Friday, August 10, 2012

`When Things Get Too Much for Me'

A quarter of a century spent working as a reporter left me indifferent to newspapers but grateful for what they had taught me. I thrived professionally as they withered into irrelevance, incrementally euthanized by foolishness and greed. But even before their demise, when publishers still paid occasional lip service to clarity and truth, newspapers attracted me most for what they customarily scorned – the lives of ordinary people and the opportunity to tell good stories. Consider this lede from a feature story I wrote twenty years ago, set in a saloon in the South End of Troy, N.Y.: 

“Things didn't warm up at Mahr's Place until somebody turned down the women's volleyball match on television, fed the jukebox quarters and punched in Jimmy Roselli, official troubadour of the Old Goats Association.” 

I remember the hours I spent sitting at the bar in Mahr’s Place, not drinking but listening to good talk and silliness, and I remember thinking: “Joseph Mitchell would love this place.” Mitchell (1908-1996) was already a longtime writing hero and model by 1992, and earlier that year most of his work had been collected in a generous volume, Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories, which includes his best book, the one I learned the most from, The Bottom of the Harbor (1959). A fine appreciation of The New Yorker writer by Dermot Quinn, “Joseph Mitchell and the Free Life,” appears in the summer issue of The University Bookman. Quinn gives four reasons for admiring Mitchell and his work: 

“First and most obviously he noticed things other people missed—in particular, other human beings.” 

“…the power and elegance of his prose. He was, quite simply, a superb writer. Not a word is out of place, nor a sentence too many, nor an image over-wrought, nor a conclusion contrived.” 

“…his almost Burkean enthusiasm for neighborhoods, for communities, for the places where real life happens and where, most intimately, it is understood.” 

“…he also celebrated nonconformity, subversion, eccentricity, cussedness, impoliteness, refusal, even a kind of urban anarchism where property and money and government get in the way of a ruder but more truthful form of human commerce.” 

This is useful criticism, an assessment that articulates what we already know intuitively. Quinn’s latter two points are particularly helpful. Mitchell loved the persistence of tradition in the face of rapacious “progress.” He was a North Carolina native who loved old stories and the old ways of doing things, but also prized human oddity and the way healthy communities tolerate and even encourage the odd ones in their midst. At the level of the individual, no community is homogenous, and the good ones don’t mind. Imagine the dullness of life if it were otherwise. Now read the first sentence of “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” in The Bottom of the Harbor, a piece about an old black community, Sandy Ground, Mitchell discovers on Staten Island: 

“When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of  sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.” 

Mitchell spends another thirty pages introducing us to Sandy Ground and George H. Hunter, the 87-year-old chairman of the board of  the African Methodist church. Here is Mitchell’s economical description of Mr. Hunter, “a bespectacled, elderly Negro man”: 

“He had on a chef’s apron, and his sleeves were rolled up. He was slightly below medium height, and lean and bald. Except for a wide, humorous mouth, his face was austere and a little forbidding, and his eyes were sad. I opened the door and asked, `Are you Mr. Hunter?’ `Yes, yes, yes,’ he said. `Come on in, and close the door. Don’t stand there and let the flies in. I hate flies. I despise them. I can’t endure them.’” 

Mitchell himself is an odd one, not a celebrity journalist sniffing after big stories, and clearly he sees something of himself in Mr. Hunter. He knew the best stories were the small ones. The time in “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is 1956, Mitchell is a transplanted white Southerner, and he finds his subject in a thoughtful, history-minded man who happens to be black. Race flits along the margins of the story. It’s never made an “issue,” that preachy, self-righteous, story-killing hobgoblin of contemporary journalism.  Quinn rightly concludes of Mitchell and his fondness for community and happy autonomy within it: 

“…this tension in Mitchell’s writing between conformity and nonconformity, between being out and being in, is more apparent than real. It is only within community that we are free. It is only among our own that we can be ourselves. That is what Mitchell meant by the free life.”

1 comment:

Tony said...

Demolition may await former Mahr’s Place in Troy: