- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

NEW YORK — Sitting in the backroom of his bar, flanked by dozens of regulars, Matty Maher considered a life spent pouring ales and spinning tales as owner of New York’s oldest and most storied saloon.The Irish immigrant had walked into McSorley’s Old Ale House 40 years earlier and never left, working behind the bar before buying it in 1977. Ownership of the East Village landmark relies on a simple concept, Mr. Maher said: Run the bar, don’t ruin it.

“It’s something you don’t want to mess up,” Mr. Maher said of McSorley’s. “You could mess up a marriage, you could mess up a country. You could be the pope and mess up.

“But you can’t mess up around here.”

Not when your bar has a history like McSorley’s, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last month.

Not when its cramped confines, its sawdust floor, its peerless dark and light ale has offered inspiration since the 19th century to poets and painters, drinkers and dreamers.

In his 1925 poem, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s,” e.e. cummings described “the ale which never lets you grow old.” Standing on a table 39 years later, Elvis Presley offered a tribute in song while “half-lit after doing a show at the Garden,” Mr. Maher recalled.

McSorley’s, just off the Bowery on East Seventh Street, remains what it has long been: part barroom, part museum, and quintessential New York City institution.

Abraham Lincoln reportedly downed one of its ales; a chair that Honest Abe used during a famous 1860 speech at nearby Cooper Union hangs above the bar. In eerie proximity, another wall holds an original 1865 “Wanted” poster for his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

There’s an invitation to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. A century later, members of the J. Geils Band presented the bar with a gold record that hangs there.

“It’s great to be a part of something that has been around long before you were born, and will be around long after you’re dead,” said Jerry Morley, sitting at his regular table with son Daniel.

Mr. Morley first set foot in the bar in 1969, five years after Mr. Maher arrived from County Kilkenny and started pouring drafts. It took 18 years — and one regular’s death — before Mr. Morley took over one of the bar’s ancient, pockmarked wooden tables.

“Walking George,” the nom d’ale of the late customer, would make the long stroll from the Bronx to the Bowery everyday. George would sit at his table, enjoy a taste, and then trek several miles back home.

George’s 1987 demise provided Mr. Morley with his opening, barroom Darwinism at work. That’s the way things operate at McSorley’s.

“These guys are here probably everyday,” said Mr. Maher, gesturing toward a table of younger construction workers. “Ten, 15 years from now, they’ll be the old-timers. It kind of rejuvenates itself.”

Customers change, but little else does.

“McSorley’s occupies the ground floor of a red brick tenement at 15 7th Street, just off Cooper Square,” Joseph Mitchell wrote in a New Yorker piece in 1940.

It still does.

The bar was the baby of John McSorley, an Irishman who set up shop here in 1854. He ran the bar until his death 56 years later, establishing the McSorley’s atmosphere and laying down its golden rule: “Be good or be gone.”

That still holds.

“It’s very comfortable to be here,” said customer Bill Gargan, who downed his first McSorley’s dark ale in 1968. “And I like the light, the way it comes through the front window.”

Indeed. Stand at the mahogany bar on a wintry afternoon, with the sunlight pouring inside and the sawdust on the floor, and there seems little difference between 1854 and 2004. Untold thousands have quaffed ale on this very spot, enjoying the street-level view.

On a recent day, 74-year-old John Katkowski of Queens stood at the bar’s south end.

“It’s one of the few places around here that’s not gentrified,” he observed. “And I like the ale.”

Mr. Katkowski is something of a newcomer; his forays to McSorley’s began in 1984. By then, the bar had undergone the one huge upheaval in its history: The admission of women on Aug. 10, 1970.

It still rankles some of the veterans.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Honey, in my day, you wouldn’t be allowed in this place,’” said Karen Miller, sharing a quiet lunch with her husband, A.J.

“It was like going to war,” Mr. Maher recalls.

Still, accommodations were made. The bar added a ladies room — 16 years after the sex line was crossed.

McSorley’s remains old-fashioned in other ways. It holds no big-screen television or CD jukebox. There is a potbellied stove, walls covered with more memorabilia than a small museum, and a staff with decades of experience.

The patrons do not drink cosmopolitans, or appletinis, or any other drink featured on “Sex and The City.” Only ale is served; most afternoons, the mugs are filled by the bar’s first female bartender, Mr. Maher’s daughter Teresa.

The cost is $2.50 for a mug, $4 for two.

Mr. Maher, with a look of glee crossing his face, recalled one denizen griping when the two-fer discount was introduced.

“I want one at a time,” the man complained. “The other one always gets hot.”

“Drink the hot one first,” the bartender replied.

McSorley’s, older than the can opener (patented 1856), survived the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two World Wars, two Iraq wars, and the terrorist attacks two miles south at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It stayed open during Prohibition, serving low-alcohol “near-beer” to outsiders while surreptitiously pumping the real stuff to regulars.

Twenty-nine U.S. presidents and 36 New York mayors have taken office since its opening, but McSorley’s transcends politics: Folk-music legend Woody Guthrie as well as former Vice President Spiro Agnew were fans.

Even to a pair of Bostonians, McSorley’s is the bar that “Cheers” could never become. The Millers first stopped by McSorley’s during a June 1991 trip to New York; they fell in love twice — with each other and the bar.

“In Boston, there’s a lot of great bars,” Mrs. Miller said. “But they don’t get to know you like they do at McSorley’s. If you hang around long enough, you become one of them.”

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