Joseph Mitchell

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Whenever I throw caution — and my bank account balance — to the wind and order another round of oysters, I think about this, one of my favorite paragraphs in all of Joseph Mitchell. He’s describing a semi-fictional character, 93-yrs-old, who hangs out round the old Fulton Fish Market:

To Mr. Flood, the flesh of finfish and shellfish is not only good to eat, it is an elixir. “When I get through tearing a lobster apart, or one of those tender West Coast octupuses,” he says, “I feel like I had a drink from the fountain of youth.” He eats with relish every kind of seafood, including sea-urchin eggs, blowfish tails, winkles, ink squids, and barn-door skates. He especially likes an ancient Boston breakfast dish — fried cod toungues, cheeks, and sounds, sounds being the gelatinous air bladders along the cod’s backbone. The more unusual a dish, the better he likes it. It makes him feel superior to eat something most people would edge away from. He insists, however, on the plainest of cooking. In his opinion there are only four first-class fish restaurants in the city — Sweet’s and Libby’s on Fulton Street, Gage & Tollner’s in Brooklyn, and Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay — and even these, he says, are disinclined to leave well enough alone. Consequently, he takes most of his meals at Sloppy Louie Morino’s, a busy-bee on South Street frequented almost entirely by wholesale fishmongers from Fulton Market, which is across the street. Customarily, when Mr. Flood is ready for lunch, he goes to the stall of one of the big wholesalers, a friend of his, and browses among the bins for half an hour or so. Finally he picks out a fish, or an eel, or a crab, or the wing of a skate, or whatever looks best that day, buys it, carries it unwrapped to Louie’s, and tells the chef precisely how he wants it cooked. Mr. Flood and the chef, a surly old Genoese, are close friends. “I’ve made quite a study of fish cooks,” Mr. Flood says, “and I’ve decided that old Italians are the best. Then comes old colored men, and then old mean Yankees, and then old drunk Irishmen. They have to be old; it takes almost a lifetime to learn how to do a thing simply. Even the stove has to be old. If the cook is an awful drunk, so much the better. I don’t think a teetotaler could cook a fish. Oh, if he was a mean old tobacco-chewing teetotaler, he might.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Of Mr. Flood’s four restaurants, none remain. Lundy’s, way out in Sheepshead Bay, has closed and reopened more than once, and now appears to be closed again. I never managed to make it out there. I’m not sure when Libby’s closed, but  Sweet’s and Sloppy Louie’s have been replaced by a tourist-friendly chain brewpub. (You know, that’s the kind of urban crime I’d like to see on the decline at the seaport, Messrs. Giuliani and Bloomberg.) I moved to the old waterfront neighborhood a year or so after Louie’s closed, though I did manage to catch the last few years of the Fulton Market.

Gage & Tollner was replaced by a TGI Friday’s, which eventually closed, and today in its space we’ll witness the Grand Opening of … an Arby’s. It could be worse, writes Brooks over at Lost City, who got a sneak preview. And it certainly was worse under the TGIF regime, by all reports. But we second Brooks’s call for a plaque or some other way to memorialize G&T. Would it be too much to ask for a raw bar as well?

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Channel 13’s latest installment of the online video series The City Concealed ventures into one of my hands-down favorite places in New York: the old Fulton Ferry Hotel rooms hidden above the South Street Seaport Museum (and several tacky mall shops) on Schermerhorn Row, Fulton Street between Water and South.

scherm1.jpgThe row of warehouse buildings and countinghouses, which date from 1811 to 1849 (they were built in sections, one at a time, eventually extending 600 feet into the East River), were landmarked in the late 1970s and partially restored in the early 1980s, when the seaport area was redeveloped for commercial tourist purposes. At least on the ground floors: the upper rooms remained largely untouched, as they had been for much of the twentieth century.

The ground floor of the South Street end of the Row had long been home to a restaurant called Sloppy Louie’s, which operated from 1930 to 1998. The restaurant, and the old hotel above, featured prominently in one of Joseph Mitchell’s most famous New Yorker essays, “Up In the Old Hotel” (1952). According to Mitchell, Louie Moreno liked knowing that his restaurant occupied space built by the nineteenth-century merchant Peter Schermerhorn; it made him feel a tie to Old New York. Mitchell’s piece starts out with a deliberate echo of Melville’s Moby-Dick:

Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast–a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.

I won’t spoil the essay; all you need to know is that its main event takes place when Mitchell and Sloppy Louie himself pull themselves up a dumbwaiter into the old, abandoned hotel Thumbnail image for sloppylouiematchbook.JPGrooms above — several of which remain intact today, preserved ruins belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum but only rarely opened to the public.

One of my great regrets in life is that I moved to the seaport neighborhood three years too late for breakfast at Sloppy Louie’s. I did get there in time, though, to witness the market in action. (It moved to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, after many delays and much foot-dragging, in 2005, after having inhabited its spot at the seaport since 1822.) I took a group of students there early one November morning in the fall of 2004, and it looked and smelled just like it had to Mitchell half a century earlier. Our tourguide was the Museum’s historian, Jack Putnam, who can recite whole chapters of Moby-Dick from memory and who narrates the City Concealed segment in a dapper bowtie and some amazing fuchsia socks:

The City Concealed: Up in the Fulton Ferry Hotel from on Vimeo.

I’ve also been lucky enough to take students on flashlight tours through the old hotel a handful of times in the last five or six years. Along with the small hotel rooms, some with wallpaper still peeling in multiple layers and dust caking in the corners, the space in the upper floors of Schermerhorn Row includes equipment used to sort and bag coffee beans coming off the ship and other evidence of the buildings’ many functions in the nineteenth century. My favorite part of the whole experience, though — and an aspect that didn’t make it into the segment — is the graffiti, much of it left by hotel residents, sailors, and workers in the countinghouses and coffee plant. A lot of it has Irish content, some of it complains of the bosses or pokes at the competition, but the best parts are the most juvenile: sailing vessels drawn onto the wall with someone’s name alongside them, the way a middle-schooler today might doodle a fantasy hot-rod; or an enormous cock, also (if memory serves) with a name attached. Maybe it was too much for Channel 13; we can only hope the Museum decides to preserve it as part of the planned permanent exhibit.

Schermerhorn Row image from New York Architecture Images; Sloppy Louie’s matchbook from Lost City.

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