Though we both came to the offices of the New Yorker nearly every day for 15 years, Joseph Mitchell and I were never introduced and we never introduced ourselves. I seldom saw him; mostly he stayed in his office with the door shut. But I knew who he was, almost from the day I was hired, and over time he came to know who I was too. Usually we ran into each other in the elevator, most often in the summer. He was an immaculate man who always seemed to be wearing the same plain clothes, year in and year out – a white cotton shirt, a dark tie, a tan poplin suit, a coconut-straw hat with a maroon and navy striped band. He was an avid reader of newspapers – his knowledge was said to be encyclopedic – and he always carried one around with him. One time I noticed it was the Irish Times; another, the Financial Times. He had a face that was more beautiful, because of what was behind it, than handsome, though it was that too. It was set with large, vivid-blue eyes that opened wide in pleased surprise when he encountered you. He would look into my face and smile sweetly and say, ‘Well, hello!’ When we parted, he would say, ‘Well, I’ll be seeing you.’ He had a Southern accent and his voice was smooth and lyrical; a colleague likened it to Bing Crosby’s. Now and then he would say something nice about an article I had written in the magazine or in one of his papers, and these comments filled me with a childish joy. He died on 24 May, of cancer, at the age of 87.
Mitchell was born on 27 July 1908, in Fairmont, North Carolina, a small farming community interspersed with swamps and woods, fifty miles or so inland from the Atlantic Ocean. His father was a farmer and a tobacco and cotton trader, and his ancestors on both sides had farmed land in the region since before the Revolutionary War. Now he is buried alongside them. When he was 21, he left the University of North Carolina to come to New York and work for the Herald Tribune, where he began by covering the city’s endless crimes and catastrophes – murders, robberies, fires. He also worked for the World and the World-Telegram, where he started writing features that took him to the Fulton Fish Market on the South Street seaport, in lower Manhattan – later the setting for some of the brilliant stories in his books Old Mr Flood and The Bottom of the Harbour.[*] (The market is operational today, but the seaport has been radically transformed: like all anachronistic places that avoid demolition, it has undergone ‘renovation’ and is now an upscale tourist and shopping centre.) Mitchell was mesmerised by the harbour, by the people who worked in and around it, and by the stories they had to tell. Through their histories, he relates a larger history of New York City – of the people who ended up there and why, what they did, what their names were, why some stayed and others left. These writings are pieces of scholarship, about the fishing and clamming and oyster industries that once thrived in the area, and meditations on vanished or vanishing worlds. Often Mitchell’s subjects are ageing, melancholy men, with their imminent demise weighing on them. The waterfront becomes a place of longing, and Mitchell writes of it as hauntingly as John Lee Hooker sang of it.
In 1938 Mitchell was hired by Harold Ross as a staff writer for the New Yorker, though his first contribution to the magazine had been published in 1933. He took up with writers like Philip Hamburger, S.J. Perelman and James Thurber, but his best friend at the magazine was A.J. Liebling, with whom he developed a relationship of affectionate rivalry. Liebling, who died in 1963, was an ebullient man, renowned among other things for his tremendous speed and brilliance as a writer. Mitchell, on the other hand, was a quiet man of great curiosity and patience with an admiration for things well made – exactly the qualities to be found in his own writing. Many of his pieces are told largely in the language and voices of his subjects, and the effort and care that went into them are obvious only inasmuch as there are no false moments. His ear is unerringly accurate, his sentences as smooth as his voice. Humour is present in nearly everything he wrote, and sometimes he is hilarious, though not at the expense of his subjects. Unless they happen to be rats. In a factual piece about the city’s rat population, ‘The Rats on the Waterfront’, he writes:
The brown rat is an omnivorous scavenger, and it doesn’t seem to care at all whether its food is fresh or spoiled. It will eat soap, oil paints, shoe leather, the bone of a bone-handled knife, the glue in a book binding, and the rubber in the insulation of telephone and electric wires. It can go for days without food, and it can obtain sufficient water by licking condensed moisture off metallic surfaces. All rats are vandals, but the brown rat is the most ruthless ... Instead of completely eating a few potatoes, it takes a bite or two out of dozens. It will methodically ruin all the apples and pears in a grocery in a night. To get a small quantity of nesting material it will cut great quantities of garments, rugs, upholstery, and books to tatters. In warehouses, it sometimes goes berserk ... One night, in the poultry part of the old Gansevoort Market, alongside the Hudson, a burrow of them bit the throats of over three hundred broilers and ate less than a dozen.
Though he was slower than Liebling, Mitchell published a remarkable number of pieces in his first couple of years at the magazine – some 20 in all – including two superb profiles. One of them was of a woman named Mazie P. Gordon, ‘a bossy, yellow-haired blonde’ who ran the Venice movie theatre, just off the Bowery. ‘She is profoundly uninterested in moving pictures and is seldom able to sit through one,’ Mitchell writes of her. ‘ “They make me sick,” she says.’ But what Mazie really does is tend the derelicts who live in the area. She is a kind of latter-day saint – St Mazie of the Bowery. From the ticket booth, she dispenses money and free tickets so that they have a place to sleep during the day. Sometimes she gives them a bar of soap. (“‘Please use it, buddy,” she says pleadingly.’) The other profile was of Jane Barnell, a 69-year-old sideshow performer who made a living from her 13½-inch beard: ‘She despises pity and avoids looking into the eyes of the people in her audiences; like most freaks, she has cultivated a blank, unseeing stare.’ After Diane Arbus had read McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, the book in which these pieces appeared, she called Mitchell up and asked him about his subjects. She had become interested in freaks and wanted to photograph Miss Barnell, but she had died by then. No photograph could have matched Mitchell’s portrait. Miss Barnell was not possessed of an attractive personality and Mitchell does not try to bestow one. Yet he delights in her strangeness and disagreeableness: ‘Taciturn herself, Miss Barnell does not care for talkative people. At least once an afternoon she wraps a scarf around her beard and goes out for coffee or a mug of root beer. She usually goes to the lunchroom in the American Bus Depot, a few doors west of Hubert’s. She finds the atmosphere of a bus terminal soothing to her nerves.’ At the same time, Mitchell reminds us of the unhappiness she has suffered. Of her family, she tells him:
They all thought I was a disgrace ... Every family of a freak I ever heard of was the same. I’ve known families that lived off a freak’s earnings but wouldn’t be seen with him. I had one sister I liked ... She went to China twenty-some-odd years ago to work in a hospital for blind Chinese children, and that’s the last I ever heard of her. I guess she’s dead.
At the end she adds: ‘If the truth be known, we’re all freaks together.’
As time went on, Mitchell’s pieces became longer and more complex and he took more and more time to write them. He spent five years writing ‘Joe Gould’s Secret’, a two-part profile of a Greenwich Village eccentric who claimed, over the course of thirty-five years, to be writing a book called An Oral History of Our Time, the ever-growing length of which he once estimated to be ‘approximately nine million two hundred and fifty-five thousand words long, or ... about a dozen times as long as the Bible’. The secret Mitchell discovers is that in all those years he had written nothing at all. The piece was published in 1964; after that, Mitchell submitted nothing further for publication.
One day last summer, when I was working on a piece about Walker Evans, I came in to work and saw Mitchell ahead of me, walking lightly towards the elevators. I had read somewhere that he had known Evans, and without thinking too much about it, I broached the subject with him. He said that years ago he would run into Evans when they were both wandering the western edge of Greenwich Village, around the Gansevoort Market. ‘I don’t suppose he was a terribly convivial man,’ he said as the elevator rose. Then he added, ‘Or was he?’ – as if I were the one who actually knew. When we reached the 16th floor, he asked me if I wanted to continue talking in his office and I followed him down a narrow corridor I rarely visited to a cul-de-sac. He unlocked his door and we entered a small bare space that had a melancholy feel, like a room in a Hopper painting. It was the first time I had ever been in his office. There was a steel desk with a folded newspaper, a small stack of books and some paper lying on it, an Underwood manual typewriter on a typing table, a few filing cabinets, and several large cardboard boxes stacked in a corner. There was nothing on the walls. The room was bathed in a soft bluish light. Looking east, you could see the huge arcing windows of Grand Central Terminal a few blocks down; on the window-sill lay a strange object – an old wood and rusted-iron whippletree. Looking north, you saw the former New Yorker offices across the street; they were still vacant after four years. Later, I thought of something Mitchell was quoted as saying not long before: ‘I’m a ghost; everything’s changed now.’ He sat down at his desk, turning to face me. I sat in a stiff chair to the side of his typewriter. I told him that I was troubled by my sense that Evans seemed to have lost himself just a few years after his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, and that I was trying to understand what had happened to him. I realised with alarm that I was touching on questions that could only affect him deeply and perhaps painfully. I did not expect an answer, and at first I did not get one. But at some point much later in our conversation, he returned to the subject of Evans. He gestured towards the whippletree on the window-sill and said, ‘Walker Evans?’ as though he were about to pose a question. ‘He could see the beauty in a broken-down, ordinary thing like that. Nobody else saw it at the time. But he saw it. You know those interiors of the tenant farmer homes he photographed? I’ll never forget those knives, forks, spoons, plates – all lined up on the wall. Walker Evans, he understood that.’ He leaned forward in his chair. ‘But then the world changes. You can lose your subject. And you can’t see things the way you once did. You know, Diane Arbus. Diane Arbus came along and she could see things. But Walker Evans, he couldn’t see them anymore.’ He paused for a moment. ‘And through it all, you’re always comparing yourself with what you did last. There’s that, too. You’ve always got to do yourself one better.’ He sank back into his chair. ‘God Almighty,’ he said with a shudder. ‘Who can stand it?’
One of my favourite Mitchell stories is ‘Mr Hunter’s Grave’. It is one of his last, written in 1956, and it takes place on Staten Island.
Looking for wild flowers in a cemetery one day, Mitchell learns of another nearby – an overgrown place in the Rossville section of the island, owned by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. This cemetery, he is told, is filled with a great variety of wild flowers. But he is advised that before venturing in, he should ask permission from the man who tends it – a widower who lives across the street from the church, in a section of the island called Sandy Ground. His name is George Hunter and he is 87 years old. One summer Saturday Mitchell takes the ferry from Manhattan to visit him. He finds Mr Hunter at home, in a tidy shingle-front house with lightning rods. A trellised rambler rose shades his screened front porch. ‘Come on in, and close the door,’ Mr Hunter tells Mitchell. ‘Don’t stand there and let the flies in. I hate flies. I despise them. I can’t endure them.’ On the sideboard in the dining-room are two lemon meringue pies, two coconut-custard pies, a pound cake, a marble cake and a devil’s food cake which he has prepared for a church luncheon he plans to host the following day. ‘I made them all this morning,’ Mr Hunter declares. They retire to a back porch overlooking a garden of sweet potatoes and tomatoes and a bird table. Mitchell asks him about the origins of Sandy Ground, and Mr Hunter begins to relate the history of the community. Sometime after 1820, when the oyster beds in the area had been depleted, Staten Island oystermen began to replenish the beds with oysters from Maryland and Virginia. A number of the oystermen there were free negroes, whom the Staten Island captains sometimes hired to make the trip north and help plant the new oysters. In the late 1830s, some of these men settled in Sandy Ground. The community thrived until around 1910, when the water became polluted. In 1916, when the oyster beds were condemned by the Department of Health, it began to disintegrate. Now it is almost gone. In the course of his recitation, Mr Hunter tells of his own beginnings, of the hardships of his life, of his two marriages, of the death of his only son the year before. Later, he takes Mitchell through the cemetery and tells him the histories of various families whose names appear on the tombstones. Then he shows him the graves, marked by nearly identical tombstones, of his two wives, who are buried side by side. The tombstone of his second wife reads:
1877 EDITH 1938
Mr Hunter explains that out of concern for overcrowding in the cemetery, he had begun encouraging the digging of double graves. He tells Mitchell that it had been his plan to be buried in the grave with his second wife and that he had instructed the gravedigger to go down eight feet when digging her grave instead of six. ‘Below my wife’s name and dates I had them put my name and my birth year,’ he says. ‘When it came time, all they’d have to put on it would be my death year, and everything would be in order.’ When he discovered that the gravedigger had only gone down six feet, he was outraged.
‘So, I’ve got my name on the stone on this grave, and it’ll look like I’m buried in this grave.’
He took two long steps, and stood on the next grave in the plot.
‘Instead of which,’ he said, ‘I’ll be buried over here in this grave.’
He stooped down, and pulled up a weed. Then he stood up, and shook the dirt off the roots of the weed, and tossed it aside.
‘Ah, well,’ he said, ‘it won’t make any difference.’
When I finished reading this story, one gloomy, drizzly morning not long after Mitchell’s death, I had an overpowering desire to visit Mr Hunter’s grave, and I asked my husband if he wanted to go with me. I was sure that a tiny speck of green by Crabtree Avenue on a Staten Island bus map showed the site of the cemetery. We quickly packed a lunch and left, driving across the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge, then along the Staten Island Expressway and onto the West Shore Expressway; gulls circled above the enormous New York City landfill; it filled the air with a horrible smell. We exited onto Bloomingdale Road, a narrow two-lane road, one side of it lined with dripping trees. On the other was a brand-new development of large houses, built close together on tiny lots and ornamented with minuscule front lawns and comically topiaried shrubs. Almost at once, we passed a street-sign for Crabtree Avenue. We continued along the narrow road, looking for a spot to turn around, when we came on a church with a sign in front that said: ‘A.M.E. Zion Church’. We pulled into the empty parking lot. Facing us, diagonally across the street, stood Mr Hunter’s house. It was abandoned, and nearly hidden from view behind a jungly growth of ailanthus trees, vines and thick, aromatic weeds four feet high – like the old cemetery Mitchell describes. Cars zoomed back and forth along the road. We crossed and made our way through the weeds to the front of the house. The roof of the front porch had collapsed, and a rotting beam rested against the porch’s side. The windows of the house were shut and the shades half drawn. The door, white with a decorative line of gold trim, was partly covered by a large piece of plywood. As we walked to the back of the house, I noticed several sheets of wet paper that had been torn from a hymnal. I bent down and picked one up. In Gothic script were printed the words ‘Under His Wings’. The hymn began, ‘Un-der His wings I am safe-ly a-bid-ing; Tho’ the night deep-ens and tem-pests are wild, Still I can trust Him; I know He will keep me; He has redeem’d me, and I am His child.’ The back porch had been made into a room, and, like the rest of the house, was encased in asbestos shingles. There was a big padlock on the back door, and there was no longer any yard to speak of; a little wood next to Mr Hunter’s house had all but taken over. I didn’t want to stay there any longer; my husband and I walked back to the car in silence.
About a hundred yards down Crabtree Avenue, a narrow lane bordered by a dense growth of trees on both sides, we found the cemetery, encased in a chain-link fence with a little gate that was standing open. Inside, there were two new graves on the left, topped with mounds of red, sandy earth. The lumpy ground was strewn with Spanish bayonet and moss and weeds and crab grass which had been mowed in some parts and burned off in others. Traffic from the expressway droned in the distance; the tyres of cars thunked rhythmically over the pavement divides. Birds sang in the trees around the cemetery. Towards the back of the cemetery were some old toppling tombstones, and we walked over to examine them. Some of them were surrounded by broken iron pipes attached to crumbling concrete posts. My eyes fell on a flat stone on the ground that read:
WILLIAM F. HUNTER
A little above it were two nearly identical stones. The one on the right read:
1877 CELIA 1928
To the left of it was the tombstone of Mr Hunter’s second wife, just as Mitchell had described it. Beneath her name was Mr Hunter’s name and the year of his birth. The year of his death was blank.
My husband and I stood looking at the tombstone, dumbfounded. Was Mr Hunter down there somewhere? Or had he ended up in some other, completely unknown place? We went out of the cemetery without closing the gate, careful to leave everything as it had been. Mr Hunter was right, I thought; it didn’t make any difference. And yet it did.
[*] Both of these volumes are included in Up in the Old Hotel, a compilation of all Mitchell’s books (Vintage. 716 pp., $14, May. 1993, 0 679 74631 5).