Friday, 23 May 2014

Up in the Old Hotel - Joseph Mitchell (1992)

For me this is the first American book that relishes in the history and the times past. That eschews that any thoughts that everything will be better. It’s author describes the New Yorkers 1940 through the 1960s – from outsiders to everyday people. His philosophy is well summarized by one of his characters Joe Gould:

“”’The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what the people say to each other on fair days and high days, amd in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on a pilgrimage.’ All at once, the idea for the Iral History occurred to me: I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people – eavesdropping, if necessary – and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.644).

But this is just an excuse to write the most important oral history for anyone: about ourselves. “Gould would quote from the Oral History while the gin and beer were gradually taking hold, and then he would lose interest in the Oral History and talk more and more about himself. He seemed to think that no detail in his life was too trivial to tell about.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.674).

When he finds out that Joe Gould did not actually wrote the Oral History the author is not disappointed: “Anyway, I decided, if there way anything the human race had sufficiency of, a sufficency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.693).

In his life Joe Gould created a more interesting character, than his book probably would: “He had come to Greenwich Village and had found a mask for himself, and he had put it on and kept it on. The Eccentric Author of a Great, Mysterious, Unpublished Book – that was his mask. And, hiding behind it, he had created a character a good deal more complicated, it seemed to me, than most of the characters created by the novelists and playwrights of his time.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.693).

But. By definition, more important than the ‘philosophy’ of this Oral History are the stories and observations that Mitchell shares in his book:

“Their guesses range between sixty-five and seventy-five; he is fifty three. He is never hurt by this; he looks upon it as a proof of his superiority. “I do more living in one year,” he says, “than ordinary humans do in ten.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.54).

“Practicing short hand takes her mind off herself.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.104).

“Commodore Dutch is a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself. “I haven’t got a whole lot of sense,” he likes to say, “but I got too much sense to work.”” (Mitchell, 1992, p.118).

About alcohol: “”If I was to get a skinful,” he says, “I would stay right in and insult everybody I know. I would make enemies and enemies don’t pay dues.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.123).

“that did not help me to conquer the feeling that I had no right to knock on tenement doors and catechize men and women who were interesting only because they were miserable in some unusual way.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.138).

“he is a good listener; he is one of hose who believe very little of what they hear but always look and act as if they believe every word.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.175).

“And while I’m on the subject, you’ll never understand gypsies until you understand how they feel about stealing. It’s simple: they believe they’re born with the right to steal, and the reason they give, they tell the blasphemous story there was a gypsy in the crowd that followed Jesus up the hill, and on the way this gypsy did his best to steal four nails that the Roman soldiers had brought with them to nail Jesus to the Cross – two for Jis hands, one for His feet, and one that was extra long for his Head or His heart, whichever they decided to drive it through – but the gypsy succeeded in stealing only one, and it was the one that was extra long, and when the soldiers got ready to use it and couldn’t find it they suspected the gypsy and beat him bloody trying to make him tell where he had put it, but he wouldn’t, and while Jesus was dying he spoke to the gypsy from the Cross and said that from then on gypsies had the right to wander the earth and steal.”” (Mitchell, 1992, p.180-1).

“I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.373).

“”This is something I got not business telling a young man,” Mr. Flood said, “but the pleasnatest news to any human being over seventy-five is the news that some other human being around that age just died. That’s provided the deceased ain’t related, and sometimes even if he is. You put on a long face, and you tell everybody how sad and sorrowful it makes you feel, but you think to yourself, ‘Well, I outlived him. Thank the Lord it was him and not me.’ You think to yourself, ‘One less. More room for me.’” (Mitchell, 1992, p.401).

“”Tommy, my boy,” he said, “I don’t know. Nobody knows why they do anything. I could give you one dozen reasons why I prefer the Fulton Fish Market to Miami, Florida, and most likely none would be the right one. The right reason is something obscure and way off and I probably don’t even know it myself.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.408).

“refrigerators so big they’re all out of reason, cars that reach from here to Rossville – but they aren’t built to last, they’re built to wear out. And that’s the way the people want it. It’s immaterial to them how long a thing lasts. In fact, if it don’t wear out quick enough, they beat it and bang it and kick it and jump up and down on it, so they can get a new one. Most of what you buy nowadays, the outside is everything, the inside don’t matter.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.515).

“In New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and the might’ve beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.623).

“I listened to him when he was cast down and meek – when, as he used to say, felt so low he had to reach up to touch bottom.” (Mitchell, 1992, p.627).

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