I came across a 1996 article by Wendy Wasserstein about New York City. She was decrying the presence of big box stores and fast-food restaurants and ended by saying, “You would never meet Nathan Detroit at a Starbucks counter.” With that, all the Broadway characters Damon Runyon created came to mind: Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely Jones, Madame La Gimp and, of course, good old reliable Nathan.
Back in the ’30s and ’40s Runyon, hanging out in Broadway bars and hotels, captured the voice of the seamier side of the city, a voice probably no longer heard. According to The Dictionary of Slang, he overheard many unusual words and made them part of our everyday language: “cheaters” for glasses, “equalizer” and “shiv” for gun and knife, and “the shorts” for a lack of funds, among many. I still smile remembering the four hustlers out on the river “watching the boat race between the Harvards and the Yales” and trying to figure out a way to fix the outcome. They do.
With great humor Runyon tells about the gamblers and gangsters that inhabit Times Square. The writing is stylized, but is it still enjoyable? As Benny Southstreet might say, “a little more than somewhat.”
In the ’50s and ’60s Joseph Mitchell, writing for The New Yorker, brought us stories of real-life people and, along the way, made McSorley’s saloon famous. He loved certain sections of the city — the waterfront, the Bowery, the Village — and wrote about the people who worked or lived there and the characters who wandered the streets and navigated the gin mills.
Most famous of these was Joe Gould, a slight, disheveled Harvard graduate, better known as Professor Sea Gull, who constantly spoke of writing “An Oral History of Our Time,” filling dozens of composition books. Reputed to be nine million words and growing, it turned out, sadly, not to exist at all. Mitchell wrote about the fearless Mohawk Indians, gliding along the high steel beams of New York’s bridges and skyscrapers, riveting the city together, and of Gypsy neighborhoods, with their sometimes borderline methods of making money. These and many more are compiled in the matchless “Up in the Old Hotel.”
In later years Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin wrote wonderfully about New York City, and Pete Hamill’s autobiographical “Downtown: My Manhattan” is a tough and tender recollection of growing up in the tenements, in the schools and on the streets. In Hamill’s “Snow in August,” 14-year-old Michael Devlin responds to Rabbi Judah Hirsch’s request to turn on the lights of the synagogue for the Sabbath, and a personal relationship begins. The rabbi helps Michael with his troubles with the Falcons gang; Michael helps the rabbi with his English. The novel paints a picture of a New York City we can only hope exists.
So Manhattan is, what, 100 miles to the west? And we take the Jitney, see a show, maybe hit a museum or ogle the windows on Fifth. A nice day, but when do we just sit and listen to the voices of New York? These authors let us do exactly that.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected].