This is a writing sample by “nycghostwriter,” AKA Barbara Finkelstein. It is “Natural Selection at Riverdale Fish,” a blog post originally published on Tumblr. You can get professional ghostwriting services from a published blogger. Email me or fill out the short form on my contact page.
Published: May 20, 2012
The storefront at 550 West 235th Street used to be a budget clothing store. For a while it was an event space for birthday parties and meetings of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club. These days it houses Riverdale Fish, a Korean mom-and-pop store that purveys the fish favorites of the moment, especially branzini and tilapia. It’s also a place to think about the evolutionary way of the world.
Along with Liebman’s Delicatessen and Mother’s Bake Shop, Riverdale Fish is one of the remaining small businesses on 235th Street between Johnson and Oxford Avenues that hasn’t been crowded out by Bank of America, Starbucks and the “empties,” storefronts with rents too high to attract other boutique interests. Fish! People need their halibut and salmon, and while it may seem like an upstream battle, Riverdale Fish just might prevail.
Like many small businesses in the Bronx, the fish store bears the tell-tale evidence of immigrant ownership. The paper signs advertising red snapper and soft shell crab are hand-done in upper- and lower-case letters, all the same height, like captcha script. The telephone number on the awning shows seven digits and no area code, the street number an unadorned “550 W.” Only the oval sign high up on the brown brick looks as if it belongs in a suburban shopping mall. The modesty of this 235th Street location and the fish-related provisions next to the cash register – lemons, oyster sauce and tomato paste – suggest these owners have set their sights close to earth. Some day their children will claim a more stellar address. They will go to college and write off the family fish store as their parents’ “immigrant experience.”
On many of my Friday morning stopovers, I am the only customer. Last week, though, I waited while a woman about my age contemplated a tray of fried filet. The choices, all pretty much the same in my eyes, bewildered her, and she pondered long and hard before making a selection. The owner, a Korean man in his forties (slender, nice arms), did not try to hasten the transaction by pointing out his idea of the best slice. He presented the tray as if it held amethyst where variations between each gem might be small but significant enough to make the difference between a sale and a walk-away.
I had to wait for my weekly supply of cod. At home I would boil it and a potato, mash them together with an egg, sauteed onions, garlic, capsicum and salt, shape the paste into patties and fry each one in a dusting of seasoned bread crumbs. I thought my recipe was unique, but the store owner makes them the same way. Of course. This is the platonic fish cake recipe that even a fish hater will love.
As much as I come for the cod, I come to see the fish man too. He has a jocose air of melancholy I encounter in intelligent people who for reasons of circumstance (demented political systems) and birth (luck of the draw) sell us our fish or, as my parents once did, “freshly dressed poultry.” I suspect all this immigrant sadness comes from being a stranger in a strange land, and, it’s funny, the fish man even brings to mind Robert Heinlein’s Valentine Michael Smith: Immigrants often have a greater capacity to grok the world than we native-born. My parents were like that too, capable of seeing who had the potential for malefaction and who was good at heart, all while selling raw meat.
At last, the woman chose a fried filet. The fish man slid the fish into a Styrofoam clamshell container, picked up a long serrated knife and stabbed it several times into the lid to keep the fry from turning to mamaliga. The woman hunted in her pocketbook for the exact dollars and coins. I passed the time listening to Brian Lehrer on the store radio interviewDavid Karp, the fellow who came up with Tumblr. I have no idea how much of the interview the fish man understood, but I wonder if he could guess how he and Karp (a fish man himself, you might say) share some of that entrepreneurial mindset that is our best hope – better than anything Barack or Mitt’s people will invent later this year – to get us out of this lousy recession.
The woman left, a satisfied customer, and I put in my order for a pound of cod. By now the fish man knows I prefer the thicker end of the filet and he takes pains to choose the most suitable piece from inside the refrigerated counter.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
The fish man held the arrowhead-shaped slab up to the plate glass window. I knew from earlier visits what he was looking for: Worms. Phocanema decipiens, to be biological about it. He is obsessed with these critters and terrified, I think, that if he sells wormy fish, he will go out of business the way the Korean greengrocer across the street did. He told me that last year the worms were black and easy to spot. Now they are the same color as the fish and practically invisible. Last year they budged when you touched them. Now they hold still.
“They are smart,” the fish man said.
I’m not too worried about the worms. I boil my cod. Then I pick out the bones and inspect the flesh. Anything that could survive fourteen minutes of boiling water will never make it out of the frying pan alive. Only cockroaches survive hot olive oil, right?
“They are smart without thinking,” I said.
“Smarter than people,” he said. He didn’t have to elaborate. I knew he meant that when it comes to surviving life’s travails, the worms have a better chance at doing that than we do. Only a stranger in a strange land with a jocose air of melancholia could say such a thing.
I told the fish man a story about the peppered moth. It changed from white with black speckles to black as the trees in English Dorset grew black from industrial pollution. A few years ago, when British industry began moving its manufacturing to the workshops of its old empire, the moth started changing back to white. The fish man got the gist of the story.
We agreed that nature is smart for the worms.
The fish man gave me a knowing look that said he and I recognize something about the way life has evolved across the entire food chain, including us, seller and eater. He packaged up my cod in a square of butcher paper and dropped it neatly into a plastic bag.
“Ice?” he asked. He scooped crushed ice cubes out of the window fish display and settled a Baggie full of them on top of my cod. So elegant, so thoughtful. So highly evolved.
Author’s Note: Alas, Riverdale Fish did not prevail. It was bought out by Key Food and closed in early 2016. Mother’s Bakery met the same fate.