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A Journalist's Saloon Life

By Scott Buckner

I was watching an episode of Route 66 a few days ago and, through the wonders of the disagreements that sometimes arise between the digital TV signal and my cheap-ass Radio Shack TV antenna that doesn't quite work like it should sometimes, I spent the hour watching the program in a herky-jerky, stop-motion fashion. Normally, this would be a major annoyance. However, I've came to appreciate the cinematography that made Route 66 one of the best TV shows ever made some time ago; that's why every third frame of any Route 66 episode would be an awesome photograph on its own.

This is why I thought of This Place On Third Avenue: The New York Stories of John McNulty, a book which I have come to treasure for no reason other than it's what American newspaper-columnist journalism could be again if newspaper-columnist journalism actually started giving a shit about what happens to it.

McNultycover.jpgYes, newspaper columnists write about regular, everyday things most days. But on the other days, they have the opportunity to be completely awesome, and get paid awesomely to be that way. Roger Simon did it during the 1970s when he was working for the Sun-Times. And Bob Greene may have been a miserable individual while he was writing against Roger Simon, but Bob Greene did it three times more often and usually three times better.

Today, Roger Simon is still being published nationally. Bob Greene apparently can't get a job in this town shining Sam Zell's shoes. Who knew?

True, McNulty's best work turned up in The New Yorker, which is a magazine, not a newspaper. But anyone who writes a column for a newspaper, the "I can do better at a magazine" vs. the "I can do just enough to get by at a newspaper" debate just doesn't fly. I spent more than a decade working for newspapers; if you can't spend several hours in any dive bar and walk out with a really great story or two - and write about it in a way that can make a grown man cry - you need to find a different living bagging fucking groceries or something. Because if you can't write about someone that makes someone walk up to you tell you about something you wrote five, 10 or 20 years ago that still makes a difference to them, you have no business being a writer. Anywhere.

John McNulty was a guy who died in relative alcohol-drenched obscurity (and today doesn't even rate his own Wikipedia entry) yet managed to become a close friend and colleague of author James Thurber. He first showed up in print in 1937 and died on July 29, 1956. To be honest, I had no idea who John McNulty was (and to a large degree I still don't, but I really don't have to) before I found This Place, a collection of 28 essays largely written for The New Yorker presented in a little 6 x 4.5 paperback that I (curiously) found sitting in the Travel section of a discount bookstore in south suburban Lansing. It was discounted from the original $12.50 cover price to an obscenely ridiculous $1.99. At that price, I couldn't pass it up.

McNulty's world, as we discover in the book's generous forward written by his wife Faith, was - as is the tradition of many newspapermen past and present - saturated by cheap saloons, cheap booze and cheap acquaintances who always seem to be saturated by cheap booze while whittling away their time on earth in cheap saloons that sometimes accidentally attracted women. I always figured if you're going to practically live in a saloon, you might as well make a living off it.

McNulty did it in an unpolished, punctuation-deficient style that was understood and appreciated by anyone intelligent enough to not actually need things like proper punctuation. By the end of the book, you know more - and feel more - about everyone bellying up to the bar than you did about Norm and Cliff after umpteen seasons of Cheers.

Still, when McNulty wasn't prompting everyone to be plainly reflective, he was plainly amusing and playful:

"If a wife could be as patient as Grogan the Horseplayer's landlady, there would hardly be any old guys living alone in furnished rooms the way there are hundreds of them now," he writes in the opening of "Don't scrub off these names." "One time Grogan owed his landlady ninety weeks' rent. That will give you some idea about Grogan's landlady. She got more tolerance than you can shake a stick at and she certainly is a fine woman. She's an elderly woman, seems to understand horseplayers and not be bothered by them as much as other people are."

Even when there was nothing happening wherever Jack McNulty took a seat, McNulty was observant and perceptive enough - which is the hallmark of every good columnist like this - to know there was enough going on to write about, even if everyone else in the place swore there was nothing going on.

If I could pick one favorite essay - though they're almost all amazing - it would be "Some nights when nothing happens are the best nights in this place," which appears early in the book:

"The point is that some nights when there's hardly anybody in a gin mill and nothing happens, why, those are the best nights in one way of thinking. They're more interesting and not such a hullabaloo of juke-box music and everybody talking at once and all of it not amounting to any interest to the boss or any of the regulars, unless you'd count a lot of money coming in . . . Like the other morning about half past two it was more like a speakeasy, only a few there and odd ones coming in that the boss knew well and didn't mind any of them, each one different than the other."

McNulty goes on to introduce us to Chinaman Jack Yee, who sells little wooden statues up and down the street. "The boss asked Jack to have a cup of tea, because he's always glad to see Jack . . . Coldest night, Jack got no overcoat, just a skinny raincoat tied around him and always smoking a cigarette that's stuck on his lower lip and bouncing when he talks. So Jack put down his bag of statues and had a cup of tea with the boss, and first thing you know what they are talking about but how tough it is talking Chinese for a language."

McNulty relates - on a night when nothing was supposedly happening in this place - the amazement of the boss (an Irishman from Dublin) when Chinaman Jack explains how the same word in Chinese, depending on how it's pronounced, can either mean "mouth" or "trolley car," or how "bird" can also mean "come in." "Then by God, Jack," McNulty writes, "if they're ever gonna make a start at getting anywhere they'll have to get that ironed out! . . . While the boss and Jack Yee were finishing their tea, they gave up the Chinese language as a bad job entirely."

Every single story in This Place is a gem, but still, "Some nights when nothing happens are the best nights in this place" stands out because McNulty - like any good short-form writer - knew that the last paragraph of anything they wrote was The Big Payoff, the satisfying reward that made everyone who decided to take time out of their day to spend it with you stop and think for a few moments about their own lives and how they consider the lives of others.

McNulty drives this home by introducing us to Eddie Clancarty, a fellow who never met an argument he didn't like. Anyone who has ever spent a lot of time in a dive bar knows their own Eddie Clancarty. Sometimes more than one of them.

"Without Clancarty hearing, one customer said to the boss, 'Why don't you throw him out, he's always starting a fight?'

"'Oh, leave him alone,' says the boss. 'He's going into the Army tomorrow.' He went up and served him a drink and then got away from him quick . . . Well, it got to be near four o'clock, time to put up the chairs on top of the tables and close up . . . Clancarty was off the other way. The boss looked back at him going and said, 'Now, isn't that a terrible thing? Sure I just bethought of it now! There he is going into the Army tomorrow, and I can see plain as day what's the matter with him. The poor man has nobody at all to say goodbye to.'"

Accompanying McNulty's columns (and in some ways more illustrative than McNulty's columns) is the photography of Morris Engel, whose job seemed to involve taking moody, rain-pelted photos of McNulty on the streets of New York - especially if they involved McNulty shooting the shit with guys outside some dive bar with everyday New York City life going on in the background.

Engel's images beg you to stare at them and be drawn into a grittier time when the simplest of newspaper guys could speak to - and connect with - plain, everyday people and (as McNulty might say) make them wonder how such plain simple guy coulda make them think about things you'd think it would be smarter people that would be making them think about things like that. Today, if you're an aspiring newspaper columnist, you might take McNulty's essays and Engel's photos and put them together to inspire you to put the heart and soul back in the sterile, barren, politically-comfortable landscape of what the columnist-journalism has turned itself into - if you happen to be lucky to find someone who will let you do just that.


Posted on August 5, 2009

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