There’s a line to get into every Irish pub in the city on St. Patrick’s Day, but none seem quite as long as the one at McSorley’s, arguably the city’s oldest bar. From the time the doors open at 8am until the last customers are booted out at 1 a.m., the queue winds well around the block, with St. Patrick’s Day revelers willing to stand in the cold for several hours to drink where supposedly Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, and believe it or not, even Abe Lincoln downed a pint.
On St. Patrick’s and every other day, current owner Mattie Maher—his is the third family to run the tavern—upholds a strict no-tolerance policy regarding drunk surliness, the longtime motto being “Be Good or Be Gone” (preferable to the now-abandoned philosophy of “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.”) For the McSorley’s staff, this must be the longest, most grueling day of the year.
We talk with bartender Gregory de la Haba about getting through the holiday, the bar’s trademark sawdust-strewn floors, and who gets bathroom duty.
How long have you been at McSorley’s? Since I got the owner’s daughter pregnant about 4 1/2 years ago.
Are you the son-in-law? Now I am. Ha.
How long does it take to get in on St. Patrick’s Day? We open up the doors at 8 Am, and within about five minutes, we fill up. The poor guy who gets cut off has to wait at least another three more hours before he’s let in, because once people are in, they’re not leaving until they get thrown out.
People literally stand outside for three hours? On that day, easily.
And people actually start lining up at 8 a.m.? Every year it gets earlier and earlier. Last year the first four people came at 5:15 a.m. They say St. Patrick’s Day is amateur’s day when it comes to drinking—but not here.
Who are these people who come at 5 a.m.? Do they tailgate? If we catch ’em drinking early, we send them on their way. But they’re all good guys, regulars. Normally, we see the same people year after year. Everybody who comes here that day has been here the year before, or been here 10 years in a row, twenty years in a row. We have groups that have been coming for 30 years.
What customer do you look forward to seeing the most on St. Patrick’s Day? All the regulars..I’ll tell you this. We have customers throughout the year, that if they don’t come in on a certain day, we’ll call to see if they’re okay. Like, this gentleman [gesturing to a man across from him, eating dinner] comes every Monday night for the leg of lamb. I only see him Monday nights, and he’s here every Monday night.
How has McSorley’s managed to stay open for so long [since 1854]? Yeah, even the legendary places close. Look at Second Avenue Deli, look at Billy’s up on First Avenue. I think it’s because our motto has been “Be Good or Be Gone,” we serve good ale, and we keep it simple: we open the doors each day, and the customers do the rest… Oh. [Talking to leg-of-of-lamb diner] And as this customer says, we own the building.
Who lives upstairs? Do you? No, but most of the staff do. All cousins, relatives of the family.
How many of you have to work on St. Patrick’s Day? The whole staff, everyone has to work that day. 14 people.
Who gets bathroom duty? We call that “The Shithouse.” And we have a guy, his name is Bobby Bongos. He’s a superb bongo player, percussionist. Plays all over town—he’s played bongos all over the world, actually. When he’s not playing his bongos, he’s doing the shithouse in the back.
How long has he been doing The Shithouse? Maybe 10 years now.
That’s a special man. So what goes faster, the light or dark beer? They’re both equally delicious and nutritious.
What are some problems that usually arise on St. Patrick’s Day? There’s usually one idiot out of the whole group of 20 guys. Even the friends know which one’s going to puke first. Sure enough, they’re right.
Who gets stuck cleaning up afterward? Is there a pecking order? Whoever’s section it is. We just throw some more sawdust down and sweep it up.
So sawdust takes care of everything? Sawdust is the cure-all.