Thursday, December 20, 2012

Two Towns

"That dusty old chair there, the one above the icebox...I don't know if this is bullshit or not, but supposedly Abraham Lincoln sat in that chair during a speech at Cooper Union across the street."

I'd never thought to ask about the significance of the chair. There's too much other interesting stuff in here to catch the eye. Abe Lincoln did indeed give a lengthy address at Cooper Union while campaigning for President in 1860. I fleetingly wondered how the chair made its way from the Great Hall to a then-brand-new tavern a block away, or for that matter why a famously capable orator like Honest Abe would sit down while delivering an important speech. Before I could voice my skepticism, our rather tipsy and gregarious barmate shouted over the noise of the bar:

"If you look down, on the rail, you'll see a pair of handcuffs left by Harry Houdini himself."

All of our eyes fell to the floor. Oops, I was standing on them. Indeed, there was a pair of handcuffs, cuffed to the rail. If Harry Houdini hadn't left them, someone else had done so a very long time ago, given their rusty condition. "Is that true, Pete?" The grey-clad bartender's name isn't actually Pete but I'm horrible at remembering names, hadn't been to McSorley's in a while, and Pete is a great bartender's name. Pete grinned and nodded. "Supposedly. Was before my time." Houdini's been dead since 1926, and Pete's only been working at McSorley's for 30-some years.

McSorley's Old Ale House is New York City's oldest bar, having been established in 1854. I rather literally stumbled upon the place on a long New Year's Eve layover five years ago, and have coming back ever since. I have a number of other favorite haunts in the Village and soho, but my visits usually start or end by taking the crew to McSorleys. It's a dark, dusty, grimy sort of place, with sawdust on the floor and cobwebs on broken overhead fans. The walls are covered with historic photos, memorabilia, and newspaper clippings; nothing's been removed since 1910, which is also probably the last time the place was given a good cleaning. McSorley's unapologetically serves exactly two things: light ale and dark ale. One of my flight attendants once asked for a margarita at McSorley's, with hilarious results.

The tables are communal, and as McSorley's is almost always crowded, I've drank with some really interesting people over the years. While the bar certainly attracts out-of-town tourists, a surprisingly number of patrons are local regulars who know a ton about its history, or are at least good at making stuff up. I've heard that John F. Kennedy was a regular there (he was there once) and that the Supreme Court made them start admitting women it 1970 (it was a district court) and that e.e. cummings wrote an ode in praise of McSorley's (it was a short poem, thank God). The historical particulars don't really matter, it's the congenial atmosphere that keeps me coming back, and bringing crews with me.

I was staring into the bottom of my sixth glass - never fear, McSorley's glasses are tiny and six glasses is no more than a pint and a half. "Where you folks headed next?" asked Pete.

"Umm... I was thinking around the corner to Continental, or maybe over to Off the Wagon on MacDougal." I looked over at my crew. Actually, they didn't seem like the college-bar type.

"Continental? Don't take em to that dump! Take em to a classy joint, like Pete's Tavern in 18th, or Old Town just west of there."

Which is how we found ourselves near Gramercy Park eyeing up a red brick facade that proclaimed Pete's Tavern to be the oldest bar in New York...established in 1864. Inside, Pete's is the diametrical opposite of McSorley's: clean, polished, with a gorgeous long bar and cozy private booths and neat rows of framed photos of various contemporary celebrities posing with bartenders. It was mostly empty, and quiet. We perched ourselves on stools and ordered pints of Pete's 1864 Ale. "So, what's the story with the oldest bar claim?" I asked our portly bartender, who looked very much like a James. "Wasn't McSorley's here ten years earlier?"

James' eyes narrowed. "McSorley's is completely full of shit," he scoffed. "We had a 140 year celebration here a few years ago, and the Times did some research, and they found that the site of McSorley's was still an open field in 1860. There's no record of the place existing until 1870. They just made it up," James concluded bitterly, as though it was a personal affront to him. Clearly, I'd touched a nerve and stepped into the middle of an ongoing old-bar feud. We excused ourselves after one beer; the girls wanted to see the Christmas decorations at Rockefeller Center and do some window-shopping on Fifth Avenue.

Twenty-four hours later, I was huffing and wheezing in the freezing mountain air. Fat snowflakes sifted down through boughs of ponderosa pine, blanketing the ground on both sides of the path and making the scree underfoot alarmingly slippery. "Just keep going, one foot in front of the other," I commanded myself as I trudged up the incline. Rob was well ahead, charging pretty much straight up the mountain. I didn't remember the trail being this long the last time I did it, or this steep. Clearly, I'm out of shape, in no small part thanks to East Coast layovers with no hiking and too much tasty beer.

I slipped with a yelp, caught myself on a branch, and gingerly stepped back onto the path. I cursed myself for not bringing hiking boots on account of the extra weight and bulk in my overnight bag. Rob had warned me several days before the trip that we would be doing a six mile hike up Mount Sentinel. At least I had the foresight to bring a headlamp; with a 1:30pm landing time and a December early sunset, I rather doubted we'd get off the mountain before we lost the light. Doing this in a snowstorm probably wasn't the smartest decision, but neither Rob nor I were willing to be the first one to wuss out. I huffed around a switchback and saw Rob at a clearing, looking out over Hellgate Canyon. I gratefully stopped to catch my breath and grabbed a swig of water before resuming the upwards slog.

It was 4pm by the time we reached the peak. Last time I was here it was a bright summer day with refreshing pine breezes and a commanding view of the valley and surrounding mountains. Today, Missoula's glowing lights looked like a far-off, cozy dream through the falling snow. It was already getting dark, and we wasted no time in starting down the perilously steep trail - the one that dispenses entirely with switchbacks and proceeds straight down the mountain towards the M. The inadequacies of my tennis shoes became even more obvious as I slipped and slid my way down the mountain. We met a hiker on his way upward (!) in the snow and fading light. He eyed my choice of footwear dubiously and advised me "You be careful, now."

I somehow made it down to the M intact, and from there the heavily traveled path with its 11 switchbacks made for an easy descent to the University of Montana campus as the last light faded. There were, incredibly, a steady stream of college kids heading up the mountain, toting backpacks heavily laden with winter camping gear. They were all, rather predictably, in much better shape than I. Rob and I were now inside our "twelve hour limit" so we dispensed with the celebratory beer and headed back to the layover hotel. I was tired, but happy that we got out and made the most of our Missoula layover, same as we did in New York the prior day. I know of very few jobs where you can be sampling New York City's oldest bars one afternoon, and hiking in the mountains in Montana the next. That's pretty neat. Ongoing instability in the regional world makes it easy to start second-guessing one's career choices, but there are a lot of things I do like about my job; it's nice to have a good trip with a good crew to remind me of them.