Two and Two

McSorley's, My Dad, and Me


By Rafe Bartholomew

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A deeply stirring memoir of fathers, sons, and the oldest bar in New York City.

Since it opened in 1854, McSorley’s Old Ale House has been a New York institution. This is the landmark watering hole where Abraham Lincoln campaigned and Boss Tweed kicked back with the Tammany Hall machine. Where a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs found their final resting place. And where soldiers left behind wishbones before departing for the First World War, never to return and collect them. Many of the bar’s traditions remain intact, from the newspaper-covered walls to the plates of cheese and raw onions, the sawdust-strewn floors to the tall-tales told by its bartenders.

But in addition to the bar’s rich history, McSorley’s is home to a deeply personal story about two men: Rafe Bartholomew, the writer who grew up in the landmark pub, and his father, Geoffrey “Bart” Bartholomew, a career bartender who has been working the taps for forty-five years.

On weekends, Rafe Bartholomew would tag along for the early hours of his dad’s shift, polishing brass doorknobs, watching over the bar cats, and handling other odd jobs until he grew old enough to join Bart behind the bar. McSorley’s was a place of bizarre rituals, bawdy humor, and tasks as unique as the bar itself: protecting the decades-old dust that had gathered on treasured artifacts; shot-putting thirty-pound grease traps into high-walled Dumpsters; and trying to keep McSorley’s open through the worst of Hurricane Sandy.

But for Rafe, the bar means home. It’s the place where he and his father have worked side by side, serving light and dark ale, always in pairs, the way it’s always been done. Where they’ve celebrated victories, like the publication of his father’s first book of poetry, and coped with misfortune, like the death of Rafe’s mother. Where Rafe learned to be part of something bigger than himself and also how to be his own man. By turns touching, crude, and wildly funny, Rafe’s story reveals universal truths about family, loss, and the bursting history of one of New York’s most beloved institutions.



SATURDAY MORNINGS WERE MY TWISTED version of heaven. I was five, six, seven years old, and every weekend I got to spend a few hours hanging out with grown men. Not just any men, but characters—workingmen, old men, homeless men, policemen and firemen. Men who cursed and spat and groaned, who broke each other's chops and answered insults with a "Right here!" and a handful of crotch. (They were also doting fathers, occasional criers, and poets, but those things didn't seduce me back then.) Men with names like Frank the Slob, whose last name, Slovensky, was itself slovenly; names like Fat Sal and Johnny Wadd, Dead Eddie and the Buggerman; if I was lucky, I might catch a glimpse of Bunghole Thompson.

I worshipped them all, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in every way, and the man I most wanted to be like was also the reason I was there. Where? McSorley's Old Ale House, New York's landmark saloon on East Seventh Street, open in the same spot since Old John McSorley founded the place on February 17, 1854. My father, Geoffrey Bartholomew—but at the bar it's just Bart—has worked at McSorley's since 1972.

Throughout my childhood, he brought me to the bar, partly because he and my mother had nowhere else to put me. Saturday mornings and early afternoons belonged to my mom. They were her time to attend antialcohol twelve-step meetings, to get lunch with friends, to study for her degrees in food studies. I was a few years too young to be left alone in our Manhattan apartment, so my dad took me to work. But my trips to McSorley's were always about more than simple necessity. My dad wanted to bring me, to show me his world of drunkards and lunatics, neighborhood sages and men in uniform. It was the late 1980s, when New York felt a little bit less like the playground for plutocrats it does today, and probably the last handful of years when you could get away with calling the East Village gritty.

We'd arrive at the bar between nine and ten in the morning, a little more than an hour before opening. While the waiters and barmen prepared for a seven-hour shift that usually meant serving ten to twelve kegs of McSorley's light and dark ale, the guys would toss a couple of bucks my way to buy coffee, Danishes, and an occasional bialy. I'd memorize the order and scurry down the block to Kiev, the Ukrainian diner on the corner of Seventh and Second Avenue. The change was mine, a tip for my trouble, but the real reward came when the staff sat down for breakfast together. This was when the guys traded stories, bullshitting about palms gashed on broken mugs and laughing over customers who had to be eighty-sixed. One morning, there was talk of a fight the night before that had cleared out the bar, and my father dusted off a pair of homemade brass knuckles that a waiter he'd worked with in the seventies had given him. It was a thin strip of metal that had been bent into a rectangular loop and wrapped with layers of black electrical tape, with space in the middle to slide one's fingers through and make a fist. "Thank God no one ever needed to use 'em in the bar," my dad said. "But the guys in Zory's day must have been rough if they were carrying these." He tossed me the weapon to try on—it was so big that I could almost slip it over my wrist and wear it like a bracelet. I imagined being grown enough for my hand to fill it, not because I wanted to crack some skulls, but just to close my fist and feel that power, to join them in manhood.

