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The Wages of Sin is Laughter

by Alexander Nemser

In his Life of Mark Antony, Plutarch describes an episode from Antony’s ill-fated campaign against the Parthians in what is today the Northwest of Iran: cut off from its supplies, the Roman army is gripped by famine, and the soldiers are forced to eat whatever vegetables and roots they can find. A group of them eats a particular unknown herb which, they discover too late, induces madness. All of a sudden, the soldiers start overturning every stone they can find across the plain, as if searching for something of great importance; for many of them, the madness ends in death. Here the ground is both the resting place of the dead, and, according to mythology, the source of the first human being. The object of the soldiers’ search is something between the worlds of the living and the dead. 

Plutarch’s Lives of notable Greek and Roman historical figures are considered to be the ancient predecessors of the journalistic profile, a concise biographical essay about the length of a long short story. The eerie image of Roman legionnaires hunched close to the ground, digging up and turning over all the stones, with its sense that significance is to be found hidden below the soil we stand on, has something of the same spirit that characterizes The Bottom of the Harbor, the last extended series of profiles written for The New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a master of the genre in the twentieth century.

Composed of six pieces, each of which describes some aspect of life on the New York waterfront during the 1940s and 1950s, The Bottom of the Harbor tracks the dazzling array of fauna inhabiting the harbor’s dilapidated, bustling landscape, including the captain of a dragger boat, shadfishermen on the Hudson, and an oyster-tonging community on Staten Island. A richly populated, mostly hidden life cycle sloshes across the page: “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.” The landscape teems paradoxically with life and trash. The bottom of the harbor sends up remnants of all the life in its vicinity: coal from a sunken barge, a woman’s pink lace shimmy, bubbles of dumped sludge, the bones of a suicide, the corpse of an executed gangster. Trawling or tonging or dropping lines or setting traps, the inhabitants of this world bring up to the surface what is found in the depths—and what amounts to both their livelihood and their understanding of the past.

Initially a police reporter and feature writer for several newspapers, Mitchell made his career tracking down the unrecorded lives of the city he adopted for life after leaving North Carolina in 1929, just before the Great Crash of the stock market. He preferred places like Sloppy Louie’s restaurant in the Fulton Fish Market, where the tabletops “have been seasoned by drippings and spillings from thousands upon thousands of platters of broiled fish, and their edges have been scratched and scarred by the hatchets and bale hooks that hang from frogs on fishmongers’ belts.” He haunted dive bars, gin mills, ancient saloons, ports in decline, waste heaps and desert places. In his fifty-one years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, he developed a rich series of portraits—street preachers, gypsy fortune tellers, the Caughnawaga Indians who helped build the city’s great steel structures—his quotations becoming more and more sustained as the histories of his subjects revealed deeper roots into the past and as he grew closer to the sites he described. Working at the newspapers, Mitchell at times wrote three features in a day. Once at The New Yorker, he was able to spend months on a story, returning to his subjects day after day to converse and record, and watching the Hudson River flow by “at daybreak, at sunset, during storms, on starry summer night, on hazy Indian-summer afternoons, on blue, clear-cut stereoscopic winter afternoons.” Later the listening and watching took years.

In his account of an autobiographical novel he planned to write in his youth, Mitchell describes the arrival in New York of a young reporter in whom Southern hellfire evangelicals instilled a “lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic.” Mitchell’s subjects are living institutions on the periphery, local geniuses of place, freaks of birth and knowledge, homemade nobles, last representatives of a form of life—characters too inconspicuous to catch the eye of the city dweller or too weird to go near. To the reader, Mitchell is as much discoverer as describer; he unearths his subjects in print or shines a flashlight into their obscure corner. Although in his late pieces he writes with the observant melancholy of an elegist intent on preserving the memory of the fishermen he describes, he always retains the humble verve of a newspaperman who knows his words may turn up tomorrow as wrappings for the same fish.

One of Mitchell’s distinctive techniques in profiling a person is to profile a place at the same time. With the “and and” anaphora of the city walker, he builds up entire city blocks piece by piece out of Hudson River bricks and ornamented cornices. And as the profile’s layered landscape comes into focus, so does the subject’s role within it. The backgrounds of Mitchell’s portraits are crowded with scenes of motion, from the cats in corners gnawing on fish heads, to the tube worms that infest the hemlock poles once used to demarcate the borders of clam flats. The title piece in The Bottom of the Harbor is, from one point of view, a profile of Andrew Zimmer, a staff member of the Bureau of Marine Fisheries who patrols the harbor in a lumbering skiff, keeping guard over the polluted shellfish beds. But it is the territory that captures Mitchell’s imagination as he follows Zimmer to the Staten Island tide marshes. The scene of a dozen traditions searching and gathering their way through their newfound American landscape is quintessential Mitchell: the convergence of old Italians scrabbling in the leaves beneath the blackjack oaks for mushrooms in the fall and in the tide flats for tiny mud shrimp in the midsummer; truck farmers scything salt hay; women picking wildflowers and watercress and wild grapes for jelly; bird watchers; relic collectors combing for Indian arrowheads or old English coins; and, during the Festival of Succoth in September or October, rabbinical elders gathering branches from black willows and weeping willows to beat against the ground symbolizing the redemption from sin.

