At the Fulton Market

It’S the place to go for soft-shell crabs that hours ago swam in Chesapeake Bay, and for fresh fish of every description. Needless to say, the Fulton Fish Market is scheduled to be demolished.

Over forty thousand soft-shell crabs are served each year to patrons of Jack and Charlie’s 21 Club Restaurant in New York. The first soft crabs come from North Carolina, are seldom more than three inches across, cost as much as eight dollars a dozen wholesale, and begin to appear on the 21 Club menu at a much higher price in late March or early April, just as the novelty of fresh shad roe is wearing thin. By May, the larger supplies from the Chesapeake Bay, which yields more crabs than any other body of water in the world, begin to come to market.

Much of the Chesapeake Bay catch—70 million pounds, or over 200 million crabs, is a “good year” average—goes to freezer plants. About 40 percent of the Bay’s delicious blue crabs end up in frozen crab cakes, deviled crabs in plastic shells, soups, and even in a distilled crab-juice essence used to fortify the flavor of fish sticks and other TV dinner specials. Frozen crab utilization, moreover, increases every year. What this means is that exquisitely fresh, same-day-as-caught crabmeat, which is one of the world’s great refections, may soon be very hard to come by. Worse, the incomparable Chesapeake soft crabs (the soft-shell crab of commerce is merely the familiar blue of our Atlantic seaboard, taken soon after moulting) could totally disappear in the live or fresh form. Such a possibility would be nothing short of gastronomic catastrophe to many of our most celebrated French chefs. “The American soft crab is fabulous,” says Michel Sellier, former chef to Ambassador John Hay Whitney and now owner of Washington’s popular Cafe de Paris. “There is nothing like it in the world. It is one of your national treasures. To freeze it is a desecration.”

But, happily for all gourmets, the traditional bigcity markets of our East Coast are holding firm. They insist on freshness, whether in crabmeat or soft crabs, and still get a significant portion of the Chesapeake catch. The city market wholesalers are both professionals and connoisseurs, men who know the quality of fresh crabs as well or better than the Chesapeake watermen who catch them. Only at their stands can the urban consumer be sure that the crabs he buys today swam in the Bay yesterday.

Washington’s Maine Avenue, Baltimore’s Wholesale Fish Market, Philadelphia’s Market Center. Boston’s Fish Pier—each has its own character and special interest. But to see fresh crabs and other creatures of the sea in greatest plenty and variety, to witness fishmongering at its vigorous and blasphemous best, it is necessary to go to New York. Ride a patiently secured cab through deserted streets or a long awaited subway train to a point on the East River not far south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Here, in an area comprising 250 yards of pier frontage and four small city blocks, is America’s oldest continuously operating marketplace. It began in the seventeenth century as a general market area in the fields of lower Manhattan, conveniently located along a narrow stretch of the East River where boats crossed with farm produce from Long Island. After a fire in 1821, the New York Gazette successfully urged a more specialized role and in time it became the Fulton Market Wholesale Fishmongers Association, Incorporated.

The day begins at Fulton Market at two in the morning. At that hour the big trailer trucks that have been arriving through the night start serious battle for the best parking positions under the columns of the East River Drive. Invoice men may already be looking over the day’s stocks. Lights go on here and there deep within the cavernous “Old Shed,” an ironwork and corrugated steel exuberance, backside to the river and front to South Street, built in 1894. In little offices tucked under its roof, the owners or managers of the older firms—Frank Wilkisson, Lockwood & Winant, Wallace, Keeney and Lynch—are changing into their traditional white aprons with drawstrings at the waist, even though they will spend most of the day at their books. They look down from small picture windows to the long lines of their stands, which extend in parallel rows for one hundred feet from the back of the building out into South Street. Some few journeymen may already be trundling ice or heavy fish boxes. But it is early yet. If the morning is cold and damp, the place to be is the Paris Bar and Restaurant, corner of South and Peck Slip, which at this hour extends a warm and friendly beacon.

