Comfortably settled on our West Philadelphia campus -- in our Logan Hall classrooms and Freshgrocer shopping aisles -- it is easy to forget how much of Philadelphia we Penn students avoid, or just don't see. We certainly would never trek out to Ridge Avenue to check out who's behind the bar at Mr. Chip's Lounge. We don't even bother striking up conversations with the likes of Harry Ochs, the friendly Reading Terminal Market butcher who dishes out recipes with every cut of meat.
Joseph Mitchell, however, made it his profession to strike up such conversations, and to write about the stories lurking off-the-beaten-path in New York. He traded notes with Mr. Frankenheim at the Deaf-Mutes Union League. He chatted with a 93-year-old "seafoodetarian" and a bearded lady. He followed John S. Smith's generous path, talking to all the people who received thousands of dollars in valueless checks from him. We learn, for instance, that the Original Commodore Dutch Association has only one membership qualification, which is to give the Dutch small sums of money.
Mitchell is known for his gritty slice-of-life essays, written for the New Yorker during a period that spans from the '30s through the '60s. All of these essays are collected in Up in the Old Hotel. His most famous essay, which is a tour-de-force of investigation and writing, is "Joe Gould's Secret." It is a story so fascinating that it was made into a movie a few years ago with Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. A Harvard graduate and wacky straggler, Gould spends all his time writing the Oral History of Our Time, which he collects in composition books that he stores at friend's homes around the city. His story is trademark Mitchell: Gould is a character too bizarre to have been invented, yet it's hard to believe he's actually real.
All of the stories in Up in the Old Hotel have that quality, which is why they're all so fun to read. Reading just a few of them makes one want to branch out a little in our own city and exhume some of the many stories concealed in the wrinkles of grizzled old Philadelphians. Harry Ochs certainly isn't reticent.
- Rebecca Dalzell