I’m a sucker for the history of New York Harbor. I horde old maps and postcards like this one of the Verrazano Narrows long before there came to be a Verazzano Bridge. Every year, I re-read Joseph Mitchell’s stories about old sailors and fishermen and oyster farmers and saloon keepers centered around Fulton Fish Market. I slowly make my way through his tales about Old Mr. Flood, a bona-fide curmudgeon hell-bent on living forever that puts his faith in the restorative powers of oysters and cigars and pretty girls. I follow Mitchell down beneath the shallow waters of the harbor in the first half of the 20th Century and discover shipwrecks, sea-worms, and an undulating current of sewer-borne slime that continues to pollute the harbor to this day.
I was born and raised in New Jersey, along a crescent of land just beyond the periphery of the area charted in Mitchell’s stories. We lived in Newark until I was two or three years old, whereupon we moved to the suburbs near the southern reaches of the harbor. Every weekend, we re-traced our steps and wandered back to the familiarity of our old neighborhood in Newark, an enclave of Portuguese immigrants living as if some chunk of Lisbon had simply been copied and pasted into a corner of northern Jersey. That weekly journey back and forth, driving through the wetlands of Cheesequake Park, over the Raritan River on the Driscoll Bridge, along the industrial oil-swamps of the Arthur Kill, past the patchy remnants of the Newark meadows, and into the arms of the Passaic River, etched the geography of the harbor deep in my mind and my heart.
My personal history—and a good chunk of my family’s history in its exile from Portugal—is dissolved in the streams and rivers and wetlands that make up the harbor and its estuaries. Tonight I find myself thinking about my grandfather and his relationship to the harbor. After retiring from more than forty years of hard labor in an iron foundry, grandpa found that he liked to pass his time hanging out in a fish market on Ferry Street in Newark. Up at dawn, he would tag along with the proprietor to make the daily wholesale fish purchase at Fulton Market in Manhattan. Like Mitchell’s Mr. Flood, he found solace in the rows and rows of bass, flounder, skate, squid, octopus, sardines, and everything else trawled up from the sea. Dinner, more often than not, had fins.
Sadly, grandpa didn’t live as long as his fictional counterpart. A lifetime of sooty foundry work gave him lung disease and a weak heart, with no hope of finding a few extra years at the bottom of a bag of briny clams. Fulton Fish Market would eventually pull up stakes and relocate to Hunts Point in the South Bronx, leaving behind a defunct mall and promenade of boarded up buildings where Mitchell’s characters once roamed.