Nowhere Man

When Joseph Mitchell was a young boy, in the 1910s, on the family farm in remote, swampy North Carolina, he liked to watch his father remove tree stumps with dynamite. His father was an “expert dynamiter,” who would circle the tree for a long time, as though he were “trying to understand it,” before laying in the explosives. In a notebook entry made six decades after the fact, Mitchell wrote of these dynamiting sessions, “It was the first time I ever heard the phrase ‘center of gravity,’ which I love.”

“Center of gravity” is an interesting phrase to apply to the work of Joseph Mitchell. I can think of no other writer, in fiction or nonfiction, whose work produces concurrently the unsettling feeling of being in a dream and the reassuring feeling of being in capable hands. Mitchell’s subject matter was the margins of New York City, both geographically and socially, and his pieces are filled with oddballs and freaks, most of whom are highly quotable. The sense of strangeness that permeates his work does not derive from these colorful figures so much as the landscape Mitchell creates around them, and from a trick within the writing. His captivating voice is the center of gravity, but also seems to emanate from an unseen place. Every now and then while reading him you pause to wonder where Mitchell is located in the scene he is witnessing, and why he is there, and how he got there. You could call Mitchell a mystery writer. One of the mysteries is why this is the case, given that his stories generally have no plot.

Mitchell, the subject of a new biography by Thomas Kunkel, got to New York City in October 1929, sent off on his journalism career with his father’s fabulously dour words: “Is that the best you can do, sticking your nose into other people’s business?” A. N. Mitchell’s father died when he was fourteen; he left school to run the family cotton farm. It was touch and go at first, but he ran it shrewdly, expanding into cotton trading and then real-estating. A. N. was steely, cold, and had a knack for numbers. In almost every respect, his oldest son, Joseph, was the opposite: dreamy, affable, and so incredibly bad with numbers that he had to make a special arrangement at the University of North Carolina—he could take classes for four years as though a regular college student, but would not get a degree. The subtext for A. N.’s sour response to Mitchell’s declaration that he wanted to be a journalist was the father’s disappointment that his oldest son would not stay on to work in the family business. Mitchell was interested in work, but not in the normal way—he later wrote of his childhood enthusiasm for climbing trees to the very top, where he would “watch people at work in cotton and tobacco fields who were entirely oblivious of course to the fact that they were being watched . . . a situation that made me feel Olympian but at the same time curiously lonely and alien and uneasy and cut off from the rest of the human race, the way a spy might feel, or a Peeping Tom.”

Mitchell arrived in Penn Station the day after the stock-market crash and went directly to a newspaper to apply for a job. He worked as a copyboy and scrapped and climbed his way up in the city’s frenetic newspaper world, notably at the Herald Tribune. He was frenetic himself, and yet from the very beginning he occupied the city in a way that combined a sense of urgency with a nearly opposite quality—wonder, a weightless drifting to destinations unknown. As a crime reporter stationed in Harlem, he would file his copy at 3 AM, then “walk around the streets and look, discovering what the depression and the prurience of white men were doing to a people who are ‘last to be hired; first to be fired.’”

In the late ’30s, when newspaper delivery trucks had his name splashed on their sides, he went to work for the New Yorker. His early newspaper writings were collected in a book, My Ears Are Bent, in 1938, but none of it is included in his end-of-career summation, Up in the Old Hotel (1992). That earlier work, he said, was “a different kind of writing.” I take this to mean that, in spite of its flair, energy, and voice, it was journalism. Which raises the question: What was everything that followed?

In 1940, the New Yorker published “Mazie,” which begins, “A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery.” It sounds straightforward enough, as profiles go, including the scene-setting “is.” Mazie spends most of her waking hours ensconced in a movie-theater ticket booth about the size of a telephone booth. It affords her a view of a particularly seedy stretch of the Bowery. Many of the bums who buy a ticket use the theater as a place to sleep. If one starts snoring especially loudly, the audience chants, “Mazie! Mazie! We want Mazie!” She leaves the booth with “a bludgeon . . . made of a couple of copies of True Romances rolled up tightly and held together by rubber bands, and strides into the theater. As she goes down the aisle, peering this way and that, women and children jump to their feet, point fingers in the direction of the offender, and cry, ‘There he is, Mazie! There he is!’ Mazie gives the man a resounding whack on the head with her bludgeon and keeps on whacking him until he seems willing to behave.”

A moment later, we learn that, once outside, Mazie becomes “contrite and apologetic” to the bum, offers to let him back in, and then gives him a dime for a drink. Much of the rest of the piece documents Mazie’s practice of being a kind of angel to her flock of derelict winos. For example, when she sees drunken out-of-towners stumbling around the Bowery, she immediately calls the cops. “Such dopes are always getting rolled by bums,” she says. “I got no sympathy for out-of-towners, but bums are the clumsiest thieves in the world. They always get caught, and it’s best to get temptation out of their way.”

