But for the pungent dog poop that lay in a frozen state all winter and came alive as the sidewalks heated up, May was a glorious time in New York City. It was my favorite month of school because we spent so little of it at school. There was Field Day, an entire day when we got to run around like hooligans on Randalls Island, hurling softballs at one another and competing in the 100-yard dash. There were class trips to the Cloisters, to the hall of mummies at the Metropolitan Museum. But as memorable as those were, nothing measured up to the trip to one of the more unlikely places in Manhattan. This was a place intended to ignite a spark of what? passion for learning? in a gang of chattering first-graders? What mortal minds concocted such a plan, I’ll never know, but 62 years later, while I can’t remember the name of the woman next door who likes the same music I do, I clearly remember that day at the Fulton Fish Market.
In their own words: Opened in 1822, New York City’s Fulton Fish Market is one of the oldest fish markets in the United States. Well before the Brooklyn Bridge was even built, the market at South Street Seaport thrived with fishing boats and fishmongers bartering and bantering over stalls heaving with fresh fish. Each night the colorful market would come to life with its cast of characters, eager chefs and curious tourists, all mingling over bushels of oysters, crates of lobsters and a kaleidoscope of sea creatures from near and far. Perhaps more than any other institution, the Fulton Fish Market captured the spirit and tradition of old New York.
I feel a warmth around my heart just reading that paragraph. Stalls heaving with fresh fish. Fishmongers bartering and bantering. Something in my body remembers the temperature of that day, the smelly warmth of the market, the cool of the ice, the noise, the hawking, the very New York entrepreneurial buzz, the accents and flavors of the city, all overwhelming to an Uptown kid in a blue school uniform. I remember the ordinary fish I carried home on the school bus in a neat white package and delivered to my mother. I remember her expression as she thanked me. It was the look of someone who loved me and understood the importance of the gift, never mind that the fish and its ice had parted long hours before.
Was this the lesson, where my mother’s love and an overripe fish came together to create in me a thirst for the world? Or was it the passion of the fishmongers, the shouting and colorful tangle of the senses that let me know learning was limitless, that it took every form imaginable? When Shakespeare came along, I could picture Capulets and Montagues duking it out at the Fulton Fish Market, and the fair Cordelia leaning over a basket of raw shrimp. When Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar, he did so not in the Curia of Pompey, but in the Fulton Fish Market. With my own eyes I’d seen the stain of the emperor’s blood on the ground between a case of red snapper and the lobster pool. When Pythagoras offered up his theorem, the hypotenuse was always the Brooklyn Bridge hanging over the East River that day at the market. And when we studied the Revolutionary War, the fishmongers were the ones who showed up with ice picks and gutting knives to turn back the British at the mouth of New York harbor. Make no mistake, George Washington’s private militia was made up of these men, these ordinary bantering bartering men in blood-stained aprons and high rubber boots. These men who could set your imagination on fire. These men who could sell you a fish.
We are recognizable by our green hair and wandering tan lines, by our distinctive odor nicknamed eau de chlorine. Without our daily fix we are crazed. Our hands shake, our knees jiggle. We are swimming pool junkies waiting for lap hours.
We’ve seen it all—fistfights and shouting matches in crowded lanes where circle swimming is required. Someone in the intermediate area is sent back to the slow lane. Or there’s a thrasher, a guy who hasn’t yet mastered the strokes, and if you pair with him in his lane he’s apt to whack you on the head. Or jab you with his foot. He’s all over the map and that violates the unspoken rules of the natatorium. Swimmers like tidiness, efficiency. That’s why we commit the sporty hours of our lives to the fixed geometry of lap lanes. We immerse ourselves in the rectangular waters of a pool. We follow a fixed line on the pool’s silky bottom. We sandwich ourselves between plastic buoys that keep us in our own world, far from the business of everyone else, and there we finally relax and just swim.
I learned to swim in my grandmother’s pool in New Jersey. Summers in the Garden State were so hot our bodies literally ached for water, and there it was every morning, that beautiful cool blue rectangle of chlorine, awaiting our joyful whoops and cannonballs and ichthyic underwater acrobatics. We were tadpoles one minute and frogs the next. We were whales breaching, flounder flapping along the rough pool bottom. Our hair was green, our sunburned skin turned from red to brown. When we reluctantly stepped out of the pool at the end of the day the water flew off us in scintillating drops. We looked like we were shedding diamonds.
