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    IT WAS THERE BEFORE YOU WERE BORN
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BY ROBBIE McBRIDE


McSorleys pub as seen in American Public House Review
As it says on the sign


In my senior year of college at Cooper Union (or more properly, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art), I found myself, inexplicably and reluctantly, agreeing to be the photography editor of our yearbook, The Cable as it was called. As a fourth year student about to graduate with a degree in physics who dabbled somewhat in photography, I suppose there was some modicum of talent that qualified me for this role, but what did I know about editing, or design, or most importantly, yearbooks? Then the liberating truth became apparent and diminished the esteem inherent to my nomination: there were no other volunteers, and the job, by default, was mine.

McSorley's window legend as seen in American Public House Review

McSorley's back room as seen in American Public House Review
The Back Room
Old Taps at McSorley's as seen in American Public House Review
Ancient Taps

I resolved then not to follow the usual yearbook approach, of capturing a static image of this year’s graduates posed stiffly in formal attire in front of an artificial background. No, my photographs would capture my classmates, the artists and architects, the engineers and scientists, in a way that reflected the counter-culture of the late sixties that had so defined our lives for the last four years, and in the environment in which we had spent them: the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Village both east and west, and the Bowery, those historically rich neighborhoods in which the melodies of a far older New York were juxtaposed against the chorus of the new age.



Mc Sorley's window slogan as seen in American Public House Review



Cooper Union was founded in 1859 by the entrepreneur and inventor Peter Cooper. Standing majestically at the northern tip of the Bowery, once New York’s most elegant street but since the Civil War a much less respectable avenue, is its Foundation Building with its Great Hall, from whose podium Abraham Lincoln delivered the speech that launched his national political career. One of the oldest colleges in the country, and the first to offer a free education to working-class children and women, Cooper Union counts among its graduates Thomas Edison and Felix Frankfurter.



Mc Sorley's Front Bar Room as seen in American Public House Review
Mc Sorley's Celebrated Front Bar Room


With less than a year of formal schooling, Peter Cooper made his fortune in glue and iron. He designed America’s first steam railroad engine, the Tom Thumb. As president of the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company, he was instrumental in laying the first Atlantic cable, and with his wife, Sarah, invented instant gelatin. And he was such a regular patron of McSORLEY'S OLD ALE HOUSE, the establishment just around the corner from his new college, that for several years after his death in 1883, his chair in the back room was draped in black each April 4.



Old McSorley's as seen in american Public House Review
Author's Photograph Circa 1970


Little changed from the day it opened in 1854 and in the ownership of the family until 1936, McSorley’s is the oldest saloon in New York City. Before 1970, women were not admitted, and those courageous enough to attempt entry were intimidated sufficiently by the shouting and bell-ringing from the regular patrons to decline the privilege. No spirits are served, only ales, simply and reverently, a light and a dark. The walls of McSorley’s are a museum unto themselves, and on them are hung in no particular classification such treasures as Houdini’s handcuffs; portraits of the Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, all victims of assassins’ bullets; a painting of a nude playing with a parrot; and two signs, one warning “Be Good or Be Gone,” the other declaring “We Were Here Before You Were Born.”




The Babe in McSorley's as seen i American Public House Review
The "Babe"

Be Good or Be Gone as seen in American Public House Review
The House Policy Spelled Out



It was a tradition among Cooper Union students to designate the last day of the winter term as McSorley’s Day, and spend the greater part of it drinking in the tavern, before, between, and after classes, and eating the plates of crackers, onions and cheese that used to be given away as a free lunch. It was essential, then, that somewhere in our yearbook would be an image of that place. But how best to capture it?

One January night between semesters, the answer came: snow was falling, lots of it in fact, in amounts that would slow the city to a crawl, empty the streets of traffic, and populate the sidewalks with just the aimless and the purposeful. What more enduring memory of McSorley’s then late on a winter’s night, its bright lights a beacon in the cold, streaming onto the snow-covered streets of the Lower East Side?



Patrons of McSorleys as seen in American Public House Review
As it ever was, the spirit of Mc Sorley's is made manifest by a smart and fun loving crowd.


I took the train to Manhattan, camera in hand, and walked up an abandoned Eighth Street, forsaking the sidewalk for the easier passage up the deserted, muffled street, with only the gentle hiss  of snowflakes falling in a synchronized swirl through the cones of light spreading under the street lamps. I crossed Broadway, the wind roaring down its canyon, to St. Mark’s Place. As I approached Seventh Street, I passed a brightly lit storefront, in which sat in display a gypsy woman, a fortune teller, who leapt quickly from her seat and enthusiastically waved me in, as if in this near-blizzard, the search for a fortune teller was the most natural purpose to which a passerby would be committed.

Ah, but I already knew my fortune, and it was most simple in the telling: I would signal the bartender with a wag of each index finger and sit by the coal stove with my two glasses, one of lager and one of porter. I would smoke my pipe. Then, warmed and renewed, bundled against the pellets of snow and the brisk winds that would throw them against me, I would take my leave and stride homeward. But not before recording for my classmates an image of this timeless legend, this place that in spite of its location for over a hundred years in one of the most populous cities in the world, was ours: MCSORLEY'S OLD ALE HOUSE.



Old Painting of Mc Sorley's as seen in American Public House Review
An ale at McSorley's is an experience unchanged across the generations.



Mc SORLEY'S OLD ALE HOUSE
Established 1854

15 East 7th Street

New York, NY 10003

(212) 474-9148

www.mcsorleysnewyork.com


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GLASSES RAISED                                         SPIRITS LIFTED                                         JOURNEYS SHARED
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