Mitchell treats Mazie with anthropological respect. But a question emerges: Where is Mitchell in all this? Mostly he writes of Mazie in the present tense, or the future tense—I don’t know the exact grammatical phrase for it, but it’s a strange technique I once characterized as “Mitchell Time” (Kunkel quotes my definition in his biography). We are always located in a highly specific moment in his pieces, and at the same time in a mythic eternity of frozen time.

For example: Mitchell tells us that after she closes up shop at the ticket booth, Mazie goes to a diner near the Brooklyn Bridge for half an hour. “Then, practically every night, before going home to bed, she makes a Samaritan tour of the Bowery and its environs. She carries an umbrella and a large handbag, which contains a flashlight, a number of cakes of soap of the size found in hotel bathrooms, and a supply of nickels, dimes, and quarters.” If he had written, “she carried an umbrella,” you could surmise that one night Joseph Mitchell accompanied Mazie on her rounds and she carried an umbrella. But no, we hear a list of the things she carries “practically every night,” as though it always was so, and always will be.

Joseph Mitchell, New York, ca. 1975. Therese Mitchell/Courtesy the estate of Joseph Mitchell

As her nocturnal rounds unfold, or as our awareness of what happens on these timeless rounds expands, the effects of Mitchell Time amplify. In summer she will let sleeping bums lie, but in winter, when they sometimes die from exposure, she jabs them into consciousness with her umbrella. “Holding him erect, she guides him to the nearest flophouse and pulls and pushes him up the stairs to the lobby. She pays the clerk for the man’s lodging (thirty cents is the customary price) and insists on his having at least two blankets. Then, with the help of the clerk or the bouncer, she takes off the man’s shoes, unbuttons his collar, loosens his belt, and puts him to bed with his clothes on.”

Did Mitchell witness such a scene—the struggling, semiconscious bum having his belt loosened in a hotel room paid for by a woman who wishes only to loosen his belt and put him to bed? And if so, how often? Once? A hundred times? Or did she make this claim to him, which he then reported as fact?

I think of the photographs of Diane Arbus, who was drawn to similar territory, and who called Mitchell in 1960 telling him she wanted to photograph his subjects. (They talked for two hours.) Her photographs are fascinating, but they are cold in comparison with Mitchell’s prose, which is burnished with the warmth of empathy. Mitchell’s world brings to mind a carnival, with its freaks (another Mitchell subject was a bearded lady) and halls of mirrors. In “Mazie,” we have a man obsessed with bums and the landscape of the Bowery writing about a woman obsessed with bums and the landscape of the Bowery in such a way as to make his own physical presence vanish. He is there but not there. Mazie, c’est moi.

By the time Mitchell published “The Bottom of the Harbor,” in 1951, his style had become more refined, and the effects even stranger. The piece begins with a paragraph about the polluted water of New York Harbor (“you could bottle it and sell it for poison”). The sludge at its bottom is even worse. The second paragraph opens, “Nevertheless, there is considerable marine life in the harbor water and on the harbor bottom.” It is a delicious understatement.

What follows is a taxonomic tour de force. Mitchell liked lists, and here he writes: “Every spring, a few long, jaggy-backed sea sturgeon show up. Every summer, in the Lower Bay, dragger nets bring up a few small, weird, brightly colored strays from Southern waters, such as porcupine fish, scorpion fish, triggerfish, lookdowns, halfbeaks, hairtails, and goggle-eyed scad.” This prose, scientific on the surface, has a babbling, infantile rhythm within. It is poker-faced scatting, in print.

We then meet a Staten Island doctor whose ancestors were oystermen, finding ourselves on a skiff with him on a foggy Sunday morning, sneaking into an oyster bed that is now illegal to dredge, because of pollution. Nevertheless, the doctor dredges up some oysters. He lovingly pets them and describes them. Then he eats one. “Every time I eat harbor oysters,” he says, “my childhood comes floating up from the bottom of my mind.” And that is the end of it.

We don’t even get his name.

Later, we meet a harbor cop named Andrew E. Zimmer. After describing
Zimmer’s appearance, duties, and personal and family history, Mitchell pops into view: “Mr. Zimmer is a friend of mine, and I sometimes go out on patrols with him. One cold, windy, spitty morning we made a patrol of the polluted skimmer-clam beds in the ocean off Rockaway Beach.”

