I grew up on the water, and not in the sense that I lived on the border between land and sea although this is also true. My father and grandfather owned and operated a commercial charter boat. These used to be called ‘head boats’. It was a walk-on business and they charged by the passenger. The earning power of the working class had not yet been completely eroded and the Long Island sound wasn’t in full ecological collapse so people paid without much complaint. Fishing was good and filling your freezer was worth the 20 dollars.
The customer base was made up of people who couldn’t afford their own boats and so they departed from Queens and places even further afield early in the morning to get onboard. The clientele was a melting pot of African Americans, Asians of many extractions, Greeks, Frenchmen and the odd Irishman alongside the generic white flight Long Islanders entering the dotage of their retirement years. I was too young to know that this was a social rarity, to have so many tones of skin and voice crammed cheek to jowl and somehow managing to keep things cordial despite the endless tangling of rigs and the overpriced beer we sold in the galley.
Hundreds of years after the first enclosure of the earthly commons these inheritors of nothing pushed back against being locked out of the protein factory of the oceans. They or their ancestors had been enslaved, displaced, persecuted and impoverished and they didn’t even have the joy of the water. Property lines, parking tickets and living by the skin of their teeth kept them from accessing beaches, piers and boat ramps.
Even the pleasure they enjoyed on the relatively cheap fleet of charter boats that prowled the Sound had a sell-by date stamped on it. Draggers sailed the ocean catching and killing everything that swam. What capital can’t control with fines and fences it simply denudes to feed back to the masses, breaded and frozen or canned. The fewer fish that were caught the more desperate they became to make their 20 dollars count. In time the Long Island Sound was largely a wasteland.
My summers would be spent among these men, navigating around them and learning less of the world than should have been possible. I was five and free of insecurities. Things were not bad at home and it was too early in my classmates lives for them to have learned the joys of bullying. I was an okay person in an okay world. I had little sense of the ecological disaster looming over the water and the mariners who made their living upon it.
What we fished for followed the seasons. We hung out close to shore during Spring, fishing for flounder amid the mudflats, using mussels that my father pulled out of marshlands not yet eliminated or befouled by suburban development. Sometimes I would come on these trips. The labor of children is useless. I would get stuck in the sucking mud and need rescuing.
In summer it was a mix of things. Porgies (or scup or sheepshead) during the day, feeding on clam along the sandy bottom adjacent to rocks and wrecks. Then it was bluefish at night, boiling up after bunker (or menhaden) and chasing shiny metal jigs. There was no bait on these trips but they bathed the boat in blood. Blood has its own unique stink. People spoke of how there used to be striped bass, abundant, so many that they would catch all they could carry. Most failed to make the connection between the one and the other.
In Fall we sailed for blackfish. These were explicitly denizens of structure along the bottom. They liked rocks and wrecks and reefs. They fed on crabs of all sorts and it was a subject of spirited debate as to which type of crab was best. My father was renowned as a fisherman of this species in particular. In high winds it is difficult to place a boat over a wreck and he would direct two miserable deckhands as he situated the boat, doing some sort of blue collar calculus to put us on fish.
All the bait was extracted from still living creatures. Mussels were sharp. It was easy to cut the shit out of your hands opening mussels, and the flesh within was insubstantial. Clams were easier. You could get in a rhythm, shucking them by the dozens. Robbed of their shells they would tense until their flesh was sliced into strips. Crabs were easy although the conditions under which they were prepared were awful. There was no way to turn them into bait without getting your hands soaked in Novembers that were biting cold. We would throw them on the cutting board and hack them in half with a cleaver. Their limbs would keep moving even after their bodies were cut in two.
None of this bothered me. It was a fact of life that these creatures were slated for processing into death for things more palatable to the human tongue.
This was in the days before bag limits. Where in the present there are strict seasons, limits to how many fish a person can keep and restrictions on the size of the fish that are kept, none of that was in play thirty years ago. People kept everything they caught in whatever quantity they caught it and woe to the person who proposed that this wasn’t a sustainable way to fish.
The fish we caught were thrown in five gallon buckets with their swim bladders protruding from their anus due to the rapid change in pressure. There they would slowly asphyxiate over the course of the day. The more fish that there were the faster the oxygen went and then they floated in death, immersed in rapidly warming water. I don’t even know if they were fit for eating at the end of the day.
There were creatures who did not fit into the scheme of things. People referred to them as garbage and treated them as such. The most insistent and pernicious of these were small fish called cunners that shared the structure on the bottom with more desirable species. They would clean a rig of bait with their small mouths and had some luck avoiding the hooks intended to puncture their lips. When one made it onto the boat most people would stomp the heel of their boot on the their head. Then they would kick it under the deck and into the water where it would float, lifeless.
Sea robins were another species that anglers hated. They are strange looking bottom-dwelling creatures with a giant bony head and appendages below their fins that appear to be part of some means of tactile navigation. People would hurl them on the deck or simply stab a knife through their skulls. Some filleted them and used their meat for bait. Chinese people would keep them and ask that they be cleaned at the end of the day. They are the only fish that I’m aware of that talk. They would make a deep croaking noise as they desiccated and drowned on air.
The overwhelming goal of all these acts of wanton cruelty was the extirpation of these beings from the fishing grounds. Like ranchers with wolves, coyotes and big cats no one cared at all what role these fish might fill in the hidden ecology of the sea floor.
