Food & Drink

Stories From McSorely's, NYC's Legendary Dive Bar

McSorley’s Old Ale House isn’t like most modern day New York City bars. It’s cluttered, covered in sawdust, and offers raw onions and cheese as a bar snack. The musty, dark, wooden bar is always full of interesting characters, from the ones behind the bar, serving up mugs of beer by the pairs, to the regulars gladly on the receiving end of those brews. Stepping into the bar, which has been in operation for 163 years, is like stepping into a time machine.

But for some, this New York institution is more than just a means of glimpsing into the city’s past—it’s home. Rafe Bartholomew is one of those people. Bartholomew, who’s in his early 30s, spent the formative years of his childhood in the bar, where his father Geoffrey has worked for 45 years. Growing up, Bartholomew chatted with the regulars, played with the bar’s cats and slowly came to realize the import of the storied ale house.

Since then, Bartholomew has spent some time behind the famed bar himself and gotten to know McSorley’s even more intimately. And he recently distilled his experiences into a book, Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me (Little, Brown and Company), which hit bookstore shelves in May. Here, he talks about growing up in McSorley’s and shares a couple of his favorite stories from the bar—one of which includes a stuffed dolphin—as well as an excerpt from the book.

Geoffrey and Rafe Bartholomew

Supercall: When did you first consider writing this book?
Rafe Bartholomew: The first time it became a possibility was almost by accident. Shortly after my first book [Pacific Rims] came out, I was talking to my agent and she asked me what my next book would be. I didn’t have a real answer for her, but I didn't want to look unprofessional so I spat out the first thing that came to mind. I said, “I grew up at McSorley’s, my dad’s been a bartender there for his entire career, and I’ve been going there and working there my whole life.” Her jaw dropped and she said, “Why didn't you say that before? That should’ve been your first book.”

SC: What was it like working at McSorley’s with your dad?
RB: In a lot of ways it was a dream come true. When I was in elementary school, filling in forms about what my dad did, I would write that someday I wanted to work with him. Though often the reality of working at the bar is that things are moving so fast there that you don’t have a whole lot of time to look around and soak it in and be like, “This is special.” We had time to think about that before or after a shift, but in the moment you’re just making sure the place runs. Or it’s absolutely dead in there and you’re so consumed by boredom that it sucks up all the room for romanticism in your brain.

Geoffrey Bartholomew

SC: What was the best part about growing up in and around McSorley’s?
RB: It was how funny everyone was—the jokes. And a little bit of the forbidden nature of it. Even if I didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, dirty or inappropriate things, I knew enough to know that it was something I couldn’t hear in class or at home. But also the repartee between the folks who work there, the customers, the delivery men who would come in and knew everyone really well. The verbal tradition—you don’t think necessarily of [McSorley’s] as a place that breeds a love of words or reading or writing, but because my father already had that interest and was able to share it with me, I think it definitely fed my interest in reading and writing and led to me pursuing a career as a writer.

SC: What’s your favorite McSorley’s story from the book?
RB: I think the stuff with the overnight guys in the chapter about working on the really slow Super Bowl Sunday shift. McSorley’s is always dead that night. I worked one of those with my dad, and a couple of the guys who are the night watchmen showed up and had this wild, bizarre exchange. They’re yelling at each other and one of them brought in a stuffed dolphin he’d named Mel Gibson and was having a conversation with the dolphin. There are so many amazing stories about those guys and it really is the kind of stuff you don't find in too many places out there. Those are the stories we stand around and tell each other.

McSorley's Old Ale House

SC: Were there any stories you weren’t able to include in the book that you wish you could have?
RB: I write about the sawdust we throw down. Beyond it being just an old-timey affectation of the bar, it serves a practical purpose to help clean up spills and in the event of someone getting sick, you can cover it up quick and get rid of it. Someone got in touch with me about when he was there with a group of guys in the ‘80s and had been drinking in the back room at one of the big tables for a long time and one of the guys got sick. He threw up all over the table. The waiter at the time grabbed the bag of sawdust and dumped half the bag on top of the table to bury the pile. [Then he picked] up a push broom and knocked it all over on the floor, and gave it once over with a rag and then brought him another round. I called my father and asked if he was working in the bar that night and he said, “Oh, yeah, that was crazy!” It’s funny because it sounds like that story is back in heavy rotation around the bar.

SC: How has the neighborhood changed since you were a kid?
RB: I don't think the notion that you have to put geographical limitations on where your kids go in the East Village really exists in the same way. I was told, “Don’t go past Avenue B and once you get over to Ave A, be a little bit more street smart.” Some of the places that I always associated with downtown just don’t exist anymore: Forbidden Planet, the comic and sci-fi store, the St. Mark’s bookstore—a lot of places like that have disappeared.

SC: Is it depressing to see the area evolve?
RB: Overall it’s almost a day by day thing for me. There are days I try to be mature about the way the city is changing and always has changed. There are also times I’m a little more emotional because, having grown up downtown around McSorley’s and thinking of myself as a native New Yorker, it’s a big part of who I am and that makes it weird when you step outside and don't really recognize it anymore. I think the bar helps you get over those kinds of blues because it’s one place where, for 163 years at least, that place has been more or less the same. I can go in there and see people who have known me since I was a kid, which is a pretty uncommon experience in New York City for just about anybody.

Welcome To The Madhouse

The following is an excerpt from Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me by Rafe Bartholomew.

