of a literary bent, spirit possession

Futures of Nostalgia / Giving Paris One More Chance.

new mcsorleys


one afternoon last summer i found myself  in Harry’s New York Bar, in Paris (France, you know?). famously the place of origin of the French 75, the Bloody Mary, the White Lady. famously patronized by Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Gershwin. i didn’t know all this at the time; all i knew was that it was reputedly the oldest cocktail bar in Paris, a city the opinion of which as a real-shit house for cocktails I had already spent a week forming, in spite of the potential contributory factors such as the wealth of native bitters / vermouths – Bonal, Picon, Salers, Dolin – and we needed a goddamn drink. a goddamn Old-Fashioned, franchement.* 

it’s a beautiful place, not quite like the gleaming French brasseries, but with an timeworn elegance that is restrained foremost by its need to remain legibly unfussily American**. as the story goes, what became Harry’s New York Bar was literally a bar in New York, chopped up, shipped overseas, and reconstructed in Paris in the early 20th c to remedy what was even then perceived as a dearth of good cocktail bars, and it is clear that great pains are taken to give the impression that not much has changed in the décor, comportment, menu or philosophy. what was most profoundly affecting, however, was how quiet it was inside; a calm cool quiet that went deeper than the lack of music, it was as if someone had cut a chunk out of the sticky, suffocating heat of the afternoon and slotted the building in its place. it was immeasurably restoring.



i am reminded in these reflections of another old-ass bar of historic note, in a younger city, that was the source for me of very different impressions even if the two overlap in significant respects. in 1940 The New Yorker published a wonderful profile by Joseph Mitchell (him again, i know) of McSorley’s Old Ale House, at 15 East 7th st in Manhattan, then already considered an anachronism, a dusty cave rich with Old New York history. having arrived there myself 72 years later (almost as old again as it was when the Liebling piece was written), i am inclined to think it rich with the dust of Old New York as well. the place is awesomely filthy. the floor is covered in sawdust and there’s a pot-bellied wood stove in the centre of the room for heat in the winter, several of the tables are just old cable spools, and everything above eye level is black with the kind of grimey dust that feels tacky to the touch just by looking at it, once disturbed threatens to make you over in its own soft, smudged image. they serve only beer, “light” or “dark”, in small mugs, and always two at a time for some reason, two for five. the bartender has a tired-dad look about him and walks with a heavy limp, spending what time he can with his feet up on the bar. he tells me he’s been tending bar for 45 years, and he drank at McSorley’s for 2 before that.

it is strange sitting in a place that embodies so much of what the nouveau rustic of contemporary design emulates, a place that is down to its timbers just waiting to be ‘reclaimed’ and put to aesthetic work probably in a prohibition-styled ‘speakeasy’ (the former of which McSorley’s miraculously weathered without closing or becoming the latter) half a block down the street. but it is too easy and too trite to cast McSorley’s as a fading artifact of a more authentic past, for it is definitely an artifact in a dual sense – clearly decisions have been made to retain and amplify the shabby, bygone charm of the place; the satisfaction of authenticity is thus very much the product – an artifact – of a certain kind of nostalgia work. but, for all that artifactuality (i hesitate to say artificiality), these charms are no less real. when i first read Mitchell’s piece, my desire to see McSorley’s was tempered by my expectation that it would by now be a locale thoroughly and obnoxiously commodified as a tourist experience, gleaming like a TGI Fridays in the night, selling history like hotcakes, or perhaps some combination of the two. so i was pleasantly surprised to find a place so seemingly genuinely at ease with its dumpiness. admittedly, i strolled in on a frigid Sunday night*** in February when perhaps some sort of Superior Bowl was going down on the television, in the absence of any participating local squadrons, but i like to think that the cheap beer, dinge, and liverwurst & onion sandwiches maintain a certain amount of this atmosphere at all hours. in comparing McSorley’s and Harry’s the feeling i find is altogether different. McSorley’s is still sprayed wall-to-wall (and floor to ceiling) with material Americana, but it comes across as patina rather than pastiche. Harry’s New York Bar seems frozen in time, but intentionally so, and thus artificially; trapped somewhere between dignity and Disneyland. whereas McSorley’s feels more like it’s suspended between the 1860s and an insurance fire. i think there’s a lot more that can be said about the different kinds of nostalgia work going on these two places, and perhaps a fruitful analytic distinction can be made between places being frozen in time vs. being frozen out of time, but there’s an SAQ sale today, and i have a bar that needs repleting.

besides which, the Old-Fashioneds at Harry’s weren’t even that good. i have a feeling they make a lot of Bloody Marys.




* happily, i was to be disabused of this opinion not two days later, after i stumbled by accident into Calbar (don’t be deterred by your inevitable and completely understandable horror at the website, should you find yourself thirsty and curious in the 12e arrond. it was perfectly delightful at 3pm on a wednesday; dim, charmingly appointed, and the bartenders were incredibly nice, being perfectly willing to challenge their craftsmanship by trying to cater to my obnoxious tastes), which subsequently (as in, immediately following) led me to Sherry Butt, where shit got all the realer. had a goddamn crazy drink named after a subway station in Tokyo made with Amaro Nardini, fino sherry, marasca, Nikka From the Barrel, and who knows what else. it was pretty good.

** unfortunately, “classy” and “unfussy” can be hard to maintain simultaneously, as the starched white chemist’s coats of the bartenders and the bar’s ‘no shorts’ policy grinding up against 10$ chien chauds and ubiquitous sports memorabilia evinces.

*** the fact that i so regularly extol the merits of going to bars at times when they’re likely to be least occupied may say something telling about why tonight, in that i sleep alone tonight, is just like any other night. my triumphs and my charms notwithstanding.

miscellany/etymology, spirit possession

Aim Low, the Chariot May Swing to Meet Your Mark.

bananagrams is a challenging game.



“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

. . .

“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”

– Ernest Hemingway
“Hills Like White Elephants” (1927)


it’s funny, the above might well be the bleakest and most succinct expression of existential malaise of the whole damned Lost Gen,  but for all that it still hits a little close to the contemporary bone, i personally derive a significant amount of pleasure (existential, even) and affirmation from the trying of new drinks.¹ at least some of the time.

which may not say much for my spiritual health (i mean, i also like books and smiling dogs squinting in the sun), but it suggests at the least that i suffer little mauvaise foi² in my dilettance. at some point in the midst of my semi-intentional sabotage of my academic career and listless pursuit of literary recognition, it occurred to me that dilettant may well best describe my situation in, and relationship to, the world; a confusion of soft skills and partial knowledges, unified only by their status as what interests i have failed to pursue to expertise (and the possibly mistaken impression that they add to my charm). this could have been a disappointing revelation, given that dilettant probably hasn’t been used as a positive descriptor in the past two hundred and seventy five-odd years, but, like amateur, dilettante proves to have a kernel of etymological honesty in it.

roughly the same one, in fact. for where (as is fairly obvious) the root of amateur is love, and its essence to do something for the sake thereof (contrasted with the expert or professional), the root of dilettant is delectare – to delight. the dilettant, historically, delighted in art, specifically, but like the amateur was so-driven not by professional (read, problematically: “serious”) aims or strictures, but by the sheer delight of the thing. if “delight” seems like somewhat of a fluffy word, that is perhaps a good thing – the inability to pin down the qualities that make something delightful may be part of the charm (or is the charm the unpindownable?), and while “love” and “pleasure” are not far removed, both have the tendency to grow stiff and calcareous with the serious discourse that accretes around them. which is not to speak unilaterally ill of seriousness, indeed there is certainly something to be said for the gratifications of pleasures harder-won, but the love of pleasure and the love of love can be quite ponderous things absent delight.


in the early 18th century, the Society of Dilettanti was formed in London by a group of dukes and scholars and other professionally monied layabouts (NB: monied layabouts by profession, rather than professional classicists) to appreciate and promote the appreciation of Greek and Roman art, but equally to do so in a spirit of light-heartedness and considerable inebriation. Horace Walpole described them, i suppose disparagingly, as “a club for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk,” although this reeks somewhat of the triumphalist moderation that mistakes the result for the object and reduces everything else to mere pretext. the dilettant understands, contra Brillat-Savarin, that just because one has ended up sotted and distended and groaning with one’s take it does not mean one failed to truly appreciate what was put before them.³

but the world despises a dabbler, and the dilettant remains hated for loving, unwanted for wanting.


