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Located in New York’s East Village on St. Marks Place, Oh! Taisho gets busy most nights.

A cool, bustling yakitori, they specialize in skewered meats grilled over Binchōtan charcoal. You order by the skewer: chicken gizzard, chicken wing, chicken skin, chicken heart. The menu even lists a “chicken chunks” skewer called yotsumi, though their many offerings have kept me so busy that I’ve never ordered it. Along with offal and other yakitori classics, Oh! Taisho serves ramen, yakisoba, salt grilled mackerel, seaweed salads, ebi shumai, gyoza, tatsuta age, agedashi tofu, a mixed vegetable sauté called yasai itame, and a pork belly and kimchi sauté called buta kimchee, which is a variation of the Korean dish jaeyook bokkeum.

If you like fish and pork, this is your place.

Grill

Long and narrow, cramped and loud, Oh! Taisho’s tables are tightly packed. The counter leaves you elbow-to-elbow with strangers. In winter, traffic in and out of the front door blasts you with frigid gusts, and the small wall rack by the prep area overflows with coats. There’s nowhere else to hang them. For lack of better options, women at the counter often set their purses on their laps.

While you eat, the friendly wait staff leans over and around you, yelling to each other in voices as piercing as alarm clocks. From behind the grill, cooks call out finished orders in Japanese, as customers and servers rush perpetually past you, and others scan the perimeter to understand what all the commotion is about. It’s not the kind of place you come to relax. It functions like an izakaya: you order small plates, drink and eat and talk and have fun.

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

On a recent visit, between eight and ten staff members waited tables, though they moved too fast to get an accurate count. When I asked my waiter what the whole grilled hokke fish tasted like, he said he didn’t like fish. No fish? “No,” he said smiling. “No fish. Shrimp, the squids. But fish—no.”

I started with a kaisou seaweed salad for $5.75. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavors, offering a nice, light prelude to the meat-fest come.

I followed that with some old favorites: a pork belly skewer, or bara, a shishito pepper skewer, and sasami mentai: a moist hunk of white meat chicken drizzled with bright orange spicy codroe. These cost $1.75, $1.75 and $2.75 respectively.

Skewer selections

Despite their name, shishito peppers taste mild—although, for some reason, about one out of ten packs some heat. Dressed only with coarse salt, the little green spears are grilled until a nice dark char marks their sides and the skin melts in your mouth.

Shishito pepper skewer

Shishito peppers

The $7 large grilled squid, ika yaki, is the best I’ve ever had. It plumps and turns a lustrous purple when cooked.

Ika yaki, skewer, squid

Ika yaki, grilled squid

I like a little starch with my fish, so I usually order yaki okaka onigiri: a grilled rice ball stuffed with bonito. It’s $3.25. It’s bigger than your fist. Dressed with oil and soy sauce and cooked to a crisp, the outside kernels crunch like corn, while the ones inside remain soft and white. In the center: hot, moist, shredded bonito fish, one of the best flavors on earth. Salty, smoky, rich with umami, a buddy described it as “sea bacon.” Oh! Taisho was the first place I tasted bonito, and it revolutionized my idea of what flavor could be. I now buy bags of shredded bonito to sprinkle on everything from omelets to salads, and to flavor soups.

Onigiri close up

yaki okaka onigiri

Don’t let people tell you that all Japanese food is healthy. Oh! Taisho grills greasy seasoned strips of seasoned pork belly and wrap bacon around everything from peppers to scallops, asparagus to enoki mushrooms. They serve sliced roast duck, French fries covered with cheese, and something called chikuwa cheese, which are deep fried surimi tubes filled with dairy.

This mix of fatty and fresh, healthy and decadent, partly explains the crowds. White, black, college kids and businessmen—everyone comes here.

Two couples at a nearby table ordered the $39.50 Party Set: a total of thirty skewers. One man clapped when it arrived, while his wife covered her smile and shook her head at the excess, and maybe at the challenge ahead. “Kampai,” they said, raising sake glasses.

“Order ready!” the staff yells as they try to find counter space to set huge steaming bowls in front of you.