Every McSorley’s shift begins with the outfit. White undershirt, white button-down dress shirt, blue jeans, work boots. This unofficial uniform gets customized from there, depending on the job — waiters add a gray jacket from a shelf behind the bar; bartenders tuck a black garbage bag into their waistlines and tie an apron over it. But blue jeans, white shirt, and boots form the baseline of a look that’s more than 160 years old. Earlier generations may have worn a vest over the shirt or incorporated a necktie, but the McSorley’s aesthetic today isn’t much different from what a Bowery barfly might have encountered in the 1920s, what Joseph Mitchell saw in 1940, or what the first women to drink in the bar found in 1970. And that continuity is taken seriously. If you show up without the shirt, go home — the rest of the staff can handle the shift without you.

Before my first shift, my father cut me a plastic. That’s what McSorley’s bartenders call the garbage bags we wear around our waists to keep our lower halves dry. (Body condom occasionally sneaks into usage when plastic doesn’t feel fun enough.) You take an extra-large heavy-duty black garbage bag and cut it down the seams, so that you’re left with two wide single-ply sheets of plastic. Most of the barmen are of average height, between five foot eight and five foot eleven, so when the night shift arrives to take over for the day bartenders, the guy on his way out will hand his apron and plastic directly to his counterpart on the night crew to be reused. But my dad and I are both six foot three, so the other bartenders’ plastics don’t quite cover our legs, and what’s the point of wearing a body condom if you’re going to finish work drenched from the shins down with water, dish soap, and ale suds?

The mechanics of the runner job are simple. You need to serve customers. You need to collect payment and keep track of tips. You need to wash empties and maintain the supply of clean mugs for the manager to keep pouring. When a keg blows, you have to run outside, scramble down to the walk-in fridge in the cellar, and hook up the tap line to a fresh keg. You try to keep the surface of the bar dry and clean, but the top priority is making sure the ale never stops flowing.

Taking orders at McSorley’s seems like it should be the easiest part of the job. There are only two choices: light or dark. If a customer doesn’t want alcohol, he or she can have a mug of tap water, a bottle of nonalcoholic beer, or a can of Coke, Diet Coke, ginger ale, or seltzer. The food menu is written on a chalkboard behind the bar. How could anyone —  customer or server — fuck that up? Believe me, it happens. The bar’s old-school simplicity can leave first-time patrons dumbfounded.

What do you mean there’s no Jameson! Isn’t this place Irish?
Why are there two? I only asked for ONE dark beer.
No credit cards? Where’s your ATM? Around the corner in a pizza shop?

More often than not, customers come around to being charmed by the menu’s hard-line traditionalism — light or dark, served in pairs, the way it’s been since 1854. As the runner, I had to learn how to size people up before they ordered. Were they newcomers? Did they look uptight? If so, I tried to explain the two‑at‑a‑time policy up front, in case they would insist on single mugs. If they seemed down-to-earth, I could probably double them up without saying anything, and if they asked, I’d spit some blarney about the history of the bar and they would end up enjoying their drinks even more.

Tourists present a different set of problems. For whatever reason, “Light or dark ale?” rarely translates clearly to nonnative English speakers. This seems to be true no matter the customers’ mother tongue — French, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese. You ask if they want light or dark and there isn’t a glimmer of recognition in their eyes. They look like you’ve asked if they want to drink with the lights on or off. So you start rattling off synonyms, hoping one of them will click: “Black beer? Blond? Oscuro? Amber? White? Clear?”

The runner relays the order to the head bartender by calling out the lights first, then the darks: four and four, eleven and one, four and sixteen, thirty and thirty. The manager pours the order and deposits the foaming mugs on a small chunk of bar to his left. If it’s a large order, the runner better be there to move the just-poured ales out of the way of the mugs that are arriving only seconds behind them. If he doesn’t, and the boss needs to stop pouring and make space in the middle of an order, then the runner is getting at least a dirty look, or, more likely, something like a sarcastic grunt that translates to “What’s wrong with you, dickhead? Get over here and clear this area out!”

Once the runner collects payment, he walks back down the bar and deposits the money in John McSorley’s original rosewood cashbox. The box is partitioned into three dollar-bill-sized compartments; singles go on the right, fives in the middle, and tens on the left. Twenties are stacked next to the cashbox and held in place by a brass paperweight. A fifty- or hundred-dollar bill gets slid underneath the pile of twenties, or the runner taps the manager on the shoulder and hands it to him directly. Tips get dropped into two ceramic mugs on a shelf beneath McSorley’s original taps, which are now kept behind the bar.

Handling the mugs wasn’t too much of a challenge for me. Guys at the bar had been showing me different techniques to grasp mugs since I was a toddler. Anyone can pick up two or four. Six isn’t much more difficult — your pinkie, ring, and middle fingers slide into the handles of the first three mugs; then you cinch the remaining three with your thumb and forefinger. Eight takes some getting used to: It’s pinkie and ring finger in the first three stems, middle finger in the fourth, and then pinching the remaining four with the thumb and forefinger.

When I started working as a runner, I tried to stick to handfuls of six. It was less efficient than eight and required a few extra trips down the bar, but the simpler grip reduced the risk of dropping mugs. That lasted about two shifts. Holding eight mugs in each hand just offered too many advantages to ignore. Most of the main McSorley pumpmen preferred to pour ales four at a time, and when I dropped eight freshly washed mugs onto the copper rack in front of the taps, I could drag the two outermost mugs on each side of the handful in front of the middle four to create two neat rows of ready-to-pour empties. Also, the ability to comfortably wield eight-mug handfuls was a vital distinguishing factor between the real McSorley’s workers and the fill-in characters who helped out when the bar was shorthanded, and I yearned to belong with the genuine barmen.