Old Mr. Flood, and the Fulton Fish Market

The reading for my summer “City Life in Fact and Fiction” class at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies included a short story and short novel by Joseph Mitchell. Both “Up in the Old Hotel” and “Old Mr. Flood” are set in the Fulton Fish Market, which closed shortly after I moved to New York City. I am sorry I never made it to the market in 2005, just to see what it looked like (though I understand the market had seen its height long before my parents were even born).

The Hartford Hotel setting reminds me of an evening I never experienced at the end of my first ride on the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s Los Angeles-to-Seattle route. I was travelling alone on a North American Rail Pass in December of 2000. Vancouver, Jasper, Winnipeg, Toronto and Chicago were on my itinerary, after a short stay in Seattle. My plan was to stay at a hostel in downtown Seattle, but a heavy, middle-aged Montana man I met on the train almost convinced me to go with him to Ballard, a neighborhood of Seattle on the Puget Sound’s Shilshole Bay. He invited me to hang out at a bar that would likely be filled with old fishermen.

Looking back, I imagine the bar probably looked like Montero’s in Brooklyn Heights must have looked 40 years ago. I was almost sold, but decided against going to this strange neighborhood with a strange person. I stuck to my downtown Seattle plan.

But back to “Old Mr. Flood.” The title character believes fish is an elixir that will enable him to live to 115. His description of food reads like something that could have been written in the 21st Century. My favorite passage:

“Fish,” he says, “is the only grub left that the scientists haven’t been able to get their hands on and improve. The flounder you eat today hasn’t got any more damned vitamins in it than the flounder your great-great-grandaddy ate, and it tastes the same. Everything else has been improved and improved and improved to such an extent that it ain’t fit to eat. Consider the egg. When I was a boy on Staten Island, hens ate grit and grasshoppers and scraps from the table and whatever they could scratch out of the ground, and a platter of scrambled eggs was a delight. Then the scientists developed a special egg-laying mash made of old corncobs and sterilized buttermilk, and nowadays you order scrambled eggs and you get a platter of yellow glue.

Now ever since starting these stories, I have been eating fish nonstop. In one evening at the Jersey Shore, I ate 9 oysters, 6 clams, 6 shrimp and a 1.25-pound lobster. Today, my lunch was a fried haddock sandwich from Marino’s Fine Foods in Springfield, N.J. Yesterday’s lunch was canned cayenne-spiked sardines on a roll (healthy and sustainable!). Two Saturdays ago, I bought sea trout from the fishmonger at the farmers’ market in Staten Island (I told him about Joseph Mitchell and paraphrased the passage quoted above).

If only New York City still had fish restaurants like those Joseph Mitchell writes about. Sloppy Louie’s, Sweet’s and Libby’s, Gage & Tollners and Lundy’s are all, sadly, closed. Thankfully, we have plenty of fish markets around, as well as some great seafood spots in Astoria.

The sea trout below was from the farmer’s market was excellent, broiled simply with olive oil, sea salt and some diced olives and tomatoes.

Sea trout from American Seafood at Staten Island Farmer's Market
Sea trout from American Seafood at Staten Island Farmer’s Market

New York Nights

I have indulged my interest in New York City history by taking some classes at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. As I begin this post, I am sitting in French Roast at Sixth Avenue and 12th Street, killing time before my evening class, City Life in Fact and Fiction. I want to share here a short passage from one of my readings for class. The English-born travel writer Stephen Graham wrote a book about traveling around Manhattan at nighttime. From the chapter of New York Nights titled Exterior Street:

It is five a.m. Something of the burden of the city has been lifted. The air is light. The heart seems freed. I am happy to be walking. I love the space and the quietness. I have got rid of the idea of going to bed, got rid of the routine of daily life. New York and its millions, its wealth, its mysteries are mine. There is a sense of conquest. The bustle has died down and I am still walking. The majority of people are asleep–but I am not the least sleepy. … Whoever would know the poetry of New York must walk in it after-midnight hours, see the red light come out on the Metropolitan tower preliminary to the striking of the hour … enter the Central station at four a.m. and see it anew, deserted, silent, beautiful as on the morning of Opening Day; see the City Hall at dawn hanging down from on high like the sky’s apron.

Though the city has changed drastically in the 85 years since that passage was written, it SO makes me want to walk all night through Manhattan. I have witnessed sunrises here, but only when rising early for a winter race in Central Park—never after staying up all night. One of these days …