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Authors: Joseph Mitchell

The Bottom of the Harbor

BOOK: The Bottom of the Harbor
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The worms crawl in,

The worms crawl out.

They eat your guts

And spit them out…

—Children's Song


When the stories in this book were first published, between 1944 and 1959, the harbor of New York was at its peak. The harbor and its many trades were an integral part of the city's daily fabric, and as such they passed largely unnoticed by most citizens. That is the usual fate of tradition, and it follows that hardly anyone foresaw its eclipse. Within a couple of decades of the book's publication the better part of its subject matter had passed into history. Joseph Mitchell may not have thought that he was writing the harbor's epitaph, but he was certainly aware of its fragility, all appearances to the contrary.

The transience of so many urban commonplaces that in their time seemed enduring to the point of immutability—indeed, to the point where they escaped conscious notice—was a preoccupation of Mitchell's. For all that he had come to New York from rural North Carolina, he had absorbed the city's fabric, both in its course over time and its daily apparatus, and he appreciated its changes and mourned its losses as few others did. When the neighborhood that contained Washington Market—the great produce exchange that had ruled the city's diet since the eighteenth century—was felled in the name of progress in the 1960s, he went around collecting bits of the structures: small fixtures that, fittingly, had gone unnoticed in their years of use but that he pressed into service as memorial markers.

But Mitchell should not be mistaken for a gravedigger. He was drawn to the harbor first of all because he was interested in people, in process, in specialized skills, in accreted time, in individual reckonings with tradition, in the annexes and alcoves and side rooms left out of the broader historical account. And he was drawn there by his senses—by the sound of names and the look of things and the odor of the sea and the taste of its fruits. In his pieces he walks through stories that bring together many of these fascinations; he watches people work, listens to their stories, savors them in the moment and at the same time regards them
sub specie aeternitatis
. An empty hotel above a bustling fish-market restaurant; the polluted remains of the once-flourishing oyster and clam beds in the harbor; the lives and exploits of the rats that come to the city aboard ships; the gentle decline of what began as a settlement of freed slaves in Staten Island; the labor of the captain of the biggest fishing fleet in the region; the unique practices of the shad fishermen at the foot of the Palisades in New Jersey—all of these are dense with color, flavor, humor, anecdotes, museum-quality details, and intimations of mortality.

Mitchell was a man of many interests, a brooder, a cataloger, an inveterate walker, and clearly one of the greatest listeners who ever lived. Just as the term “journalist” seems like a reductive label for his trade, so “interview” is utterly inadequate as a description of his chief working tool. He didn't use a recording device (not that such things were even available then) and didn't even ask many questions. By all accounts, he had a way of intently listening that by itself caused his subjects to keep talking. And then he reproduced what he had heard, with respect for his subjects and mindful of their rhythms of speech, but otherwise unconstrained by the slavish fidelity to minutiae that fact-checkers and legal counsel insist upon nowadays—and in the process turned all of his subjects into plain-spoken masters of American prose.

Mitchell's verbal artistry is subtle, and it can be nearly invisible to the casual reader. This was by design. Few writers have been as self-effacing as Mitchell, whose reticence is one of the most striking contrasts between him and A. J. Liebling—his friend,
New Yorker
colleague, and fellow enthusiast of New York City, plain cooking, and popular speech—who was the cheerful rotund extrovert to Mitchell's thin melancholy introvert. Its subtlety was also a function of its deeply American aesthetic. Mitchell, whose favorite book was
devised an equivalent in prose to the rigorous and deceptive simplicity of Walker Evans's photographs and Charles Sheeler's paintings. Mitchell's favorite device was the list, and his favorite conjunction was “and”: “dust and lint and grit and slut's wool” “mussels and mud shrimp and conchs and crabs and sea worms and sea plants” “old anchors and worm wheels and buoys and bollards and propellors.” Setting these objects side by side in a row has an effect that is both as plain as Shaker furniture and as expansive as a cinematic tracking shot. It also seems as functional as clapboard siding, although it is worth noting that across the page from the last of these cited lists, Mitchell records the message of a pulsating electric sign: “‘
,' ‘
,' ‘
.'” There is nothing accidental about Mitchell's rhythms.

