Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Last Days Of The Fulton Fish Market

an excerpt from an accompanying nytimes article of July 2005. The guy that owned Smitty's was a neighbor of mine in Brooklyn. I'm sure there were many KVers who worked in the market.
A Last Whiff of Fulton's Fish, Bringing a Tear
It smells of truck exhaust and fish guts. Of glistening skipjacks and smoldering cigarettes; fluke, salmon and Joe Tuna's cigar. Of Canada, Florida, and the squid-ink East River. Of funny fish-talk riffs that end with profanities spat onto the mucky pavement, there to mix with coffee spills, beer blessings, and the flowing melt of sea-scented ice.
This fragrance of fish and man pinpoints one place in the New York vastness: a small stretch of South Street where peddlers have sung the song of the catch since at least 1831, while all around them, change. They were hawking fish here when an ale house called McSorley's opened up; when a presidential aspirant named Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union; when the building of a bridge to Brooklyn ruined their upriver view.
Take it in now, if you wish, if you dare, because the rains will come to rinse this distinct aroma from the city air. Some Friday soon, perhaps next month, the fish sellers will spill their ice and shutter their stalls, pack their grappling hooks and raise a final toast beneath the ba-rump and hum of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive.
And on the Monday, they will begin peddling their dead-eyed wares inside a custom-made building in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, to be named the New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative, and the old Fulton Fish Market - that raucous stage of open-air overnight commerce - will be no more.
The fish market's closing should come as no surprise, though it does. From the beginning, New York questioned the location of this rough and odoriferous trade. In 1854, a city elder wondered whether "a more advantageous disposition may not be made of that valuable property by the removal of the Fish Market." And in 1859, another sachem suggested moving the market uptown, in part because the ebb and flow of the East River was, as The New York Times delicately put it, "not sufficiently strong to carry off the offal."
Offal and the official's concomitant complaint of a blanket of maggots on the water were not issues in the decision to move the market finally to Hunts Point (a plan that dates back at least to the mid-1950's). Instead, the creeping conversion of Manhattan into a monstrous mall for the affluent played a role, as did the grudging realization that the market had become impractical, anachronistic. Fishermen haven't unloaded their catch there for more than a generation.
Before it leaves us, then; before it lives only in news footage and movies like "Splash": one last look at a part of the city taken for granted, save by fish people, nighthawks and urban anthropologists. One long, last inhalation of the exquisite Fulton Fish Market bouquet.
Three in the morning, and forklifts clatter over rutted pavement, unloaded trucks sigh in escape, and workers pierce wax-coated cases with grappling hooks - whup! whup! - as they move fish from here to there.
Some lights of the market stand before the silvery truck of a man who calls himself Steve the Coffee Guy. Beansie, the union official, is there, smoking a cigar, and Richie Klein, a burly fish salesman, savoring a cigarette, and Joe Tuna, on his forklift, drinking tea. When Joe Tuna glides over curb and cobblestone, his meaty biceps jiggle so much that the tattoos move like cartoons.
They wear rubber boots and soiled sneakers that never cross the thresholds of their homes; clean jeans and fish-bloodied shorts; polo shirts and T-shirts, some torn in the back by the tips of the hooks slung over their shoulders.
In winter, the East River winds blow through you no matter what you wear, so Steve the Coffee Guy will warm himself with a propped-up propane heater, in homage to barrels of flames that once flickered wickedly along South Street. On this summer's night, though, the muggy air clings like lotion to the skin, and coolness is found at the coffee truck's icy bed of soda, over which hangs a dated photograph of a beautiful young woman in shorts, briskly walking.
The rumor, or the hope, is that it's South Street Annie, also known as Shopping Bag Annie, that shrunken woman with wild gray hair who strolls the market calling "Yoohoo!" Selling cigarettes and newspapers from her red-wire cart, she is coarse, ribald, ubiquitous: the flawed mother of fish town. A worker confides that on his first day in the market more than a decade ago, he was instructed to kiss one of her pendulous breasts - for good luck.
In the market, superstition demands that you watch out for stray animals and broken people. The men take care of her, enduring her rants, her feigned grabs at their crotches. The New York Post costs a quarter; the men give her a dollar. The Daily News costs 50 cents; they give her a dollar, maybe two.

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