Why did I end up in Chinatown? To be honest I couldn't tell you. But I'm here, in mid-stride. Just above freezing, just below the Williamsburg Bridge.
I don't know many places here, or locals. I'm not even hungry. But I was on a downtown 6 train and told myself to get off when the mood struck. Half the island streaked above and I wasn't moved much. I don't need to find myself in some Village bar, sandwiched between backslapping bros and their vacant-grin girls, jostled every time someone carries inflated plastic over a chalk line. But then Canal Street struck, so I got off.
It worked. Winding in no pattern. Guided by which way lights fired and flared or didn't, or that garbled inner nudge for this way or the other. I like finding things this way. Much is open down here on New Year's Day. It bustles with quiet continuance. Also there's neon, gaudy but effective. Felt as vibrant a place to roam as any, or at least until inspiration landed.
I like the markets here, the fish especially. Variety and quality, all the signs illegible to me. It smells damp and cold and scrubbed. It means standing in the midst of trade, of merchants with families, of little old ladies poking through stacks of fish to find a few beauties to fry whole in oil, tip to tail.
Then I heard rapid slaps. Wet, dense, too quick, like a leather glove crossing a cheek, over and over. I turned. There was a fat fish on the tiled floor. The fish was mottled brown-green, like riverbed mud and seaweed. It flapped and flipped. It's weight and size worked against it. It was meaty and had real might. In its own element, this fish would be a force, a proud one. Here, on this slick and clammy tiled floor, it was fighting for life, and nobly. It could only ever lose.
All of which is how it goes. I get it. But there was a man in front of me, a squat man with a too dark moustache. Darker than his hair, which always hits me funny. His hands shoved in his jacket pockets and knit hat on his head, he had the behind-schedule scowl of a man making more rounds than there were hours in the day.
He made eye contact with the tall man standing over the fish, a worker at the market. Lanky, in a slim and stained white smock. The worker had a languid expression, not boredom but methodical and fatigued. His face read like long shifts and acceptance of them.
The squat man nodded. The worker gave a tacit single nod, then looked to the side, mentally already onto the next task. He reached to the side and pulled out a 2x4. It was a splintering, beat up piece of wood, jagged at the end from blunt work. He toed the fat fish back to center, like a wriggling golf ball. It had arced itself into a near circle, desperate.
Then the worker's face was really quite serene as he swung the 2x4 up above his head and brought the splintered end down on the fish's head. It kept flapping. Another swing, another soggy thud. The fat fish bounced it's belly along the tiles, a rubber ball trying to escape. The belly flipped up along the way, exposed pearly white. The worker swung again. The fish bled openly from its gills, it coursed scarlet in lightning bolt streaks down the white belly. The mouth stayed at a permanent mute scream. The eye, as an ink drop, as a milky spot of terror, rolled and knew nothing and knew everything. It knew none of its attackers. It knew it would die. You could see it in there.
A few more whacks did the trick. A little lower, less swing, more short slams. The fat fish thrashed, some leftover fury in spurts, but really it had done well and tried and now it was depleted. The squat man had his fish. The worker had done his job.
None of which matters worth a damn, I guess. I left. Maybe I'm squeamish, one of those weak-stomached carnivores who tells himself his meal was born on a plate, cooked and smothered in sauce.
I think I try too hard to apply meaning to things. Maybe there are times when you bum around town and watch a fat fish get its brains bashed in on a floor while people stand in a silent circle and watch. To watch death. Maybe that's what bothers me. We gathered to witness death. Do fish do that? If you fall overboard in a ship, and sharks arrive, would they show any less brutality? Well, they'd have the decency to eat you, or fight each other to eat you to survive. But only one guy in this market was buying this fish, only he would eat it. And he could just as well eat something else. But us? We just watched to watch.
I guess it's not something you see everyday.
I guess I wonder what I'd do if I were the fish. You'd need someone else to effect your rescue, right?
Hm. Well. Too late, I already started making something out of a dead fish.
© Eric Yves Garcia 2015