The Paris Bar and Restaurant occupies the ground floor of Meyer’s Hotel, a brick building constructed in 1873. Upstairs are lodgings for forty-five pensioners, fifteen dollars a week, and the offices of the Fishery Council and Board of Trade Association. Directly below these offices is the Paris’ grand salon. It contains both a bar and a lunch counter, and gives off to a smaller side room with tables that are used more for dice and card games than for eating. Throughout the early morning hours these two rooms are crowded with journeymen of all ages, from young men with long hair to tattooed older seamen who may once have worked on fish boats that no longer come to Fulton Market. They talk loudly, wear short rubber boots, and have bailing hooks slung over their shoulders in such a way that the points pierce their clothing, very macho. They are also friendly and inquisitive.

“Hey, what are you, friend, from the newspapers or something? Looking for a little atmosphere?”

“You innarested in scallops, friend?” A voice detaches itself from the rest, low and conspiratorial. “You heard about the New Bedford draggers, din’t you? All out on strike. Well, I got a friend, he’s holding some nice scallops.”

A crap game is in progress in the side room and the neon-lighted lunch counter is jammed. A pale girl with Slavic features and a wiry-thin black man with a facial twitch are handling breakfast orders. Potatoes, ham, sausage, eggs, most anything, in fact, except fish. Towering over all is the bar, the pride of the Paris. Heavy, dark-stained oak, thirty feet long, and backed by three tall mirrors framed with matching oak and crystal sculpture, its like is not to be found in all Manhattan. Unfortunately, by city regulations, the bar cannot open until eight in the morning. Nevertheless, a barman is standing down at one end, where the cash register is. Look closely and you will see the journeymen taking partially filled coffee cups over to him. He adds a strong shot of anisette under the counter. What comes out is coffee royal, a traditional Fulton proprietary. It is the top-of-the-morning elixir, what it takes to open the market.

Finish your breakfast, let the coffee royal warm your insides, and walk out into the market. It is three o’clock. The tempo is picking up. All the suppliers’ trucks are in, parked so tight that it is impossible to walk between them. Big rigs they are. bearing checkerboard designs of numerous interstate license plates. Some have come long distances: Merritt Island, Florida: Valona, Georgia; Provincetown, Massachusetts; St. John, New Brunswick. The drivers are impatient; they want to turn around and get out of city traffic before dawn. Lights are now on everywhere in the Old Shed, the New Market, and the brick buildings across South Street. The stands, in fact, are ready for business, although heavy selling will not start much before five.

The opening of the market is a great spectacle. As the journeymen rip apart wooden boxes or wax-board cartons, there comes into view a veritable still-life aquarium, a feast of nature morte. There are the Lilliputian species. Fresh sardines and delicate whitebait, beautifully packed in golden-bronze buckets. Also the Gargantuans. Huge bluefin tuna, for example, 600 pounds or better, with red, raw meat. Tell the man how much you can use, and he’ll cut you a chunk to size. Or twin-eyed halibut, largest of the flatfishes, bedded down in ice and in sturdy individual boxes, the weight scrawled in black crayon outside: 128, 294, 381 lbs. Almost as big are the basslike jewfish. Large-mouthed, goggle-eyed, and coarsely scaled, they look like comic strip caricatures of a fish, or what the little boy getting a lesson from his father reels in, so big it overwhelms the rowboat. Now you must call them “warsaws.” “The Jewish people is some of our best customers,” a vendor explains. “You better believe they buy a lot of fish. Carp, buffaloes, sable, whitefish, you name it.”

There are some familiars, too. Red snapper, Florida snook, striped bass, bluefish, and Boston scrod, the latter so fresh-looking you almost want to sample it raw. Then come the odd ones, fish you never expected to find in a market. Not just octopus or squid, but deep-sea anglers and monkfish from the permanent night of abyssal depths, known generally as “bellyfish” around the market. And sand sharks or dogfish. “Sure, the Portugees, the Italians all eat dog. It’s good eating meat, don’t kid yourself.”

The buyer trucks are arriving. Sun Hope Kee from Mott Street, Victor Fish and Hotel Supply, Joe’s Clam Bar, and the big trailer truck from Waldman’s in Montreal. All shapes and sizes, and some with Chinese characters.

To stroll and observe becomes increasingly difficult. The hand-truck traffic is thick. And anyone in a proper business suit is tabbed for a new buyer, an easy mark, perhaps, who doesn’t know the market.