In his most personal and revealing piece of writing, the introduction to the omnibus collection
Up in the Old Hotel
(1992), Mitchell mentions his affinity for the works of the Mexican graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada, famous for hilarious catastrophes and smartly turned-out antic skeletons, the salient feature being gallows humor. That aspect of his work is spelled out in this book's epigraph: “The worms crawl in, / The worms crawl out…” Had Mitchell lived in the Elizabethan era he might have been considered an antiquarian, like another kindred spirit, Robert Burton, the brooding and indefatigably listmaking author of
The Anatomy of Melancholy
. Like Burton, Mitchell meditates on graveyards and ruins, as well as doomed occupations and superannuated traditions, but what might at first appear to be a morbid streak turns out to be a homeopathic practice. Mitchell knew that an appreciation of death is necessary for an understanding of the regenerative cycle, the turning of the world. He could savor the perhaps galling fact that so many aspects of the world are taken for granted and only become truly visible at their twilight. The more he looked at the ends of things, the sharper his appetite for life, for sensual pleasures and creative disorder. This book of ostensibly journalistic feature stories turns out to hold at its core some of the fundamental questions of existence.


Luc Sante

Author's Note

The stories in this book first appeared in
The New Yorker,
but not in the order in which they are now arranged. The first story, “Up in the Old Hotel,” came out in the magazine under the title of “The Cave” in the issue of June 28, 1952; the second, “The Bottom of the Harbor,” came out in the issue of January 6, 1951; the third, “The Rats on the Waterfront,” came out under the title of “Thirty-two Rats from Casablanca,” in the issue of April 29, 1944; the fourth, “Mr. Hunter's Grave,” came out in the issue of September 22, 1956; the fifth, “Dragger Captain,” came out in two parts in the issues of January 4 and January 11, 1947; and the sixth, “The Rivermen,” came out in the issue of April 4, 1959.

The people in all of the stories are connected in one way or another with the waterfront of New York City.

Up in the Old Hotel

Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie's and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.

Sloppy Louie's occupies the ground floor of an old building at 92 South Street, diagonally across the street from the sheds. This building faces the river and looks out on the slip between the Fulton Street fish pier and the Old Porto Rico Line dock. It is six floors high, and it has two windows to the floor. Like the majority of the older buildings in the market district, it is made of hand-molded Hudson River brick, a rosy-pink and relatively narrow kind that used to be turned out in Haverstraw and other kiln towns on the Hudson and sent down to the city in barges. It has an ornamented tin cornice and a slate-covered mansard roof. It is one of those handsome, symmetrical old East River waterfront buildings that have been allowed to dilapidate. The windows of its four upper floors have been boarded over for many years, a rain pipe that runs down the front of it is riddled with rust holes, and there are gaps here and there on its mansard where slates have slipped off. In the afternoons, after two or three, when the trading is over and the stands begin to close, some of the slimy, overfed gulls that scavenge in the market roost along its cornice, hunched up and gazing downward.

I have been going to Sloppy Louie's for nine or ten years, and the proprietor and I are old friends. His name is Louis Morino, and he is a contemplative and generous and worldly-wise man in his middle sixties. Louie is a North Italian. He was born in Recco, a fishing and bathing-beach village thirteen miles southeast of Genoa, on the Eastern Riviera. Recco is ancient; it dates back to the third century. Families in Genoa and Milan and Turin own villas in and around it, and go there in the summer. Some seasons, a few English and Americans show up. According to a row of colored-postcard views of it Scotch-taped to a mirror on the wall in back of Louie's cash register, it is a village of steep streets and tall, square, whitewashed stone houses. The fronts of the houses are decorated with stenciled designs—madonnas, angels, flowers, fruit, and fish. The fish design is believed to protect against the evil eye and appears most often over doors and windows. Big, lush fig bushes grow in almost every yard. In the center of the village is an open-air market where fishermen and farmers sell their produce off plank-and-sawhorse counters. Louie's father was a fisherman. His name was Giuseppe Morino, and he was called, in Genoese dialect, Beppe du Russu, or Joe the Redhead. “My family was one of the old fishing families in Recco that the priest used to tell us had been fishing along that coast since Roman times,” Louie says. “We lived on a street named the Vico Saporito that was paved with broken-up sea shells and wound in and out and led down to the water. My father did a kind of fishing that's called haul-seining over here, and he set lobster traps and jigged for squid and bobbed for octopuses. When the weather was right, he used to row out to an underwater cave he knew about and anchor over it and take a bob consisting of a long line with scraps of raw meat hung from it every foot or so and a stone on the end of it and drop it in the mouth of the cave, and the octopuses would shoot up out of the dark down there and swallow the meat scraps and that would hold them, and then my father would draw the bob up slow and steady and pull the octopuses loose from the meat scraps one by one and toss them in a tub in the boat. He'd bob up enough octopuses in a couple of hours to glut the market in Recco. This cave was full of octopuses; it was choked with them. He had found it, and he had the rights to it. The other fishermen didn't go near it; they called it Beppe du Russu's cave. In addition to fishing, he kept a rickety old bathhouse on the beach for the summer people. It stood on stilts, and I judge it had fifty to sixty rooms. We called it the Bagni Margherita. My mother ran a little buffet in connection with it.”

