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In memory of Joseph Mitchell, the father of us all

May 24, 2013
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264517_10200617534737395_1530550786_nThough everybody is talking about Bob Dylan’s birthday, Joseph Mitchell, the great writer of New Yorker profiles, who died 17 years ago today, is far more important to me (no offense, Bobby). We may think of the New Yorker as high-brow, but Mitchell is the father of us all at alt-weeklies. The voice he created by profiling interesting, but unfamous people that one might bump into over the course of a week in New York City, has been studied and pilfered by any serious alt-weekly writer in the country (though, Mitchell never got as racy as we’re now permitted to be). Our own City Folk profiles owe a tremendous debt to Mitchell’s understated style and sympathetic sensibility.

New York is now too expensive for the kinds of people Mitchell wrote about–but not Baltimore. We are a city full of rich characters, not rich people.

In honor of Mitchell, here are seven City Paper stories we hope would make him proud.

In this classic story, Van Smith does for the bars of Curtis Bay what Mitchell did for “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.”

Edward Ericson Jr’s profile of Deborah Quansay,  a disabled woman, Deborah Quasney, to regain control of her finances, shares some of Mitchell’s deep sense of compassion. It’s up for an AAN award this year.

But in “Loose Cannon,” Ericson embodies Mitchell’s more skeptical side as he investigates the men obsessed with a 500-year-old bronze relic that may be at the bottom of a Dundalk marina.

Rafael Alvarez may be the closest thing we have to Joe Mitchell and we think his story about IND’s Sister Hildie is worthy of the master (Today is also Rafael’s birthday).

This piece about the bar car on the MARC train, by Gaddi Dechter, takes the classic Mitchell approach of finding a  fascinating world just beneath your nose.

Dechter has a ton of stories like this, so, while we’re at it,  here’s a piece on a now-defunct gay strip club. While Mitchell might have blushed at the frank sex-talk  in this piece, it shares his love of the old and almost lost ways.

I include this final story of my own, not to compare my writing with Mitchell’s but because the subject, Raoul Middleman, is so richly Mitchellian.

If you haven’t read Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, I suggest you go to a bookstore and buy it today–I can’t think of a better way to spend a long weekend.

(Photo: A few years ago, my wife and I were driving down south and, as we passed by Fairmont, N.C., I recalled it was Mitchell’s hometown. I also recalled his beautiful writing about graveyards, and we pulled off the interstate and poked around town until we found his grave, from which I dug a little dust to give us luck.)

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