Thursday, July 05, 2007

Clean Water, Piscatorial and Bivalvular Rights, and Sunbathing Nuns

My earliest memories include a clear recollection of the waters off Staten Island’s south shore being clean enough for swimming – Midland Beach, Great Kills, Wolf’s Pond Park, Arbutus Beach, which was my favorite because of the odd name (I had no idea that trailing arbutus was a local wildflower) and because next to it, screened by a wooden fence, was a private beach that my mother told us was for nuns. Nuns went to the beach!? Did they sit on beach chairs in their black habits? Did they wear outlandishly old-fashioned bathing suits out of modesty? I remember the beach and I remember the fence but I never got a look over or under it, and so whatever was happening remained a mystery.

One of my other early memories is of the water on the south shore suddenly becoming polluted, swimming being banned, and the beaches – many of them, anyway – shutting down. Thus did they resemble the waters of the Kill Van Kull on the north shore, which when I was a kid were dark and oily, sloshing in and around crumbling docks and piers and bulkheads.

Almost nothing changed over the years, particularly not my perception of the quality of Staten Island’s waters, which is why I was surprised many years later to be invited to visit the brand new Great Kills Shellfish Corporation. And so on a warm early-April day in 1981, I drove to Great Kills to meet the proprietors, Eddie Curry and Bill Ryan, both in late middle-age but otherwise as different in temperament as they could be. Ryan was loud, loquacious, almost loutish, florid of face, and apparently bibulous. Curry, also florid, was small and polite to the point of diffidence, a retired politician – New York City Councilman, State Assemblyman, State Senator – an Irish Democrat back when conservative Democrats still dominated politics on Staten Island. I happened to be working for one of them, Assemblywoman Betty Connelly, who sat on the Environmental Conservation Committee, and I guess they invited me to see their operation and have lunch with them because they needed Betty’s support for something, probably legislation that would ease whatever regulatory burden was keeping them from becoming millionaires, although I don’t remember specifically what.

The Great Kills Shellfish Corporation was in fact a depuration plant – a word I had never heard before – on the shore of Great Kills Harbor, A depuration plant is basically an indoor purification system for clams that have been harvested from waters that are too polluted to be safe to eat, a description that still applied all-too-well to the waters of Staten Island’s south shore. The Great Kills Shellfish Company would take clams from Raritan Bay and store them in a tank through which clean salt water rich in dissolved oxygen would flow. After 48 hours the clams would be clean, depurated, free of harmful bacteria and viruses.

Curry and Ryan told me that clamming had been banned from Staten Island’s waters for 18 years – or since 1963, which is roughly when I remembered the beaches being closed – allowing the clam beds to revive and the clams in them to fatten. They told me that to sell clams you separate them into four sizes, measured at their thickest part, from top to bottom, which I took to mean from hinge to lip: Little Necks, 1 7/16-inches wide; cherrystones, 1 ½ to 1 ¾ inches; top necks, an inch and a half, and chowders (which in New England are called quahogs) bigger than an inch and three-quarters (writing this now from notes taken then, I can see that the size categories don’t necessarily make sense, because of the overlap, so who knows if it’s right).

Almost nobody else was trying to sell clams from Raritan Bay in those days, and to Curry and Ryan, each clam – each specimen of Mercenaria mercenaria – was like a fattened dollar, sitting and bubbling in the water, waiting for some enterprising person to harvest it and depurate it.

For lunch we went next door to a place called the Café Marina. We sat for an hour. I had six clams (an absurdly restrained number, it seems in retrospect), a chef’s salad and two Heinekens. I’m not sure what Curry or Ryan ate, but Curry had a modest glass of wine with his lunch. It was Ryan’s performance though that knocked me out. Before lunch, he drank a Manhattan. I love Manhattans and I can attest that they are powerful. If I were to have one before lunch, I’d need a nap after lunch. Before the meal arrived, Ryan ordered a second Manhattan. When the meal arrived, he ordered a third Manhattan. I suppose the three-Manhattan lunch is no different than the three-Martini lunch, but until then I had assumed it was merely mythical. It wasn’t. When Ryan finished eating and drinking, he suggested coffee and a Sambuca. I think Eddie Curry must have been embarrassed, or worried, because he gently persuaded Ryan that three Manhattans was probably sufficient.

I never heard of the Great Kills Shellfish Company again and I don’t know if Betty Connelly was able to come through with whatever they needed from Albany, although I know Betty liked and respected Eddie Curry. I Googled the Great Kills Shellfish Company this morning and came up empty, so I assume it went out of business, if it ever really got started.

But apparently clammers working off Great Kills now are coming up anything but empty, which is good news. The Times reports this morning that the clamming is good enough to be causing conflicts between the boys from Jersey and the boys from Staten Island. One of those boys is Tim Ryan, whose back is adorned with a tattoo that says “Hell or High Water” and whom the Times describes as the head of the Staten Island Baymen’s Association.

Ryan is only 25 and I have no idea if he’s related to Bill Ryan – it’s not an uncommon name, and I myself have Staten Island cousins named Tim Ryan and Bill Ryan. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s Bill Ryan’s grandson, which for Staten Island would probably qualify as a traditional fishing family.

The Times, by the way, reports that conflicts among shellfishermen in Raritan Bay aren’t new. As long ago as 1862…

… four New Jersey men were accused of piracy after they seized a New York clamming vessel on the Raritan Bay. Their defense, The New-York Times reported, was that “the sloop was engaged in an unlawful infraction of the piscatorial and bivalvular rights of New-Jersey.”

So the waters off Great Kills and the south shore of Staten Island are cleaner, the clamming and the conflicts are back. But I wonder where the nuns swim?

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Blogger Sam said...

Sounds like a really bad punk rock band, the "Piscatorial Nuns."

Nice to see the water clean up tho'.

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

I was struck by how much the photo that accompanied the article resembled the cover of your book. Think it was an homage?

7:33 PM  

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