In Two and Two (Little, Brown, May), Rafe Bartholomew chronicles a childhood spent at McSorley’s, the longest continuously operating bar in New York City, where his father was a bartender.
Your first book, Pacific Rims (Berkley, 2011), was a work of sports journalism. Did you always see yourself turning to this more personal topic?
For a long time, I thought I wouldn’t end up writing about [McSorley's] because I didn’t want to exploit my upbringing or personal life. But I was a writer, and I happened to have an interesting enough story, having grown up in a well-known and often beloved—but not always beloved—bar. So on some level, it might have been inevitable. I found the answer to the worry that I wouldn’t be doing my story justice by taking my time and waiting until I [figured out how] to express things in a way that lived up to how important it all was for me.
In the opening of the book, you liken growing up at McSorley’s to a “twisted version of heaven.” What do you mean by that?
Going to the bar was the highlight of my week. It was partly because it was—especially when I was a boy—a bit of forbidden place. A bar is not a place for kindergarten kids.
In what ways do you think spending time there prepared you to be a writer?
The bar is such a verbal place, where storytelling is a kind of currency. You witness different styles of it, whether it’s a performative, gift-of-gab bartender who can charm a whole bar or a waiter who can charm a whole table with bar stories and stories of Ireland, or the more subdued stories you might hear between a couple of customers. Even though McSorley’s does have its more codified literary history—E. E. Cummings, Joseph Mitchell—what probably had the biggest impact on me as a writer was experiencing the bar and the constant storytelling and wordplay there.
You first started going to the bar in the ’80s. How has it changed, or not changed, since then?
It’s impossible to feel like the atmosphere inside the bar hasn’t changed. The business has become more reliant on tourism, from all over the world, and from all over the country. The thing that saves it from losing its identity is the continuity among the staff, in the way the place is run. Just being there, being a part of that block in Manhattan for 163 years, is an act of defiant authenticity on its own. The fact that I still can go in there and, pretty much on any day, run into someone who’s known me since I was four of five years old: it’s a pretty rare and special thing to find in a city that turns over as fast as New York.