Pork broth soup

Pork broth soup

The old wooden counter is resinous and tacky—not dirty, but sticky from lacquer. When you sit there, you can watch cooks chopping, drizzling sauces, garnishing dishes and shaking skillets over bursting flames, laughing and smiling despite the pace and tight quarters. If you sit in front of the grill, you can feel the heat on your forehead. Without room for your bag, you have to set it by your feet. With few places to look, you’re forced to stare at the aluminum foil that covers the grill’s exterior, or to watch neighboring diners stare longingly at the cooks, waiting for their food. Others talk, drink beer. With crowds, it’s not unusual for your food to arrive between five and twenty minutes after ordering.

Life at the counter

At the counter, to my right, a Chinese high school girl was on a date with an Indian high school boy. After sitting down he said, “Soy sauce is the real deal.”

She said, “It’s kind average, you know?”

“Okay,” he said, “name a sauce that’s not average then.”

Without hesitation she said, “Worchester.”

“What’s that taste like?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You made that up.”

“No, I didn’t. It’s real.”

“Really?”

She proceeded to teach him Chinese mythology and describe which parts of our bodies symbolized good luck, health, wisdom, and so on.

To my left, a Japanese-American NYU student was on a date with white NYU student. She set her strawberry-shaped purse on the counter by the shichimi tōgarashi. “Well,” he said smiling, “I knew I liked teriyaki chicken, but those rice balls—yum! They’re not even balls. They’re spears.”

The cook!

The cook!

At the end of the counter, the cook reached inside a refrigerated case and grabbed prepped skewers. His timing was impeccable. With multiple skewers of varying thickness grilling for multiple tables at once, he knew how long to leave each skewer on the grill, when to turn them so they cooked evenly, how to stagger items, all while pulling new tickets from the hanging queue. He read the ticket, removed skewers from the cooler, dipped them in the vat of tare sauce and draped them over the black cauterized grills. As the food sizzled, he glanced at the door and called out orders.

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer of doom

It’s easy to order more food than you can eat.

To keep from ordering the same familiar items, I branched out and tried the grilled skate wing. Dense and chewy like a moist seafood jerky, el hire carries the strong, deep flavor of the ocean. It arrived with a mayo dipping sauce which I skipped in favor of a squeeze of fresh lemon. My suggestion: eat it fast. When it cools, it dries.

The hotate bacon, or bacon-wrapped scallops, delivered the desired hit of fat, salt and seawater.

The chicken skewer with plum sauce arrived moist and fresh.

The soup made from pork stock, filled with rice and topped with scallion and sliced charsu pork, was equal in every way to ramen.

And the quail egg skewer offered texture and flavor in bite-size morsels that left room for more morsels.

‘Taisho’ is the name of a historic period in Japan, defined by the reign of Emperor Taishō, which ran from 1912 to 1926. I can’t explain what that has to do with this yakitori joint.

For booze, they serve beer and sake, and offer unusual sho-chus made from rice and wheat, sweet potato and sesame and one called jougo made from brown sugar ($6 glass, $50 bottle).

Stay a while or eat fast and get out—no one’s going to rush you, but the sight of people constantly asking staff about the wait will make you aware of how in demand your seats are, and might hasten your pace.

While I ate, a Japanese chef and the Indian cook were forcing seafood dishes on a Latino staff member. They had him seated at the counter by the cold case, eating seafood soup and picking at a weekly special: tiny baby horse mackerel, deep fried and seasoned with a hint of curry, called mame aji no karaage fuumi. The man shoved the little fish in his mouth and shook his head. He liked it. The soup, not so much. He pointed at the fried fish and waved to another staffer who was prepping in back. People kept checking on him. The large Japanese chef rubbed his back and poured more beer into his mug. Another prep cook came out to measure how much he’d eaten from the bowl. He must have been new, and they were testing and teasing him.

A young server came over holding a large plastic cup with a red straw. He patted the man’s shoulder. “Avocado milkshake,” he said, “you like that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the man said. He liked it. The kid flashed thumbs up and walked out the front door. Later, a waitress in sweatpants came by and asked him, “Doing okay?” He nodded yes and grinned. He really liked the horse mackerel. When I asked my waiter if he was going to at least try the weekly special, he laughed. “No,” he said, “not for me.”

