Joseph Mitchell possessed a lifelong fascination with New York City’s survivors, both its characters and its buildings, especially ones that often escaped notice. For some 26 years, from 1938 to 1964, his essays in The New Yorker portrayed the city’s inhabitants from the bearded Lady Olga of circus sideshows and the stout Germans carrying their own sets of knives who were the chefs of the old East Side school of beefsteak dinners to the fringe of the fringe who peopled McSorley’s saloon and even the minutiae of the types of rats that populated the city’s five boroughs. Then after 1964, no essay of Mitchell’s appeared in The New Yorker. Yet, through the rest of his time there until his death in 1996, Mitchell continued to go the magazine’s office each day.
Though Mitchell did not submit a word for publication after the mid-1960s, he kept on writing – and walking the city. Mitchell’s walking was an obsession that set in early. When Mitchell first came to the city in 1929, at the age of 21, one of his editors at the New York Herald Tribune advised Mitchell to “walk the city, get to know every side street and quirk and character,” according to an introduction to a Mitchell essay in The New Yorker. He obviously took this to heart, for many decades, and his stories rendered the results of his explorations as he depicted the city’s steelworkers, longshoremen, restaurant proprietors, movie house bouncers, social club operators, and others among the unsung and the oddball. [Read more →]