Just as powerful as the flesh-and-blood characters of McSorley's was the bar's history. I grabbed bar mops and wiped down tables under the eyes of Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, former New York governor Al Smith, and a slew of other public figures of Irish heritage or Roman Catholic background or just plain New York stock whose framed portraits lined the walls. I hauled blocks of cheddar cheese up from the basement refrigerator for my father to load into the same eight-foot-tall nineteenth-century icebox Old John had installed behind the bar when he opened McSorley's. (The iceman stopped delivering in the middle of the twentieth century, and although the icebox's ancient façade was preserved, its guts were converted to a refrigerator.)

Between tasks, I'd daydream, gazing at the ceiling, where Harry Houdini's handcuffs dangled a few feet from a medieval-style mace and a pair of Civil War–era shackles from the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. I already knew better than to reach up toward the sacred turkey wishbones hanging from the busted gas lamp above the ale taps. With steel in his voice, my father told me that first Saturday he brought me to work: Those belong to the neighborhood guys who fought in World War One and never came back. Nobody touches them. I scanned the newspaper clips and photographs and posters, absorbing the lore of heavyweight champs Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, Yankee legend Babe Ruth, and champion racehorses whose names and exploits might only still be remembered on the walls of McSorley's. John McSorley himself, with his intense, prideful eyes and white mutton-chop whiskers, stared down at me from various paintings and snapshots. Reminders of his legacy were everywhere: Signs in the bar's front and back rooms reminded staff and customers to heed one of Old John's original mottoes—BE GOOD OR BE GONE—while newspaper headlines from the day in August 1970 when female customers were first served at McSorley's marked the death of Old John's other founding creed—GOOD ALE, RAW ONIONS, AND NO LADIES.

The object that I came to love most was a framed certificate—about the same size as the bar's yellowed replica of the Declaration of Independence—that honored my father's first twenty years of employment. It hung from a spot high on the wall, looking down on the taps where my dad spent the majority of his shifts, pumping light and dark ale, surveying the floor, and barking orders to the waiters. I would mouth the words on his certificate while watching him work:


The sentence was terse and not all that eloquent and the document wasn't even correct. It recorded the beginning of my dad's career as 1973, when he actually worked his first shift in 1972. But it didn't matter. That piece of paper meant I was part of this place. McSorley's had been there for a century and a half. That was forever to me, and in my wide eyes, it seemed like the bar would last another forever. I got to occupy a sliver of that history.


The Company of Men

I HAD MY FATHER'S SATURDAY routine memorized before I learned my multiplication tables. He'd roll out of bed around 9 a.m., two hours before the bar opened. I'd be ready long before then, waiting on our living room couch, pushing the last few Frosted Flakes around a bowl of cereal-sweetened milk until I'd hear him groan or sometimes fart from the other side of my parents' bedroom door. Moments later he'd emerge and take his first knock-kneed, half-stumbling steps into wakefulness. Saturday was his hump day, the middle of his work week, and it meant one more grueling haul behind the bar before the relative calm of Sunday and Monday night. So as eager as I was to start bugging him about McSorley's on those Saturdays, I knew to wait—at least long enough for him to hit the bathroom and then pour a mug of coffee.

After he'd taken a couple of sips, though, I couldn't help but start harassing him. Who's working the bar with you today? Which waiters are on the floor? Is there a doorman? Is Henry in the kitchen? Or Eddie or Jackie Ng? What about the shithouse? How long can I stay?

"What's your mother say?" he'd ask.

"I'll get lunch with Mimi and then pick him up around two," she'd answer without looking up from the Times Metro section.

I was in. After two cups of coffee and a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt, my father would grab a worn-out sock and a small tin of mink oil and start waterproofing his work boots. They came waterproof when he bought them, but my father preferred extra protection. With his hand inside the sock, he'd scoop out a mound of mink oil with his index finger and spread it over the toe of his boot, working back toward the heel. Each week he'd apply a fresh layer, and each week he could count on being soaked with ale and water from the knees down by shift's end.