As we watch Zimmer watch the marshes for soft-shell clam poachers and hen pheasants, our understanding of his character—his self-sufficiency, his dread of pollution, his talent for surveillance—is enriched. Part of Mitchell’s point is that the landscapes we situate ourselves in end up mirroring our internal landscape; we catch a reflection in certain features and cannot take our eyes off of them, like the men in Mitchell’s “The Rivermen,” who are compelled to spend their lives staring into the Hudson. This was perhaps truest of all for Mitchell himself, and his descriptions of landscape amount to a kind of topographical self-revelation. Take away the closet, his work suggests, and all you’ve got is a skeleton.


Mitchell picked places where the monologues of the regulars leapt degrees of separation from the past, where history was written on the wall or what was left of it. Noting Mitchell’s fascination with ruins, the proprietor of a bar frequented by New York writers noted, “If he ever disappears, start lookin' for him under fifty foot of brick, with a rusty fire escape on his chest and a pleased smile on his face.” Mitchell sought out the undisturbed, the obsolete and the soon-to-be-obsolete. He caught them on their way out. The landscape of The Bottom of the Harbor is decrepit, boarded up, “gone to pot.” The attics and basements of the buildings have accumulated history the way the tables in Sloppy Louie’s have soaked up the spillings. Throughout the series there is the sense that the past is still to be found in obscure passageways, behind doors locked for decades, underneath the transformations of names changed upon arrival in America.

In “Up In The Old Hotel,” Louie mentions a contractor he knows who, he says:

seldom passes an old boarded-up building without he wonders about it, wonders what it’s like in there—all empty and hollow and dark and still, not a sound, only some rats maybe, racing around in the dark, or maybe some English sparrows flying around in there in the empty rooms that always get in if there’s a crack in one of the boards over a broken windowpane, a crack or a knothole, and sometimes they can’t find their way out and they keep on hopping and flying and hopping and flying until they starve to death.

The central event of the piece is the exploration by Mitchell and Louie of the desolate upper floors of the building that contains Sloppy Louie’s restaurant. Long since left empty, these upper floors were once part of the Fulton Ferry Hotel, which served passengers from the many steamships that used to dock along South Street in downtown Manhattan. Ascending in an old-fashioned rope-pull elevator, Mitchell and Louie find the ancient rooms matted with “thick, black . . . fleecy dust” and containing tables covered with forgotten still lives of pulped pages and odorless bottles. There is a yellowed photograph of a young woman in one of the drawers and the walls are hung with religious placards: “The Wages of Sin is Death; but the Gift of God is Eternal Life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Louie loses heart and insists on leaving. With revulsion on his face, he exclaims, “Sin, death, dust, old empty rooms, old empty whiskey bottles, old empty bureau drawers. Come on, pull the rope faster! Pull it faster! Let’s get out of this.” 

Dwelling on the decay of the past also becomes a way of meditating on the future. Mitchell’s images of disuse and deterioration are interspersed with dreams of wreckage, the Apocalypse, and collapse still to come. In the history of The New Yorker profile, there are, strangely, many more instances with a similar emphasis on impending destruction, natural and man-made. One of the most striking occurs in the profile of a physicist and conceptual designer of atomic bombs written in 1974 by John McPhee, which concludes with an imagined description, now uncanny, of a bomb attack on the World Trade Center towers:

Anyone in an office facing the Trade Center would die. People in that building over there would get it in every conceivable way. Gamma rays would get them first. Next comes visible light. Next the neutrons. Then the air shock. Then missiles. Unvaporized concrete would go out of here at the speed of a rifle shot. . . . If you exploded a bomb down there [in the plaza], you could conceivably wind up with the World Trade Center’s two buildings leaning against each other and still standing. . . . There’s no question at all that if someone were to place a half-kiloton bomb on the front steps where we came in, the building would fall into the river.


Perhaps most of all, the past is to be found in final resting places, literally buried in the ground. Mitchell is a poet of city lot cemeteries and overgrown burial plots. His work is cluttered with the names and designs found on gravestones: “death’s-heads . . . hourglasses . . . hands pointing upward.” In the author’s note to his collection Up in the Old Hotel, Mitchell describes walking with his family through the old cemeteries around Robeson County in North Carolina where he grew up and listening, stone by stone, to stories about the dead. The narrative of one of Mitchell’s greatest pieces, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” revolves around walks through dilapidated graveyards.  