“Can I help you, friend? Or you looking for local color?” A salty old journeyman poses the question. He wears a knitted black watch cap, has most of his front teeth missing, and knows that brokers from Wall Street or the nearby Cocoa Exchange like to come over now and then just to look around, curious-like.

“Here comes the biggest man in Chinatown.” he says. “How you doing, Joe? Here, my friend, meet Joe Fat. He is very honorable. He pays the top dollar. All Chinese people is honorable. I never seen a Chinese tief. Except maybe once in Hong Kong, I seen a tief.”

A swollen-faced woman approaches, wearing two overcoats, brown cotton stockings, and shoes stuffed with newspaper. She is pushing a supermarket shopping cart and uses a wooden stick with a barbed metal point to retrieve truck-squashed fish off the cobblestones. “That’s your scavenger,” the old salt adds. “Years ago, you had a better class scavengers. You didn’t mind giving them some damaged product the end of the day. Now all you got is smokies. They live up under the Bridge. Drink wine, heat up a pail of water, throw a fish into it.”

A noisy dispute suddenly erupts at a neighboring stand. The manager evidently has the corner on the dwindling scallop supply and is holding back for his favored clients. The language is very blue, revolving mostly around incest in every possible combination. There is a ritual quality to the utterances, though, that takes out most of the sting. The whole is a bit of theater, you suspect, a parabasis that must be played out many times during a busy day at Fulton Market. There is one final burst of obscenities, the pnigos, or choker, of this particular comedy, and the frustrated buyers walk away to hoots and catcalls from a chorus of journeymen. The haggle is over, as quickly as it began.

Some twenty firms handle crabs in one form or another at Fulton Market. Typical of the older generation of managers is Harold Aaronson of the Berman Fish Company. Harold occupies stand number 31 in the New Market, an undistinguished concrete structure next to and with the same basic plan as the Old Shed. His upstairs office has a picture map of Maryland’s Eastern Shore which is badly faded in spite of repeated applications of shellac; a group photograph of the last Fishery Council annual picnic and outing held at Bear Mountain, New York, in 1939; and a familiar carved wooden sign which reads;

Behold the Fisherman!
Mighty are his preparations!
He riseth up early in the morning
And disturbeth the whole household.
He goeth forth full of hope.
And when the day is spent.
He returneth home smelling of strong drink.
And the truth is not in him.

Harold Aaronson does not bother with crabmeat or whole hard crabs. “I don’t like hard crabs for the same reason I don’t like chicken,” he says in well-modulated Brooklyn cadences. “Too much work preparing them, and then the meat sticks in your teeth.” Aaronson also refuses to handle frozen Alaska king crab. “The king crab market don’t affect us. You are talking about two different things: the closest thing to a king crab is a lobster.” Like most Fulton stand managers, he finds the greatest challenge in selling soft crabs. “But you got to know your product,” he warns. “You would be surprised what some of the packers pass off” Harold learned about soft crabs back in 1938, when a supplier friend of his on the Virginia Peninsula got sick. “Look, I’m from Brooklyn.” Aaronson will protest. “But there I was, down in Hopkins, Virginia, in the middle of the Depression, shedding crabs for five dollars a week.” He seems pleased to recall those days, and will tell you that things are not what they used to be in his business, since the packers no longer have the necessary patience to nurse soft crabs into prime market condition. (A fine soft crab ready for market is very rarely caught in nature; instead, “peelers,” or crabs showing certain subtle signs of readiness to shed their bony exterior skeletons, are held for a number of days in floating pens, watched constantly until the moment of moult, and then quickly fished out, since any soft crab left in the water will harden its new shell very rapidly.)

“In the old days they sent you a tray, it was a pleasure to handle,” Aaronson adds. “Today, the young people, they don’t have time to shed a quality crab. There should be more uniform standards; the suppliers are not adhering to market measurements. Some you can talk to like a Dutch uncle; some you can’t. Look, here! Here is something what I got for a joke from a friend. Me and this party, we are good friends, but we were always having arguments about the measurements.” He holds up a large and finely carved measuring stick. It is inscribed “To my cheat friend Harold,”and has notches indicating the various soft-crab market sizes, from the little “mediums” and “hotels” that measure three to three and a half inches across the body, to the big “whales” and “slabs” of five and five and a half inches respectively, all grossly exaggerated.

