Big Apple, Small Town

New York, where do you start? Prepare  yourself, I’m on a long flight to Moscow so this is going to be a rant.

There’s only a couple of photos for this post but I want to you read below to get a picture in your mind of a bloke we had the pleasure of meeting before you look at the final photograph.

For a city of such diverse culture, history and grandeur along with a (quite often self appointed) reputation as being the most amazing city in the world it’s kind of small town in a very unique way. That may not appear to make much sense but when you’re there it does. It is, however, a really difficult thing to describe… there are a million examples of this small town syndrome in the big apple and it’s very much ingrained into the people rather than the physicality of the city.

I’m going to use our new found friend Pepe as a prime example for two reasons:

One – he’s the epitome of what I imagined an old school New Yorker to be and;

Two –  the portrait below that I took with him personifies to me every little bit of his no bullshit ethos, his cheeky swagger and a man who has seen a lot of characters walk through the doors of his little pub in downtown Manhattan – and you just get the feeling that he remembers a little bit of every one of those people.

I was very fortunate to get this shot because to me, it’s almost the most story telling photograph I’ve ever taken. I don’t know if that’s because I was able to meet Pepe and translate a bit of him onto a photo or if the photo itself tells enough of a story that you feel like you’ve just met him yourself but I like it and it takes me back to a very enjoyable afternoon.

So Pepe runs a little old bar called McSorley’s Old Ale House on East 11th Street in Greenwich (the New York one). It’s been running since 1854 and its walls have housed everybody from Abraham Lincoln (pre-US President days) to Lauren – and that’s significant because women weren’t allowed in the bar for many years. It’s a pretty unassuming establishment from the outside as you can see from the above picture.

As you get to McSorley’s you walk through a heavy steel reinforced wooden door into a museum of itself furnished atop sawdust coated hardwood floorboards. There are literally hundreds of framed posters, photographs, magazine articles and newspaper clippings plastered across the walls that tell some of the bar’s story. Every inch of timber has something carved into it, immortalising tens of thousands of visitors and their initials, every inch except the pristine timber that bar is wiped probably a thousand times a day as Pepe unholsters his bar towel from his apron habitually, almost like an OCD tick, and wipes it over and over again.

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There are little things everywhere, for example there’s a few old dust covered turkey wishbones hanging from one of the chandeliers and hold a beautiful sentiment inside the walls. A group of US soldiers who frequented McSorley’s headed there for a few beers and a feed of turkey before going off to war and the left their wishbones from the turkey hanging on the chandelier, the intention being that upon their return they’d break the wishbone and life goes on. Unfortunately the nature of war has it that some of those soldiers did not return home and hence their wishbones remain in the same very spot to this day. It’s a simple but significant gesture I think.

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So anyway, Lauren and I pulled up a table right near the front door and adjacent to Pepe’s bar and proceed to order a beer, or so we thought.

P: “What can I do for ya?”

BT: “Err just a couple of beers thanks, what do you have?”

P: “Yeah right, we got dark ale and light ale. You want dark or you want light?”

BT: “Might as well try one of each”

P: “Might as well right? I ain’t gonna stop ya.”

Before I go any further, go back to the start of that dialogue and say Pepe’s part out loud in the thickest,  most mafioso New Jersey  (or New Joisey and it should come out) accent you can muster up. I assure you it’s entertaining.

At this point Pepe brings out not one dark ale and one light as requested, but two dark and two light. Why? Because that’s how they do it, you get two at a time, deal with it. I like this joint. As we get our beers another American guy asks him if a photo on the wall was of him as a younger man. “Yep”, he replies, “1974, when men were men and when animals were for eatin”. Again, I like this joint.

So we start the obligatory small talk, obligatory for me but it appears Pepe decides who he wants to talk to these days and when they’ll have the privilege of his attention. A symptom of having this conversation more times to remember I guess. We find out a little about him, but really only as much as he wants to give away at this point.

He’s a local, as in a proper local. From our table he points through the front window to a small red house and the end of the street. “See that, that there’s where I grew up as a kid. Across the road there, that’s my church. I went to school up the street. I’ve been working at this bar on and off since I was eighteen years old. It’s nice, you know, I can sit out front on a barrel every morning and say hello to a thousand people I know from this neighbourhood as they walk to work if I want to.”

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Getting the small town syndrome thing yet?

At this point the phone rings, this may not seem significant in any sense except for the fact that it’s a pay phone from the street and it’s bolted to the wall next to my head. It took a few rings for the whole moment to work its way into my brain but I suddenly found myself picking up the phone and answering it like I owned the joint. There were a couple of guys standing at the bar laughing at me that thought I was just joking around pretending to be on the phone but sure enough it was a woman from a local magazine that wanted to write a story about the place. I approached the bar a little cautiously and told Pepe precisely that and he wanders over, in his own time of course, and has a good chat to the woman as if it were totally normal behaviour for the patrons to be answering the phone for him. And that was that.

Next round I ask for the same, one dark and one light, and he decides he’s ready to find out a little about us, probably since I was now working as his receptionist and he needed to know if I could be trusted. So he brings our beers over, adding a cheeky “Hey answer the phone once in a while why don’t ya?” along the way (in his quintessential New Joisey accent of course) and asks where we’re from and what we do and of course once we tell him we’re Australian he immediately knows he has something around that signifies our home. He walks over to the other end of the bar and finds a small urn hidden away behind some old picture frames. As he returns to us he blows the half a centimetre of accumulated dust and explains that within it rest some of the remains of a former patron who’s name escapes me that was a McSorley’s regular and moved to Australia. As part of his dying wish he wanted some of his ashes to be kept at McSorley’s since it had become such a big part of his life in New York. There aren’t too many local pubs that have that effect on people.

Anyway, I could continue. So many memorial little snippets have been etched into my mind from just an arvo session at the pub. I will dine on those memories for quite some time.

But the small town thing is so real. Pepe oozes New York pride and I suspect he’ll be behind that bar until he can no longer pull the towel from his apron and wipe it down. We also had the privilege of meeting a bunch of amazing local New Yorkers one day, and again later on in the week we like their company so much. That, however is another story that will take up some time but I’ll write about it in due course. For now you can think of it as a tale of the French guy, his Lawyer girlfriend, their Orthodox Jewish friends, and two Jacks. These guys are so passionate about their city, seriously they love it to the point where they don’t leave… ever. Not all of them of course but it’s amazing how attached some New Yorkers are to their local stomping grounds.

If you’re in New York, do yourself a favour and have a beer at McSorley’s Old Ale house in Greenwich. The beers are sensational but make sure you have a chat to Pepe, he’s a stand up guy (as they say over here) and he made my day.

Cheers,

BT

and here’s the man himself:

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2 Comments on “Big Apple, Small Town

  1. Fantastic story Benno… I really do feel like I was there! I can imagine the smells and sounds of Pepe’s bar. Have a good flight to Moscow x

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