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.
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