Abossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery. In the nickel-a-drink saloons and in the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name. She makes a round of these establishments practically every night, and drunken bums sometimes come up, slap her on the back, and call her sweetheart. This never annoys her. She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any other person in the city. Each day she gives them between five and fifteen dollars in small change, which is a lot of money on the Bowery. “In my time I been as free with my dimes as old John D. himself,” she says. Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre, at 209 Park Row, a few doors west of Chatham Square, where the Bowery begins.
The Venice is a small, seedy moving-picture theatre, which opens at 8 a.m. and closes a midnight. It is a dime house. For this sum a customer sees two features, a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, and a serial episode. Serials are popular there; an old-fashioned, bloody one called “Deadwood Dick” is running currently. The Venice is not a “scratch house.” In fact, it is highly esteemed by its customers, because its seats get a scrubbing three times a week. Mazie brags that it is as sanitary as the Paramount. “Nobody ever got loused up in the Venice,” she says. On the Bowery, cheap movies rank just below cheap alcohol as an escape, and most bums are movie fans. In the clientele of the Venice they are numerous. The Venice is also frequented by people from the tenement neighborhoods in the vicinity of Chatham Square, such as Chinatown, the Little Italy on lower Mulberry Street, and the Spanish section on Cherry Street. Two-thirds of its customers are males. Children and most women sit in a reserved section under the eyes of a matron. Once, in an elegant mood, Mazie boasted that she never admits intoxicated persons. “When do you consider a person intoxicated?” she was asked. Mazie snickered. “When he has to get down on all fours and crawl,” she said. In any case, there are drunks in practically every Venice audience. When the liquor in them dies down they become fretful and mumble to themselves, and during romantic pictures they make loud, utterly frank remarks to the actors on the screen, but by and large they are not as troublesome as a class of bums Mazie calls “the stiffs.” These are the most listless of bums. They are blank-eyed and slow-moving, and they have no strong desire for anything but sleep. Some are able to doze while leaning against a wall, even in freezing weather. Many stiffs habitually go into the Venice early in the day and slumber in their seats until they are driven out at midnight. “Some days I don’t know which this is, a movie-pitcher theatre or a flophouse,” Mazie once remarked. “Other day I told the manager pitchers with shooting in them are bad for business. They wake up the customers.”
Most Bowery movie houses employ bouncers. At the Venice, Mazie is the bouncer. She tells intimates that she feels fighting is unladylike but she considers it her duty to throw at least one customer out of the theatre every day. “If I didn’t put my foot down, the customers would take the place,” she says. “I don’t get any fun out of fighting. I always lose my temper. When I start swinging, I taste blood, and I can’t stop. Sometimes I get beside myself. Also, a lot of the bums are so weak they don’t fight back, and that makes me feel like a heel.” Mazie is small, but she is wiry and fearless, and she has a frightening voice. Her ticket cage is in the shadow of the tracks of the City Hall spur of the Second and Third Avenue elevated lines, and two decades of talking above the screeching of the trains have left her with a rasping bass, with which she can dominate men twice her size. Now and then, in the Venice, a stiff throws his head back and begins to snore so blatantly that he can be heard all over the place, especially during tense moments in the picture. When this happens, or when one of the drunks gets into a bellowing mood, the women and children in the reserved section stamp on the floor and chant, “Mazie! Mazie! We want Mazie!” The instant this chant goes up, the matron hastens out to the lobby and raps on the side window of Mazie’s cage. Mazie locks the cash drawer, grabs a bludgeon she keeps around, made of a couple of copies of True Romances rolled up tightly and held together by rubber bands, and strides into the theatre. As she goes down the aisle, peering this way and that, women and children jump to their feet, point fingers in the direction of the offender, and cry, “There he is, Mazie! There he is!” Mazie gives the man a resounding whack on the head with her bludgeon and keeps on whacking until he seems willing to behave. Between blows, she threatens him with worse punishment. Her threats are fierce and not altogether coherent. “Outa here on a stretcher!” she yells. “Knock your eyeballs out! Big baboon! Every tooth in your head! Bone in your body!” The women and children enjoy this, particularly if Mazie gets the wrong man, as she sometimes does. In action, Mazie is an alarming sight. Her face becomes flushed, her hair flies every which way, and her slip begins to show. If a man defends himself or is otherwise contrary, she harries him out of his seat and drives him from the theatre. As he scampers up the aisle, with Mazie right behind him, whacking away, the women and children applaud.
