Last weekend I spent the day in the city that I grew up in. The weather sucked, so the activities we had planned to do outside were ditched and I ended up revisiting old places and old memories from my childhood.
In high school I worked in a seafood market located in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Other than the owner and myself, all of the other employees of this business and 85% of the customers were black. The job wasn’t very sexy. I cleaned and dressed fish, whole fish, 50 pound boxes of fish. I scaled and filleted flounder, sea-trout, mullet, sea bass, croaker, one fifty pound box at a time, hundreds of pounds of fish a week.
I worked afternoons and all day Saturday during the school year and full-time in the Summer. It was a smelly, messing, scaly job but every Friday afternoon I was paid in cash. A sixteen year old, that smelled like flounder and Brut aftershave with $100.00 in his wallet was a dangerous combination on a Friday night.
I learned a lot about the world cleaning those fish. As a 16-year-old, I had lived a pretty sheltered life. Working with and in a black community made me realize, very early on, that everyone has dreams and aspirations and mine were no different from the people I was working with or cleaning fish for. Sure there were some differences but those differences were very subtle not divisive.
Saturday afternoons were always a very busy day, it was also the day, without fail, that one of the black churches in the neighborhood would be holding a congregational fish fry after church. The order was always the same, fifty pounds of split Croaker. The Croaker we sold were small, and filling a fifty pound order took some time. If we had two orders it could take me all day. Scaling, cutting the heads off, gutting and splitting the Croaker down the middle was boring and tedious work. But I learned later it was important work.
Bertha, our store manager, invited me to her church’s fish fry being held one Sunday afternoon. I begged out of attending the service which started around 10 am and wasn’t going to conclude until two or so. I didn’t believe I had the faith or the attention span to last that long. The fellowship that spilled out into the parking lot after sitting on those hard pews for four hours was a sight to behold. Bertha introduced me as the kid who had dressed all of the fish being eaten. Given the amount of praise showered on me you would have thought I had not only cleaned them but caught them as well.
The fish fry was both a spiritual and delicious experience. This was more than just a greasy meal of fish and hush puppies, it was a time to connect, to talk, to laugh, and be thankful for whatever you had to be thankful for. I left the event full and with a newfound respect for my tedious and smelly job of splitting Croaker. I wasn’t changing the world but I was helping the world become a happier place one Sunday afternoon at a time.