What Happened When the Health Department Messed With McSorley’s Iconic Wishbones

The famed McSorley’s wishbones, which are said to date back to WWI. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

McSorley’s is one of Manhattan’s most legendary bars, a living artifact of old New York where regulars remain staunchly committed to the pub’s traditions and rituals. A new memoir, Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me, tracks the relationship between author Rafe Bartholomew and his father — working side by side at the pub — and serves as a love letter to McSorley’s most idiosyncratic conventions. In the excerpt below, Bartholomew recounts the time the bar’s staff had to confront a task that had previously seemed unimaginable: cleaning the fabled wishbones that, it was said, had hung above the bar, untouched, for nearly a century.

Throughout my life around McSorley’s, there was no piece of the bar more sacred than the World War I wishbones. There were about twenty of them, all turkey bones except for one curved duck bone, dangling above the bartop from the frame of a gas lamp that hadn’t been used since electricity brought lightbulbs to McSorley’s in the 1930s. When I was a kid, the bones were sheathed in an inch of dust, as if feathers of ash had grown back around what was left of the birds. In a bar where everything was old, from the scarred tables to the potbelly stove to the nineteenth-century icebox, the wishbones appeared downright ancient. For dust to grow that thick on top of those little bits of skeleton, they had to have been left untouched for almost a hundred years. They looked otherworldly, so much so that when tourists would visit McSorley’s after reading about the wishbones in guidebooks, they would often march right up to the taps, glance at the dusty inverted Vs hanging above them, and then ask, “So where are the wishbones?”

The beauty of those wishbones, although astounding, was no match for the story of how they came to hang above the bar. In 1917, shortly after Thanksgiving, a group of East Village locals came to McSorley’s. The men were regulars, and in a matter of days they’d be shipping out to Europe to fight in the First World War. It was a going-away party, one last night of drinking and storytelling before they boarded a transatlantic freighter to head into combat and then, possibly, into the afterlife. Before Bill closed up that night, each of the men hung a turkey wishbone on the gas lamp for good luck. (Except for the one fellow whose Thanksgiving feast apparently had duck as its centerpiece. He left the stubby, curved misfit amid all the long, angular turkey bones, and eighty years later it would still hang there, puzzling drinkers and leading them to ask, “What’s wrong with the one on the end?”)

After the war, the men who survived came back to McSorley’s. Each soldier took down one of the bones, a sign that his wish had been granted. The bones that remained belonged to the guys who never made it, and to honor their sacrifice, no one had been allowed to touch the bones since then.

As patrons listened to the wishbone story, I could watch the emotion build inside them. They usually didn’t cry, but they’d turn reverent and grave. They were moved. Sometimes, emotion would get the better of people and they’d reach up to touch the wishbones, to pinch a chunk of dust and rub that history between their fingers. And that’s when my father and every other McSorley’s employee in sight would scream, “DON’T TOUCH!”

When I came of age and started picking up shifts at McSorley’s, first during the spring of 2006, around the time of my mother’s death, and then later, on and off for about five years between 2008 and 2015, I loved telling customers about the wishbones in front of my father. The first few times, he made a show of not paying attention to what I was saying, but I could see him watching from the corner of his eye, occasionally nodding as I hit my marks. I didn’t have the confidence to deadpan it like he sometimes did; I always took a deep breath, put a sober look on my face, and attempted to convey gravitas. To be honest, though, I don’t think the delivery mattered. That was the bounty of McSorley’s — whether you were a foul-mouthed Irish crank or an overeager twentysomething trying to sound like his bartender dad, patrons loved the stories because they loved the bar.

Whenever I got through the whole story and whatever follow-up questions people had without needing to ask my father for a clarification, I felt like I’d just aced a midterm. It was another sign that I wasn’t just a poser whose dad worked the taps. The respect I could command from customers while sharing the bar’s most poignant story was proof that I wasn’t only learning the mechanics of the job. Working at McSorley’s meant more than just being fit and strong and coordinated enough to serve ale in a madhouse for seven hours at a time. The lifers I looked up to, employees like Brendan and Timmy, Scott and Michael, Teresa and Pepe, and my dad, they all knew how to perform McSorley’s. They possessed distinct styles of relating to customers and spinning bar tales that felt heightened and authentic at the same time. When I started to find my McSorley’s voice, I knew I belonged.

