own.

    I met with epic failure, foiled by the three-steps-ahead mind of this Sui Generis, nay, Sui General relative. Bested the Barron was his Betters, and yet I stayed bemused, reflective and faintly serene. Later I went to 7/11 and got a slurpee, some Twizzlers, and the latest issue of "US Weekly" to enjoy.

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