Remembering The Honored Dead

In lower Manhattan, where the tenements used to stream with people striving to earn the American dream, stands an old ale house.

McSorley’s Ale House is the last of the haunts of the young men of the turn of the twentieth century that still stands.  McSorley’s still has the look and feel of what life was like nearly one hundred years ago, down to the sawdust on the floors and two taps on the bar; one for pale ale and one for dark.  It is still the only thing you can buy there other than a plastic, souvenir ashtray.

You look around the place and see a setting that is almost untouched in time.  Yes, there are electric lights now but McSorley’s has never taken down the old gas lights, their long pipes with the globe fixtures on the ends still crisscross the ceiling.  The last time I was there, the bartender was a young Irish lass, which in itself is one of McSorley’s few concessions to modern times.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that women were allowed into the ale house and at the time, there was only one toilet.  The bartender would walk women patrons with his hands clapped over their ears to prevent them from hearing any unseemly sounds while shouting “gents out of the loo.  Lady coming in!”

I sat on an ancient stool at the bar and ordered a dark ale.  A gas pipe hung low over the bar.  As I looked up at it I was mesmerized by the long row of chicken wishbones draped on it with strands of dust that were so long that it could have been Spanish moss if this was bayou country.  My curiosity got the better of me as I pointed up to the sight and asked the bartender what this was.

“Don’t touch it.” She said firmly to me.

“No ma’am” I assured her, “but could you tell me what this is?”

“It belongs to the lads.  Don’t touch it.”  Again I assured her that I wouldn’t touch anything but tell me, please, the story of the lads.

A melancholy came over her.  She was a young woman but her soul was old and her heart belonged to that time nearly a hundred years ago when America was getting ready to go to war.  “During the Great War, the lads of the lower east side and the Bowery would come here for a farewell meal with their friends and to toast each other for their deeds of bravery that they would surely do in France.  At the end of the night, before they left, the lads would hang the wishbones over the gas pipes for luck.  When they returned from the war they came back in here and took their wishbones home.”

“The wishbones that you see belong to the lads who have not come back yet.  We keep them here for the lads and nobody will touch them until the lads come home to take them back.”

Remember the Honored Dead

(C)  2018

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