“Yes, there ought to be better standards,” Aaronson concludes. “A striped bass in New York has to be sixteen inches, nose to spike. You get a 21/25 pack of shrimp, you know you’re getting twenty-one to twenty-five shrimps to the pound, no funny business about it. Now with the crabs, some days you can make more on twenty-five boxes than you do on a hundred. If we had a more uniform product, we could do better and get a little more room, a better spread, you might say. That way the supplier’s happy, I’m happy, and the customer’s happy.”

For a more tolerant view, or the opinions of Fulton Market’s principal crab dealer, there is Johnny Montauk. “You want crabs, friend, you gotta see Johnny Montauk.” the journeymen tell you. “Johnny, he’s the king of the crabs.”

Johnny Montauk is in fact John Catena, ownermanager of Montauk Seafood Co., Inc., 96 South Street. “My folks come from the Island,” he says, explaining the name. Johnny is the archetype of a younger generation of Italian-Americans who have risen to prominence in the market since the days of the legendary Joe “Socks” Lanza, who had to fight his way in as a journeyman. (Prior to the 1930s, Fulton Market had a solid Anglo-Irish hegemony.) Johnny is a graduate of CCNY night school with a major in marketing. He uses such modern conveniences as an off-hours telephone answering service and correctly characterizes Montauk Seafood as “your biggest outlet for soft crabs in the country.” Johnny also sells live baskets of hard crabs, having discovered that New York’s southern blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese. Greeks, and his fellow Italians like to steam and prepare crabmeat at home. He is thirty-eight years old, of strong build, and has handsome dark eyes that are tired and languorous, when discussing thievery or other discouraging aspects of Fulton Market, or alert and darting, when he senses a good sale or goes out for a stroll to look over the competition. On a good day he will sell 100 to 140 boxes, or over 18,000 soft crabs, and as many as 150 bushels of the hard-shells, ninety or so to the basket.

“I sell to Sardi’s, Fraunces Tavern, a lot of your big name restaurants,” Johnny tells you. “Also the top retail shops. I’m into frozen soft crabs, too. I have two accounts in California and sell maybe 30,000 dozen a year. Years ago you would find 150 boxes per market stand every day, of the fresh soft crabs, that is. Today you can’t get that kind of volume. Too much is going off to the freezer plants. Frozen soft crab is a tremendous industry, now bigger than the fresh, growing all the time. It takes care of glut periods. But it can also disguise a poor product, and I would hate like hell to see the fresh crabs go.”

In winter, Johnny concentrates on clams, mussels, and Long Island mariculture oysters. But his heart is not so much in it. “Your customer, how can he tell one clam from another?” he asks. “Now, with the soft crabs, you are making a more visual-type sale. You’ve got to be able to show a good, clean-looking product. Some of the buyers, they know something about a crab.”

On the busy days, when most of his crabs have been sold by mid-morning, Johnny may decide to make one of his periodic inspection tours of the market. To accompany him on such an expedition is a special treat, although there are many false starts and great patience must be exercised throughout.

Out in the front part of his stand, which is a garagelike storage area typical of most South Street locations, a fat man wearing a checked flannel shirt says, “Break me a box, Johnny. I don’t need more than six dozen jumbos.”

Johnny shoves a soft-crab box into view, rappina on the top with his fist.

“Hey, none of that,” the prospective buyer complains.

“What’s the matter?" Johnny protests. “I got to wake them up, don’t I? Crabs got to have a little sleep, same as you or me. What do you think I am, a faith healer or something, restoring the dead?” He takes the cover off the box and removes a tray. “Look here! You won’t find any better this time of year. Okay? You got it. Frank, you got it! Two trays jumbos!”

Out on South Street, the confusion hits you hard. Buyers and sellers move about like a giant colony of amoebas. exchanging some form of hidden signals as they pass close or bump into each other. Shouting truck drivers pull in and out of impossible spaces, journeymen continue to rattle their hand trucks, and an increasing number of scavengers search among mounting piles of broken boxes or other spoil. Johnny takes in the scene with one broad sweep of his arm as we start our walk.

