Joseph Mitchell: My Ears Are Bent

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Something good is this: John Schulian on Joseph Mitchell:

Mitchell’s greatest affection may have been reserved for saloonkeepers and their well-oiled customers, which leads me to believe he would have liked the characters I chanced upon shortly before Christmas 1973. I never learned the most important one’s name; to me, he was simply The Flier because he claimed to have flown jet fighters in the Korean War. If The Flier had anything resembling a benefactor, it was Uncle Pete Drymala, who ran a bar called Pete’s Hotel. And then there was the girl who had given The Flier his Christmas card the year before. He had to pull the card out of his pocket so he could tell me her name. Francesca–that was it.

The Flier, Uncle Pete and Francesca dwelled by the docks in an area called Fells Point, which had been spared from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and from being plowed under when I-95 was built. Its reward for surviving, if a reward is what it is, now includes gentrified rowhouses and dives turned into bistros where, according to one review, the cell-phone generation can enjoy “honey-colored beer, steamed shrimp and sushi.” But all that has come to pass since The Flier wandered its cobblestone streets.

Back then, Fells Point was blissfully down at the heels, crawling with merchant seamen who figured no night was complete unless they got drunk, got in a fight, and got lucky with a local sweetheart. The Flier fit in perfectly, drinking white port wine that he bought for $1.25 a fifth, tax included, and pausing only to sleep in boarded-up buildings or to warm himself by the radiator in Pete’s Hotel. He drank at Pete’s, too, and when he got out of hand, Uncle Pete would 86 him, even at Christmastime.

There was an Edward Hopper quality about The Flier’s existence, and I see the same thing when I read Joseph Mitchell. The bleak, the stark and the unforgiving become somehow beautiful because they are in the right hands.