John McNulty was an unsung 1940s New Yorker writer who hung around the kind of characters who might've been extras on the mid-century version of Law & Order: cabbies, alcoholics, policemen, loose women, plumbers, gamblers.
The natural habitat for these types was, of course, the bar—particularly ones on Third Avenue in Manhattan. From his barstool perch in the now-shuttered Costello's on East 44th Street, McNulty became one of the greatest observers and chroniclers of saloon culture the world has ever known—and forgotten. He had an unsurpassed ear for the cadences of street speech and dialect, as evidenced by his collection of essays, This Place on Third Avenue—republished this month 10 years ago. The book features an assortment of brilliant bar-related slang and catchphrases, most of which have retained their wit and panache for more than half a century. Read on for three of our favorite McNulty coinages, in his own words.
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The Angelus Hour:
"That time on Sunday afternoon…about four o'clock, when late hangovers from Saturday night come in one by one. They stay that way too, one by one. Each man makes himself into an island, standing in front of the bar, and everyone keeps a space on each side of him the way water is on the sides of islands. These hangovers feel too terrible to talk to each other for a couple of hours yet, anyway. Each of them keeps staring into the mirror in back of the bar and saying to himself, 'Look at you, you'll never amount to anything. You went to school and grew up and everything and now look at you, you'll never amount to anything.' Old veteran Third Avenue bartenders call this fighting the mirror, and they all think it is very bad for a man. The place is sad and quiet when a batch of hangovers are doing this, and so someone nicknamed this time of Sunday afternoon the Angelus."
The Snake Is Out:
"There's a kind of medicine practiced by old veteran bartenders among old veteran drinkers along Third Avenue…perhaps it isn't exactly medicine, but it's medical observation, anyway. The 'snake' is an ordinary little vein, or maybe it is an artery, that runs along the left temple of a man's head.…The bartender will say, but not for anyone else to hear, 'I was just going to tell you the snake is out.' It must be the blood pressure or something. Time and time again this happens, in a quiet way, and it seldom fails that it halts up the man that's drinking—slows him up, anyway—when no amount of talk or lecturing could do it."
"In this neighborhood, they call them scratch bums when they've got as far low as they could get and don't even try any more to keep themselves without bugs on them. Therefore, scratch bums."
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—Christopher Ross (@cgallagherross), assistant editor at Details