Louie left Recco in 1905, when he was close to eighteen. “I loved my family,” he says, “and it tore me in two to leave, but I have five brothers and two sisters, and all my brothers were younger than me, and there were already too many fishermen in Recco, and the bathhouse brought in just so much, and I had a persisting fear there might not be enough at home to go around in time to come, so I got passage from Genoa to New York scrubbing pots in the galley of a steamship and went straight from the dock to a chophouse on East 138th Street in the Bronx that was operated by a man named Capurro who came from Recco. Capurro knew my father when they both were boys.” Capurro gave Louie a job washing dishes and taught him how to wait on tables. He stayed there two years. For the next twenty-three years, he worked as a waiter in restaurants all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. He has forgotten how many he worked in; he can recall the names of thirteen. Most of them were medium-size restaurants of the Steaks-&-Chops, We-Specialize-in-Seafood, Tables-for-Ladies type. In the winter of 1930, he decided to risk his savings and become his own boss. “At that time,” he says, “the stock-market crash had shook everything up and the depression was setting in, and I knew of several restaurants in midtown that could be bought at a bargain—lease, furnishings, and good will. All were up-to-date places. Then I ran into a waiter I used to work with and he told me about this old run-down restaurant in an old run-down building in the fish market that was for sale, and I went and saw it, and I took it. The reason I did, Fulton Fish Market reminds me of Recco. There's a world of difference between them. At the same time, they're very much alike—the fish smell, the general gone-to-pot look, the trading that goes on in the streets, the roofs over the sidewalks, the cats in corners gnawing on fish heads, the gulls in the gutters, the way everybody's on to everybody else, the quarreling and the arguing. There's a boss fishmonger down here, a spry old hardheaded Italian man who's got a million dollars in the bank and dresses like he's on relief and walks up and down the fish pier snatching fish out of barrels by their heads or their tails and weighing them in his hands and figuring out in his mind to a fraction of a fraction how much they're worth and shouting and singing and enjoying life, and the face on him, the way he conducts himself, he reminds me so much of my father that sometimes, when I see him, it puts me in a good humor, and sometimes it breaks my heart.”

Louie is five feet six, and stocky. He has an owllike face—his nose is hooked, his eyebrows are tufted, and his eyes are large and brown and observant. He is white-haired. His complexion is reddish, and his face and the backs of his hands are speckled with freckles and liver spots. He wears glasses with flesh-colored frames. He is bandy-legged, and he carries his left shoulder lower than his right and walks with a shuffling, hipshot, head-up, old-waiter's walk. He dresses neatly. He has his suits made by a high-priced tailor in the insurance district, which adjoins the fish-market district. Starting work in the morning, he always puts on a fresh apron and a fresh brown linen jacket. He keeps a napkin folded over his left arm even when he is standing behind the cash register. He is a proud man, and somewhat stiff and formal by nature, but he unbends easily and he has great curiosity and he knows how to get along with people. During rush hours, he jokes and laughs with his customers and recommends his daily specials in extravagant terms and listens to fish-market gossip and passes it on; afterward, in repose, having a cup of coffee by himself at a table in the rear, he is grave.

Louie is a widower. His wife, Mrs. Victoria Piazza Morino, came from a village named Ruta that is only two and a half miles from Recco, but he first became acquainted with her in Brooklyn. They were married in 1928, and he was deeply devoted to her. She died in 1949. He has two daughters—Jacqueline, who is twenty-two and was recently graduated from the Mills College of Education, a school for nursery, kindergarten, and primary teachers on lower Fifth Avenue, and Lois, who is seventeen and was recently graduated from Fontbonne Hall, a high school on Shore Road in Brooklyn that is operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph. They are smart, bright, slim, vivid, dark-eyed girls. Louie has to be on hand in his restaurant in the early morning, and he usually gets up between four and five, but before leaving home he always squeezes orange juice and puts coffee on the stove for his daughters. Most days, he gets home before they do and cooks dinner.