“The Police Department says there’s no crime down here.” he observes. “But you should see what goes on! Two weeks ago, there’s a gang broke into B & G’s freezer, right next door to me. They came through my bathroom and got $30,000 worth of shrimp. Last year they hit Crown Shrimp for 1500 pounds. That’s even more. Went through three different buildings, maybe four or five walls. We call them ‘The Engineers.’ ”

As we pass Sloppy Louie’s Restaurant and round the corner onto Fulton Street, one of Johnny’s men stops him and asks if maybe he shouldn’t buy some crabs from another stand. Johnny agrees, or at least tells him to have a look around. “Sure, we sell some, one to another,”he explains. “It might be that you are low on a certain item halfway through the day and the market is still strong. So you send out your journeyman to get some fast prices. Then maybe you buy from an associate; maybe you don’t. Also, along the way. my man, he can perhaps get a few orders, a few instructions. That’s what I call notes to myself on market conditions, notes for the future. Sure, you may sell a lot of same-day stuff, but more than that, you’re picking up orders for tomorrow, the next day. or even next week. With the suppliers, you do business by contract. In the old days there used to be more consignment. Some still do it. But no one who depends solely on consignment can make it in this business. Especially with the soft crabs. You have to contract with many different suppliers. You got to move around; you got to know where and when to buy.”

Walking past Sweet’s Restaurant, where you can get the best broiled fish in New York, Johnny may turn off Fulton to Front or Water Street on the back side of the market complex. In this area and nearby Schermerhorn Row are some of the classic four-story “humpback” buildings that are believed to be the oldest commercial structures in New York, some dating to the late eighteenth century. Today they are occupied mostly by shellfish dealers. filleting or smoking concerns, and a number of fresh-water fish houses. Here it is much more quiet than in the Old Shed or on South Street, so Johnny chooses this point in the tour to explain his marketing philosophy.

“I sell by implication,” he says. “I think for the customer. The heart of this job is knowing what some 400 customers might he wanting each day of the week. Look, let me put it this way. There’s fourteen guys here selling clams, right? Well, the buyers, they get up at four o’clock in the morning and come down to the market, They’re sleepy. They’re confused. They are supposed to be getting the best clams, but what do they know about it? Why, it’s an emotional experience, a trauma for the buyers. So, what I do is, I take decision-making off their minds!”

Johnny is warming to the subject. Asked about disagreements or haggling with buyers, he will stoutly protest that such tactics are a waste of time. “No, no, you don’t ever do that,” he maintains. “I don’t take any of this ‘Have you got this; what price is it?’ Hell, no. I just come up to you and say I’ve saved you a bushel of crabs. Note that I do not ask if you want it. Instead. I say I have got something really good, special for you. It’s a favor to you, in other words.”

Striding down Peck Slip, back toward the main market area. Johnny spots a customer. “Here, watch this,” he says. “Hey. Leo. a jumbo tomorrow? Break down a bit. The whale run is over. I got a nice bag of necks and a tray of jumbos for you tomorrow.”

“You do?” says Leo sourly. He makes a wellknown upward gesture with his middle finger.

“You’re goddamn right I do!” says Johnny, returning the gesture.

Leo goes on his way.

“That’s a sale,” Johnny explains. “In the absence of any negative comment, in the absence of any specific indications to the contrary, you consider it a sale.” He scribbles on an order chit and puts it in his pocket.

“Another thing you got to think about is moving your product fast,” Johnny adds, as he turns the corner into South Street and enters one of the smaller garagelike stands selling oysters and clams.

“Smell anything funny?” Johnny asks, loud as he can.

I agree. The odor is very strong.

“You’re damn right it is,” Johnny says. “Now, you don’t have to be too bright to know what’s going on. He’s holding his product too long!” By now Johnny will be almost shouting. The proprietor, of course, notices.

“Herman, I want you to meet my friend here. He’s the new health inspector.”

Herman is taken in. His face registers genuine panic, so much so that compassion forces me to smile and explain it isn’t so. Johnny is pleased with his joke.

