Folktale of New York

I was in New York last December on holiday. Following both guide book recommendations and obvious curiosity I visited McSorley’s Old Ale House on East 7th Street in Manhattan. There’s no relation here, just coincidence. Inside, it hasn’t changed much since John McSorley (my father’s name, another coincidence) opened it in 1854. The unvarnished wooden floorboards are covered in sawdust. Beer-barrels are repurposed as tables. They sell two drinks: light beer and dark beer, which come in half pint mugs – hundreds of them arranged on the shelves behind the bar. There’s a modest menu of pub grub, the mainstay being crackers, cheese and raw onion rings – huge ones, the kind that fit around Saturn. A news article from the turn of the previous century, framed on the wall, claims a wife knows her husband has been at McSorley’s because of the smell of those very particular onions on his breath.

They didn’t allow women in the bar until they were ordered to by a court in the 1970s. They didn’t install a women’s bathroom for another sixteen years afterwards. Articles on the walls recount this history. The walls are papered in them, including feature pieces in The New Yorker and Life.

John’s son, Bill, weathered out the prohibition selling “near beer”. Abe Lincoln drank here once on a visit to NYC. The next time he came to the city he was riding the funeral train. Similar story with John Lennon, who also popped in for a half of light and a half of dark one time during the holiday season in 1980, then got popped up by Central Park a few days later.

Well over a century, and likely on till the next, history marches by the windows and inside… a pint of light, served in two half pint glasses, and a free t-shirt because of the name when I showed the bartender my passport. It was a quiet, cold afternoon, the sun was shining outside, and inside the place was minimally decorated, though the tinsel and wreaths would be staying up until Little Christmas on the sixth of January. The bartender was a balding middle-aged guy with an accent that was more Sopranos than Friends: “You Irish, then?”

“Scottish. From Glasgow.”

“Glasgow. I heard of it. Nice place?”

“Not bad.”

“Beautiful country.”

“Sometimes. Rains a lot.”

“It never rains, it pours, right?”

“Sounds like you’ve been there.”

“Well, talk about bad winters, we got em right here in New York too.” He put down a second beer on the bar-top, two half-pint mugs of dark ale this time. A baseball game played on the telly hooked up in the high corner of the room, he kept one eye on it.

“What’s that about?” I pointed behind him to another framed picture, this one on the shelf with the clean mugs. It contained a black and white image of a burning building, the headline obscured by the small frame. A tartan ribbon necklace hung from the corner of the frame. The pendant at the end featured a crude, child-like image of a man. I couldn’t tell what it was made from, maybe a wood-cut.

“That,” the bartender said, pointing to the pendant, “if you believe it, is a St Nicholas cookie from the year 1872.”

I could be convinced it was St Nicholas, just about – a bearded man cloaked in red, a pre-Coke Santa Claus – but a biscuit that was a century and a half old? “Must be hard as a rock.”

“Plymouth Rock,” he agreed. “It was like that when it was fresh too, if you believe the story.”

Of course, I asked what the story was. This is what the bartender told me:

*

First of all, you’ve got to picture the scene. McSorley’s Ale House, 1872, Christmas Eve. Not much different, paper decorations rather than chintzy tinsel, no electric bulbs, the light comes from candles only, perched on candelabras made form cart wheels, hung from the ceiling by chains. They creak whenever the door opens and lets a blast of freezing air into the snug. There’s snow outside. Inside, the sawdust is soaking up the water melting from men’s shoes. The air is thick with tobacco smoke, the atmosphere jovial but not boisterous. John McSorley’s sign hangs above the bar, as it does today. It reads: “Be good or be gone.” John himself is behind the bar, working alongside Red O’Neil and Eamonn Finnegan.

(It was Red who first told the story to young Bill, who passed it on to an Irish cop called O’Connell, who bought the place in 1936 and told the story to his family and friends and workers and kept it with the bar into the Kirwans’ years of ownership, right up to the day it was told to me, another – though unrelated – McSorley.)

Christmas Eve was a busy night. It always was. That didn’t stop Red chatting away to every customer he served while Eamonn picked up the slack. The customers were wrapped up and red-faced. Another blast of frigid December wind announced Tom Coughlin’s appearance. Coughlin was a lamp-lighter, who until last year had lived with his wife in a single room in lower Manhattan. He was a regular at the bar, a quiet but well-liked man, who was fond of laughing at other people’s jokes and was good for a tip, poor though he was himself. He drank the light and carried with him a slight smell of burning wherever he went.

His arrival occasioned a few slaps on the back as he made his way to the bar.

“Mr Coughlin, my fine fellow!” Red started his spiel. “How is business? Hope ye’re well! What can I do ye for this fine Christmas Eve? It’s a cold one right enough!”

To Red’s surprise, Coughlin placed a wicker basket down on the bar-top before answering, “A pint of light for the lighter, if ye please, good sir.”

Red pointed at the basket. “That’s not…”

Coughlin beamed at him. It was a child’s smile. Red smiled back.

