Pick of the Week: Up in the Old Hotel, a Tribute

If there was one thing (although actually, there were many things) my father-in-law loved, it was books. He passed away just a few days ago and although the movement of time will reveal more thoroughly and excruciatingly all the places where we will be missing him, I already know that this is a category of lacking. I’m not sure we were in agreement about which books we liked to read or why. But that’s sort of besides the point: People who love books love to know things, and this is a place where Dick Cowan and I most certainly intersected. 

It was my privilege to introduce him, circuitously (I introduced it to my husband, Dick’s son, Rob, and Rob passed it along to Dick), to one of my favorite books and certainly my favorite book about New York:

mitchell-up-in-the-old-hotel

What was odd was that Dick had never before encountered Joseph Mitchell—not the work he wrote for The New Yorker throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s nor this same work as it was compiled in the above volume in 1993. Odd, because Joseph Mitchell and Dick Cowan seem cut from the same cloth: they were both lovers of knowledge and enthusiasts of history, full of deep memory about New York and the small trades of long-lost fishermen and laborers and craftsmen. As luck would have it, the two of them were finally united last year—just in time for Dick to read this book, borrowed from Rob and me, then to buy his own copy, then to read it again.

A line from the essay “Mr Hunter’s Grave” that I think sums up Dick Cowan perfectly, because I can see him so vividly in it, in both the action described and the straightforward Protestantism of its description: “When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there.” We all accompanied Dick on jaunts like this—another area of lacking now clearly defined.

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