Dust Is Gone Above the Bar, but a Legend Still Dangles





On Sunday morning, before the ancient doors of McSorley’s Old Ale House opened once again to spill that beer-and-sawdust aroma upon an East Village sidewalk, the owner took on a sorrowful job that in good conscience he could not leave to any of his employees. Too close to tempting the fates.

But it had to be done. The New York City health department was dropping hints as loud as the clatter of mugs on a Saturday night.

So, with heavy heart, the proprietor, Matthew Maher, 70, climbed up a small ladder. With curatorial care, he took down the two-dozen dust-cocooned wishbones dangling on an old gas lamp above the storied bar counter. He removed the clouds of gray from each bone. Then he placed every one of the bones, save for those that crumbled at his touch, back onto the gas lamp — where, in the context of this dark and wonderful establishment, they are not merely the scrap remains of poultry, but holy relics....

Joseph Mitchell, the inimitable chronicler of old New York, once wrote that the founder, John McSorley, simply liked to save things, including the wishbones of holiday turkeys. But Mr. Maher, who has worked at McSorley’s since 1964 — he predates some of the memorabilia — insists that the bones were hung by doughboys as wishful symbols of a safe return from the Great War. The bones left dangling came to represent those who never came back.

Over the years, Mr. Maher says, the custom continued. In fact, he says, bones representing doughboys lost in France now hang beside those representing soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then he adds: “Actually, it started with the Civil War.”...



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