Mazie’s animosity toward a stiff or a drunk usually lasts until she has driven him out to the sidewalk. Then, almost invariably, she becomes contrite and apologetic. “Look, buddy, I’m sorry,” she said one afternoon recently to a drunk she had chased out because he had been screaming “Sissy! Sissy!” at George Raft during the showing of a prison picture called “Each Dawn I Die.” “If you didn’t see the whole show,” she continued, “you can go back in.” “Hell, Mazie,” said the drunk, “I seen it three times.” “Here, then,” she said, handing him a dime. “Go get yourself a drink.” Although the drunk’s ears were still red from Mazie’s blows, he grinned. “You got a heart of gold, Mazie,” he said. “You my sweetheart.” “O.K., buddy,” Mazie said, stepping back into the cage. “You quit acting like a god-damn jackass and I’ll be your sweetheart.”
Mazie says her real name is Mazie Phillips, but she will not tell anything about her parents. Her intimates say that around 1903, when she was a schoolgirl in Boston, her older sister, Rosie, came to New York and married Louis Gordon, an East Side gambler and promoter. They established a home on Grand Street, and a few years later Mazie and her younger sister, Jeanie, came to live with them. The family of Belle Baker, the vaudeville singer, lived nearby on Chrystie Street. Irving Becker, Belle’s brother, now the manager of the road company of “Tobacco Road,” once had a job loading rifles in a shooting gallery Gordon operated at Grand Street and the Bowery. “We and the Gordons were great friends,” Becker said recently. “Louie Gordon was as fine a gambler as the East Side ever produced. He was a big, stately gentleman and he gave to the poor, and the bankroll he carried a billy goat couldn’t swallow it. He hung around race tracks, but he would gamble on anything. He made a lot of money on horses and invested it in Coney Island. He and his brother, Leo, helped back the original Luna Park, which opened in 1903. He was one of those silent gamblers. He never said nothing about himself. He gave everybody a fair shake, and he didn’t have a thing to hide, but he just never said nothing about himself. All the Gordons were that way.”
In 1914, Gordon opened a moving-picture theatre in a building he owned on Park Row, naming it the Venice, after an Italian restaurant in Coney Island whose spaghetti he liked. After operating it four years, he found that it kept him away from the tracks and he gave it to Rosie, who had been working in the ticket cage. The next year he sold his Bowery shooting gallery, in which, for several months, Mazie had been running a candy-and-root-beer concession. Rosie did not like selling tickets, so Mazie took her job. Around this time, Mazie began calling herself Mazie Gordon. She will not explain why she took her brother-in-law’s name. “That’s my business,” she says. The Gordons left Grand Street in the early twenties, moving to a house on Surf Avenue in Coney. Mazie continued to live with them. Louis was away much of the time, following the horses. Mazie says that once, after a good season in Saratoga, he gave her a Stutz which, with accessories, cost $5,000. She used to ride down to Coney in the Stutz every night after work; one of the ushers at the Venice was her chauffeur. In October, 1932, Louis fell dead of a heart attack at the Empire City race track. Four years ago, Mazie and her sisters left Coney and returned to the East Side, taking an apartment together in Knickerbocker Village, four blocks from the Venice. They live quietly. Rosie, a taciturn, sad-eyed woman, looks after property left by her husband. Besides her interest in the Venice, this property includes a number of lots along the boardwalk in Coney and an ancient red-brick tenement at 9 James Street, a block from the Venice. This tenement has sixteen cold-water flats, all occupied by unmarried Chinese men. Jeanie, a pretty, brawny young woman, boasts that she has gone to the West Coast and back ten times while working as an acrobatic dancer. She says she is at present waiting for vaudeville to return. Now and then she spells Mazie in the cage at the Venice.