Every Christmas, Joan Coughlin made St Nicholas cookies. As far as Red – and the Coughlins’ friends and many neighbours – was concerned, Joan’s St Nicholas cookies were the best in New York. Better than any bakery. They had bite, but they were soft inside, yet they crumbled, and were buttery and rich and scented with cinnamon and cloves and ginger. The taste was pure, concentrated Christmas. On top they were hand-piped with a simple but handsome picture of St Nicholas. Every Christmas Eve, when Coughlin popped into the pub for a couple of drinks at the end of his shift, he brought with him a wicker basket loaded with Joan’s St Nicholas cookies, which he’d leave open on the bar-top for any who wanted. Usually, they were all gone by the time he’d finished his first half-pint. The regulars would raise a toast to Mr Coughlin’s wife, and someone would inevitably launch into the well-known folktale sometimes called “A Baker’s Dozen”.

(For those who aren’t familiar, this story involves a stingy baker who doesn’t subscribe to the baker’s dozen of thirteen. An old crone curses him for this, and all his baking is terrible until St Nicholas helps him out of the jam. When the crone returns to buy another dozen cookies he gives her thirteen, having learned his lesson.)

Coughlin brought many more cookies than a baker’s dozen. This tradition had been going on for over ten years, since McSorley’s became Coughlin’s bar of choice. The lamp-lighter, though poor in pocket, was a discerning fellow. Then, last year, not long before Christmas, Joan Coughlin was carried away by illness. Her husband was a wreck. He went to the bar on Christmas Eve, as ever – he couldn’t bear to be alone – but didn’t bring any treats. He smiled at jokes, but didn’t laugh. He looked small and grey, perched on his barstool like a robin on a fragile tree branch in a storm. Red thought they should toast Joan, as they always did, but they didn’t, worried that any move to support the branch might break it instead.

Coughlin continued to come in once or twice a week for a drink, and Red was pleased to see that as the year passed the colour seemed to return to him. The pall that hung over him was all but burned away by the summer sun, yet Red had begun to worry again as the winter approached and they neared the anniversary of Joan’s death. Coughlin didn’t come in that night, or for a good few after. But he showed up again looking tired but not destroyed, the way he was the year before.

And now it was Christmas Eve again, and here was Tom Coughlin, coming through the door and thumping a great big wicker basket down on the bar with a grin on his face.

“That’s not…”

“I found her recipe when I was gettin the decorations out. I thought, why not?” Coughlin threw the basket open. “Dig in, everyone! I can’t promise they’ll be as good, but…” he shrugged and smiled. Red slid two mugs of light ale over to him, mouthing the words, “On the house.”

Coughlin was right, they weren’t as good. Not by half, not by a quarter. Even for a first attempt they were poor. Crowns were broken on the rock-hard biscuit. They had the texture of a roof tile and tasted of salt and uncooked flour. They were misshapen oblongs, the crusty icing a jumbled, uneven mash on the surface. Red choked down his first one. “Wonderful!” he said, crumbs whistling from his mouth. He forced a smile. So did the others. They patted Coughlin on the back and gave their thanks.

“Well, just help yerselves,” Coighlin said, beaming and sipping at his ale.

“Don’t mind if we do!” Red said. “Come on, gents!” He took a second one from the basket but manged to slip it into his pocket when he went to pick up a couple of mugs for the next order. Biscuits disappeared into handkerchiefs and under caps. By the time Tom Coughlin finished his first half of light ale, the basket was empty. They raised a toast to Tom. He held up his mug and said, “To my wife, Joan.”

“To Joan,” they repeated, and drank.

The bar shut for Christmas Day and was busy again Boxing Day. Coughlin wasn’t there. Nor did he show the next day or the day after that. The belated newspaper on the twenty-seventh told of a tenement house fire in lower Manhattan in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve. (“That very news article there.” The bartender pointed.) It was Hogmanay by the time they printed the full list of the thirty-eight people killed in the fire. Tom Coughlin’s name was among them. The fire started in a gas oven, the owner had fallen asleep with a large batch of St Nicholas cookies burning inside it.

*

“If you believe it,” the bartender said. “Anyway, as the story goes, Red O’Neil took that cookie he’d hid in his pocket, drilled a hole in it and turned it into a Christmas decoration. The guys at the bar hated lookin at it, though. Most of them denied seein Tom Coughlin that Christmas Eve night, or whatever it was – his ghost, his spirit. They denied wavin him off as he hopped up into a coach outside at closing time, but there were plenty biscuits hidden in other pockets, Red knew. At least a couple of the guys wore them round their necks.”

“Why?”

“Beats me. Protection? Good luck? I mean look at that thing, it looks preserved. If you believe it.”

I finished my drinks and left. It was still bright and cold outside. Not long after, I left New York and America altogether to be home before Christmas. It was dark and cold back in Glasgow. The house I live in is nearly as old as McSorley’s Ale House. It’s just as warm and has its ghosts too.

St Nicholas cookies aren’t particularly popular in Scotland, they’re much more common in parts of Europe. Dutch settlers brought them to New Amsterdam. That Christmas Eve, I had a go at making them myself. They weren’t pretty.


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