Then he'd pull on a long-sleeved thermal undershirt and start buttoning a white dress shirt over it. McSorley's bartenders have been wearing white button-downs since the tavern opened, and my father always had a stack of them—washed, starched, and folded—ready for work. He'd leave the top open at his neck, fasten the two small buttons at the tips of his collar, and then tuck the shirt into a pair of faded blue jeans. He'd pull a pair of heavy wool socks up to his calves, then squeeze a shot of talcum powder into his boots before working his feet inside. Next, he'd roll the sleeves of both shirts up to his elbows and spend a few moments rubbing a small growth on his wrist.

He'd given the gumdrop-sized ganglion (a kind of cystic fluid tumor caused by inflamed tendons) a name: the knob. It had formed on the inside of his right wrist, some kind of repetitive-use injury from his years of pumping ale and grabbing giant handfuls of mugs. But to hear my father tell it, the knob never hurt much. Still, he thought it an eyesore, so he would strap a leather brace with three buckles and a zipper around his wrist for extra support.

"You ready?" he'd ask, and since I had spent the previous half hour watching him suit up, I never was. It didn't matter, though. I'd say yes and scramble to my room to pull on a sweatshirt and chase him out the door.

Normally, my father would bike to work. But I was too young to ride alongside him, and the days of seeing hip New York dads pedal their kids around in custom bike seats wouldn't arrive for another fifteen years. So we'd either walk the half hour to McSorley's from our apartment in the far southwest corner of Greenwich Village, or, if we were running late or my father's knees were hurting, we'd hail a cab.

By the time we set foot in the bar, around ten, the door would be unlocked, with a wooden chair blocking the entrance to dissuade unknowing customers from moseying in before eleven. Richie the King, the back-room waiter, would already be inside, setting up along with the chef, who'd be chopping vegetables and warming chicken stock for the day's soup. Frank "the Slob" Slovensky, a longtime customer turned informal employee, would be there, too, sitting at the table next to the women's restroom, slumped over a crate of onions and peeling them to make slicing easier for the chef.

"Hey, Rafe, you wanna work?" Richie would ask. I never thought of saying anything but yes.

"Run downstairs and grab a bag of coal for the stove."

I knew the route by heart: into the back room, between Frank the Slob's table and the one next to it, through the emergency exit that opens into the ground-floor hallway of the tenement building at 15 East Seventh Street, and down the steps into the cellar. The room was filled with rolls of duct tape and hammers that looked old enough to have been swung by Old John McSorley. Broken chairs were scattered throughout, waiting for someone to replace their missing legs. Behind the staircase was a mound of white burlap sacks, each filled with a fifty-pound load of coal. I'd grab one, drag it back into the bar, and watch Richie build a fire in the blackened potbelly stove that had been in use at McSorley's since the nineteenth century.

"Jimbo!" my father called. (It was a term of endearment that, along with its derivatives Jim and Jimmy, he and other bar employees constantly flung back and forth.)

"Quit pulling your pud and get over here! You know what to do." He'd hold out a tin can filled with steaming water and a pair of long-necked pliers. It was time to extract nickels and dimes and quarters from the tables in the front room. Over the years, customers had adopted the tradition of hammering coins between the seams of McSorley's hundred-year-old tabletops. My job was to remove the change from the tables and hopefully dissuade drinkers from committing copycat crimes. If customers didn't look down and see coins wedged into the cracks of their tables, they might not decide to smash their own little ten-cent bits of history into the establishment. The practice did just enough damage to the sturdy old tables to cross the Be Good or Be Gone line. As payment, I was allowed to keep whatever money I retrieved.

My game plan with the pliers was simple: First, I'd scan a table, searching for the coins that looked to have been hammered in most recently. Those came out easy. If a large enough sliver of the coin was protruding from the tabletop, I'd just latch on to it with my tool and wiggle back and forth until it popped out. Sometimes I'd use my fingertips to roll a bit of the coin up from the table—just enough so the pliers could grip it. I targeted quarters first; then nickels, then dimes. Nickels came before dimes because although they were worth less, they were harder to mistake for pennies. A dime is obviously slimmer and more silver, but imagine how being lodged inside an ale-soaked table for a couple of decades might alter that appearance.