Mazie’s hours would kill most women. She works seven days a week, seldom taking a day off, and is usually on duty from 9:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. Her cage is not much more spacious than a telephone booth, but she long ago learned how to make herself comfortable in it. She sits on two thick pillows in a swivel chair and wears bedroom slippers. In summer she keeps an electric fan, aimed upward, on the floor, replacing it in winter with an electric heater. When the weather is especially cold she brings her dog, Fluffy, an old, wheezy Pomeranian bitch, to the theatre. She lets Fluffy sleep in her lap, and this keeps both of them warm. Mazie makes change as automatically as she breathes, and she finds time for many domestic chores while on duty. She mends clothes, puts red polish on her fingernails, reads a little, and occasionally spends half an hour or so cleaning her diamonds with a scrap of chamois skin. On rainy days she sends out for her meals, eating them right in the cage. She uses the marble change counter for a table. Once, hunched over a plate of roast-beef hash, she looked up and said to a visitor, “I do light housekeeping in here.” When she gets thirsty she sends an usher across the street to the King Kong Bar & Grill for a cardboard container of beer. She used to keep a bottle of Canadian whiskey, which she calls “smoke,” hidden in her cash drawer, but since an appendix operation a year and a half ago she has limited herself to celery tonic and beer.
There are two cluttered shelves on one wall of her cage. On the bottom shelf are a glass jar of “jawbreakers,” a kind of hard candy which she passes out to children, a clamshell that serves as an ashtray, a hind leg of a rabbit, a stack of paper towels, and a box of soap. When a bum with an exceptionally grimy face steps up to buy a ticket, Mazie places a towel and a cake of soap before him and says, “Look, buddy, I’ll make a bargain with you. If you’ll take this and go in the gents’ room and wash your face, I’ll let you in free.” Few bums are offended by this offer; most of them accept willingly. Occasionally she gives one fifteen cents and sends him to a barber college on Chatham Square for a shave and a haircut. If she is in a good humor, Mazie will admit a bum free without much argument. However, she says she can tell a bum by the look in his eyes, and ordinary citizens who have heard of her generosity and try to get passed in outrage her. “If you haven’t got any money,” she tells such people, “go steal a watch.”
On Mazie’s top shelf is a pile of paperbacked books, which includes “Old Gipsy Nan’s Fortune Teller and Dream Book,” “Prince Ali Five Star Dream Book,” and “Madame Fu Futtam’s Spiritual Magical Dream Book.” Mazie is deeply interested in dreams, although at times she seems a little ashamed of it. “A dream just means you et something that didn’t agree with you,” she sometimes says, rather defiantly. Nevertheless, she makes a practice of remembering them and spends hours hunting through her books for satisfactory interpretations. Also on her top shelf are a rosary, some back numbers of a religious periodical called the Messenger of the Sacred Heart, and a worn copy of “Spiritual Reflections for Sisters,” by the Reverend Charles J. Mullaly, S.J., which she borrowed from an Italian nun, one of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, who conduct a school in Chinatown. Lately Mazie has been reading a page of this book every day. She says that she understands hardly any of it but that reading it makes her feel good. Mazie is not a Catholic; she is Jewish, but she has been entranced by Roman Catholicism for many years. One of her oldest friends in the neighborhood is Monsignor William E. Cashin, rector of St. Andrew’s, the little church back of the Municipal Building. She frequently shows up for the Night Workers’ Mass, which is said every Sunday at 2:30 a.m. in St. Andrew’s by Monsignor Cashin. She sits in a middle pew with her head bowed. Surrounded by policemen, firemen, scrubwomen, telephone girls, nurses, printers, and similar night workers who regularly attend the mass, she feels at home. On the way out she always slips a dollar bill into the poor box. Now and then she calls on the Monsignor and has a long talk with him, and whenever he takes a walk on the Bowery he pauses at her cage and passes the time of day.
Mazie also knows two mothers superior quite well. The rosary she keeps in her cage is a present from the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine, who run Madonna House, a settlement on Cherry Street. Sister Margaret, the superior there, has known Mazie for years and has made an attempt to understand her. “On the Bowery it’s probably an asset to have a reputation for toughness,” Sister Margaret once told a friend, “and I’m afraid Mazie tries to give people the worst possible impression of herself, just for self-protection. She isn’t really tough. At heart, she’s good and kind. We can always count on her for help. A few weeks ago there was a fire in an Italian tenement near here. One of the families in it had a new baby. It was late at night and we didn’t know exactly how to help them. Two of the sisters went to Mazie, and she came right down and found the family a new flat and gave the mother some money.” Mazie’s favorite saint is St. John Bosco. There is a statue of him in a niche in the steeple of the weatherbeaten Church of the Transfiguration in Chinatown. At night the saint can be clearly seen by the light of the galaxy of neon signs on the chop-suey joints which surround the church. When she passes through Mott Street, Mazie looks up at the saint and crosses herself. “I asked a sister once if it was O.K. for me to give myself a cross, and she told me it was,” Mazie says.
Mazie became interested in Catholicism in the winter of 1920. A drug addict on Mulberry Street, a prostitute with two small daughters, came to her cage one night and asked for help. The woman said her children were starving. “I knew this babe was a junky,” Mazie says, “and I followed her home just to see was she lying about her kids. She had two kids all right, and they were starving in this crummy little room. I tried to get everybody to do something—the cops, the Welfare, the so-called missions on the Bowery that the Methodists run or whatever to hell they are. But all these people said the girl was a junky. That excused them from lifting a hand. So I seen two nuns on the street, and they went up there with me. Between us, we got the woman straightened out. I liked the nuns. They seemed real human. Ever since then I been interested in the Cat’lic Church.”
Mazie does not spend much time at home, so she encourages people to visit her while she is working. Her visitors stand around in the lobby at the rear door of her cage. She frequently gets so interested in a caller that she swings completely around in her swivel chair and presents her back to customers, who have to shout and rap on the window before she will turn and sell them tickets. In the morning, practically all of her visitors are bums with hangovers who come to her, scratching themselves and twitching, and ask for money with which to get their first drinks of the day. She passes out dimes regularly to about twenty-five of these men. Because of this, she is disliked by many of the hard-shell evangelists who hold hymn-singings in the gutters of the Bowery every evening. One of them, a grim, elderly woman, came to the cage not long ago and shook a finger at Mazie. “We sacrifice our nights to come down here and encourage these unfortunates to turn over a new leaf,” she said. “Then you give them money and they begin using intoxicants all over again.” When Mazie is faced with such a situation, she makes irrelevant or vulgar remarks until the complainant leaves. On this occasion she leaned forward and said, “Par’n me, Madam, but it sounds like your guts are growling. What you need is a beer.”
Few of the men to whom Mazie gives money for eye-openers are companionable. They take her dimes with quivering fingers, mutter a word of thanks, and hurry off. Two of them, however, invariably linger a while. They have become close friends of Mazie’s. One is a courtly old Irishman named Pop, and the other is an addled, sardonic little man who says he is a poet and whom Mazie calls Eddie Guest. She says she likes Pop because he is so cheerful and Eddie Guest because he is so sad. “I come from a devout family of teetotallers,” Pop once said. “They was thirteen in the family, and they called me the weakling because I got drunk on Saturday nights. Well, they’re all under the sod. Woodrow Wilson was President when the last one died, and I’m still here drinking good liquor and winking at the pretty girls. It would take the U.S. Army to kill me, and by God, Mazie, the Army’d have to work overtime.” “That’s right, Pop,” Mazie said. Pop works bus stops. He approaches people waiting on corners for a bus and asks for a nickel with which to get uptown or downtown, as the case may be. When he gets a nickel, he touches his hat and hurries off to the next bus stop. At night he sings ballads in Irish gin mills on Third Avenue. Mazie thinks he has a beautiful baritone, and every morning, in return for her dime, he favors her with two or three ballads. Her favorites—she hums them—are “Whiskey, You’re the Divil,” “The Garden Where the Praties Grow,” “Tiddly-Aye-Aye for the One-Eyed Reilly,” and “The Widow McGinnis’s Pig.” Sometimes Pop dances a jig on the tiled floor of the lobby. “Pop’s a better show than got inside,” Mazie says on these occasions.
