The Perfect Storm was a bad movie. Bad acting, poor writing and in this day where technology allows us to archive every conceivable vision, horrible special effects. But as I try to remind myself often, even bad movies have their value. This one in particular planted a subject in my brain that would develop and grow into a topic engulfing the forefront of my mind. One that was the cause of my outing this morning and the words I now commit to this page.
The topic is fishing. Not trout or bass fishing at your favorite mud hole on the river, nor any kind of sport fishing like tuna or marlin fishing. I am talking commercial fishing. Large boats dragging large hooks through the sea hoping to catch, snare or skewer the big ones. (And boy I hope I never see the day when cowboys and cattle herders realize that using a helicopter equipped with a large, sharp swinging hook to snatch cows right off the ground is much cheaper, quicker and easier than corralling down assembly lines.)
Sword fighting is a dangerous profession. Demanding and exhausting work, it keeps you out at sea for months at a time, but maybe its dangerous for a reason? If there is a plan in the world, I would hope its creator is guilty of a few hints along the way, even if we don’t always get them. Can not the fact that something is dangerous be a less than subtle hint that it should not be done? Firefighters and policemen have dangerous professions, but we understand its place in our lives and the necessary risks. We respect all those who serve. But sword fishing? Is there really a need for this danger to be turned into an industry?
I know little of said industry, but found myself thinking more and more about it recently. I soon became victim to continuous bouts of synchronicity. I found myself eating seafood more than I normally do and noticing, or not noticing, swordfish on the menu. A conversation of Saturday morning cartoons turned up and I seem to recall a talking swordfish? Then there was the conversation I had with a friend about the amazing logistics behind distribution in the fishing industry. Less than one hundred ports divided between this country’s two coasts, yet in just about every nook and cranny of this great land you can find fresh seafood.
It was with these throughs in mind that I got up at 4:00am and headed into the South Street Seaport to watch the fishing boats come in with their catch.
Pier 17 was quiet at 5:45 in the morning, but not deserted. Lovers sat nestled in each others arms on the steps of the pier awaiting the sunrise. An early morning jogger dashed up to the railing and back. A bum lay sleeping on a bench.
I walked past them all on my circuit of the pier. I was hoping to determine just where the boats came in so I could have the best view. It was quiet as I walked along the pier, the sounds of the current and the cries of the sea gulls helped drown out the distant sound of traffic. The sun was an hour or so from making an appearance, but the gray air had a tinge of yellow that made the pier, the water and all the scattered lights along both banks of the East River look jaundiced.
I stood against the railing and looked down into the murky water, then across onto the shores of Brooklyn. There was no activity to be seen. I turned my gaze upstream, past the Brooklyn, then Manhattan Bridges, but save few a few cars driving across their spans, nothing moved. A large digital clock on the opposite shore told me it was 6:15 am. I found a spot on the cement stairs and stretched myself out to wait.
I had never been to the Seaport before, but had always wanted to. A friend and I got close a couple of times, but we never managed to get up, or get out, early enough. One of these days, we thought, one of these days. Well, it was no one of these days and I pulled out my notebook and began to compose some thoughts and attempted to capture the mood and atmosphere as it was happening… or not happening to be more accurate. It was awfully quite I thought. If the boats were due in with the next half hour or so, why was there not more activity around? More people? More dockworkers? Anybody?
As these thoughts swam in my head, from under the Brooklyn Bridge, I saw a dark form materializing out from the mist. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks with me? No, here it comes. A boat. It was moving slowly, and still but a dark form, no lights at all. I watched patiently and reached for my my camera. As I turned to my right, south, to grab it out of my bag, and in doing so cast my eyes down river where it widened towards the sea. Would not the boats be heading back to port from this direction?
I turned back towards the bridge and now saw the boat more clearly. It had drifted out past the mist and I was now able to recognize its form. It was not a fishing boat. In fact, it was not a boat at all. It was a barge. As it got closer I then noticed that it was not even running on its own power and was being pushed by a tug boat. Pushed? As the two crafts drifted by, I thought about the tug boat. Would it not be nice if we all had a personal tug boat to push and pull us through the moments of our lives when we too are empty or have run out of steam?
Okay, it was now six thirty and there are no boats. What gives? I got up and walked off the pier towards the street hoping to find some activity. I turned right and headed up South Street. It started to smell fishy. A few more steps and I found myself walking past the truck bays where all the fish is weighed, butchered and sold. It was quiet. I approached the closed steel gates standing locked before each bay, and peered through the slates. Many white, plastic signs hung from the girded ceiling, “Tuna”, “Clams”, “Flounder” and many more. Below them hung the large metal scales, just above the cutting surfaces and the large ice bins, empty now. One man was hosing down the floor in one bay. He stood with his back to me, talking loudly, but I saw no one else around.
Okay I thought, its nearly dawn, I’ve been here nearly an hour and I have seen not one fishing boat, nor does it look like anything is happening here. I headed back to the pier and walked along past the “Peking”, one of the old ships docked there, and took a snap shot of the “Ambrose”. I was hoping to see something! At the end of this pier was a woman sitting and reading a book. A black collie ran around freely. I approached, for you know, she was alone, possibly single, she was a reader, had a dog, yadda yadda yadda. Cocco was her dog’s name. It was very skittish of me, which always surprises me for I love dogs and always sensed they liked me too. Well, after a few failed petting attempts, I made small talk with the girl. I did not catch her name. I then popped the question.
“So do you have any idea when the fishing boats come in?”
“Oh, “ she said, a looked a little forlorn, “The boats don’t come in here anymore.”
I smiled and could only muster, “Huh.”
“Yeah, they have not come in here for years.”
“So how do they get the fish up here?”
I must have looked very disappointed. She tried to be positive.
“If you come in during the week, you can see all the activity. Its really fun if you’ve never been here before.”
“What about today?” I asked, already knowing the answer but needing to hear it.
“No.. its not open on weekends.”
As we were talking, another woman walking her dog, a Dalmatian, approached and then sat down next to the woman. They were obviously lovers. I spoke with them both for a few minutes more, but disappointment was sapping my enthusiasm. I bid them a good morning, failed again to pet Cocco, then turned and headed off the pier towards my car, parked all alone, on the empty streets of the South Street Seaport.