Posted by: Nancy | April 10, 2011


Ion Paleologue first told me about McSorley’s.

As a young man in the early 1940s in New York, Ion was a regular at the legendary taverns in Greenwich Village, and his favorites were Minetta’s and McSorley’s.

Minetta’s has given way to the times, with a recent renovation that turned it into an upscale eating establishment. But McSorley’s, as I’ve noted before, stands defiant in its refusal to change. The last major change was the result of a 1969 legal decision, which forced the establishment (founded in 1874) to open its doors to women.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a champion of change. I applaud the decision that allowed me to visit McSorley’s. But some change does bring a pang to the heart.

Like the most recent one at McSorleys, involving the wishbones.

Back to my friend Ion.  When he visited McSorley’s, those wishbones were there, pronged on the gaslamp chandelier. They were already covered with decades of grime and dust.

They’d been placed there by young men, before they headed off to war. The first wishbones, it was said, came from the Civil War. They represented hopes delayed — the wishbones became symbols of the desired return. Once back, the soldiers could retrieve the bit of bone and make a wish.

Only many of the men didn’t return. And so the wishbones remained, unclaimed.

Ion was one of the lucky ones. He returned from World War II safely, and reclaimed his wishbone. He’s the kind of guy who might have wished for an end to all wars or maybe just another pint.

Other wishes and wishbones went unclaimed, and so remained atop the chandelier, gathering dust and grime. Until this week, when a health inspector ordered them cleaned. Details at this NYT article. (The inspector also ordered the McSorley cats removed.)

In responding to the order about the health hazard of the wishbones, Proprieter Matthew Maher carefully removed the wishbones, cleaned each, and returned each to its proper place. In a loving touch, he kept the grime  and dust removed from each, and took it home with him, “because, in the context of McSorley’s, it is sacred.” (quote from the NYT article).

Perhaps like the other changes, these will become part of the lore, always evoking a pang in the heart. Perhaps the important thing is passing on the stories of this remarkable place.

Ion did. He understood me well enough to know that I’d go there, whenever I could. He knew I’d look for the wishbones and give the cats some kindness, and keep the story alive.

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