Eddie Guest is a gloomy, defeated, ex-Greenwich Village poet who has been around the Bowery off and on for eight or nine years. He mutters poetry to himself constantly and is taken to Bellevue for observation about once a year. He carries all his possessions in a greasy beach bag and sleeps in flophouses, never staying in one two nights in succession, because, he says, he doesn’t want his enemies to know where he is. During the day he wanders in and out of various downtown branches of the Public Library. At the Venice one night last winter he saw “The River,” the moving picture in which the names of the tributaries of the Mississippi were made into a poem. When he came out, he stopped at Mazie’s cage, spread his arms, and recited the names of many of the walkup hotels on the Bowery. “The Alabama Hotel, the Comet, and the Uncle Sam House,” he said, in a declamatory voice, “the Dandy, the Defender, the Niagara, the Owl, the Victoria House and the Grand Windsor Hotel, the Houston, the Mascot, the Palace, the Progress, the Palma House and the White House Hotel, the Newport, the Crystal, the Lion and the Marathon. All flophouses. All on the Bowery. Each and all my home, sweet home.” For some reason, Mazie thought this was extraordinarily funny. Now, each morning, in order to get a dime, Eddie Guest is obliged to recite this chant for her. It always causes her to slap her right thigh, throw her head back, and guffaw. Both Eddie Guest and Mazie can be grimly and rather pointlessly amused by the signs over flophouse entrances and by the bills of fare lettered in white on the windows of pig-snout restaurants. When Mazie passes the Victoria House and sees its sign, “rooms with electric lights, 30c,” or when she looks at the window of the Greek’s on Chatham Square, “Snouts with French fry Pots & coffee, T, or buttermilk, 10c,” she always snickers. Mazie has considerable respect for Eddie Guest but thinks he is kidding when he calls himself a poet. Once he read to her part of a completely unintelligible poem about civilization in the United States, on which he says he has been working for twenty years and which he calls “No Rags, No Bones, No Bottles Today.” “If that’s a poem,” Mazie said when he had finished, “I’m Mrs. Simpson.”
Mazie’s afternoon visitors are far more respectable than the morning ones. The people who stopped by to talk with her between noon and 6 p.m. one Saturday this fall included Monsignor Cashin, Fannie Hurst, two detectives from the Oak Street station, a flashily dressed young Chinese gambler whom Mazie calls Fu Manchu and who is a power in Tze Far, the Chinatown version of the numbers lottery; two nuns from Madonna House, who wanted to thank her for buying a phonograph for the girls’ club at their settlement; a talkative girl from Atlanta, Georgia, called Bingo, once a hostess in a Broadway taxi-dance hall and now the common-law wife of the chef of a chop-suey restaurant on Mott Street; the bartender of a Chatham Square saloon, who asked her to interpret a dream for him; and the clerk of a flophouse, who came to tell her that a bum named Tex had hanged himself in the washroom the night before. When she was told about Tex, Mazie nodded sagely and said, as she always does when she hears about the death of someone she has known, “Well, we all got to go sooner or later. You can’t live forever. When your number’s up, rich or poor, you got to go.” Most of the visitors on that afternoon happened to be old friends of Mazie’s. Miss Hurst, for example, she has known for eleven years. She calls her Fannie and likes to tell about their first meeting.
“One night,” she says, “a swell-looking dame came to my cage and said she often took walks on the Bowery and would like to meet me. She said her name was Fannie Hurst. ‘Pleased to meet you, Fannie,’ I said. ‘My name is Mary Pickford.’ It turned out she really was Fannie Hurst. At first I thought she was going to put me in a book, and I didn’t go for her. Since she promised not to write no books about me, we been pals.” Miss Hurst visits Mazie frequently. Each time she comes, Mazie looks at her dress, fingers the material, asks how much it cost, tells her she got gypped, and advises her to try one of the shops on Division Street. Miss Hurst does not mind this. “I admire Mazie,” she said. “She is the most compassionate person I’ve ever known. No matter how filthy or drunk or evil-smelling a bum may be, she treats him as an equal.” Until recently, Miss Hurst occasionally took friends down to meet Mazie. “I’m afraid they looked on her as just another Bowery curiosity,” she says. “So I don’t take people down any more. I used to invite Mazie to parties at my house. She always accepted but never came. I think she’s still a little suspicious of me, although I’ve never written a line about her and never intend to. I simply look upon her as a friend.”
