He was puckish and presumptuous, impudent and ebullient; a bantam and bumptious, dastardly and delirious hand-out seeking hotdogger with a bare head, bushy beard, and bushels of personality. On many nights he could be found fast asleep on a bench in Washington Square Park, his belly careening with gin and ale that he had bamboozled tourists into buying him.
Born of an affluent New England family, Joseph Ferdinand Gould, a Harvard graduate of the class of 1911, moved to New York City in 1916, and was mostly homeless for the remainder of his life. He lived off the good graces of writers, artists, and whomever else he could chat or charm some change out of. Having money in his pockets made him miserable, and so he kept only a small reservoir of it, usually just enough to pay a night in a flophouse or to purchase a cup of tea in a Village diner. When finished with the cup of tea, he would ask the waiter for another cup of hot water, add a few hearty shakes of ketchup, stir, and enjoy a tomato bouillon free of charge. This habit eventually got him banished from certain eateries, but one place he was always welcome was the Minetta Tavern at 113 Macdougal Street in the West Village of downtown New York, a gritty, somewhat run-down area of the city populated mainly by students, and poets, and frequented by bohemians and bums.
It was at the Minetta where Gould most often spoke of the book he claimed to be writing, entitled An Oral History. He professed that the book was an anthology of essays based on conversations that he had overheard on the streets, in bars, and at parties. It was a catalog of what working-class people said about their “jobs, love affairs, sprees, scrapes and sorrows,” and which Gould prophesied would some day prove of deep historical significance. He often boasted that the book was longer than the Bible and he made grandiose posthumous plans for it, proclaiming that 2/3 should be donated to the Harvard library, and the remaining third to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
Though Gould always carried a pamphlet full of his writing with him, he said that the actual manuscript was scattered about in storage at the apartments of friends and in the basement of a woman he knew in Hunterdon County who owned a chicken farm. Gould would cling to the dignity of his oral history, and often assuaged doubters with this stern, rehearsed declaration:
“The Oral History has been my rope and my scaffold, my bed and my board, my wife and my floozy, my wound and the salt on it, my whiskey and my aspirin, and my rock and my salvation. It is the only thing that matters a damn to me. All else is dross.”
Joseph Mitchell, a writer for The New Yorker, met Gould in 1932 and later wrote the profile story that made Gould and the Minetta Tavern famous. Readers of the two-part story wrote letters to Gould at The New Yorker‘s address, which Mitchell later had forwarded to Gould at the Minetta, his makeshift residence.
Mitchell was also the journalist who discovered that The Oral History was exactly what its title proclaimed it to be. Though Gould had been published in the legendary literary magazine, The Dial, among canonical poets such as e.e. cummings, William Saroyan and Ezra Pound, the Oral History was never published. It only existed in Gould’s mind and in the memories of those this ribald raconteur dazzled and deceived with oral stories for 40 years.
Today, all that remains of Gould’s outlandish and bacchanalian escapades at the Minetta is a portrait of him that hangs above the second booth to the left, directly opposite the bar. In the portrait, his toothless mouth is open in an exuberant expression of explosive righteousness, and his curly grey beard grows into the forest of empty vodka glasses that surround the space on the table in front of him. The portrait is one of many that wallpaper the walls of the Minetta, and hangs among pictures of Rocky Graziano, Al Pacino, James Caan, David Caruso, Tony Bennett, Kim Basinger, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, and Matthew McConaughey, as well as many members of the “Minetta” family. Given its brown and olive tones, the portrait can easily go unnoticed, almost camouflaged into the bar, which despite its flat ceilings, is vaguely reminiscent of an old cathedral.
Under the portrait of Gould is an epitaph that gives a few details about his life, notably the history behind “Professor Sea Gull,” a nickname endearingly given to him by the bartenders at the Minetta. As the story goes, to get attention and to entice tourists to buy him drinks, Gould would flap and screech about the tavern, imitating the noises and movements of a seagull. He was fascinated by seagulls and often recited the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which he claimed to have translated from English into seagull.
Instead of Gould’s “SCRE-EEKs!” and caws, the voice of Frank Sinatra on satellite radio swells the bar area of the Minetta, as patrons serenely sip beers, hypnotized by the football match on the television above. The prodigious 1930s cash register, like Gould’s portrait, seems a silent and important remainder of the past. The bartender cruises by it, and enters her orders in the small, flat-screened computer to its right.
