Whenever I think about work and our different work options, I remember this extraordinary story “The Death of a Fulton Fish Market Fixture,” by Dan Berry, published in the NY Times in 2010.
The “fixture,” a woman named Shopping Cart Annie worked the slippery halls of the Fulton Street Fish Market for decades.
Established in 1822 and named after steamship inventor, Robert Fulton, the market was located near the Brooklyn Bridge along the East River waterfront Lower Manhattan until 2005, when it moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx. In its 170 year run in Lower Manhattan it was the most important fish market in the United States.
Berry writes, “Annie would doing anything for a buck: hustling newspapers, untaxed cigarettes, favors, those pairs of irregular socks she’d buy cheap on Canal. She’s submitting to the elements, calling out “Yoo-hoo” to the snow and the rain and her boys…. Making her rounds, running errands, holding her own in the blue banter, she was as much a part of this gruff place as the waxed fish boxes, the forklift-rocking cobblestones, and the cocktail aroma of gasoline, cigarettes and the sea.”
“She cleaned the market’s offices and locker rooms and bathrooms. She collected the men’s ‘fish clothes’ on Friday and had them washed and ready for Monday. She ran errands for Mr. DeLuca, known as Stevie Coffee Truck…. She accepted the early morning delivery of bagels. She tried to anticipate the men’s needs — towels, bandannas, candy — and had these items available for sale. She clutched the handle of the shopping cart she used to hold wares and provide balance, wearing a baseball cap, layers of sweaters, and men’s pants, navy blue, into which she had sewn deep, leg-long pockets to keep safe her hard-earned rolls of bills.”
No one knew Annie had another life. In the 1940’s she was a beautiful model who wanted to be an actress. But she left those aspirations behind when she left the east coast and bicycled across the country to Alaska with a boyfriend who would later become her first husband. That marriage did not work out and she married a second time. She had four children, but domestic life was clearly not her forte. Nor was the bar or record store she managed. At some point she returned to New York City and took up her post at the fish market.
Annie was not homeless. She had an apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. She loved her children and grandchildren and saw them frequently. She sent them money orders and used clothing whenever she could – which according to Berry was often – boxes of clothes from different charity stores and money orders frequently totaling $4000 a month. She was also “mother” to many homeless women on the streets of Lower Manhattan. Her family kept trying to persuade her to give up her life at the market, but she never did.
Her daughter said, “Work was her life.”
But I think Annie might have said, “she missed the point.” It was not just any work for Annie; it was her work at the Fulton Street Fish Market. She had been beautiful, had always been loved. Her life could have been easier, but she chose another option. She had fun, made money and gave most all of it away.
Annie died in her sleep, surrounded by friends and family. When she reached the pearly gates, she probably called out a hearty, “Yoo-Hoo!” to let all the fishmongers in the sky know she had arrived. I know, when I listen carefully, I can hear that echoing “Hoo.” I look up and see Shopping Cart Annie looking down, as she says, “Yes, I mean Yoo! You don’t have to follow my path, but you do need to find a path of your own and follow it.”