From callers like Fu Manchu and Bingo, Mazie hears considerable gossip about the sleazy underworld of Chinatown. She says she never repeats such gossip, not even to her sisters. Detectives know that she has many Chinese friends and sometimes stop at her cage and ask apparently innocent questions about them; she shrugs her shoulders and says, “No spik English.” In general, however, she coöperates with the police. Drunken tourists often come down to Bowery joints to see life, and when she notices them stumbling around Chatham Square she telephones the Oak Street station. “Such dopes are always getting rolled by bums,” she says. “I got no sympathy for out-of-towners, but bums are the clumsiest thieves in the world. They always get caught, and it’s best to get temptation out of their way.” Although her language frequently shocks the Oak Street cops, they admire Mazie. Detective Kain, for instance, says that she has “the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Third Precinct.” “She knows this neighborhood like a farmer knows his farm,” he says. “I believe she’s got the second sight. If anything out of the way is happening anywhere along the Bowery, she senses it.”
Detective Kain has for some time been trying to solve a mystery in which Mazie is involved. Mazie has a telephone in her booth, of course, and in June, 1929, a man whose voice she did not recognize began calling her daily at 5 p.m., asking for a date or making cryptic remarks, such as “They got the road closed, Mazie. They won’t let nobody through.” After three months he stopped calling. Then, around Christmas of the following year, he began again. He has been calling intermittently ever since. “I won’t hear from him for maybe six months,” Mazie says. “Then, one day around five, the phone will ring and this voice will say, ‘All the clocks have stopped running’ or ‘Mazie, they cut down the big oak tree’ or some other dopey remark. He never says more than a few words, and when I say something he hangs right up. Somehow, I get to feeling he’s across the street in a booth. The worst thing is I suspect every stranger that buys a ticket. I strike up conversations with strangers just to see if I can find one who talks like him. I think he’s trying to drive me crazy.” Among her friends, Mazie refers to her caller as The Man. If she has visitors around five o’clock and the telephone rings, she says, “Pick up the receiver and see what The Man has to say this time.” Fannie Hurst once listened. “It was macabre,” she said. Detective Kain has listened often, has warned the man, and has tried vainly to trace the calls. Mazie’s number has been changed repeatedly, but that does no good.
Mazie closes her cage shortly after 11 p.m., when the final show is under way, and goes to an all-night diner near Brooklyn Bridge, where she glances through the Daily News while having a couple of cups of coffee and a honey bun. The only things in the News that she regularly reads from beginning to end are the comics, the “Voice of the People,” and “The Inquiring Fotographer.” Stories about the international situation bore her. “The world is all bitched up,” she says. “Always was, always will be.” She spends half an hour in the diner. Then, practically every night, before going home to bed, she makes a Samaritan tour of the Bowery and its environs. She carries an umbrella and a large handbag, which contains a flashlight, a number of cakes of soap of the size found in hotel bathrooms, and a supply of nickels, dimes, and quarters.