“When things get too much for me,” Mitchell begins, “I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.” One such afternoon leads Mitchell to the cemetery of Sandy Ground, a community founded by free blacks before the Civil War, and to George H. Hunter, a former bricklayer whose mother escaped from slavery in Virginia and made her way to Staten Island. In several spiraling monologues, Hunter relates the history of the oyster-planting business, his stint as the chef on a codfishing boat, his fascination with the “mysterious verses” of the Bible—“You study them over and over, and you go down as deep as you can, and you still don’t touch bottom.”—his break with whiskey drinking, his two marriages, the loss of his son, and the gradual dispersal of Sandy Ground after the oyster beds became too polluted to tong. At the end, we learn that on account of an act of outrageous stubbornness by the local gravedigger, a former oysterman, Hunter will have to be buried adjacent to the stone carved with his second wife’s name and his own. The piece exemplifies Mitchell’s concern with the braiding of growth and decay: as the stones rot and shift and their carvings wear away, they become surrounded by a rich growth of rare and wild plants; a sunken coal barge becomes a habitat for schools of sea bass and colonies of anemones, mussels, and moss. This is Mitchell’s view of history: semi-obscure, worn, covered with growth as the natural world reclaims the man-made, then uncovered and brought back to life through retelling.

This highlights another central feature of Mitchell’s work: he is concerned not only with his subjects’ relation to their physical surroundings but with the ways in which they conceive of their places in their own histories. Mitchell’s pieces are accordingly not only portraits but recordings as well. They are Olympic feats of listening and transcription, and the speeches they capture are littered with digressions, syntactical twists, and repetitions. “The Rivermen” contains a monologue of about a dozen pages on the techniques of shadfishing and “The Gypsy Women,” another late piece, is a nearly forty-page quoted disquisition on gypsy life in New York, including a play-by-play account of the bajour or wallet-switching con. Mitchell did not just shoot the breeze; he stuffed it and mounted it on the wall. In a sense, he was assembling a minor archive of oral histories. His work brings to mind the interviewing expeditions sanctioned by the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s, which collected the eyewitness accounts of men and women who had escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad, watched the Battle of Bull Run, or skinned buffalo with Buffalo Bill.


Mitchell’s first meeting with Joseph Gould took place at the Jefferson, “one of those big, roomy, jukeboxy diners,” which was already defunct by the time Mitchell’s profile of Gould was published. Gould was a homeless, toothless Harvard graduate who claimed to be writing a monumental prose work titled “The Oral History of Our Time,” which was to include, among other accounts, “summaries of innumerable Union Square and Columbus Circle harangues, testimonies given by converts at Salvation Army meetings, and the addled opinions of scores of park-bench oracles and gin-mill savants.” By his own account, dressing in the light of the red exit sign of the Bowery flophouse where he was staying, he would tiptoe out to the lobby to write down his memories of the previous evening’s conversations, proceeding to the genealogy room at the Public Library, a cafeteria in Times Square, and three round trips on the West Side subway, writing all the while. Every time Mitchell met Gould, the Oral History had grown. On one occasion, Gould claimed it was “‘approximately nine million two hundred and fifty-five thousand words long, or,’ he added, throwing his head back proudly, ‘about a dozen times as long as the Bible.’” Mitchell’s first profile of Gould appeared in The New Yorker in 1942. 

Gould epitomizes the marginal figure of the Mitchell profile, the oddball, Socrates of the sidewalk, or weird world expert. Mitchell writes that he never saw him without thinking “of one of those men I used to puzzle over when I read the Bible as a child, who, for transgressions that seemed mysterious to me, had been ‘cast out.’” After writing his first profile of Gould, Mitchell kept up the acquaintance and later realized that the Oral History was a fabrication, that no such book existed except in Gould’s mind. The hundreds of dime-store notebooks Gould stashed with friends all over the city who believed in the existence of his work were, in fact, filled only with endless variations on a handful of subjects, including the death of his father from blood poisoning and an expedition of phrenological fieldwork on two Indian reservations that he made in his youth. In ceaselessly rewriting these few essays, Gould was in fact only recording his own history, not a chronicle of the streets as he proclaimed.

The experience inspired Mitchell to write a second, much longer, melancholy, even regretful profile of Gould, in which he told the complete story of his realization. “Joe Gould’s Secret,” published in 1965, is as much an auto-portrait as a portrait of Gould, and one of its most disturbing features is the gathering of details identifying one man with the other, down to Gould’s love of graveyards and his threadbare Brooks Brothers suits, Mitchell’s own trademark costume. Drawn into the coiling reiterations of Gould’s conversation, Mitchell finds himself featured in Gould’s conception of the past: “By knowing so much about his past, I had, in effect, I realized, become a part of his past. By talking to me, he could bring back his past, he could keep it alive.” The piece culminates in a reflection on Gould’s act in which Mitchell mourns Gould, appreciates him, rages at him, forgives him, and puzzles over him. He describes his plan for his own novel about the young reporter from North Carolina of which he never wrote a word, and the description rises into a vision of a street preacher preaching a scene of resurrection: “All seeds stand for resurrection and all eggs stand for resurrection. The Easter egg stands for resurrection. So do the eggs in the English sparrow’s nest up under the eaves in the ‘L’ station. So does the egg you have for breakfast. So does the caviar rich people eat. So does shad roe.” Although Mitchell remained as a staff writer for another thirty years, “Joe Gould’s Secret” was the last piece he published in The New Yorker.