Long view

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As part of my book project on crowding, I traveled to New York in August to do some research and reporting. That research brought me to the busy Trader Joe’s in Chelsea, to write about the store’s “End of Line” position and their unique crowd-management technique. Here’s the piece:

 

In the produce section of Trader Joe’s store in the Chelsea section of New York, Karl Holman holds an eight-foot-tall sign that reads “End of Line.” It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday, and Holman is managing the line for the second time this shift.

While customers test peaches for ripeness, Holman holds the towering metal pole aloft, making the banner’s orange and yellow lettering visible to anyone who gazes up from the shelves. For the next hour, the line’s end moved constantly.

Short and stout, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a grey Trader Joe’s T-shirt, the forty-nine-year-old Holman addresses a knot of stopped customers who are blocking traffic. “Are you ready to check out?” he asks. “Step right here.” Customers glance at his sign and then file into place.

Continue reading…

 

 

 

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I’m writing a book proposal currently titled Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet. In an effort to raise money to fund two short reporting trips to finish the proposal, I’ve launched a Kickstarter.

The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf
The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf

The book is narrative nonfiction about the profound yet overlooked ways dense communal living has shaped human affairs, including everything from our moods to our businesses to interior design. Crowding isn’t just an environmental and urban design issue. It’s a social, psychological and moral issue. With over half the world population now living in cities, it’s also our future. As the novelist Don DeLillo said, “The future belongs to crowds.” I plan to portray what that future looks like, how we’re preparing for it, and write the first book to detail exactly how crowds have shaped human history through time. Once I finish the proposal, I can find the right publisher and get to good hard work of writing the rest of the book.

I’m trying to raise  $3,000 by June 1st. Funds will cover flights to Tokyo and New York City, and small rooms in lean, inexpensive lodging like the YMCA and a capsule hotel. I’ve never asked people for financial help before, but I’m enormously passionate about this book, more excited than I’ve ever been about a project, and I believe that the subject’s global scope will impact the lives of city-dwellers both in the U.S., Canada and in Europe, and in developing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh. Maybe it’s a tall order, but it’s also a big world, and I want to make this book happen any way that I can, so I’m asking for help. As the saying goes, where there’s a will. If you feel like contributing a little, be it financially or by spreading the word, here’s more information.

Thank you for helping make Crowded a compelling read and a book to be proud of.
Love to all,
Aaron

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            Whenever people tell me that New Yorkers are unfriendly, I tell them a story. In the Park and 33rd subway station one February morning, I noticed someone leading a pale woman by the arm in a crowd of commuters.

            When I offered help, the first woman said, “I think she’s diabetic. Are you diabetic?” The second woman shook her head and moaned. Her eyes were open but registered nothing. The first woman introduced herself as Margo, and the stranger in her arms as Carly. “You’re going to be okay, just take slow deep breaths.” I took Carly’s free arm and helped her up the stairs. Amid the crush of pedestrians, she squeezed my hand, and I held it tight.

            We sat her on Park and leaned her against a building where she crumpled over, head down, arms in her lap. “Carly?” I said. “Can you hear me?” Margo called the paramedics.

            Pedestrians streamed by. The sun warmed the frigid air. A passerby in a suit stopped and took her pulse. “You eaten?” he said. She shook her head no. To raise her blood sugar, I gave her the only sugary thing I had: a ginseng sucker.

            I ran inside a store to get water. When I returned, a doctor in gym clothes stood in the first stranger’s place, asking pointed questions. Carly admitted she hadn’t eaten since 9pm the previous night.

            A woman stopped and asked us if everything was okay. “I’m a nurse,” she said.

            “I know CPR,” said another passerby. “If you need it.”

            At Carly’s request, Margo called her boss to say there was a problem. She worked at a nearby fitness magazine. Minutes later, a short woman bounded across the street.“Oh no!” she said, and stroked Carly’s hair.

            The doctor disappeared but left his card. We all joked about the great medical services on the street.

            Before the paramedics arrived and lectured us on eating habits, Carly looked up and, for the first time, seemed to make out our faces. To me she said, “That sucker you gave me was dee-sgusting.” Shelaughed. We all did.