actually that may not be true.


for what has the age of the internet, lifestyle entrepreneurship, and gutted pensions brought us but the exaltation of the non-professional expert and the professional dabbler? an author-turned-publisher-turned-cabinetmaker friend of mine pointed out that there’s probably not a barber, bartender, or business-owner under 37 in any urban centre who doesn’t have a creative writing degree and a stack of unsold hardcore band records clogging up their crawlspace. a valid argument! it demands a modification of my own, that might proceed by forcing a distinction between the dilettante and the amateur. i think that passion, driving passion in particular, is importantly absent from the portrait of the dilettant: if we are surrounded by affirming messages exhorting us  to “Find the one thing you love more than anything else and do it for the rest of your life“, we less often hear the call to “Find a thing that is interesting and pursue it until your interest is exhausted, duuuude.” (if there was a little more mingling of these messages we might have a very different romantic culture, to boot)

there is something to be said, i think, for being compelled in a pursuit not by passion per se, or profession, but appreciation; to be comfortable with something less than mastery of an art or the all-consuming fire of devotion. to quote Philip Gilbert Hamerton against his own prickish grain, “If the essence of dilettantism is to be contented with imperfect attainment, I fear that all educated people must be considered dilettants.” in fact, when i first read that it took me a moment to realize that he was shit-talking educated people, rather than attempting to make peace with the imperfect.


all of which to say, i think i might try making my own vermouth.




¹ recently, Joe Beef’s take on the “Roman Coke”, which contains grappa, chinotto, and fernet branca, and tastes somehow like chocolate.

² i cannot get out of my head the suspicion that Sartre’s mauvaise foi (“bad faith”) was a pun on mauvais foie (“bad liver”), given that both French and English share a historical belief in the liver as the source of courage (see “lily-livered”; “avoir les foies blanc“), and bad faith by way of some oversimplification amounts basically to intellectual/existential cowardice. also, i like to make drinking related jokes about mauvaise foi, as one might expect.

³ i assert, in rough contradiction to what i have claimed elsewhere.


Two Archaic Food Words for the Price of One. Well, One’s More of a Halfie.

killcrop an “insatiate brat,” popularly thought to be a faery that has been substituted in place of the original child.

i can only assume that this sort of rationale was meant to serve as a defence against infanticide, along the lines of “you can’t blame me, that wasn’t even my kid, that was some manner of interloping hobgoblin.”

anyway, i love the word.

unrelated, i can’t think about Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, without it conjuring associations with a 2 month period i spent living with S. on his girlfriend’s couch. we were very “productive” in that period (this being the first and last time that we were threatened with legal action by Fred Perry), the first of us to rise taking it upon hisself to brew some tea and make (inevitably) some pasta for breakfast, while the other trucked off down the street to the little wine shop that always had some wine-related literary quote on their sandwich board. the proprietors were nice, i seem to recall, and this being long before i gave to shits about wine, i would just grab the cheapest white and they’d uncork it 3/4 open for me. it was a happy existence, i believe, and i remember the very same week i first read A Moveable Feast there was a quote from it (i don’t remember what, alas) on their sign. it seemed altogether too much of an endorsement (however indirect) for our way of life, and i’m reasonably sure we were shortly thereafter evicted from the girlfriend’s couch and bed, respectively. not due to some cosmic connivance, i assure you – it was our just deserts.

just the other day i noted that in the first chapter Hemingway refers to a poivrotte, as “a female rummy.” is anyone familiar with the term, because thus far i’ve had no luck on the internet or among francophones (Quebecois, under the age of 40, admittedly). i’m curious about the currency or origin of the word. not that it seems hard to suss out: poivre = pepper, women of ill repute = spicy. perhaps it is just some ephemeral Left Bank argot otherwise lost to successive generations.

oh god, no pun intended.