That's where the can of hot water came in handy—to soak away whatever grunge had grown on the coins over the years. Just about every Saturday I'd manage to pry loose a quarter that had been encased long enough to turn green and grow fuzz.

"Make sure you get the feduh, Jimbo." Feduh, pronounced "feh-DUH" with the emphasis on "duh," is what grows in dank corners of hundred-year-old bars. It was there when my father first started bringing me to McSorley's, and it's still there now, almost thirty years later. Feduh is another word for the Yiddish schmutz. The term comes from a Ukrainian immigrant one of the other bartenders would bring to McSorley's on weekday mornings to help clean and set up the bar. This guy's name was Fedyuh (or something like that—my dad's ability to render Cyrillic-to-English phonetic spelling is probably far from perfect), and he complained about wiping the slime from behind the bar. Naturally, my father named the gunk after him, and the term stuck.

Feduh isn't simple grime, but something more primordial. It's no longer recognizable as plain old dirt. It becomes cheeselike, sometimes gooey, and working at McSorley's can make you a connoisseur of the stuff. Feduh tends to inspire a gross, corporeal fascination. You can't just wipe it off and forget it. You feel compelled to examine it, play with it, show it to the guys.

Once, I decided to share it with my father. "Jimbo," I called out to my dad, eager to use his lingo, "look at this one." Then I flipped a mossy coin at him, freshly pulled from a table, knowing that his reflexes would force him to catch it. When it landed in his palm and he felt his fist close around the slimy metal, he let out a retch and a laugh. "You little fucker!" he said, tossing the coin into a sink full of hot water and dishwashing solution behind the bar. "You're gonna get it now."

He wasn't kidding. That morning, I saw how quickly feduh pranks can escalate into all-out warfare. I also learned that my father's knowledge of the place left me hopelessly outgunned in this arms race. There's more unseen gunk growing behind that ancient bar than in the rest of McSorley's combined. Over the next fifteen minutes, while I helped Richie spread a fresh layer of sawdust over the saloon's smooth hardwood floor—"toss it in handfuls like you're throwing out chicken feed," Richie advised—my father went on a schmutz expedition. He scooped feduh from the damp shelf beneath the ale taps; he fished crud from the drainage hole in the corner of the bar where the waiters pick up overflowing orders of twenty, forty, one hundred ales at a time; he lifted the rubber mats on the tile floor behind the bar and wiped what lay below. Then, once he'd assembled the feduh smorgasbord and collected it all in a single bar rag, he got his revenge.

"Jimbo!" I looked up to find the rank ball of cloth hurtling through the air at my head. Before I could think to dodge it, my arm shot up and snatched it from the air. And as soon as I did, I felt ages of accumulated New York filth grease my palm. It was grainy and slick and smelled like rot. My dad was laughing his balls off behind the bar, and I couldn't help but join him.

By half past ten the bar was ready for business. Richie had emptied a bottle of bleach into the urinals to freshen up the men's room. McSorley's weapons-grade spicy mustard had been mixed—the condiment was made every morning with mustard powder, water, and suds from newly tapped kegs, then decanted into beer mugs to be left on the tables and spread over saltine crackers and squares of cheddar cheese. The phalanx of mugs that had been lined up atop the bar when we arrived had been washed, scrubbed, rinsed, and stacked on shelves behind the taps, ready to be rinsed again and then filled with ale. The coal inside the potbelly stove was glowing, and the staff sat around the table next to it, five men in white undershirts and blue jeans, reading the Daily News and the Post, cursing about George Steinbrenner and the dismal late-eighties Yankees, and sipping coffee from blue cardboard cups before work.

Most of their banter was shop talk—barman's gossip about fights and scams and sex, shot through with gallows humor and cynicism. I was too young to understand much of it, but just sitting there allowed me to soak in their world and absorb a communication style that felt like a way of being—all dismissive chortles, knowing nods, belly laughs, and surprised grunts.

You should have seen the fucking disaster in here Thursday night. Aussies at one table, bikers on the other side of the front room, and cops in between. It was the cops we had to throw out first, and I'm still finding bits of the Aussies' puke in the shitter.

Did you guys hear about Ronnie, the manager of one of the Irish pubs out in Sunnyside? His entire building flooded at six in the morning after he got home from work because the crazy prick tried to flush the tape from the bar's cash register down his toilet!

After a few minutes of story time, I'd usually wander the bar, looking at the framed photos and drawings on the walls, revisiting the faces of historical figures and McSorley's misfits before the customers arrived and made it impossible to climb on chairs and press my face up against the wall to get a good look. My father had me playing baseball at age five and started taking me to recreation centers to teach me basketball a couple of years later, so my Saturday tour of McSorley's inevitably focused on sports artifacts.

Behind the bar, I'd reach up and palm the weathered softballs sitting atop a row of old ceramic McSorley's mugs. The softballs had accumulated over the years, brought in by guys from local firehouses at the end of their rec-league seasons, until an entire section of wall behind the bar was given over to their display. Some of them remained fairly unmarked by time, so it was still possible to make out the engine company numbers the firefighters had inked onto the leather orbs. Some had been there so long that their exteriors had dried and darkened and shriveled and cracked.

Down the bar from the softballs, I'd take a moment to pay my respects to the Babe. High in the ranks of treasured McSorley artifacts, along with the wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth, a signed letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and others, is a print of Nat Fein's Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph, "The Babe Bows Out." Fein captured the image of Babe Ruth two months before his death in 1948, as he climbed out onto the field for his final curtain call at Yankee Stadium. The story goes that Fein himself made the print, signed it, and gave it to then-manager of McSorley's Harry Kirwan, and customers who've been to Cooperstown have sworn that the framed photo behind the bar is larger than the one on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Next I found my way to the boxers. McSorley's has been around long enough to encompass much of the history of American prizefighting, and it's no coincidence that a New York watering hole opened by an Irishman in the mid-nineteenth century would favor the sport's great Irish champions. Just above the Babe, next to a bust of John F. Kennedy, is a bronze figurine of John L. Sullivan, the Boston-born fighter who was boxing's last bare-knuckle heavyweight champ. Just beside the taps, affixed to the wall that separates McSorley's front room from the back, there's a signed portrait of Jack Dempsey, framed in the center of a collection of Mecca Cigarettes boxing trading cards. The Mecca cards dated back to the early 1900s, and I loved to circle around to the other side of the wall, which had a hole cut in it to display the descriptions on the cards' backs.

Joe Gans, lightweight champion: Fought over 150 battles winning all but 5.… He died of consumption in Baltimore, August 10, 1910.

Gentleman Jim Corbett, heavyweight champion of the world: Won the heavyweight championship from John L. Sullivan, who had held the title for 12 years.… Lost the title to Bob Fitzsimmons in 14 rounds at Carson, Nevada, March 17, 1897. (That would have been the forty-third St. Patrick's Day at McSorley's.) Retired from the ring and is now an actor.

Back then, I had no real understanding of what Dempsey meant to the sport. Nor did I really know a thing about Joe Gans—that he's among the greatest lightweights of all time or that he was the first African-American world champion. But the boxers still mattered to me. They were another part of McSorley's that invited me into a past and a tradition I might never have discovered otherwise, and they made a twelve-year-old in 1994 feel like he could step back into 1906.

The last stop on my rounds would be a sliver of space in the front room between the end of the bar and a round window table near the entrance. The best piece of McSorley's sports history is up there, and it has nothing to do with an iconic moment or legendary athletes. It's a team picture called "The McSorley Nine," a black-and-white photograph from 1877 of a recreational baseball team sponsored by the bar and led by Peter McSorley, one of Old John's sons. The men posed, some seated and some standing, all wearing plain white uniforms with cleats and boxy, short-brimmed caps, gazing stone-faced into the camera. There isn't a smile among them—just handlebar mustaches, steely eyes, and the player in the middle with one hand on his hip and the other holding a wooden bat against the ground like a cane.

I always wondered why they looked so serious. Were they photographed after a heartbreaking loss? Were they preparing for a big game? Were men in the 1870s just like that—sturdy, cocksure, emotionless? That masculine ideal has stuck around through the ages, but I grew up around a crew of McSorley's men who knew how to play the strong, silent type but preferred the humor and camaraderie and bawdiness of bar life. There was no apparent lightheartedness among the McSorley Nine.

The greatest mystery, however, was what had happened to the last member of the McSorley Nine. Every time I walked up to inspect the photo, I'd count the players from left to right. One, two, three… seven, eight… eight. The McSorley Nine had no ninth man. And the eight guys pictured didn't seem concerned with his whereabouts. I imagined what he must have looked like. A husky first baseman—like I was back then—left-handed, adept at scooping short-hop throws from the dirt, and a line-drive hitter who always pulled the ball. Maybe he was sick that day. Maybe he didn't believe in team portraits. Maybe he was drunk at McSorley's. Maybe he was the one taking the photograph. Every week, I imagined something different, and every week it seemed as plausible as the last week's guess.

Okay, I lied. There's an even greater mystery in the McSorley Nine photo. In a way, it explains what happened to the ninth man. One of the first times I stood looking at the portrait, my father crept behind me. "Look over here," he whispered in my ear, and pointed between the player standing in the center with the bat and another player to his left. The picture was taken in a park, with lush trees and grass and clear skyline in the background. In the spot where my father directed me to look, in the negative space between the players and the tree branches behind them, I spotted the outline of another man—the final member of the McSorley Nine, or just an apparition.

"Do you see the ghost?" my father asked. It looked like a McSorley's bartender. The empty white sky formed his dress shirt; then the branches shaped the hazy outline of an oblong head with a mustache.

"It looks like you," I said.

"That's what everyone says," my dad told me. "Now look at this." He pointed to the photograph next to "The McSorley Nine," a framed image, also from 1877, titled "McSorley Chowder Club." It was a group portrait from one of the annual McSorley picnics, when the bar's owners and employees and family and friends would head to North Brother Island for an afternoon of frolicking in the summer sun. Again, my father pointed to an area at the center-left of the image. "You see it?"

I did. It was the same apparition, the same oval head and mustache and narrow eyes formed by the white background and tree branches and leaves in front of it.

"The ghost?" I answered. It was as if my father, who hadn't set foot in McSorley's until his first night in New York City back in 1967, had been there all along.

"Yep," my dad said. Maybe ending up at the bar had always been his destiny. Maybe it was mine, too.

I'm afraid I'm making McSorley's sound like a library. The artifacts, the gravitas, the legacy—that's all part of it, but the bar's energy is often anything but contemplative. As a boy, I usually couldn't inspect the Chowder Club ghosts for more than a minute or two before a bartender or waiter would pull me aside to workshop his newest dirty joke or saloon story. Scott, who wasn't even twenty years old when he began working at McSorley's in 1986, felt like an older brother, and I regarded his stock wisdom on the Yankees and Rangers as if it were scripture. An ale deliveryman from Barbados named Jeffrey never missed an opportunity to recommend a product called China Brush to my dad and the other barmen—it was some kind of numbing salve that prolonged erections and made Jeffrey a world-class Casanova. Then he'd grab seven-year-old me by the shoulders and impart life lessons: First time you get a woman, boy, you better eat the pussy good! Due to my age, Jeffrey's love advice might have qualified as a criminal act, but inside McSorley's it was just another story. And nothing Jeffrey came up with ever came close to matching the lewd genius of Tommy Lloyd.

Lloyd was my father's sidekick on many of those Saturdays. While Bart stood behind the taps and poured ale, Lloyd would scamper up and down the length of the bar, serving customers, collecting cash, making change, and grabbing empty mugs to wash. He stood about five foot seven, with wiry, pipe-cleaner arms and a perfect bowl of straight brown hair that flopped over his forehead and stopped just short of his satellite dish ears. Lloyd had come over from Roscommon, Ireland, in the sixties. He had been bartending with my father for the better part of a decade. When he told stories and laughed, his smile seemed to take up two-thirds of his face, and around me he was always spinning those blarney-filled yarns. To a boy growing up in New York, he might as well have been an in-the-flesh leprechaun.

"Hey there, lad, your old man told me you took up an attitude with him the other night. Is that true?"


  • Praise for Two and Two

    "This is more than a story about a famous speakeasy where, for the price of a beer, you can still sit at the same tables where great writers like Joseph Mitchell, Eugene O'Neill, and e.e. Cummings once sat and ruminated. This is a story about a father and son, both of whom toiled for years amidst the ghosts a hundred years past, when a group of hard working Irish Americans created one of New York's greatest institutions with nothing more than sweat, beer, liverwurst sandwiches, and an occasional punch in the nose to all spoilers and bullies.

