The Greater Part of “History” is “Story”

A few of us from Element 79 came to New York City for an Omnicom program on digital platforms.  We spent the night at the Marriott Downtown in the heart of the still-bandaged Financial District.  After an al fresco pizza dinner at Adrienne’s, Brian Williams remembered once visiting ‘the oldest bar in New York City and so we set off in search of a pub called McSorley’s.

It’s obvious why writers love New York; every block holds a hundred stories (the Trinity Boxing Club behind our hotel with its brittle leather boxing gloves and fading poster of Rocky Marciano, the Volvo crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Mannhattan with a canoe strapped to its roof), at least ten of which would make a compelling short story in the hands of Dorothy Parker or Robert Benchley or even Jay McInerney–this is after all, the financial district.  This town lives and breathes stories, and they came to vivid life when our taxis pulled up to McSorley’s in the East Village.

It’s a simple pub really, serving a few uninspired sandwiches and pints of either light or dark ale, neither of which is very heavy on the hops, with the light in particular displaying the brewer’s mystifying fondness of nutmeg.  Vintage photos and handbills cover the walls, the kind that Bennigan’s and TGIFriday’s reproduce with lifeless precision in their sanitized locations but here, they lay thick with the grime and dust of decades.  It is, after all, New York City’s oldest continually operating saloon, open since 1854.

Speaking of old, the clientele there helped me feel my proper age as they looked to average twenty-four or so, tops.  Gathered talking and flirting and joking around community tables, they smacked of first jobs and long hours, happily spending their paychecks at a watering hole they assured each other was ‘classic.’

Photo by Scott Beale,
Photo by Scott Beale,

And that’s what really hit me–these young adults with their wingtips and rep ties and work skirts were all enthusiastically reveling in the storied environs.  Three recent UVA grads at our table–two interning at law firms, one at Macy’s– were quick to share the story of the chicken bones hanging over a ceiling lamp above the bar.  Apparently McSorley’s served chicken dinners back around the Second World War and outbound GI’s would save the wishbones from their meals and balance them up on the light fixture, with plans to take them down when they returned from the front.  On that happy day, they would hoist a few pints and pull them apart, preparing for their post war life.

More than a dozen of those wishbones still remain on the light fixture, coated with a heavy rime of greasy dust, talismans for men who never came back from Europe or the Pacific.  The young law school grads pointed them out to us with a respectful awe, clearly caught up in the lives and drama of those soldiers of the great war who lived in an era so far removed from our own.

Why should these young people care?  In a world of 3G networks and text messaging and a million and one everyday miracles where everything is amazing and nobody is happy, why does a sixty year old tale still hold such a powerful sway on the imagination?  Why do legends still loom so large with young people who ostensibly have so many other distractions?

Because they are very good stories.  And in the end, though cities may crumble and our civilization may change in a million different ways, stories are what we hold dear.  Stories bring us together, demonstrating our common hopes and dreams and laughter and sadness in a way no other art form does.  Stories make us human.

Stories matter.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

3 thoughts on “The Greater Part of “History” is “Story”

  1. cneary says:

    I am both stunned and thrilled by this column. Stunned that an irishman like yourself had never before been to McSoreley’s but thrilled that you finally found it.

    My first time, I asked my buddy about the flaming hot mustard on the table and he told me you’re supposed to put it in the beer.

    I put it in the beer.

    Actually tasted pretty good.

  2. chris says:

    When I lived in New York in the 80’s, I used to hang out at McSoreley’s with my preppy just-out-of-college gang. I liked the history of the place and the fact that it was in Lisa Birnbach’s “Official Preppy Handbook.” But I was always worried that some of those WWII dust bunnies were going to dive bomb into my beer.

    I also liked Pedro’s on East 85th Street, Chumley’s-one of the oldest unmarked speakeasies on Bedford and Barrow, and The Ear Inn that sadly became an ad guy hangout when Saatchi moved downtown.

    You wanna hear a good NEW story? Check out this blog:

  3. Justin F says:

    Like Mr. Neary I’m also surprised that you’ve never been there.

    I’ve sought out McSorley’s many times while in NYC. That place certainly has its charms and that element of historical mystique.

    It’s also a place that’s created personal stories (and good memories) for which I’ll always be grateful.

    Glad you found it. Great post.

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