Meditation at McSorley's

In the hyper-touristy city of the woo-woo globetrotting wealth elite that Manhattan has become, I find that I have to go out of my way and have some kind of plan involving timing and location in order to find a cafe, restaurant or bar where I can do a little reading or writing or just calmly watch the street life go by. These kinds of places used to be much easier to find in Manhattan. Today, any non-chain place that's not packed and loud all the time just goes out of business.


McSorley's in 1945 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A Bar like a Church


I walk into McSorley's Old Ale House on a Friday morning about twenty minutes after they open. I've been in here a couple of times before at around the same time but I'm struck anew by the utter peacefulness of the place. There's no TV, no music. It's almost empty. I see only two men at a table in the middle of the front room. This is the state I was hoping to find it in. 


I'd come here one morning last summer only to find that a tour bus from Boston had just offloaded its passengers into the 150-year-old bar. On that day, I drank quickly and left, but McSorely's is so empty this morning that I seem to catch the young bartender by surprise when she turns around to see me standing there. I order the dark ale and she serves up two frothing mini-mugs for $5.50. She then points to a posted menu and tells me that I can order lunch if I want to. I thank her, tip, and then sit down at one of the two little round window tables by the front door. I plop down my backpack and take out a book. 

McSorley's photo by Brooks of Sheffield


photo courtesy of Brooks of Sheffield at Lost City (

The two seated men are roughly a generation apart in age, with the younger one being about my age. They speak at low volume in a Manhattanized Irish accent that's pretty easy on the ears. They talk of orders and supplies, so I now realize that they're not customers but probably the owners or managers taking advantage of a little quiet time before business picks up and the place becomes jam-packed, as it's sure to do.


I try reading, but my attention drifts to the surroundings. I feel a certain reverence for a room that's essentially the same as it's been for a hundred and fifty years. No updates, no renovations, no modernization. All the wood is dark and all that dark wood is worn. A cabinet behind the bar leans precariously with extreme age and to the right of it is a giant clock with a face whose details can't be discerned for the clouded glass that covers it. The only constant sound in here right now is a gentle watery sound, like a brook, coming from somewhere behind the bar. As I listen more closely I hear a whir or hum that's too soft to be an air conditioner...maybe it's a fan somewhere. The sound of cars passing on the street are the loudest sounds in here. It's like being in a church.

Back Room at McSorley's by John Sloan (1912)


Back Room at McSorley's painting by John French Sloan (1912)

I'm still too much in distraction-mode to get lost in my book and I notice that the conversation of the men has to turned to The Sopranos. They have some kind of iGadget and they're getting ready to watch a scene from the series. Well, I guess I'm still in the 21st century after all. One of them invites the bartender over to watch, but at that moment a customer walks in and she has to take care of him first. After she does so, she comes over and joins them.


A Disturbance in the Force


As they're about to watch, a second man steps in through the doorway, stops, and blurts out a phrase in a language that I recognize only as having an Eastern European ring to it. His entry is so abrupt and his greeting so loud that I do a quick head-to-toe glance to make sure he's not a shooter. He's about 50, wearing shorts, and all he holds is a plastic shopping bag with something in it. 


The seated men turn and one of them answers with "Welcome to America!...the Ukranian bar is down the street."




The visitor proceeds into the room, seemingly at home, and he nods toward the other customer at the bar as he heads for some place deeper in. Now I'm thinking that maybe this is a friendly exchange with a morning regular, going through that old-New York "breakin' balls" type of banter, but I'm not sure.


I turn back to my book. The book I happen to be reading is Mark Twain's Roughing It, which, like this bar, is also a creation of the 19th century. I wonder about the possibility that somebody could have been sitting here in this bar reading this very book in the days when it was a new publication by a still-living author. That reader would have been hearing the clop of hooves on the street outside instead of the swish of cars.


I'm again pulled out of the time machine when one of the proprietary gentlemen speaks up.


"You can't bring your own food in here."




The older man, now standing in the mid-distance between the Ukranian's table and the bar, answers rhetorically, "Do you bring your own hamburgers to McDonalds?"


"But it's sushi," counters the Ukranian.


"What if I let you bring your own food in here? Then everybody wants to bring their own food in here. We're a restaurant, we serve food here."


" problem," the Ukranian concedes. He doesn't rush out, but instead takes a couple minutes to finish his ale, before standing, muttering a cool "thank you" and departing.




The pause that follows his exit is a pregnant one. I sense a lingering awkwardness until, after a couple of beats, the authority restates the rule, "You can't bring your own food in here."


The statement is delivered matter-of-factly, as if with a shrug, to the room in general. A consensus is muttered, and the order of things is restored.

McSorley's Cats by John Sloan (1929)

McSorley's Cats by John French Sloan (1929)

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