    "Many a day I have sat in McSorley's amidst the sawdust and beer and said to myself, 'You'd have to be a child of this place to make these ghosts speak.' And that is exactly what Rafe Bartholomew is. His is the voice of ages, the shouts of thousands of fireman, cops, soldiers, drunks, bums, wayfarers, liars, and good souls whose hard luck brought them to McSorley's, and whose good spirit still reign over the place. He hoists this wonderful piece of Americana into the air with all the humor, joy, humility and love that it deserves."—James McBride, author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird
  • "Rafe Bartholomew has written a smart, moving book for the inner New Yorker (and inner barfly) in all of us. His father-not to mention Old John McSorley himself-should be damned proud."—Tom Bissell, author of Apostle and Extra Lives
  • "In Two and Two, Rafe Bartholomew has not just lovingly crafted an homage to a singular American place of drink, but also given us a steady look into the intense realm of father and son. This memoir pulses with uncommon talent."—William Giraldi, author of The Hero's Body and Hold the Dark
  • "Rafe's like a brother to me. So to read this book is to discover a childhood I never knew he had (never knew any kid could have!) and a dad I can't wait to meet. Rafe presents both with enviable, high-definition affection. This is a biography of a father and the bar that became part of his soul. It's a memoir of a son the bar co-parented. It's history of New York City and a sly, considered essay on masculinity. It's a book quietly about a mythic America that simultaneously never really existed yet, obviously, totally did. Rafe's writing, his memories, his sensitivity and sweetness made me laugh. They moved me. In my years living in New York, I never thought of a bar like McSorley's as a bar for me. The hefty beauty and lasting surprise of this book is how it reminds me over and over that I was probably - maybe certainly - wrong."—Wesley Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism
  • "Quite simply the best thing I've read about fathers and sons (Turgenev, eat your heart out)."—Lawrence Block, New York Times bestselling author
  • A "big-hearted memoir of a lifelong romance with New York City's oldest (continuously operating) saloon... a watering hole for artists, politicians, and oddballs, a storehouse of oral tradition passed through generations of staff... [Bartholomew's] portrayal of the rough humor and blue-collar warmth feels completely earned."—Publishers Weekly
  • "There is no bar in New York City--perhaps even all of America--with as much history as McSorley's Old Ale House.... but for former Grantland editor Bartholomew, McSorley's was just home... The author expertly weaves together entertaining stories from his nights behind the bar... with more poignant moments between father and son.... Bartholomew does both his father and McSorley's proud with this touching, redolent memoir."—Kirkus
  • "McSorley's Old Ale House had been a Manhattan legend for more than 100 years when the author's father was hired on to work the taps. ....The nostalgia-drenched memoir makes us want to revisit the joint."—Booklist
  • "Few bars in America are as storied as New York's McSorley's Old Ale House, which dates back to 1854. No matter if you've had the pleasure of enjoying a pint of its signature dark beer or not, you'll enjoy Rafe Bartholomew's memoir of his experience working at the establishment alongside his father."—Noah Rothbaum, The Daily Beast
  • For "anyone interested in the city, beer, or the infinitely mutable ideal of 'Old New York.'"—Thrillist
  • "A love letter to McSorley's most idiosyncratic conventions"—Grub Street
  • "Charming... will make you immediately thirst for a few mugs of its beer and inspire a sojourn to the legendary Big Apple monument."—The Daily Beast
  • "The bar's incomparable atmosphere is difficult to capture, but in his new book, Two and Two, Rafe Bartholomew does just that, providing a vivid history of the bar and a firsthand account of working there....A 'touching, redolent memoir' that should appeal to barflies and NYC historians alike."—Eric Liebetrau, Kirkus Reviews
  • "McSorley's is a storied bar, but its stories have rarely been this well told....In Bartholomew's book he reminds us of [McSorley's] greatness, and in a real sense, our own."—Cahir O'Doherty, Irish Central
  • "An unabashedly sentimental--yet realistic--look at the father-son relationship"—BookPage
  • "Rafe's relationship with McSorley's is deeply personal and effectively illustrative of the true nature of fatherhood and the importance of familial traditions... [McSorley's] shaped his identity and appreciate for the tradition of storytelling."—Christina Troitino, Forbes

On Sale
May 9, 2017
Page Count
288 pages

Rafe Bartholomew

About the Author

Rafe Bartholomew is the author of Pacific Rims. He was one of the original editors of Grantland, where he wrote and edited sports features from 2011 to 2015, and his work has appeared in Slate, the New York Times, the Chicago Reader, Deadspin and other leading online and print publications. Several of his stories have been honored in the Best American Sports Writing series. He lives in Los Angeles.

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