When the boat blew its horn three times it was the end of the day. The deckhands would begin cleaning fish. Some were alive and some were dead and as it was a process that needed finishing before the boat reached the dock it didn’t matter. This is one of those instances in which, if fish had a capacity for covetousness, the living would envy the dead. Children are told that fish don’t feel pain, a convenient myth perpetuated by adults who don’t want to take responsibility for brutality visited upon things less powerful than themselves.
Customers could request their fish be cleaned in one of two ways. The most common of these would be to fillet them, which an able deckhand with a sharp knife could accomplish quickly. It just takes a 45 degree cut and then a turn of the blade to run along the creature’s spine. If you cleaned a living fish you would feel its disembodied flesh twitching, shocked by the insult it had just received. Other people preferred their fish beheaded and cleaned of scales. This seemed more merciful. At least their brains were separated from the rest of their body before a rasping tool was run against the grain of their scales.
None of this was any of my business as a child. I was not of an age where anyone wanted to entrust me with a knife and even if they did the work had to go quickly. There were rhythms of the day that needed adhering to. A kid would slow that down. And I don’t think I registered the cruelty of any of this except when it was blatant and pronounced. Otherwise it was just business, accomplished with little joy by men who could smoke with no hands.
I can remember seeing a man trying to stomp a cunner. Every time he brought his foot down the fish would slip out and he followed it, stomping and missing until he got it in a corner and then began kicking at it. It was still alive when he threw it in the water. A seagull dropped from the sky and ate it whole. These birds would follow the fishing boats as they moved towards shore. Guts and skins and heads would be hurled off the stern and they would dive and clean up the rotting carnage that we left in our wake.
I was a sensitive kid and as I ran unthinking into the realm of adult knowledge I felt pierced by it all. There was an ecological sensibility that trickled into my little mind from a monthly subscription to a magazine called Ranger Rick, written for children but dealing with the painful subjects that parents exclude from their children’s awareness for their own benefit. This is where I learned about extinction, about desertification and about climate change.
Children are powerless. We’re all powerless. In the face of an oncoming apocalypse all we can do is feel impotent and terrified or remain terribly deluded.
I decided I would boycott McDonalds to protest the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. I wrote little stories in my grade school classes about the looming climate catastrophe. I urged my father to discourage the wanton killing of the cunners and the sea robins.
None of this did anything. I saw the failure of the dismal power of one. When I lay awake at night I wondered if I would be vaporized in my sleep. My class had been introduced to the idea of nuclear war via a duck and cover exercise and I became acutely aware of my species’ own possibilities for extinction.
This is also when the idea of God came into question. I was disabused of my belief in the Easter Bunny one ugly morning in my sixth year of life and the questionable beings of childhood magic collapsed like dominos. If the Easter Bunny had been a lie perpetuated for unknown reasons by my parents than so was Santa Claus, so was the Tooth Fairy… and then the most horrible realization of all. I had seen no evidence of God despite innumerable powers being attributed to him. How likely was it that this was the most significant lie?
I became obsessed with a conundrum. If God was God then all my doubting and questioning was transparent to him, had even been preordained. My desire to understand this impossibly powerful being was something I could not cease engaging in but would also guarantee that I be cast into hell. I would lie awake and wonder if it was worse for such a creature to not exist or to exist. If not then there was nothing when I died. It would mean the eradication of my consciousness, an end to the troubling thoughts that plagued me. On the other hand, if God was real and if his gaze should pass my way I would be a thought criminal slated for eternal suffering.
I asked my grandfather once how he knew that God was real. He said that he knew this because it was in the bible. It was the first time that I realized he was stupid.
When I was 13 I thought that I would kill myself. I don’t remember if it was serious or not. I think I just wanted to feel different than I did, to save myself from the misery that gained on me year after year. I confided in a friend that this was something I was thinking about doing and word reached my parents. Then I was ushered off to a psychiatric hospital in Nassau County. It was boring. Pointless.
When I got out I had to go to the docks one day to meet my father. There was a German man who crewed a boat owned by my uncle. He’s dead now and good riddance to him. He captained a ship captured by the British in World War II. I suppose he was just following orders.
He berated me in front of customers and crew alike for what I’d done to my father by threatening suicide. I walked off the dock and tried not to cry. If he knew then surely everyone else did too.
Years went by. My father left the family business. I’m sure interpersonal toxicity had a lot to do with it. The kind of disputes that fishermen have can blow up to violent proportions. But he also said he had contributed to the destruction of an ecosystem and that this wasn’t a thing he wanted to continue doing. I agreed. We had recently gone to a meeting about the problem of hypoxia in the Sound. The fertilizer and dog shit that was washed towards the bays from suburban lawns was prompting blooms of algae that would consume oxygen as they decomposed leaving behind swaths of dead water.
And I watched the landscape change. Where there had once been potato fields and orchards, wooded second growth denuded for the ship building needs of the British Navy grown back after hundreds of fallow years, now there were endless fields of sod for the manicured lawns of the subdivisions. I felt angry at this. My only fond memories of childhood were of walking through these places, the thrill of fright at a place so absent of humans commingled with hope that perhaps I would find a door, some way out of who I was becoming and who I was expected to be.
I worked the boats on and off throughout my adolescence and adulthood and I learned lessons that only the truly stupid can impart. About racism, about class, about sexism and killing the pain of everything by drinking. I learned that my childhood efforts at averting or even considering the manifold apocalypses that were bearing down on Homo sapiens were the ludicrous whims of a naive child. And I learned that fish don’t feel pain.