Ask the many discerning New Yorkers, “light or dark?” and they will instantly know you are referring to the venerable institution of McSorley’s Old Ale house. Quenching the thirsts of everyone from Abraham Lincoln to the lower denizens of the Bowery since 1854, John McSorley served his own beer in orders of two distinctive small glasses, with the only option being whether you chose light or dark.
Not much has changed in McSorley’s since the days when the Five Points dominated lower Manhattan. Sawdust still covers the floor, a pair of Houdini’s supposed handcuffs lie chained to the bar railing (these were actually made after Houdini’s death; the older handcuffs more likely associated with Houdini are hanging up higher by the bar), and the walls are covered with portraits of long forgotten politicians, pre-theatre dinner menus, and newspaper reports of early baseball games. The last time a piece of memorabilia was taken down off the wall was in 1910. No wonder the bar has painted on the glass facing East 7th street: “We were here before you were born.”
But amidst all the relics of over 150 years of New York history, hanging over the bar’s electric lamps, lies a touching memorial to the First World War. McSorley’s started a tradition of giving soldiers departing for the front a leaving present of a turkey and ale dinner. The turkey wishbones were placed by the soldiers on the lamp rail hanging over the bar for good fortune and a safe return home. On their return, the lucky ones would take down their wishbone and celebrate long into the night. Visitors today glancing up over the bar will see two dozen wishbones, long since covered in dust, left behind by the young soldiers who didn’t return home. Back in 2011, due to health regulations, they finally had to remove them and clean the dust before replacing the small bones, some disintegrating at the touch. Yet they are still a simple and poignant reminder to the men who never again were asked the pleasurable question, “light or dark?”