NOTE: Here’s where the published Metropolitan Diary pieces appear. It’s a lively section, always worth reading:  http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/category/metropolitan-diary/

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Many, many thanks to writer and NYLON editor Melissa Giannini for passing me the mic to do this Next Big Thing post. Below is my interview about two works of narrative nonfiction I’m writing. I’m proud to pass the mic to the super talented essayist and memoirist Steven Church, author of The Guinness Book of Me and The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, and co-editor of the literary magazine The Normal School. Check the mic, one-two.
What is the working title of your book?
Currently, it’s Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet, though it’s hard to settle on a title until the entire story’s been written. I’m also working on another book of narrative nonfiction, this one a first-person narrative travelogue set in Canada. It’s called Canphilia. It’s essentially my attempt to understand Canada and Canadians, and to reconcile my ignorance with my strong attraction to the country. Since that book is slower-going, Crowded has overtaken it. But that’s what crowds do, I guess.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea for Canphilia came like many of my essay ideas: from looking closely at my fixations. I’m obsessive. I fall deeply, and my interests lead me to read and learn as much about various subjects as I can. Be it music, food, a city or book, people or myself — I want to experience life fully, and to understand. I’ve been enchanted by Canada for about half my life, but one day I realized how strange a fixation that was since, despite having some Canadian friends and taken a few long trips through the western provinces, I didn’t really know much about the culture. I realized that my issue reflected that of many Americans: we shared the world’s longest international border with the world’s second largest country, and we knew little more about Canadians than clichés. That became my theme: do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?  I spent months shaping that into a book proposal, and now I’m plotting my drive across their country in search of some enlightenment. The idea for Crowded came from feeling crowded in my daily life, which I’ll talk about more below.
What genre does your book fall under?
Crowded and Canphilia are narrative nonfiction, though I’ve been calling the former a narrative social history, and the latter a first-person narrative travelogue. They mix essay, memoir, participatory journalism, scientific exposition, profiles and history. It’s storytelling, swift and built from scenes, dialogue, action and characters, all accurately reported.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
Jawas, all the way. I’d have Tusken Raiders work the crew’s food service stations.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
Canphilia: Who are the Canadian people, and why do I long to live somewhere I know so little about? Crowded: The story of one loner’s vision of human history through the story of the crowd.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m still writing both books, but I only started Crowded in late January, so I’m making good time. Sleep is overrated, especially when you work tea shop (caffeine).
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
Some stellar works of participatory journalism and narrative nonfiction that I love and keep high on my bookshelf: Taras Grescoe’s The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit, Susan Orlean’s Saturday Night, Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, and Bill Bufford’s Among the Thugs.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
For Crowded, real life. I was eating lunch inside a café across the street from work. The place was packed but thankfully not as noisy as it can be. I was reading the Susan Orlean chapter of Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, and when a guy sat down next to me, a few lines came to mind: how much elbow room do you need to get by in life? To thrive or just keep your sanity? I scribbled them down on one of the stained wrinkled pages in the back of the book, then I had to race back to work since my thirty minutes were over. The next day, I typed the scribbles and kept exploring the basic idea, expanding the range of my gaze and spelunking all the fissures in the topic, and I kept looking more closely at my life. The subject was all there, all around me. Now I have a stack of library books about sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, ancient England and China, and photocopies of all sorts of music and historic stuff, and a thick manuscript. It’s fun, and it all started with a stray thought following a bowl of soup.
What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
The fact that, if you live in or near a city — which over half the human population now does — you can relate to it. If you’ve ever sat near a screaming baby on a plane, watched someone in line buy the last pastry, struggled to find something on your messy office desk, or been smooshed at an awesome, sweaty rock show, then this is your story. Also, the human comedy of urban life, sleeping in a closet, scrambling over people on trains, and brushing your teeth while you pee and check your phone and close a cabinet. Life is crazy.
When and how will it be published?
With hope and with time. Meaning, hopefully sometime! (And the help of my brilliant, tireless agent.)

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Revered nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell worked for The New Yorker from 1938 to 1996 but never published a word after 1965. The first new work of his to appear in forty-eight years did exactly that: appeared. With little fanfare or announcement of its arrival, not even a perfunctory tweet, the piece was slipped inside The New Yorker’s February 11, 2013 issue with all the ceremony of a subscription card.