The bartender is a very tall, thin, blonde woman from Hawaii. When I walked into the tavern asking her for the “in house historian,” or someone who could tell me a bit about Joe Gould, she nervously flitted her eyebrows, squiggled her mouth into a confused smile, and turned hopefully to Adam, a waiter from the former Montenegro who has been working at the bar for the past nine years.
“Who does she wanna know about, Jimi Hendrix?” Asked Adam.
“No, Joe Gould,” I said.
“Ah, Uncle Giuseppe,” he said, smiling, and pointing to the portrait. “He was a writer, no?”
I told Adam a bit about Gould, and he emphatically nodded his head, “Yes, yes, Professor Seagull, every Saturday there is a tour group that comes in, and they do a little thing about Joe Gould.”
The bar at the Minetta looks like an old piano. The aisles where Gould used to perform his “Joseph Ferdinand Gould Stomp” — a hand-clapping, foot-thumping dance he learned during a short stint on Chippewa Indian reservation in North Dakota — were nearly clear on a Friday evening around 6:30, aside from the increasingly steady shuffle of tourists and a few locals who made their way through the bar towards the dining room.
The Minetta’s owner, a slim Italian named Tak efficiently greeted everyone who entered, strutting stealthily from the phone to the bar, then back to the table where he was having dinner with what appeared to be an old friend. “Bruschetta” he called out to a waiter, and the two returned to their conversation.
“Hi my name is Max and I have a reservation for 2,” said a middle-aged man in sweatpants, followed by a bespectacled NYU student who sat down at the bar and inquired about happy hour specials.
Midway through a grilled shrimp salad, Tak and his guest were joined by a man named John, who was apologetically late. “I just got back from a members only men’s club on 43rd and Vanderbilt—they have shaving, shoeshine, and a little bar. A guy from work brought me—I’d never been there before.”
Over pasta with medium-done spicy sausage, the three discussed a sundry array of topics ranging from dealings with Goldman Sachs to how many quarters they had put in the parking meters outside. Nat King Cole was now playing on the satellite radio, and two Spanish-speaking waiters were piling pies and profiteroles onto the dessert tray.
As I sat at the booth directly beneath Gould’s portrait, I scrolled the area with my eyes, hoping to find some vestige of him. He had a reputation for lice, and at times, so engrossed in the history of my surroundings, I would feel my back start to get itchy. This sensation was quickly quelled by the mundane passage of middle-aged couples and the brief-cased and breast-pocketed professionals coming in for dinner.
I asked another one of the waiters if there were any eccentric regulars that could be spotted in the bar, and he gave me a blank nod. “It’s calm, here,” he said, flatly.
Adam told me that Matthew Broderick had come to the bar the day before, and had a drink called the “Old-Fashioned New York,” but I couldn’t care less.
“No poetry? No performances?” I asked.
“We do that after work,” another waiter chimed in, smiling. He swung his apron and sang a line of “Tengo la camisa negra…,” a popular song by the Columbian artist, Juanes. He returned to his work, setting napkins folded like peacocks on each table.
The Minetta began to fill up towards 7:30. A woman who frequented the tavern 20 years ago when she was getting her PhD in economics sat down at the table next to mine. She hadn’t been back in over two decades, and couldn’t stop telling the friend she was dining with about the Minetta’s delicious tortelacci. Neither one of them so much as glanced at the portrait of Gould, nor had they ever heard of him. She began to tell a story about the last time she dined at the Minetta.
“I was wearing this same Burberry raincoat and wearing those sneakers you never wear in public,” she began.
When the tortelacci finally arrived, she continued her story, which had evolved into a tale involving the affections of an Australian employer, her deadbeat newlywed husband at the time, and her job at Goldman Sachs. She paused in the middle of it to say, holding up a forkful of tortelacci, “This is still as good as I remember it.”
If Gould were present, it is doubtful he would have said the same. Staring out at the bar, I was wishing to miraculously spot the manuscript of the Oral History, buried somewhere under a stack of paper napkins, or wedged between a pile of plates that have been out of use all these years. I was disenchanted; regretful that in a place whose walls have relished the lively recitals and conversations of Gould and his fellow literati, the most frequently referenced men seemed to be Marcus Goldman and Samuel Sachs.
Suddenly, I began to understand why Mitchell, upon completing his profile of Gould, went to work at the New Yorker every day for thirty years without ever publishing another single piece of writing. All else was dross.
Roseann Lake is a freelance journalist. She is fluent in three languages, has reported from four continents, and is happiest when dancing the foxtrot.