I wonder if McSorley’s Ale House and Katz’s Deli, New York landmarks, could exist in the same way if they were in other countries? Could I go to Budapest or to Johor Baru and find pubs or restaurants not only old but their age preserved delicately, to the point of superstitious absurdity? Could I find establishments feted for their history whose pastness is fetishized in the objects, in the walls and tables, in the peculiar procedures preserved over decades, in the very dust?
I shouldered into McSorley’s for my own fascination with time, with my little brother. I very distinctly noticed a row of objects displayed over the ancient cash register, so woolly with dust I could not make out what they were. I deciphered them at last as wishbones. The stripped smooth wood floor covered with sawdust, the lack of tap handles for the beer, the faded photos of old gentlemen and baseball teams, all bespoke an unimaginable age, its attraction attested to by the roar of portly young men and women around round wooden tables. But the shaggy wishbones were something more, something beyond, something in excess. They demonstrated an utterly fanatic devotion. Were the bartenders to dust the wishbones would an unacceptable modernity intrude? Is history signified by filth; is dust to soften the sharp lines of the present? Particularly in such a busy place, it was odd to see a thick layer of dust anywhere. And the dust itself was modern as the asphalt and jackhammers, the vacuums and sheetrock, the diesel and cement that made it.
Katz’s was a different kind of playground of the past. As I wandered in, a gruff voice barked out, “Hey! Hey!” until I turned and saw a man holding out a ticket for me. I took it, intimation of some old fashioned Procedure curtly but reverently preserved. All along one wall of the massive space were grills worked by men. I wanted a hot dog, the cheapest option, but could not tell where to order: people clustered here and there. I tried ordering at one place, but it turned out to be for corned beef and tongue. As in most places where an idiosyncratic procedure becomes a hallowed institution, the employees care nothing for the blank looks of newcomers and non-initiates. I had stood uncertainly before the hot dog counter a while but got no guidance. This gruff territoriality, a hunkering down comfortably indifferent behind a bulwark of habit and History, is one kind of working class consciousness in this city. I was annoyed that the hot dog man had not rescued me from my awkward moments lingering there, but is this not a small price to pay for facing workers who have a bit of dignity? Isn’t a bit of annoyance better than to face the processed, limp submission of fast food workers?
The walls of the place were hung with framed photos and newspaper articles signifying History, recent and old. There were signed photographs of celebrities and heroes. A sign hung from the ceiling over one small table, reading, “Where Harry Met Sally (don’t you want what she ordered?)” At many tables people aimed cameras at each other, mouths posed agape over stupendously high sandwiches. The wall behind one counter was hung with salamis, and the slogan “Send a Salami to you your Boy in the Army!” trumpeted out from a sign. It was curious to feel that whiff of World War II still hanging in the air, as if the jaunty, playful patriotism of that epic struggle could be found or reproduced in this corrupt age.
The greatest gap of course lay in the global nature of that war and the universality of the participation: one imagined salamis going to Guam, Sicily, North Africa, London, China. Today, of course, there are soldiers all over the globe, but we think of them as “operatives,” Matt Damon-like nervous types with earphones in the back of laundry vans or piloting a Predator by monitor from a hundred miles away. For that more virtuous war we see “boys,” crowded into pubs or running to get into formation for morning inspection. One imagines most families seeing the sign in those days could feel a personal tug in that advertising spiel, leading all the way out to that staging ground or airfield in the grey light of dawn so far away.
But now, the number of families of soldiers is relatively few, and the professionalization of the forces makes it less likely they will be referred to as “the boys.” This shift in terminology shows a shift in feeling: no longer is the whole nation conflated with the good-natured banter of a front stoop or a soda counter at Woolworth’s. Recently, in fact, an angry man on a Marine’s blog chastised me for using the mere term “soldier.” “The proper term for Marines is ‘warrior,’” he indignantly intoned. From “boys” to “warriors”: what a massive change is this!
No longer the neighbor kid multiplied by millions, the armed forces are to be imagined as muscle-bound Hoplites or CGI Hercules, Brad Pitts with Greek helmets and M-16s. It is as if we are slipping into the World of Warcraft, a shift masking the real development: the increasing service of these people (who are still kids, it turns out) in a more and more nakedly corporate and imperially defined “national interest.” The more they turn into mercenaries, the more a bloated mythology elevates them to virtuous gods of war, like the Polish gentry’s propagation of a mythic military lineage even as the nation veered over the precipice of collapse and partition in the 17th century.
How oddly echoes the cheery past. Even contemporary representations of that era ring overdone and falsely lofty: the plain spoken people of those times, frightened and enraged into action by fascist depradation, would have snorted dismissively at the moniker, “The Greatest Generation.” Its usage shows more our longing than their greatness. Even if they were great, their greatness lay in their lack of self-promotion.
There were men in old-fashioned diner uniforms, smocks with collars and big pockets for stowing notepads. The tables against the wall were reserved for waiter service. The odd juxtaposition of working class possessiveness and 11.00 prices for sandwiches showed the value of history being consumed. There was a stubborn adherence to past ways of doing things, ordinary ways that somehow remained, like horses marooned on a sand bar as the tide rolled in, and gained value. There were post cards. But the fetish did not go so far as to mistake pastness with actual dust. I brought my ticket to the cashier at the exit and he read what the hot dog man had scrawled