If you've been to McSorley's at any point in the past four decades, there's a good chance you were served by Geoffrey "Bart" Bartholomew. A longtime bartender of the venerable East Village watering hole—which counts Abe Lincoln, Boss Tweed, and Houdini among its former patrons—Bart began working the taps in 1972, just two years after the bar finally started serving women, following a high-profile lawsuit brought by the National Organization of Women and a law banning gender discrimination signed by Mayor John Lindsay. Bart's son Rafe would often tag along with his dad, and soon became McSorley's only pre-teen regular. Later, Rafe would follow in his father's footsteps, both as a writer and McSorley's bartender.

That experience is the subject of a new memoir by Rafe Bartholomew called Two and Two: McSorley's, My Dad, And Me. We caught up with Bartholomew recently to chat about the utility of sawdust, WWI-era wishbones, and the future of New York's oldest Irish tavern.

Considering that you grew up among city's most interesting regulars, and the fact that your dad has previously written about his time bartending, it almost feels like you were destined to write this memoir Was this a story that you always knew you were going to tell?
Looking back on in now, it seems like the answer is yes. But there was a time when I wasn't convinced that I should write this, or that I wanted to. Even though I knew this was a special place, and that these stories existed, I hadn't really thought about writing it seriously until I'd finished my last book, and my agent asked me what I wanted to write next, and I had nothing. So I just kind of blurted out, 'Well, I grew up at McSorley's.' And my agent looked at me like I was crazy, and was like, 'That should've been your first book.' But it still took me seven years, because I wasn't able to write it until I could really figure out what my dad's career, and what growing up and learning to work there really means to me.

There's been some notable writing about McSorley's in the past—e.e. cummings memorialized the bar in poem and Joseph Mitchell's had a lifelong fascination with the place. How conscious of these past writers were you while writing the book? I was extremely conscious of Joseph Mitchell—his 1940 New Yorker story is really the definitive piece of writing about the bar, and it's also one of his best known stories. When I was young, hearing about Joe Mitchell coming to the bar and seeing the original book jackets up on the wall was a big deal. But this book was so personal, and I was able to look at a different side of McSorley's because I got to grow up in it and work there, so it was enough to keep me from feeling like I was going head to head with Mitchell. But practically speaking, it would've been hard to write the history portion of my book without the Joseph Mitchell's work.

Do you have a favorite artifact in the bar? There's a tiny framed four-line poem above the chair by the pot belly stove that no one ever sits on. That chair was where the cat, Sawdust, loved to sleep. There's no cats in McSorley's anymore, but when there were, that always ended up being the cat's chair because of the warmth. The poem is one that a guy who used to live above the bar wrote when the cat died in 1995. That was the cat that for me, when my father first started bringing me to the bar, one of my little chores would be to feed him in the morning and take him downstairs once business hours began. Those are some of my very first memories in the bar and just looking at the poem can bring me right back there.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the book was how McSorley's as an institution is in so many way just like any other neighborhood bar, with some really specific—and poignant—exceptions. Can you briefly share the story of the wishbones? So a group of local soldiers who were about to ship out for World War I came out to McSorley's and had a going away party, shortly after Thanksgiving in 1917. They each brought turkey wishbones from their home Thanksgiving celebrations and at the end of the night, they hung them up on the gas lamp for good luck before they went away. And after the war, the guys who survived returned to the bar and took down their wishbones. The wishbones that remained belonged to the guys who didn't make it.

The story at McSorley's was that we never touched them—they were collecting dust for what turned out to be 93 years. I remember when I started working at the bar, aside from all the service stuff I had to learn, the first thing everyone told me is that if you see someone reaching for the wishbones, you stop them. That was sort of sacred to us.

And the book talks about how in 2010 we eventually had to dust them because of the city health department. The one thing I never expected to happen was that the wishbones would be dusted. My father and I were working the last night before they were dusted, and then at 3 a.m. the owner Matthew Maher came in on his own and took them down one-by-one, dusted them, put them back on the gas lamp, then swept all the dust into a ziplock bag that he still has at home with him in Queens. So I remember coming in the next day and seeing them, you know I've seen these things my entire life. I was crestfallen. I couldn't believe it.

But when people would come in and ask about the wishbones and you'd tell them the story, you started to see that they were still just as powerful. The chapter about dusting them was just that—another chapter in this story. And I came to really respect Matt's decision to dust them himself—not every owner of a business would necessarily do that, especially when the only way to do it would be to come in at 3 in the morning when nobody else was paying attention. He did it himself because he knew better than anyone what these meant to all of us. He was working at the bar before my dad was living there. `

A WW II era Army bombing notice is seen in McSorley's Old Ale House. (Getty)

There's a passage in the the book where you note that "The cost of living in Manhattan had risen to such exorbitant heights that the McSorley's crowd seemed to lose its identity," which you later sort of take back. Are you concerned about the future of McSorley's? Yeah, there are moments when you're concerned. But it's also a reflection of your mood that day—you're projecting a little bit because there are other days when you think, 'Ah it's fine.' Of course with what's happening in the city, and especially the East Village, the business has changed. And I don't have as wide a range of experience over the years as my father or some of the other guys there, but I've seen the business change from something that was primarily for local residents—a lot of city employees, like sanitation workers, police, firemen—and the percentage of the business that they represent is a lot smaller these days. Tourism has taken its place, especially the weeknight crowd. Often tables of people who are visiting New York from out of state or out of the country, who heard about the bar in a guidebook and came in to check it out. You know, there's some nights where you get in a mood and it feels like the place is turning into a tourist trap, but I don't think that is ultimately the case. The people who are working there, the traditions, the continuity that we have within the bar allows it to maintain the identity that I feel is authentic.

And all things considered, business is still good. You walk by McSorley's any almost any given night and see a nice healthy crowd there. Someone with my dad's tenure might be able to say, 'Yeah it's crowded, but the guys we had back in '84 could outdrink these people by three times.' Well maybe, but the place is surviving.

And it helps that bar doesn't have a landlord I'm sure... Right, the simple reason that McSorley's can survive into the future is that every time the bar has changed hands, it's been sold with the entire building. So the family that owns it now—Matthew Maher's family—he's going to pass it to his children who work there, and they'll own the entire building. They won't lose the place because the lease jumps. That gives them safety to remain in the same place and I think that's probably the case for almost any business that's managed to stay put in one place in Manhattan for even 50 years, let alone 163.

So I think any sort of negative feeling that comes with McSorley's right now has more to do with New Yorker nostalgia, how everyone's always like 'Man, this doesn't feel like the city I came to or the city I grew up in.' The cool thing is that McSorley's has been around long enough to stand in for generations of people's ideal version of New York. Whenever that exists in their mind, McSorley's was always there, and was more or less the same.