I didn’t swim again, not with the same passion and attention I had as a kid, until I found myself in Arizona in the mid-seventies. Maybe it was the unfamiliar waterlessness of the Southwest that made my body thirst for a pool. Maybe it was my friend Lew’s suggestion that I count the laps, 36 to a mile. Once I got going there was no stopping me. I swam in Prescott and Camp Verde. I swam in Cottonwood in an ancient trapezoidal pool that had the effect of merging traffic in the shallow end. Bodies bumped against one another and jostled for room to do flip turns. It went against all swimming etiquette but was, in fact, a pleasant meeting of underwater skin.
I made a point of visiting places known for their pools. I took to the water in Hemingway’s chilly outdoor pool in Key West; the YWCA’s clothing optional pool in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a pool in an abandoned convent in Santa Barbara, with a pool deck tiled like the Baths of Caracalla. I swam alone in an Olympic-size pool north of Bangkok, and a frog-filled pool in Mandalay. At a Zen monastery in California’s Ventana Wilderness, I swam daily in a pool warmed by hot springs. Later I became the keeper of that pool, the skimmer of leaves, rescuer of bees.
Ocean swims, lake swims, river swims. These are all acceptable to swimming pool junkies but they’re not the glory we live for. Oh, those traversers of the English Channel, the Bering Strait. What strange compulsion drives them to such uncomfortable extremes? The terrible cold, the energy delivered through a feeding tube, the lonely vigil in the dark, the terror of traffic in the shipping lanes, the absence of direction out there in the vast beyond. They move between countries, continents, with the same strokes that deliver me to the far side of the pool. What different destinations! What unimaginable desires!
Only once did I sign on to an ocean swim, an event to raise money during the AIDS epidemic. Our course wasn’t long, a mile-and-a-half, but it was mid-September and the water was chilly. I was one mile in, my core noticeably cooling, when I heard the scream of another swimmer. She was slightly behind me when she yelled, Shark! I turned and there was the unmistakable fin circling her.
It was, I later learned, a harmless species called a nurse shark. Still, that put an end to my ocean distance swimming. In lakes and rivers I’m similarly afraid a fish will brush my leg. But in the pool, antiseptic and chlorinated, chemicalized to an otherworldly hue, the monsters of the deep exist only within me, and that’s what I’m there for. I swim to shake them off.
Impossibly, one Christmas my mother gave me a raccoon coat. It was not a new coat, but neither was it the worse for wear. The fur, or pelt might be a more accurate word, was not moth-eaten or sorry looking, if a bit dull, and my mother had replaced the entire lining with the same brilliant blue fabric that covered our living room chairs. She had rebuilt the coat from the inside and she presented it to me that Christmas, the Christmas I was twelve, with a beam of pride that broke my heart. Because the last thing in the world I wanted was to walk out into the jungle of New York City and through the doors of my school wearing a bunch of dead animals on my body. The last thing I wanted was a raccoon coat.
I thanked my mother profusely, overdoing it to cover my shame. It was the shame of ingratitude, the anticipatory shame of arriving as I must in front of 610 East 83rd Street, my school, and being the laughing stock, the butt of the joke, the blushing target of everyone’s unmerciful teasing. Juanita Dugdale had worn a modest fur hat to school one day and for that she was crucified. I knew the consequences and my mother did not. Her plan was to save me in style in those cold New York winters but in fact she was throwing me to the wolves.
My older sister’s best friend Kate was the first to land a dart. She looked me up and down and smiled dangerously as we stood at the bus stop together. “Height of prep,” was all she said. I remember the sting of it to this day. But I was grateful for the efficiency, the brevity of her blow. Others were not so reserved, or rather not so accurate in the delivery of their poison arrows, and several seemed genuinely confused as to whether or not the coat was made from our own pet raccoon, Mr. Peepers, who had come and gone in our lives several years before. I came home from school and stood as I always did in front of the cracker and potato chip closet above the built-in oven in our kitchen, and cried. I had not even bothered to take off the coat and I stood and hung my head and blubbered into the scratchy fur that came up to meet my face. Here it was, this hideous coat with its beautiful, elegant, blue as the blue sky lining, hand-sewn by my beautiful, elegant mother, and I had to choose. I had to either bear the shame or refuse the gift which at that moment felt like refusing the gift of life which she had also given me. With all its difficulties and uglinesses I hadn’t refused that gift, had I? the gift of life? It was difficult and complicated, even hideous at times, but I had chosen to concentrate on life’s beautiful blue lining and now, I decided right there in the kitchen, I would do that again.
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