Friday, August 28, 2009

`A Rather Personal Question'

I was rereading Old Mr. Flood, Joseph Mitchell’s “stories of fish-eating, whiskey, death, and rebirth,” when my oldest son called to say he and his girlfriend were visiting City Island in the Bronx, a small-town outpost at the western end of Long Island sound. These events resolved like a satisfying chord as Mitchell’s 1948 book is a composite portrait of an ancient habitué of lower Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market, and City Island was once a shipbuilding center. Back home I consulted The WPA Guide to New York City (1939):

“City Island, connected to Rodman’s Neck by the City Avenue causeway, is an important boatyard. The dull rubbed brass of sextants gleams in the shop windows, and white sloops stand like herons in the cradles of the boatbuilders. Clam chowder and popcorn are sold.”

So much for the passive voice. By 1939, City Island is already glowing with quaintness and nostalgia for another age, like those sextants. The anonymous WPA drudge (one hopes it wasn’t Ralph Ellison, who worked on the volume) continues:

“A few of the City Islanders still call themselves `clam-diggers,’ and the island’s numerous seafood restaurants on its main thoroughfare…are almost as varied as the pocketbooks they are meant to accommodate. The inhabitants, boasting of the helpful climate, like to repeat the traditional apothegm of New England: `’Round here we don’t die. We just dry up and blow away.’”

This is purest Chamber-of-Commerce poshlust, defined by Nabokov as “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” Mitchell treats Hugh G. Flood’s crankiness with a mingling of respect, amusement, deflation and irritation. Beneath Flood’s ornery bloviating lies a consuming fear of death. Age 93 when Mitchell is writing of him, Mr. Flood is obsessed with living until the afternoon of July 27, 1965, when he will turn 115:

“A young fishmonger in an Army uniform, on furlough and looking up his colleagues in the market, came in. Mr. Flood hadn’t seen him in a year or so. `Why, hello, Pop,’ the soldier said. `Are you still alive?’ Mr. Flood’s face fell. `Look here, son,’ he said. `That’s a rather personal question.’”

Between them, Mitchell and the other Joe, his oldest friend, A.J. Liebling, covered the waterfront and the rest of New York like nobody else. Now that Liebling has been certified as Literature by inclusion in the Library of America, I nominate Mitchell as the next inductee (if there’s still room on the shelf beside H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick). I suggested to my oldest son that he read Mitchell, now that he has lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. On his BlackBerry he wrote me:

“At an ice cream parlor on City Island, they played Big Mama Thornton's `Hound Dog’ followed by the Everly Brothers’ `All I Have to Do is Dream.’ Sounded really good, especially while enjoying cheesecake ice cream.”

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