The last stop on Johnny’s inspection tour is usually at Shore Shellfish, Pier 17. East River, a small and rather dilapidated building standing by itself on the waterfront. Here his kid cousin Dave Catena, who was among the first to introduce Cardisoma guanhumi, the purple-colored and hairylegged land crab of the tropics, to an astonished market, carries on his business. Dave is an energetic young man who walks with a bouncy jive step and brims over with good anecdote. He wears a neck chain with a religious medal, uses the Fulton language at its richest, and is so good-looking that you think he should have played the nice guy in Mean Streets.

Ask Dave how he got started with the tropical land crabs and you are in for quite a story. He was up in the barrio one day, you see, and there was this guy with all these crazy-looking crabs running around in a pen in the back of his store. Muy rico, the guy says, and he’s getting good money for them, too. So Dave and his partner, they fly down to Haiti, rent a car, and drive all to hell and gone for two days, not seeing a single crab. Ready to call it quits they were, when all of a sudden they see a native walking along the road carrying one of the big things in his hand, all tied up with vines.

“So we slam on the brakes and I jump all over him.” Dave recalls. “I’m yelling at him, my partner’s yelling at me. The native must have thought we were going zoo. Finally, I say like ‘take me to your leader’ in sign language, and he gets it. We meet his foreman and he’s got a whole fuckin’ corral full of the crabs, maybe 500 dozen.”

Johnny, who has heard it all before, often gets impatient at this point. “Look, I been away from the office too long already,” he says. “I got to get back and do my orders.” But there is seldom any stopping his young cousin.

“That was in September a year ago.” Dave continues. “I got my first air shipment in October. I took a bath. It was too cold and the crabs didn’t survive the trip. Now, I’m doing better. I fly them in from Haiti, Venezuela, St. Thomas, all the Caribbean islands. Sell 300 dozen a week; I could do 5000 if there was the production. But, boy, have I got problems! The Board of Health! And the goddamn customs at JFK! They’re so dumb out there, they don’t know enough even to put the crabs in the shade. I have lost more goddamn crabs in customs. Sometimes I think I should get into frog’s legs. I want to get in touch with some domestic frog breeders, right here in the old U.S.A.

“Well, so long, pal.” Dave finally concludes. “I’ll give you some good crabs the next time. Juellas, they call them. It’s mostly the one big claw that you eat. Muy rico.”

South Street is now very empty, except for the accumulated litter of one day’s buying and selling, which can be rather spectacular. A big compressor truck from the Cantalupo Carting Corporation is starting to attack it, in fact. Fulton Market is the toughest garbage run in town, the journeymen tell you.

Johnny strides through his stand area back to his private office. “I sold out early today.” he reflects. “So maybe I was in too low. Listen, I’m telling you, it took me a long time to learn the pricing structure here. There are many factors. First of all, there is history. What was it yesterday? What’s changed since yesterday? Is there an increase in supply? A decrease? What is the composition of the product? Look, it’s going to rain this afternoon on Long Island Sound. It’s going to be foggy, so the clam catch will be curtailed. That’s why I already bought extra today on the littlenecks. Then you got to keep an eye on the competition. They are always out to cut you.”

Johnny is winding down. He stretches his feet out on the desk and tries to sum it all up. “It’s a hell of a business.” he says. “Some days you can’t make more than two dollars a tray. Think of it! Two lousy dollars for three or four dozen crabs. People down the Bay think we rake it all in here. They should try it some time! In the gluts, very often, you have to sell at cost, just to move the product. Sometimes you can’t even give the stuff away. You just have to dump it. Take right now, in midsummer, the market is not so hot. Some restaurants are closed, the kids are in camp, and a lot of people on vacation. I’m waiting for September. The market gets a little shot in the arm then. But meanwhile I got my ethnics, my foreign clientele. You know what kaki means? That’s oyster in Korean.

“Look, this is my dictionary. I made it myself.” Johnny is holding up a little notebook with foreign phrases. Oriental language characters, and columns of numerals. “I got a working vocabulary in Chinese, Japanese, even Korean. Also the Mediterranean languages, which come easy to me. It’s good customer relations. More than that, though, I get a jump on the other guys. Competitors are always hanging around, eavesdropping. It drives them up the wall when they can’t understand what I’m saying.”