But just as I felt myself coming into my own, things began to change around the bar. The cost of living in Manhattan had risen to such exorbitant heights that the McSorley’s crowd seemed to lose its identity. By 2010 or 2011, rents were so high that the working crowd seemed awfully scarce in Lower Manhattan. Sure, there were stragglers who clung to apartments through rent control or lucky bastards like my dad and me who were grandfathered in. We’d owned our apartment for decades, since my mother bought it with the man she married and divorced before meeting my father, back when our block consisted of little more than loading docks and shipping depots. There was no way we’d be able to afford the place in the current market. But besides outliers like us, everyone my dad saw moving into the downtown neighborhoods where he’d lived for nearly his entire adult life had big money: investment bankers, hedge fund folks, corporate lawyers, consultants of this or that nonsense. The working crowd still drank, but they appeared to be spending less of their time and money in Manhattan and at McSorley’s.

My dad might be the most paranoid man on the planet. He’s been warning me to prepare for the day he drops dead from a heart attack since I was in second grade. He spiced up my first live Yankees game with a warning that gang members would be waiting to slit my throat if I went to the bathroom alone. He wished me well on my first day of riding the subway to high school with this reminder: “Don’t make eye contact with anyone. If you lock eyes with the wrong person, they’ll take a blade out and turn your face into a jigsaw puzzle.” None of those things occurred. Likewise, although the changes at McSorley’s did seem to mirror larger social changes in the city, business was still healthy and the bar remained true to its roots.

Then the city started fucking with the wishbones.

As fate would have it, a health inspection didn’t end up giving McSorley’s its first major nudge away from tradition in recent years. Instead, that push came via a rambunctious kitty and a frivolous lawsuit. When McSorley’s got Minnie, a new kitten, in 2010, it had been around fifteen years since the bar had found a widely adored cat. The previous one had been Sawdust, the tabby whose death in 1995 inspired Gene Hall’s sweet elegy. McSorley’s always had cats, though, and the two that inhabited the bar in the period between Sawdust and Minnie were a skittish brother-sister pair notable for their blimplike obesity and for the time one of the chefs puked on one of them. We cared for those sad little waddlers until they expired, and maybe a month later someone brought in Minnie.

Minnie was a darling: Her gray coat blended into tiny white booties at her paws, she had incandescent sapphire eyes, and she would have spent entire days rolling and playing in the sawdust if we would have let her. But city laws prohibited restaurants from keeping pets on the premises, and the McSorley’s compromise was to banish Minnie to the basement during business hours and only let her into the bar before and after closing. But Pepe, the weekday manager, adored Minnie from the moment she popped out of the little cardboard box in which she’d been carried to the bar. During slow Monday and Tuesday mornings, he’d steal as much extra time with her as he could, scratching her belly on the bar and supposedly coaxing her to perch on his shoulder while he pumped ale. (I never saw this occur, and the image carries a distinct whiff of bar story poetic license.)

There was little harm in this — customers generally loved Minnie, and health inspectors were unlikely to arrive first thing in the morning. Then one day, as Minnie zipped around the bar, soaking up attention from the handful of early-bird patrons, a woman in the back room started playing with her and wound up getting scratched. None of the people who witnessed the incident thought much of it, and the injury didn’t seem severe, but a couple of weeks later we learned that the woman had filed a lawsuit claiming that the cat had “mauled” her. It was a joke, one that the New York Post saw fit to put on its cover, which showed an adorable picture of Minnie, rolled over on her back with the headline: IS THIS THE FACE OF A KILLER?

From what I heard, the lawsuit ended in some token settlement, but the publicity brought a call from the health department. If it was true that McSorley’s was keeping a cat on the premises, it would have to be removed, and there would be serious consequences if future health inspections found we had ignored this recommendation. Minnie had to go — Pepe ended up adopting her. But for the first time in my life and the first time in more than a century, McSorley’s had no cats.

Maybe it was an omen. When our next inspection came around, the unthinkable happened. One of the city inspectors pointed up and said that the thick dust clinging to the wishbones presented a health hazard. What if a clump fell off and landed in someone’s mug of ale? This wasn’t a new concern for us, nor was the solution difficult: We’d apologize and pour them a new mug. Even if the inspector didn’t know the story of the wishbones, couldn’t he tell just by looking that they were special? That they must have been left untouched for a reason?

This inspector arrived on a Saturday night in April 2011, during a predictable crush of customers, and nobody working had time to educate the guy on the wishbones’ meaning or to talk him out of his decision to write up the violation. Let the guy do his job, then figure out a way to save the wishbones later. That was the plan.