Entitled “Street Life,” the piece is one of three excerpts from a memoir that he started in the late 1960s and early ’70s and never finished. After filing his classic profile “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, Mitchell never submitted anything else for publication. For the next thirty-two years, the magazine kept him in their employ. He regularly came to his office, dressed in suit and tie. His colleagues heard typewriter keys tapping behind his closed door. They passed him in the hallway and rode the elevator with him. This is how it went until he died in 1996 at age eighty-seven. No one knew what he was working on, and no one seems to have asked. As fellow staff writer Roger Angell later wrote: “No one made jokes about him, or expressed ill temper about him; there was pride, in fact, about working for a place that would indulge such an epochal oddity. The piece, when it came, would be worth the wait.” The piece people expected never arrived. Unless Mitchell biographer Thomas Kunkel finds unpublished profiles in the author’s papers, these three first-person narratives might be the only new work readers get. The question is whether they were worth the wait.

This new excerpt comes to us from Thomas Kunkel, author of Genius in Disguise, the biography of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. Kunkel discovered it and the others while researching a forthcoming Mitchell biography. The New Yorker plans to publish the other excerpts at some point in the future.

I’ve written about Mitchell before, specifically about his enormous direct quotations and what they reveal about the nature of truth versus fact in narrative nonfiction. Like many Joseph Mitchell devotees, I’d been waiting years to read something new from him—ten, to be exact. Other fans, some who have been reading Mitchell since the ’60s, had been waiting forty years. And then there it was, a gem hewed from Mitchell’s estate, nestled between pieces from Susan Orlean, Adam Gopnik and Ian Frazier, regular contributors whose company might have made Mitchell’s presence and this February issue seem like any other, were his work and legend not partially defined by his preoccupations with death, the past and gallows humor. In this darker light, his story carries the eerie sheen of a message from the grave.

I discovered the piece accidentally early Sunday morning. My girlfriend and I were lying in bed, flipping through the magazine, when I saw the words “By Joseph Mitchell” and sat straight up. “Mitchell?” I said. I stared in disbelief at the author’s photo on the title page: the unmistakable figure in a dark suit, hands sunk in his pockets, one foot folded over the other, standing confidently in front of Sloppy Louie’s, a seafood restaurant whose owner Mitchell profiled in his well-known piece “Up in the Old Hotel” in 1952. This memoir, and his visage, came out of nowhere. The suddenness of it, like his sly expression and distant stare, gave me chills. Here was a man reporting on his own life seventeen years after it ended, in words he put down four decades ago. I read “Street Life” twice that day.

GetImage

As someone who has read about Mitchell extensively, I’m tempted to say that I knew this work was there, hidden in his papers among the discarded profiles and pieces that went nowhere. Signs of continued production pepper the historic record. Besides the recollections of colleagues hearing Mitchell’s typewriter keys, Mitchell’s daughter Nora Mitchell Sanborn told The Guardian in 2012: “[My] father was always writing. He would talk about certain projects and get involved in a million things. He had oceans of paper in many file cabinets, at home and at the office. Unfortunately these papers have been in storage since he died and in the charge of his executor [from whom his daughters are estranged].” The truth is that I never would have guessed those oceans of paper contained a memoir.

In The New York Times recently, New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “What’s so poignant about [the excerpts] is the sadness of the incompletion but the brilliance of the voice.” The voice, the declarative sentences, the catalogues of details, many of the hallmarks of Mitchell’s canonical nonfiction are here. What’s different is the volume: that recognizable voice often takes a maximalist tone, what Remnick describes as “more Joycean.” Mitchell is still pushing the boundaries of the form, seeing how much material he can include before the paragraphs bend and narrative snaps. But the lengthy sentences, long lists and repetition that defined pieces like “Old Mister Flood” and “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” now exhibit a manic quality. Where older pieces contained direct quotation that ran between four and ten straight pages, here we have a sentence on the first page that contains four hundred and thirty-nine words, thirty-one commas, one emdash, one parenthetical remark and a semicolon. Many paragraphs in “Street Life” reach such a dizzying pitch that you question the author’s mental state, even wonder if some sort of psychological collapse caused his forty-year silence. For some readers, the voice will try their patience and cause them to turn to the next piece. For others, the voice will deliver exactly what we’ve been missing.

