Thursday, January 7, 2010

‘Can Masonry cure insomnia?’

No, I don’t mean boring meetings.

Insomnia grips the Magpie Mason this time of year. Not even my midnight brandy helps anymore. (Don’t hurt either, so I ain’t giving it up.) To pass the hours leading up to my morning constitutional of steak & eggs, coffee, tobacco, I read. On one of the final nights of 2009 I chose to revisit a great book that I read upon its publication in 1992, while still a university student who knew that good writers read great writers. Ergo my limitless appreciation for Joseph Mitchell.

Mitchell (1908-96) wrote for The New Yorker from the 1930s to the ’60s. He remained on staff for decades thereafter, still on the payroll without actually producing anything, which I suspect is the unspoken goal of a lot of writers. I planned on devoting a paragraph to describing his work, but this obituary anticipates what I was going to say.

But back to the book: Up in the Old Hotel is an anthology of Mitchell’s most famous journalistic essays. In fact, it is a compilation of several of his previous books, which themselves consisted of his three dozen best written, most known feature stories. “The Old House at Home,” his 8,200-word paen to McSorley’s Old Ale House published in 1940 begins the book. I was hooked. (McSorley’s is one of my favorite places on earth. An honorary Irish-Catholic, my affinity for this establishment could be called atavistic.)

Don’t let the sepia fool ya. This photo was taken last November 9, when I had the good fortune to have lunch with a large group of Masons at this historic establishment.

So I’m up this morning reading. The story is titled “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” and, true to Mitchell’s method, it is a high def portrait of an eccentric New Yorker who is invisible amid the cityscape, yet king of his own corner. Mitchell’s New York City doesn’t really exist anymore. The highways built during the 1950s, the poverty of the ’60s, the chaos of the ’70s, the redevelopment in the ’80s, and the Giuliani Revolution in the ’90s all played their roles in eradicating nearly every semblance of what might be termed Old New York. Mother Bloomberg isn’t helping either. Being prohibited by law from smoking my Peterson inside McSorley’s is a hate crime.

But I digress.

I actually was starting to get sleepy a few hours ago, but I didn’t want to leave Mitchell just walking up Bloomingdale Road in Staten Island by himself. I read on, but what is very strange – and in fact is the reason I’m writing this – is that some supernatural instinct was telling me our Mr. Hunter is a Brother Mason. One stranger speaking to Mitchell describes him thusly:

“The man to speak to is Mr. George H. Hunter. He’s chairman of the board of trustees of the African Methodist church. I know Mr. Hunter. He’s eighty-seven years old, and he’s one of those strong, self-contained old men you don’t see much any more. He was a hard worker, and he retired only a few years ago, and he’s fairly well-to-do. He’s a widower, and he lives by himself and does his own cooking. He’s got quite a reputation as a cook. His church used to put on clambakes to raise money, and they were such good clambakes they attracted people from all over this part of Staten Island, and he always had charge of them. On some matters, such as drinking and smoking, he’s very disapproving and strict and stern, but he doesn’t feel that way about eating; he approves of eating. He’s a great Bible reader. He’s read the Bible from cover to cover, time and time again. His health is good, and his memory is unusually good. He remembers the golden age of the oyster business on the South Shore, and he remembers its decline and fall, and he can look at any old field or tumble-down house between Rossville and Tottenville and tell you who owns it now and who owned it fifty years ago, and he knows who the people were who are buried out in the Sandy Ground cemetery – how they lived and how they died, how much they left, and how their children turned out. Not that he’ll necessarily tell you what he knows, or even a small part of it....”

I suppose some neuron encoded with the memory of this story from 18 years ago might have somehow sparked in my brain the notion that Mr. Hunter is a Freemason, which is very unlikely because I had only a general curiosity about Masonry at that time. Nor is it as though this book is full of Masonic references. A 10-page exploration of what used to be called “The New York Steak Dinner” (1939) makes one quick reference to Mecca Temple. The famous piece about Joe Gould (1964) describes a chapter of the putative “Oral History” of which Mitchell reports: “Gould’s father had belonged to the Universalist Church and the Masons, and his funeral service had been conducted jointly by the pastor of the local Universalist church, and the chaplain and the Worshipful Master of the local Masonic lodge.”

I guess my hunch had a lot to do with Hunter’s characteristics, as explained above, but it was a strong bodement. I felt compelled to continue and confirm.

Et voilà.

“On another wall was a framed certificate stating that George Henry Hunter was a life member of St. John’s Lodge No. 29 of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. While I was looking at this, Mr. Hunter came into the room. ‘I’m proud of that,’ he said. ‘There’s several Negro Mason organizations, but Prince Hall is the biggest, and I’ve been a member since 1906. I joined the Masons the same year I built this house. Did you notice my floors?’ I looked down. The floor boards were wide and made of some kind of honey-colored wood, and they were waxed and polished. ‘Virgin spruce,’ he said. ‘six inches wide. Tongue and groove. Built to last. In my time, that was the idea, but in this day and time, that’s not the idea. They’ve got more things nowadays – things, things, things: kitchen stoves you could put in the parlor just to look at; refrigerators so big they’re all out of reason; cars that reach from here to Rossville – but they aren’t built to last. They’re built to wear out. And that’s the way people want it.’ ”

He is speaking in 1956!

Rest in peace, Bro. Hunter. Requiem in pacem. But now it’s time for breakfast.

Journalist Joseph Mitchell on the waterfront he loved so much.

Here is an interview of Roger Angell and David Remnick on Charlie Rose upon the death of Mitchell in 1996. There is mention of the story Mitchell wrote of Bro. Hunter.


Rutgers University Alumnus said...

Nice Jay! Thanks for that. I very much enjoyed reading this entry in the Magpie.

Magpie Mason said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Chris said...

A friend of mine who used to be the head of Historic Richmond Town helped to write a book called Sandy Ground Memories, which recounts the history of that area through pictures and essays. Well worth a read if you're interested in that kind of history.

Magpie Mason said...

Thanks for that link Chris. Coincidentally, I had the pleasure of meeting Barnett Shepherd, who is mentioned in that story, about two months ago.

Chris said...

Barnett is the good friend I mention in my comment above. If you see him again please mention that you know Chris Hansen. Barnett stays with us when he comes to the UK and I have been friends with him and his other half for more than 20 years.