The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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Some of the Quaint Characters at Fulton Market.

From The New-York Tribune, January 18, 1903.

A three-minute walk from Broadway to the East River along Fulton Street is like a tale of two cities. On Broadway, for example, may be found the well-groomed landsman, the man of the office who complains when it is rainy, applauds a day of sunshine, and who works with his brain and fingers, and little, if any, with his arms. At the eastern end of Fulton Street is seen the rubber-booted fishmonger, a sort of amphibian, who sells on land the products of the sea, who minds water and rain little more than the fish that he handles, and who works hard and long in an atmosphere saturated almost to solution with the odor of brine and scales.

In the wholesale fish district of the city are to be found types of characters which would almost die of suffocation, like a fish out of its natural element. In any other part of the city, "Iceberg Tommy," "Lobster Charley," "Sucker Bill," "Skate-faced Mike," "Carp Carrie" and "Shrimp Sammy" are, in their own opinion, as important parts of the fish trade as the public fish market itself around which they move and have their being.

The River Front of Fulton Fish Market.

"Iceberg Tommy" photographed just after his morning bath in the East River
at 10 a. m. on January 12 last; thermometer, 18 degrees above zero.

The trouble of the New York fish merchants have been aired recently at a great public hearing, when action was taken toward a new public fish market, which will accommodate the entire wholesale fish trade of the city. But the hearing threw little light on the picturesque side of this life. One must, indeed, visit this quarter of the city to see the actual New York fishmonger.

South Street in a morning hour is jammed with fish wagons, fish trucks and other vehicles for fish. In Beekman Street, South Street, Peck Slip and Front Street are the stalls of wholesale dealers, while numerous peddlers have baskets right on the sidewalk where they do business a fish at a time. Under the low roof of the fish market are hundreds of men floundering about under slippery loads of fish, while moored to the end of an adjacent pier a fishing smack is discharging her ten-ton cargo of codfish and halibut.

The classes of mankind to be found here are as numerous as the kinds of fish to be bought. There is the wealthy fishmonger, for example, whose blue serge clothes look like regal garments, in comparison with the smeared aprons of his employees. He owns a much coveted stall in the public market, and is one of the sixteen members of the exclusive Fulton Fishmongers' Association. He owns perhaps ten fishing sloops, each valued at about $15,000 and each capable of bringing in ten tons of codfish every three days from the waters off Fire Island. His income is about $40,000 to $50,000 a year, and he sits in a back office, with an eastern window looking out toward the Brooklyn shore, and the morning sun pouring in on his desk. He is the master fishmonger.

The sixteen stalls of the market are swarming with buyers. There is the German butcher of the upper West Side, who is buying for his Friday customers. He takes a few of the favorite varieties this time of the year, has the bill charged, for he is a trusty man, and then drives back to his shop in his own delivery wagon. He is the retail buyer.

Dark-skinned women of the East Side, wit black wigs or shawls over their heads, are picking over heaps of fresh water fish, for which the Hebrews have a special fondness, selecting a few yellow pike, which have been frozen on the ice of Manitoba, or carp or whitefish from Lake Erie, which come packed in boxes of ice. After much haggling they put their fish in a pushcart and trudge off to the northward. In the afternoon they will be found peddling their wares in the crowded gutter of Hester Street. Such is the pushcart fish peddler.

"New York City Ghetto Fish Market,"
a 1903 film clip of the Lower East Side.

A bustling market of mainly Eastern European Jewish immigrants
on the Lower East Side of NYC on Friday morning, May 1st, 1903.

Copied at 20fps from a 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress.
Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

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Chief among the characters that have been seen about Fulton Market so long that they have come to be regarded as fixtures is "Iceberg Tommy," who summer and winter goes in swimming in the East River. Any clear morning "Iceberg Tommy" will be seen clad in a homemade bathing costume, ready for a plunge from the pier. Snow may cover the ground and ice floes float in the river, but "Iceberg Tommy" takes his morning dip, despite the zero weather. After swimming under water he will clamber out, and address the crowd of street gamins gathered to watch him, as follows:

"Go on, yer blokes. Can't I have me morning bath widout yer rivitting yer glims on me? I take me swim for me health. I got a paralyzation of me leg a while back, and I'm gettin' the blood inter the old dead leg agin. It's doin' me good. Go on, yer muckers!"