“I keep on walking,” Mitchell says early on, “sometimes only for a couple of hours but sometimes until deep in the afternoon, and I often wind up a considerable distance away from midtown Manhattan—up in the Bronx Terminal Market maybe, or over on some tumbledown old sugar dock on the Brooklyn riverfront, or out in the weediest part of some weedy old cemetery in Queens. It is never very hard for me to think up and excuse that justifies me in behaving this way (I have a great deal of experience in justifying myself to myself)—a headache that won’t let up is a good enough excuse, and an unusually bleak and overcast day is as good an excuse as an unusually balmy and springlike day.”

At another point he says: “[I] have been down in three tunnels while they were under construction—the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel—and watched the sandhogs forcing their way inch by inch through the riverbed.”

Later he says: “Pretty soon my obsessive curiosity began to dominate me, and I went to a succession of Masses in St. Patrick’s that encompassed seven Sundays, the Easter-cycle Masses, and then I went to Masses in such representative Eastern Catholic churches that are in union with Rome, Syrian-rite churches and Byzantine-rite churches and Armenian-rite churches; and then I went to Masses or Liturgies in some Orthodox churches, Greek Orthodox churches and Russian Orthodox churches and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox churches and Ukrainian Orthodox churches and Bulgarian Orthodox churches and Serbian Orthodox churches and Romanian Orthodox churches; and then I went to Liturgies in two so-called Old Catholic churches, one that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Manhattan and another that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn.” It isn’t simply the information that’s important here, it’s the pleasure the author and the reader experience while hearing these items strung together, side-by-side. To my ear, it seems Mitchell has fallen in love with the sound of it all, the way each name offers a variation on the theme of churches and tunnels, Orthodox this and Orthodox that, adding a slight twist to the stock he’s temporarily toying with. In this way, Mitchell resembles a baby making sounds after discovering the sonic capabilities of its lips. The fact that the person who wrote this was well into middle age makes you think that, despite the dearth of published work, Mitchell still found great pleasure in working with words.

If this piece provides many readers with their first taste of Mitchell, the exuberance and details might not provide a good introduction. It piece might run some of them off.

In addition to the strength of Mitchell’s voice, the other difference between “Street Life” and his previous work is the subject matter. In place of characters like Joe Gould, shad fisherman and Caughnawaga Indian construction workers, the piece’s central character is Mitchell himself. Irrespective of its origins, this is the rarest sort of Mitchell piece: an entirely first-person narrative.

In it, he describes his compulsive wandering around New York City. He talks about what he calls his “obsessive curiosity,” and his attraction to “old restaurants, old saloons, old tenement houses, old police stations, old court houses, old newspaper plants, old banks, and old skyscrapers.” In a broad sense, “Street Life” tells readers a lot of what they already know: the aimless walking, the preoccupations with old New York, marginal New York, underground, off-limits and working class New York. Setting the scenes of his profiles, Mitchell often included comments about his personal habits. The most recognizable might be the opening lines of “Up in the Old Hotel,” where he says, “Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River.” Mitchell opens “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” which an equally dark, revealing admission: “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 there. …Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk.”

If the themes are the same, “Street Life” offers unique particulars. We learn about a few specific moments from his explorations – his encounter with a priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for instance, who told him “a church is simply four walls and a floor and a roof inside of which the Mass is celebrated. Never mind the ins and outs of the architecture,” and the way a certain Mass gave Mitchell “an aperture through which I could look into my unconscious, a tiny crack in a wall that all my adult life I had been striving to see through or over or around—” For all its detail and personal revelation, though, “Street Life” never answers the question at the core of his legacy: What else was Mitchell working on all those years?

For seven pages, Mitchell speaks in a controlled frenzy, cataloguing his travels and the city’s topography, and when your patience starts to wane and you begin to wonder where the author is going with all this, he ends a sixty-seven line paragraph to say, “And now I must get to the point.” He then goes on for thirty-one more lines – not lists but a candid description of his paralyzing homesickness, where he felt at home neither in New York nor his native North Carolina – before drawing to what feels like a close: “Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression.” Ah, you think, here it comes, the moment of revelation, the insight we seek, a portrait of what he was doing for forty years behind his closed office door. Instead, he says, “A change took place in me. And this is what I want to tell you about,” and a black diamond icon marks the piece’s end. Because Mitchell never finished the memoir, we assume he never got around to writing the section that would have addressed this.