Louie owns his home, a two-story brick house on a maple-bordered street in the predominantly Norwegian part of the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn. There is a saying in Recco that people and fig bushes do best close to salt water; Louie's home is only a few blocks from the Narrows, and fifteen years ago he ordered three tiny fig bushes from a nursery in Virginia and set them out in his back yard, and they have flourished. In the late fall, he wraps an accumulation of worn-out suits and dresses and sweaters and sheets and blankets around their trunks and limbs. “All winter,” he says, “when I look out the back window, it looks like I got three mummies stood up out there.” At the first sign of spring, he takes the wrappings off. The bushes begin to bear the middle of July and bear abundantly during August. One bush bears small white figs, and the others bear plump black figs that split their skins down one side as they ripen and gape open and show their pink and violet flesh. Louie likes to gather the figs around dusk, when they are still warm from the heat of the day. Sometimes, bending beside a bush, he plunges his face into the leaves and breathes in the musky smell of the ripening figs, a smell that fills his mind with memories of Recco in midsummer.


Louie doesn't think much of the name of his restaurant. It is an old restaurant with old furnishings that has had a succession of proprietors and a succession of names. Under the proprietor preceding Louie, John Barbagelata, it was named the Fulton Restaurant, and was sometimes called Sloppy John's. When Louie took it over, he changed the name to Louie's Restaurant. One of the fishmongers promptly started calling it Sloppy Louie's, and Louie made a mistake and remonstrated with him. He remonstrated with him on several occasions. As soon as the people in the market caught on to the fact that the name offended Louie, naturally most of them began using it. They got in the habit of using it. Louie brooded about the matter off and on for over three years, and then had a new swinging signboard erected above his door with
on it in big red letters. He even changed his listing in the telephone book. “I couldn't beat them,” he says, “so I joined them.”

Sloppy Louie's is small and busy. It can seat eighty, and it crowds up and thins out six or seven times a day. It opens at five in the morning and closes at eight-thirty in the evening. It has a double door in front with a show window on each side. In one window are three sailing-ship models in whiskey bottles, a giant lobster claw with eyes and a mouth painted on it, a bulky oyster shell, and a small skull. Beside the shell is a card on which Louie has neatly written, “Shell of an Oyster dredged from the bottom of Great South Bay. Weighed two and a quarter pounds. Estimated to be fifteen years old. Said to be largest ever dredged in G.S.B.” Beside the skull is a similar card, which says, “This is the skull of a Porpoise taken by a dragger off Long Beach, Long Island.” In the other window is an old pie cupboard with glass sides. To the left, as you enter, is a combined cigar showcase and cashier's desk, and an iron safe with a cash register on top of it. There are mirrors all around the walls. Four lamps and three electric fans with wooden blades that resemble propellers hang from the stamped-tin ceiling. The tables in Louie's are communal, and there are exactly one dozen; six jut out from the wall on one side of the room and six jut out from the wall on the other side, and a broad aisle divides them. They are long tables, and solid and old and plain and built to last. They are made of black walnut; Louie once repaired a leg on one, and said it was like driving a nail in iron. Their tops have been seasoned by drippings and spillings from thousands upon thousands of platters of broiled fish, and their edges have been scratched and scarred by the hatchets and bale hooks that hang from frogs on fishmongers' belts. They are identical in size; some seat six, and some have a chair on the aisle end and seat seven. At the back of the room, hiding the door to the kitchen, is a huge floor mirror on which, each morning, using a piece of moistened chalk, Louie writes the menu for the day. It is sometimes a lengthy menu. A good many dishes are served in Louie's that are rarely served in other restaurants. One day, interspersed among the staple seafood-restaurant dishes, Louie listed cod cheeks, salmon cheeks, cod tongues, sturgeon liver, blue-shark steak, tuna steak, squid stew, and five kinds of roe—shad roe, cod roe, mackerel roe, herring roe, and yellow-pike roe. Cheeks are delectable morsels of flesh that are found in the heads of some species of fish, one on each side, inset in bone and cartilage. The men who dress fish in the fillet houses in the market cut out a few quarts of cheeks whenever they have the time to spare and sell them to Louie. Small shipments of them come down occasionally from the Boston Fish Pier, and the fishmongers, thinking of their own gullets, let Louie buy most of them. The fishmongers use Louie's as a testing kitchen. When anything unusual is shipped to the market, it is taken to Louie's and tried out. In the course of a year, Louie's undoubtedly serves a wider variety of seafood than any other restaurant in the country.

BOOK: The Bottom of the Harbor
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