Reflecting on the figure of Joe Gould, Mitchell later wrote, “Nowadays . . . when his name comes into my mind, it is followed instantly by another name—the name of Bartleby the Scrivener—and then I invariably recall Bartleby’s haunting, horrifyingly self-sufficient remark ‘I would prefer not to.’” In his comment Mitchell revealed the key not only to his depiction of Gould, or even to his pieces on the fixtures of the waterfront, but to a facet of the profile genre as a whole. In Melville’s short story, the narrator refers to Bartleby, an otherworldly scrivener or copyist on Wall Street, as “a bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic,” and later as “the last column of some ruined temple.” Figures from later New Yroker profiles like Henry Blanton, the “Last Cowboy” of Jane Kramer’s 1977 piece, like Henri Vaillancourt who makes bark canoes according to the age-old Indian method in John McPhee’s 1974 “Survival of the Bark Canoe,” like Mitchell’s George H. Hunter, are themselves like last columns, messages in bottles from past vessels on the sea.

Although the bulk of the pieces can rightfully be called profiles, The Bottom of the Harbor is really a meditation on transience and the rise and fall of fortune, not just in individual human lives, but in architecture, industries, and species. The structures in the book seem to bear the highwater mark left by the Flood. The lot where Sloppy Louie’s stands used to be underwater, and the implication throughout is that it will be again. One of the central images of the book comes from a boat captain who has “got the bottom of the harbor on the brain.” Over double bowls of oyster stew, the captain reports a dream in which New York Harbor has been “drained as dry as a bathtub when the plug is pulled.” The entire bottom is revealed, with “hundreds of ships of all kinds lying on their sides,” old wrecks full of worms, rusty anchors, old hawsers, stranded eels and a “skeleton standing waist-deep in a barrel of cement that the barrel had rotted off of.” In Mitchell’s pieces, history reveals itself in visions like this one, moments when sight into the depths is clear and the weight and variety of what is down there comes into view, or when the depths themselves come to the surface, as in Mitchell’s sight of a sea sturgeon rising out of the Hudson:

It was six or seven feet long, a big, full-grown sturgeon. It rose twice, and cleared the water both times, and I plainly saw its bristly snout and its shiny little eyes and its white belly and its glistening, greenish-yellow, bony-plated, crocodilian back and sides . . .

Why does no one write profiles like Mitchell anymore? Some claim that it is because people have lost the ability to really listen, that all the old buildings have been torn down, that no one writes about eccentrics anymore, that there are no genuine eccentrics left, only maniacs, liars, and showmen. Or that Mitchell wrote in a heroic age of writers. That the profile has become too psychological, too analytical, too aloof. That the relation between Americans and their work has soured and no one knows the history of his or her craft, and the world has become so ugly or complex or dispersed that things no longer mean what they used to. But the fact is, Mitchell was an unrepeatable phenomenon, a one-off uniquely attuned to the environments he sought out and recorded, and to the water he watched. It is not only that something particular has been lost, it is, as Mitchell himself showed, that something is always being lost, swallowed up by the ground, rolling away in a wave.

For Mitchell, the bottom of the harbor ultimately becomes an image of the past, of what is lost, of what remains mysterious. Some of it disappears, some transforms, some remains miraculously intact. And it is in the cyclical motion that pulls down a barge and sends up a glut of eels, and by which a net will pull up a rib cage one day and a brassiere the next, that Mitchell finds something to laugh about. It is “Old Testament humor,” as he calls it—the humor that emerges when, leaving the dusty cave of the Fulton Ferry Hotel, Louie laments that he didn’t learn anything he didn’t know before and Mitchell replies, “You learned that the wages of sin is death.” It is the laughter of the passengers of a ship headed down to join the Hudson River bricks, skeletons with gold fillings in their teeth, wrecked submarines, coins tossed into the grave at gypsy funerals, forgotten pronunciations, tendrils of weeds, “jukeboxy” diners where Mitchell met Gould, and all else too heavy or fleeting to float. 

Alexander Nemser has published poems in The New York Times and The Atlantic, and has a poem forthcoming in The Paris Review. His book reviews appear frequently in The New Republic. He lives in Boston. (1/2009)

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