“Street Life” provides a deeper look inside the mind of one of our best nonfiction writers, but its charms cause certain frustrations. To fans, Mitchell’s life was already incomplete. The memoir reminds us of this. After making peace with the permanence of the Mitchell mystery and the finality of his work, this story comes along out of nowhere and stirs up the kind of sediments that Mitchell’s characters dredged for fish and oysters, leaving readers with a renewed and possibly irrational feeling of hope, a sense that we might finally find out what he was working on all those years, if not here in “Street Life,” then maybe in the next memoir excerpt. If not there, then maybe in the next, or at least in Kunkel’s biography. The most seductive thought of all: That an entirely new long-form profile of a personality as compelling as Joe Gould might sit in the author’s papers, waiting to be discovered. Until Kunkel tells us otherwise, we are left with this titillating fragment, this story that repeats so much of what we already know in different language, and reminds us what Mitchell already knew: that we really don’t know as much as we think, that nothing is finished until we ourselves are finished, and that the known body of an author’s work exists, like the old wharfs and train tracks that lined the shores of New York Harbor, in a state of flux. It’s as if Mitchell came back from the grave to tease us. “Okay,” he seems to be saying. “You want to know what I was up to all those years? Sit down. I’ll tell you.” And just as he starts to speak, he disappears again.

Joseph Mitchell_2A

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As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” has one that goes for eight pages. “The Rivermen” boasts the longest of all: ten and a half pages – or six pages followed by four more, if you count the three-lines of intervening dialogue as an interruption. I don’t. But it’s not simply the length that interests me; it’s what length requires of a writer’s memory.

Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?

In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.

Certain critics might say that such composites are fictions, because the information portrayed didn’t exist in the real world in the precise way it was rendered. The composite only exists because the artist created it. I used to agree with this line of thinking.

When I first discovered Mitchell at age twenty-five, I believed that George Hunter said those words in that way verbatim, because I assumed all dialogue in nonfiction was verbatim. Not a spliced rendition, not a near-accurate depiction, not a highly educated guess, but a replica, a photograph in text. I was naïve about the mechanics of nonfiction writing, and the complex nature of truth. Now, after a decade reading and writing narrative nonfiction, I still expect accuracy whether I’m reading a magazine or a memoir, but I also know that truth is more complicated than the usual “accurate/inaccurate” dichotomy suggests. If the parts that Mitchell used to fashioned his hybrid stories and hybrid quotes were facts themselves, then is not the collage of facts also true if it captures the larger truth of his subjects? By larger truth, I mean the essence of Mister Hunter’s personality, and the particular texture of his speech. And on a thematic level, I mean the emotional truth of Hunter’s situation: aging and looming specter of his, and everyone’s, impending death. This is part of what Zinsser means when he says that “all the phrases and turns of phrase are his.”  He means that despite the splicing, Mitchell captured Hunter’s essence by accurately portraying his diction (like the way Hunter said “spring beauty” rather than “beauties”). Mitchell didn’t make quoted phrases up, didn’t invent information; rather, he simmered the facts so they accreted into a more potent truth, which is why the quotes sound like his speakers, rather than like Mitchell. This is also why I consider Mitchell’s stories nonfiction.

Mitchell’s literary standard was that of both the artist and the reputable journalist. He organized his facts in a creative arrangement in order to best serve the story. As Zinsser says: “Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time, he used a dramatist’s prerogative to compress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months he did spend on Staten Island, he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated Mr. Hunter’s truth; there was no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.” By employing these techniques, Mitchell spared readers the superfluous details, framed the relevant information, and distilled the piece to its essence, for the sake of the audience’s reading experience. In this way, Mitchell’s stories predated the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1960s “new journalism” that followed after: using dialogue, character development, narrative arc, foreshortening, well-sequenced scenes, emergent themes, dramatic tension in nonfiction, rather than the who, what, where, when, why of standard expository reportage. Mitchell’s Olympian quotations are sure to remain one of nonfiction’s most peculiar attractions – an extraordinary monument to truth’s complex incarnations – but it’s his stories’ artfulness and readability that have made them endure.

On a side note, I found this short documentary, about the old Fulton Ferry Hotel, from which Mitchell’s classic essay, and his collection, take their name:

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