It is now going on one o’clock. Sweet’s Restaurant will be filling with the luncheon crowd, mainly brokers from Wall Street. But Johnny has already put in a tenor elevenhour day. It is time to clean up and go home to Queens.

“Chai jin, pal, chui jin,” he says. “That’s ‘goodbye’ in Chinese, you know.”

Outside, the herring gulls are waiting on the Old Shed roof, way up where a gilded bluefish weathervane used to turn creaky in the wind. The big Department of Sanitation water truck is rumbling down South Street, shooting out a hell of a spray to either side. Mostly the water just shoves the stuff aside, out of the way a little. Sometimes a lingering journeyman, too, right on his ass, and that’s pretty funny. Last big laugh of the day. And the choicest obscenities for the driver, of course.

Steel-shuttered doors are rolling down. The Fulton cats come out. Great prides of them, in fact, with well-defined territories.

A watchman is pulling a long metal gate across the mouth of the Old Shed.

The gulls fly down to the pavement.

All the crabs have been sold.

Fulton Market is scheduled to be demolished in 1977. The Department of Ports and Terminals of the city’s Economic Development Administration has drawn up contracts, totaling an estimated $20 million, for transfer of the stands to Hunt’s Point in the South Bronx, where most of New York’s produce markets have been located since 1968.

Nearly all concerned with Fulton Market oppose the move and have long fought it. The Committee for the Preservation of Fulton Fish Market, representing 95 percent of the stand owners, has repeatedly petitioned the city to be allowed to remain. Solidly aligned with the owners is the United Seafood Workers’ Union, which has itself commissioned architectural and engineering studies for the rehabilitation of the market area and possible solutions to its traffic problems. Both the owners and the union members have hopes that, at some point in the struggle, the neighboring financial district might lend a sympathetic ear. But Wall Street casts a covetous eye at the market’s land.

The South Street Seaport Museum has displayed an ambiguous position at best. It has done fine work in preserving some of the humpbacks on Schermerhorn Row and Front and Water streets, and has taken vigorous steps to preserve the area for cultural and recreational resources. But, as early as 1972, the Seaport Museum proudly announced “. . . the final formulation of the transfer of unused development rights . . . worked out between City, State, five banks and several corporations” for all of Fulton Market. The museum’s annual report for that year, in fact, thanked conservationist Laurance Rockefeller for a generous gift which would permit the museum to continue its policy of designating some of the market’s oldest buildings for possible reconstruction as art galleries, bookstores, craft shops, restaurants, and residences for artists. The gift would also enable the museum to draw up “a master plan for the entire seven blocks from the south side of John Street to the Brooklyn Bridge and the entire waterfront from Pier 15 to Peck Slip,” which area comprehends all elements of the market and then some.

“Officially, we are neutral,” staff members declare. “The market can stay or go as far as we’re concerned. The ideal would be to have half a dozen or so of the stands remain and become part of the museum’s program.”

“Tokenism!” replies Frank Mosco of the Committee for the Preservation of Fulton Fish Market. “All they want is a relic market! And who’s thinking of the human values, of all the threeand fourgeneration firms that will quit before they’ll move?”

“The facts of the matter are simple enough,” says Frank Corbin, public relations chief for the Economic Development Administration. “Over a year ago, the Fulton Fish Market Cooperative, a legally incorporated organization representing forty-three stand owners, signed a contract to move to the Hunt’s Point Food Distribution Center.” Corbin admits that some of the smaller stands may not survive. But he is convinced that the larger and more successful dealers will profit from the move and eventually be thankful for the distribution center’s totally refrigerated buildings, truck bays for automated loading, railhead, and proximity to interstate highways.

The Committee for the Preservation of Fulton Fish Market sees a strong ray of hope in the fact that Hunt’s Point construction is far behind schedule. Only concrete foundations, bulkheading, and some pier work have been completed. Given New York’s day-to-day fiscal survival problems, some say, it might just stay that way.

But at present writing, the city is standing firm. It will enforce the contract. Fulton Market must go. “Oh. yes, there’s a lot of history down there.” a city official admits, rather airily. “But they had even more in Covent Garden and Les Halles, you know.”