If it is a cold night, she goes first to an alley near the steps leading to the footwalk of Manhattan Bridge. Bums like to keep fires going in discarded oil drums in this alley. She distributes some change. Then she inspects Columbus Park, a block west of Chatham Square, where every winter a few bums pass out on benches and die of exposure. The police say Mazie has rescued scores of men in this park. Then, passing through Chinatown, she returns to the Bowery and heads uptown, pausing whenever she recognizes a bum and giving him enough money for a meal, a drink, or a flop. Frequently, in addition to small change, she gives a bum a cake of soap. “Please use it, buddy,” she says pleadingly. Here and there she gets out her flashlight and peers into a doorway. She pays particular attention to the drunken or exhausted bums who sleep in doorways, on loading platforms, and on sidewalks. She always tries to arouse them and take them to flops. In warm weather, if they don’t seem disposed to stir, she leaves them where they are. “A sidewalk is about as nice as a flophouse cot in the summertime,” she says. “You may get up stiff, but you won’t get up crummy.” In the winter, however, she badgers them until they awaken. She punches them in the ribs with her umbrella and, if necessary, gets down on her knees and slaps their faces. “When a bum is sleeping off his load, you could saw off his leg and he wouldn’t notice nothing,” she says. Sometimes a bum who has been awakened by Mazie tries to take a poke at her. When this happens, she assumes a spraddle-legged stance, like a fencer, and jabs the air viciously with her umbrella. “Stand back,” she cries, “or I’ll put your eyes out.” If a man is too weak, sodden, or spiritless to get up, Mazie grabs his elbows and heaves him to his feet. Holding him erect, she guides him to the nearest flophouse and pulls and pushes him up the stairs to the lobby. She pays the clerk for the man’s lodging (thirty cents is the customary price) and insists on his having at least two blankets. Then, with the help of the clerk or the bouncer, she takes off the man’s shoes, unbuttons his collar, loosens his belt, and puts him to bed with his clothes on. This is usually a tumultuous process, and sometimes many of the lodgers are awakened. They stick their heads out of the doors of their cubicles. “It’s Mazie!” they shout. “Hello, Mazie!” Now and then an emotional bum will walk out in his underwear and insist on shaking Mazie’s hand. “God bless you, Mazie, old girl!” he will cry. Mazie does not approve of such antics. “Go back to bed, you old goat,” she says. If she is acquainted with the clerk and trusts him, she leaves some change with him and asks that it be given to the bum when he wakes up. Flophouses are for-men-only establishments, and Mazie is the only female who has ever crossed the threshold of many of them.
At least a couple of times a week, Mazie finds injured men lying in the street. On these occasions she telephones Police Headquarters and asks for an ambulance from Gouverneur or Beekman Street, the hospitals which take care of most Bowery cases. She knows many of the drivers from these hospitals by name and orders them around. Police say she summons more ambulances than any other private citizen in town, and she is proud of this. “I don’t overdo it,” she says. “Unless a man is all stove-up and bloody, I don’t put in a call, but if I had my way, the wagons would be rolling all night long. There’s hardly a bum on the Bowery who don’t belong in a hospital.”
On her walk, Mazie usually tries to steer clear of other well-known nocturnal Bowery characters. Among these are the Widow Woman and the Crybaby. The Crybaby is an old mission bum who sits on the curb for hours with his feet in the gutter, sobbing brokenly. Once Mazie nudged him on the shoulder and asked, “What’s the matter with you?” “I committed the unforgivable sin,” he said. Mazie asked him what the sin consisted of, and he began a theological description of it which she didn’t understand and which she interrupted after a few minutes, remarking, “Hell, Crybaby, you didn’t commit no sin. You just prob’ly got the stomach ulsters.” The Widow Woman is a bent, whining crone who wears a mourning veil, a Queen Mary hat, and a rusty black coat, and comes hobbling down the Bowery around midnight giving bums little slips of paper on which are scribbled such statements as “God is love” and “The fires of Hell will burn forever.” Mazie is afraid of her. “The Widow Woman gives me the creeps,” she says. “She walks like a woman and she dresses like a woman, but when she talks I get the feeling that she’s a man.”
Most nights, before going home to bed, which is usually around two o’clock, Mazie makes brief stops in several saloons and all-night restaurants. She does not mind the reek of stale beer, greasy cabbage, and disinfectant in them. “After you been around the Bowery a few years, your nose gets all wore out,” she says. She goes into these places not to eat or drink but to gossip with bartenders and countermen and to listen to the conversation of drunken bums. She has found that bums do not talk much about sex, sports, politics, or business, the normal saloon topics. She says most of them are far too undernourished to have any interest in sex. They talk, instead, about what big shots they were before they hit the Bowery. Although their stories fascinate her, Mazie is generally cynical. “To hear them tell it,” she says, “all the bums on the Bowery were knocking off millions down in Wall Street when they were young, else they were senators, else they were the general manager of something real big, but, poor fellers, the most of them they wasn’t ever nothing but drunks.”
Joseph Mitchell, who died in 1996, began writing for the magazine in 1933.
THE NEW YORKER