Down at the Fulton Fish Market, not long ago, Mike Cioffi of Smitty’s Fillet House fell to the floor with a heart attack. After four weeks’ convalescence, he craved the market's open-air ambience—the men with names like Shoes McGee, Tony the Tuna, Johnny Hands, Tony Crabs, and Johnny Dirtyface; the voices shouting weights and prices in the dank predawn hours; the forklifts (known in the market as up-downs) zooming perilously between boxes of writhing eels and three-hundred-pound swordfish—so Mike went back to work. “I’m resilient,” he said. Alas, he could no longer say the same of his beloved market. On Veterans Day, after nearly two hundred years in the same spot—just south of the Brooklyn Bridge, along the East River coast of Manhattan—the Fulton Fish Market moved indoors, under a roof in Hunts Point in the Bronx. Rumors of the market’s imminent closure had hovered over it for more than a generation. Even this year the moving date keeps getting postponed. Long good-byes are hard for everyone, but there was something particularly unsettling about watching burly, booted men endure month after month of uncertainty.
“It’s a stressful life, a lot of troubles,” Bob MacKay of the Mazur Brothers & Jaffe Fish Company on Peck Slip told me when I stopped by to see him on one of the market’s last mornings. “But I like it down here. It’s like the neighborhood you grew up in. We all came here when we were young. Now we’re all old-timers. Used to be this place was huge. It went for blocks and blocks. This is all that’s left and now it will all be gone. It ain’t gonna be the same up in the Bronx. They’re sticking us in a building. Where’s our river? Where’s our bridge? Down here there’s an energy.”
Those of us who lived near the stalls and sheds of the fish market shared in the vitality, even though the market only opened after midnight and was shuttered again by the morning rush hour. Most mornings, when I went out for my newspapers, I would stop by to chat with Bob and his high-spirited colleague Neil Veira as the knocked off work for the day and had their breakfast beers. After years in the neighborhood I hardly noticed the smell of dead fish. If I got up late, there were only the tracings—an unswept pile of salmon bones or a pair of gulls picking at the gut-slicked cobblestones along Peck Slip—to remind me that while the city slept another city had thrived within it. On the market’s final morning you could see men bending to take cobblestones from the street as they left.
Most New Yorkers will never notice that the market is gone, because most never saw it. The men who worked there enjoyed their low profile. The artist Andy Friedman bases his intensively worked, fine pencil drawings on Polaroid snapshots and when his flashbulb began going off in the market, fishmongers reacted as if he were firing a gun. As we made the rounds with Bob MacKay, a shriveled old woman who sold bootleg cigarettes called out, “Show me your dick or give me a kiss, Bobby.” This was Fish Market Annie and Bob gave her a buss. “She’s the lady of the market,” he said. “She was really something to see when she was young.”