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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sloppy Louie's and the Old Fulton Ferry Hotel

Joseph Mitchell in front of Sloppy Louie's
mid 1950's
(photo published in The New Yorker)
no copyright infringement intended

(click here for the Romanian version)

The place where the Old Fulton Fish Market used to be till 2005 has become a thriving tourist zone. The market building is now housing a complex of restaurants and souvenir shops. The second floor has a huge deck overlooking the East River. You can lay there on a wooden deckchair and enjoy the magnificent view. The movement of river waves reverberates on the deck and you feel gentle pushes as coming from the deckchair. Brooklyn Bridge is close. Some old ships are docked nearby, left over since the days when  the place was a harbor and vessels from all over the world were coming there, landing fish, or other goods, or passengers.

The place smells old New York and the waterfront buildings hide stories of their own. Only it's extremely difficult if not impossible to find these stories, as the people willing to tell them are no  more, those fishermen and fishmongers (be them wholesalers or retailers), sailors or shipowners, innkeepers or waiters, clerks working in the offices around, dock laborers or plumbers, contractors, locksmiths, or business travelers, or any other kind of people implied one way or another with the fish business or the sailing. There are now only the tourist guides, and some of them are really passionate fellows trying to discover the secrets of the place. The buildings used to be run-down, looking as they had been allowed to dilapidate on their own, meanwhile they have been landmarked and restored, and now the whole looks very neat, which makes history even more difficult to be discovered.

It is a pity that these old stories are so well hidden, because each of them embeds other and other stories, older and older, a chain going back in time to the first Dutch colonists who came here and founded the Nieuw Amsterdam.

I found such a story told by Joseph Mitchell, a fascinating story like any other told by him (I think it's enough to read a single page coming from this author, and you become addict). The story was published in The New Yorker in June 1952, with the title The Cave. Later on, Mitchell changed the name of it in Up in the Old Hotel.

Back in those times Mitchell used to come any given day down to the Fulton Fish Market, to get that special feeling of old New York, and he was a permanent client of the Sloppy Louie's, a seafood restaurant located at the corner of South and Fulton Streets. The owner of the restaurant was an old Italian, Louis (or Louie) Morinoa generous, contemplative and world-wise guy, who had come to America from a small fishing village near Genoa and had worked many years as a waiter in different seafood restaurants before taking this place from another Italian restaurateur and starting his own business.

old postcard, showing Louie Morino
(the owner of Sloppy Louie's)
no copyright infringement intended

Louie loved to tell stories, and Mitchell was a wonderful listener (it's this a gift from God, to be a good listener, it's not for everyone, you always make the others feel fine and share great stuff). So Louie was telling Mitchell about his small village in Italy, how was the fishing there, why had he left for America, at whom had he gone first place to get a job here in New York, about his work as a waiter in small seafood restaurants across the city, and how had he taken this place. The name of the restaurant was Sloppy Louie's, and Sloppy was a nick inherited from the previous owner. Louie had been upset about that in the beginning, which made the other guys to go on calling the place names.  And Louie realized that he couldn't beat them, so he had to join the flock, and soon the restaurant had a new signboard, Sloppy Louie's.

Now Louie was thinking of extending his restaurant, as the number of patrons was increasing, only there was no more available space. The existent tables were occupying the whole ground floor, and the next floor was occupied by the restaurant storerooms. No way to relocate the storerooms down to the basement: due to the vicinity of East River the basement was always in danger to be flooded (it was totally different in Bucharest in the old times, where merchants were always interested in big basements for their shops, to keep there the goods - the danger in old Bucharest was rather fire than flood).

At this point of discussion Mitchell asked Louie why was he not using all floors: the building had four floors in all. The answer was astounding: Louie had never gone to the upper floors! There was a stair going only to the next floor. Then there was a small hand powered elevator, a rope-pull as it was named, kind of a dumbwaiter, and nobody had used it anymore for tens of years.

It had happened however twice for Louie to be almost ready to try the elevator. The first time (back in 1938) it had been a man sent by the real-estate management company to inspect the roofs after a hurricane. The man saw the elevator and gave up, preferring rather to go on the roof next door and cross over. The second time had been much more recently, seven months or so before. A contractor came once to eat in the restaurant and proposed to Louie to go together to try the elevator, just for curiosity. The contractor had also two helmets with him, the kind used in construction work. They both went toward the elevator, when the contractor suddenly changed his mind. He was anyway too fat to be kind of comfortable in the elevator cage. The two helmets were still there, waiting for the contractor to come back.

One evening an old lady passed by. She was the owner of the building. Louie had never been aware of her existence, as he had the lease contract with the real-estate management company. The name of the old lady was Mrs. Schermerhorn, and that raised him a trigger. Years before, when Louie was working in a restaurant in Brooklyn, he used to walk the Schermerhorn Street there on his way to work. Well, there was an old lady coming to the restaurant in Brooklyn every evening to have dinner. Her name was Mrs. Frelinghuysen. She was a frail person, due to her age, while very gentle. Everytime when she was leaving the restaurant to go home, one of the waiters was accompanying her to the carriage. Once she told Louie about the Schermerhorn family that had given the name to the street: Mrs. Frelinghuysen had attended in her youth a wedding of one of these Schermehorns, then a funeral of another.

So the Schermerhorns, that old Dutch family, had built the house where Louie was now keeping his restaurant! This was quite a history, and Louie was eager now to find more. Mrs. Schermerhorn didn't know too much, actually she knew virtually nothing. Eventually one of the patrons, who worked at an archives office, brought some interesting data. Louie was so excited that he promised the guy to serve him free lunch for seven weeks or so.

The Schermerhorns had built the whole block on Fulton between South and Front Streets. This had been at the beginning of the 19-th century (actually today the block is known as the Schermerhorn Row). The building with Louie's restaurant had been at the beginning a hotel, the Fulton Ferry Hotel (using all floors, by the way). The Brooklyn Bridge was not yet built, and a ferry was operating between the two parts of the city. There was also the harbor, so the hotel had always enough clients. Then the bridge was built, the ferry disappeared, and ships started to land on the opposite side of Manhattan, on Hudson. So the hotel was no more of any good, and the Schermerhorns gave the buildings in the care of a real-estate company.Was it possible to find some old papers, some documents, up in the old hotel?

All this was very exciting, and Mitchell proposed going up in the old hotel right away, together with LouieLet this to next time, and bring your oldest clothes, so the dust won't make any difference, was the answer. No, if we don't do it now, it's not gonna be ever, replied Mitchell. So they took the helmets and two flashlights, went up the next floor and considered taking the elevator. To reach it a ladder was needed. There was one, fixed to the floor and to the ceiling. The elevator door was difficult to open, eventually they opened it and entered the cage. The lift had no rooftop, so they could see the wheels that were sustaining the ropes. Louie started to pull one rope, without success. No wonder, after so many years of inactivity. Eventually the cage began to move, at each pull one or two inches up. They got to the third floor, now the cage door refused to open. Well, it opened after all, and the two stepped in a large hall surrounded by numbered rooms. There was a placard in one of the rooms, stating that The Wages of Sin Are Death. One couldn't object to this, only that's what the whole was about, wages of sin, death, dust, old empty rooms, old empty bottles of whiskey, old empty bureau drawers, dislocated beds and chairs. It was no use to go to the fourth floor. So it goes, would have said Vonnegut, only here the atmosphere was calling maybe in mind Melville, call me Ishmael!

And actually the way Mitchell started his story reminds Melville. Here it is:

Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast–a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.

(Joseph Mitchell)



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