First installment in MOTHER's new Open Road series, a look at cargo trucks and shipping in New York City.
THEY ARE HARDLY FISHING BOATS, let alone clipper ships, yet the aerodynamic rake of hoods and cabs, the festive rigging of running lights and the vertical twin exhaust stacks could make you think so, particularly in a slanting rain along the East River in lower Manhattan several hours before dawn. For a moment, it is easy to imagine that these sleek, newly arrived land schooners—Whites, Macks, Peterbilts and Kenworths—are berthed instead of parked, safely tucked into various slips around South Street after long sea voyages, waiting in the mist to be off-loaded by gangs of longshoremen.
But these are vehicles, cargo trucks, not vessels, manned by drivers rather than sailors. Even so, the illusion that they are watercraft persists, heightened by the names of home ports painted on the cab doors: Providence, Portland, Ft. Lauderdale, Montauk, Charleston, Saginaw; all of them capitals of fish, saltwater or fresh, and all connected to the Fulton Street Fish Market (wholesale only) by narrow streams of road and winding rivers of interstate.
At midnight the trucks still wait, their diesels idling to keep refrigeration units running and cargo cold. Some of the drivers are stretched out on sleeping racks behind the seats, others are drinking coffee or walking about. Still others are talking to women, most of whom have emerged in small groups from nearby bars. Police and ambulance sirens wail in the distance. It is chilly, somewhere in the upper 30s, and here and there steel drums belch fire, their contents luridly ablaze. Homeless men stand around them rubbing their hands and staring into the flames. Underfoot, the cobblestones have grown slippery from the mixture of rain, motor oil and Goodrich tire. Along the street itself, white vapor rises from ironcovered manholes, venting the volcanic utilities below. The air above, meanwhile, has become increasingly suffused with the deep collective sweetness of raw, sea-spawned protein. In other words, with the ubiquitous, penetrating, impolite, trucked-in smell of fish.
By nine in the morning, the neighborhood will have been more or less sanitized. Swept up, hosed down and almost miraculously scent-free, it will offend no one in the ordinary world, which down here includes the financial district as well as a pavilioned pleasure palace on Pier 17 called the South Street Seaport, a combination shopping mall and maritime museum, with the dominance falling to the former. At this hour, office workers hurry past to nearby jobs in the insurance canyons, power-suited Wall Streeters slide out of limousines or stash their BMWs on the parking piers, and tourists begin to port in from buses and subways for a packaged taste-faint and contrived-of the old New York sea trade. In addition to ship models, carvings, books, posters, T-shirts and a wealth of other nautical gimcracks, the taste is preserved as well in floating memorabilia: among others, Ambrose, a decommissioned lightship whose beacon once guided shipping into New York harbor, and the 475- foot steel-hulled bark Peking, formerly a giant in the Cape Horn nitrate trade. It is like a zoo of extinct but embalmed beasts. Next door, however, the fish market-in its own way a bit of a relic-is shut down tight.
Toward evening the tourists will have wandered off' and the taverns and cafes will swell with yuppies, assembled to drink beer, flirt, strut, talk economics and plot war against the elders. The males of this subspecies, by the way, look alarmingly alike, their crisp shirts open at the neck, the knots of their ties loosened to exactly two inches below the Adam's apple-the day's august plumage suddenly transformed into a more cavalier version. According to local residents, the beer, the apparent difficulty of negotiating ordinary bathrooms, and the macho imperatives of these young bucks render them a scourge to the neighborhood. For they are reported to water exterior walls, recessed doorways and parked cars with princely and copious abandon, in the belief, no doubt, that the world is not only their oyster but also their urinal.
At length, the yuppies, too, wander off, as oblivious to the surging tide in the river and to the moon as they are to the arrival of the first of the trucks. Moreover, they do not notice the ghost of Walt Whitman, which has just skittered off a ferry boat from Brooklyn to revisit vanished haunts along this old, sacred waterfront.
There is no given signal but shortly after midnight activity at the market picks up. Yet more trucks arrive and jockey for position, no mean trick in tight, crowded quarters. The steel grates and curtains of the wholesalers' establishments fly open with a clang, revealing within stainless steel filleting tables, knife racks, snake nests of rubber water hoses and lewd calendars. The street abruptly teems with men, most of them smoking cigarettes and shod in high rubber boots. Though not technically longshoremen, the unloaders, as they are called by the union, nevertheless look the part. Tough and wiry, they carry their grappling hooks draped over the shoulder, at the ready. When they aren't clawing down fish-laden crates or the carcasses of tuna and shark from the truck trailers or stacking them nearby, they are pushing loaded, heavy-duty hand trucks or splintering open the thin, white pine crates to let the salesmen see what they must peddle this morning.
Another fleet of vehicles, meanwhile, gradually forms on the market's periphery. These are the small, largely unmarked vans of the buyers, the retailers, who come from New York's stores and restaurants to buy fresh and at a good price. The majority are Asian, a reminder that the city is still an ethnic melting pot, that Chinatown is only a few scant blocks to the north, and that haggling over price is a universal game.
By 7 A.M. the din has lessened, the big trucks have disappeared, and South Street is a shambles, the patina on the cobblestones now considerably enriched by crushed ice, shells, scales, fins, intestines and blood. The smell is exceedingly rank. The unloaders look tired, as they should, for through the night virtually every form of seafood has changed hands, from lobster, crab and oyster to eel, porgie and blue; from salmon, pike and redfish to sturgeon, tuna and swordfish. The fruit of the sea, caught, transported and mongered by human cunning, muscle and appetite.
To walk along the riverbank behind the market in the early morning-say with one's dog-is a shocker the first time, for a couple of reasons. To begin with, that is where much of the unsold fruit of the sea is dumped. As a result, seeing a school of flounder float mutely at water's edge raises a knee-jerk question on the probity of disposal. But isn't this a river and aren't those fish? The ashes to ashes, dust to dust metaphor wins out. It's not so bad, after all. The way of all flesh.
Second, few people know that the real life in this small, shadowy enclave in the world's mightiest city is nocturnal, rousing itself when the lights of Wall Street, the World Trade Center, City Hall and even the South Street Seaport are dark, and when the land schooners with their iced cargo from distant and exotic ports begin nudging their way toward their berths.
Alfred Meyer, former editor-in-chief of Natural History, is the author of "Open Road," our new regular feature on America and its people. Ironically, he has chosen to set this first entry at one prominent—and decidedly urban—end of our nation's open road .
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