There’s a great piece in the current New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell titled “Street Life: Becoming Part of the City.” It’s from a previously unpublished memoir: Mitchell died in 1996. He’s one of those writers that people have either never heard of, or are absolutely besotted by. There seems to be no middle ground. He was a great walker and explorer of the whole of New York, and he writes in this piece: “What I really like to do is walk aimlessly in the city. I like to walk the streets by day and by night. It is more than a liking, a simple liking – it is an aberration.”
Mitchell was employed by the New Yorker from 1938 until his death, but in 1965, after the publication of the book Joe Gould’s Secret, he essentially stopped writing, though he continued to go into the office, going out for an hour and a half lunch, during which he presumably did a some walking. He wouldn’t even let his old work be reprinted until 1992 when he allowed Pantheon to published an anthology in called Up In The Old Hotel.
Here’s another extract, from a piece also titled “Up in the Old Hotel.”
“Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands to the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast ...”
That’s pretty great. It’s a benign piece, and yet that opening mention of death and doom hangs obligingly over it all.
I was reminded obliquely of Pico Iyer’s introduction to A Wanderer in the Perfect City, a collection of writing by Lawrence Weschler; I always misremember that title and think it’s a walker in the perfect city. And then sometimes I think it ought to be the perfect walker in the imperfect city. Anyway ... Iyer writes, “Curiosity is the engine that drives a traveler out into the world, and the true traveler is the one who see (sic) that the world points in two directions. He is fired by his eagerness, his interest in the world, but what it gives back to him in turn is often a strangeness, a confoundingness that is the other half of what we mean by curiosity.” That’s pretty great too.
Above is the cover of Weschler’s book, that truly amazing photograph is by Helen Levitt.