We batted ideas back and forth all night. Of all the outcomes we discussed, the one we didn’t consider was to abide by the health department’s command and clean off the dust. For me, that was inconceivable. One of the first McSorley’s lessons my father had ever taught me, on the first day he brought me to work, was never to touch the wishbones — to respect the memory of those soldiers. I bet my father wasn’t quite as naïve as I was that night, but he seemed equally convinced that McSorley’s and the city could find an acceptable compromise on how to preserve the bones without exposing customers to any perilous snowflakes of dust. We closed up, and went home with the full expectation that when we came back for work the following night, we’d be returning to the same McSorley’s.

Nope. That Monday we biked to the bar, like always, around 5:30 p.m. When we stepped through the swinging doors and into the front room, the day waiter, Shane, was waiting for us, pointing up at the gas lamp and shaking his head in disapproval. The turkey bones were still there, but they were naked. For the first time in my life, I saw the actual bones beneath all that dust.

“No.” It was the only word I could muster. I was stupefied.

“Did you have to do it?” my father asked.

“Thank God, no,” Shane said. He explained that after we closed up and left Sunday night, Matthew “Matty” Maher came to McSorley’s, the bar he’d owned since 1977, and did something he never thought he’d have to do. Rather than get into a protracted dispute with the city about how to preserve the dust, he decided the only course was to clean the wishbones. But he knew more than anyone how much that dust meant to the bar, and he couldn’t bring himself to assign the task to an employee. So he drove in from Queens around three on Monday morning, rang the buzzer to get Johnny out of bed, and began the delicate work of removing each wishbone, one by one, wiping off the dust, and hanging it back in the same spot.

After he’d cleaned them all, he couldn’t bring himself to toss away the dust, a potent symbol of the ninety-three years that generations of McSorley’s bartenders, waiters, and customers had spent honoring those fallen soldiers. We would continue honoring them, of course, just not in the same way. Matty swept the dust into a Ziploc bag, sealed it, and took it home to Queens for safekeeping. Since my father and I had closed up just an hour or two before Matty arrived to shoulder his grim burden, that meant we were two of the very last people to see the wishbones the way I’d expected them to be forever — coated in dust.

That first Monday night after the bones were dusted, I began the shift with my mind spinning, full of doubt and recriminations. I imagined a near future where the city had changed so dramatically that even though McSorley’s remained intact, it no longer felt special. We’d still be there, serving ale and making a living, but we’d be more like actors at a Renaissance Faire than genuine barmen. McSorley’s authenticity was a product of continuity — stories, work practices, and customs that started with Old John in 1854 and remained alive in today’s staff. Losing the dust off the World War I wishbones was a blow to that continuity.

About forty-five minutes into the night, a couple of NYU students walked up to the bar from the back room. “Sorry,” one of them said, to get my attention. “Can you tell us about the wishbones?”

Oh, shit. I looked to my father for guidance. How was I supposed to spin the ending? All he gave me was a shrug. “Don’t ask me, Jimbo,” he said. “Not my problem.”

So I pointed to the smooth, dustless wishbones above our heads and started from the beginning: Well, it was 1917. A group of local guys, regulars at the bar, planned to have a going-away party here at McSorley’s… . I stuck with the script all the way till the end, only it was no longer the end.

… The dust was an inch thick all around. For ninety-three years, nobody had been allowed to touch the wishbones. We would smack customers’ hands out of the air if they reached up. And it was like that until — well, you guys aren’t gonna believe this — until last night.

The twist had the NYU guys hooked. It had me hooked, too. I felt a rush, realizing that I was helping to unspool a new chapter of the bar’s oral history.

No kidding, guys. The city health inspectors came in Saturday and ordered us to get rid of the dust, and because the owner knew it would’ve broken any of our hearts to clean the wishbones, he snuck in here after closing, without telling anyone, and did it himself. Gotta respect him for stepping up like that.

They were rapt. My concern that the wishbones would lose their power to inspire after being dusted couldn’t have been more wrong. And as I recounted the careful attention Matty had paid to cleaning the bones one by one and making sure each was returned to its former spot on the gas lamp, I gained a greater appreciation for the sacrifice he’d made on behalf of his staff.

McSorley’s was his life’s work, just like it was my dad’s and Pepe’s and everyone else’s. It must have torn a hole in Matty’s conscience to clean those wishbones, and he’d spared us that pain. And his decision to preserve all the dust and take it home with him was a touching act of reverence, worthy of the dreams those soldiers left on the gas lamp in 1917.

All of a sudden, a shift that had started with me feeling devastated and forecasting the eventual decline of McSorley’s once-great Ale House had flipped into an emotional high. I’d never felt prouder to work for Matty, never felt prouder to be a tiny patch in McSorley’s timeless fabric.

Why Are Dusty Wishbones So Revered at McSorley’s?