"Iceberg Tommy," sometimes called "Tommy" Fox, was an employee of a fish concern some years ago, who became incapacitated by a stroke of paralysis. He took to swimming as a remedy, and has kept it up all days of the year ever since. He believes that in time he will be completely cured.

The bosom friends of "Iceberg Tommy" are "Lobster charley" and "Sucker Bill." Both pick up a few pennies every day at various vocations, the chief of which is cleaning lobsters. The dark green crustaceans are shipped here at the present time from Nova Scotia. One or more firms broil their lobsters on Pier 22, to the north of the fish Market. A pipe is run down to the bottom of a barrel and the steam turned on. After the lobsters have turned to a fiery red and then have cooled sufficiently to handle, "Lobster Charley" and "Sucker Bill" pick them out gingerly and brush them off with whisk brooms.

"How did me pal come by his name?" remarked "Lobster Charley" to the skipper of a codfish schooner. "W'y he wuz after burnin' his fingers with some hot lobsters, and some one told him to pour cold water instid of steam on 'em. 'Bill' went and poured cold water on 'em, but wen he picked up one he found he was pinched. There was a lobster hangin' on to every finger he had, an' they'd have a nipped 'em clean off. If 'Iceberg Tommy' hadn't come and took 'em off."

There used to be a dark-haired East Side woman, whom every fishmonger knew as "Carp Carrie." She ran a fish and meat shop in Essex Street, and every morning of the week she was to be found in Peck Slip or Front Street, which is the chief rendezvous of the Hebrew fish peddlers. She was an especially shrewd business woman, and prospered so well that she retired from business a short time ago. As an example of her keenness, she discovered one day that a fisherman was trying to sell her carp for pickerel at the higher price of pickerel. While his back was turned she substituted another basket, which did not have pickerel on top and carp underneath, but the reverse of these conditions. Accordingly she said she had change her mind and would buy carp, so she carted off the pickerel after paying for it at the price of carp. The next day the dealer accused her of swindling him, whereupon she said; "Vat you say? I swindle you? Not much. You vanted to sheet me. So I sheeted you. A toof fer a toof." After that she was known as "Carp Carrie."

There is one Hebrew fish peddler, who, unlike his brethren in Peck Slip, often looks too long on the beer when it is yellow. As a consequence he has earned the name of "Shiker," which is Yiddish for drunkard. On one of the days of a continued spree, he woke up at his cart in Hester Street, to find that he was trying to sell pork instead of whitefish. This experience, it is said, served to keep him sober for several weeks.

Many "old-timers" disappear in the winter time from their accustomed haunts along the water front, and do not return until spring, when there is a greater demand for work. Then Gloucester schooners and sloops, a dozen a day, will land cargoes of mackerel and bluefish. Then the Old Dominion Line will bring from the south great quantities of shad, instead of the light winter consignments of bass, weakfish and sea trout. And then the fresh water carp, whitefish, perch, yellow, blue and sawyer pike are being shipped in heavily from the Great Lakes.

One of those who reappear with the spring, the bluefish and the shad is "Shrimp Sammy," a little fellow, who frequents the smacks and begs fish. That is his only vocation. When a smack filled with codfish and halibut ties up to Pier No. 23, north of Fulton Fish Market, "Shrimp Sammy" is sure to seek out the skipper and say:

"Say, pard, giv' me a cod for a meal. Hav'n't had a bite for a week."

Occasionally a skipper will give "Sammy" a fish to hush is entreaties, although he knows too well what becomes of it. A few minutes later "Sammy" is drinking whiskey from the bar of a South Street saloon. The saloonkeeper has the codfish.







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