Finally! A scene! We leave behind the densely knitted worlds of topography, geography, and taxonomy, and are suddenly in what is recognizably a story in which one thing happens and then another. It’s the narrative equivalent of accelerating a boat into open water. Mitchell and Zimmer go to a favorite restaurant and order oyster stew. They spot a guy named Roy Poole, another harbor nut, who joins them. Roy tells them about a dream he had in which the harbor emptied out and you could walk along its bottom. Poole eats and talks; Mitchell eats and listens. You never hear Mitchell speak (although Zimmer and especially Roy Poole end up sounding a lot like Mitchell). As happens in another Mitchell classic, “The Old House at Home,” about McSorley’s Saloon, the piece ends by quoting someone saying, in effect, good-bye.

When Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel came out in 1992 and made the best-seller list, there were many ironies, almost all of them happy. Mitchell, whose work focused on people on the margins, had not published anything in decades, though he remained, geographically, at the center of things. Except for his annual pilgrimages to the family farms in Fairmont, North Carolina (a misnomer, he pointed out, as there were no monts in or anywhere near it), he went regularly to his office at the New Yorker on 44th, and then 43rd, Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. He went nearly thirty years and published nothing. I met him there in the summer of 1993, during my brief stint as a staff writer, when I forgot to dial 9 on the office phone. We did an Abbott-and-Costello “Who’s on First?” routine for about thirty seconds, until he said, “This is Mitchell, at the New Yorker,” and I realized the man on the phone was not in City Hall, as I had thought, but down the hall. I went to apologize. He greeted me warmly, in every sense: bow tie, Brooks Brothers oxford shirt, suspenders, and newspapers stuffed into the air vent in the ceiling to block the AC. A space heater was on the floor.

Kunkel is very good on this period of hiding in plain sight. He unearths several chapters of a work in progress, a memoir of sorts, and quotes them at length. His biography is filled with the cadence and flavor of its subject. He gives us a picture of a man who is collecting—objects, notes, thoughts, but above all stuff—and who, like most collectors, struggles with how to store and organize and work with his collection. To people who, understandably, express a sense of astonishment on hearing that a writer published nothing for thirty years but continued to be paid, Kunkel has an interesting retort: Mitchell was terribly underpaid when he was writing a lot. He never bargained, and he rarely got raises. When speaking to a younger colleague who mentioned his salary, he realized how little he was making and got upset about it. Mitchell’s techniques for long-form journalism grew out of many traditions, including those started by Harold Ross and the early New Yorker, but they were also the foundation for much of what the New Yorker later published. His salary was a kind of annuity, as well as an advance on future work. But mostly the New Yorker paid Mitchell because they could, and they could, in some small part, because of Mitchell’s past work.

Joan Didion’s much-quoted aphorism “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is a half-truth. The other half involves the morally ambiguous process by which we locate those stories. Didion’s own work is intensely rooted in observation. “We take notes in order to live” would be more accurate to her methods. “We eavesdrop in order to live,” even. Didion’s quote underplays the complicating issues of theft—and guilt—in the writer’s work.

Janet Malcolm addresses this in her more acidic and equally famous statement about a journalist being “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” If you wanted to rebut this claim, you might produce one of Mitchell’s pieces, with their immersive sense of interest in their subjects, within which there is affection, even love. But Mitchell clearly wrestled with these issues, along with guilt over liberties he took with the facts; when his readers went off in search of the subject of one of his profiles, “Old Mr. Flood,” for example, he had to explain that there was no Mr. Flood. He was a “composite.” And, as Kunkel shows, not the only one.

Why did Mitchell go quiet? Kunkel’s book gives us much food for thought. I think at some point he understood his future work would have to include himself. I like the image of Mitchell up in that tree, watching people who didn’t know they were being watched. The one thing that a person up in a tree does not have a good view of is the person who is up in the tree. That is a separate talent. Mitchell was a writer who needed to see himself reflected, and his later years were spent accumulating artifacts that were, in some way, tiny mirrors. “Fragments are the only forms I trust,” wrote Donald Barthelme, a new voice in the culture (and at the New Yorker) at the time “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Mitchell’s final New Yorker piece, was published.

This could have been Mitchell’s cri de coeur, but it was not his conception of his art. For all the questions Kunkel’s new biography helps resolve, its biggest contribution may be that it helps us understand which questions about Mitchell’s work are the important ones. I don’t think Mitchell’s silence, or the inventions that glint from his articles and his subsequent guilt and anxiety about them, define his career. But, as with J. D. Salinger, another writer whose mystique competed with his work, it is part of the life. That Kunkel provides us with further tools with which to contemplate and understand Mitchell’s life and work is one of the many valuable gifts contained in his biography.

Thomas Beller is the author of J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (New Harvest, 2014).