A true New York story
Traversing New York is a series of implicit compromises: to not touch and not talk and not impose on anyone’s space. On Sunday March 10, 2013, a little after two in the morning, some part of that agreement went very wrong — I was hit in the face with a fish while riding the Church Avenue-bound G train in Brooklyn. I was seated next to the door with my back facing the platform. During a stop, as the train idled for just a second or two longer than usual before the door closed, a fish was thrown into the train, and it hit me on the left side of my head.
I’ve told this story countless times and replayed it in my mind many more, but I’ve never felt comfortable ascribing some higher meaning to the act itself. It is a true story, comprising facts and feelings and immediate impressions, and it needs no greater lesson or moral. It is a New York story, of that I’m sure, and it allows for all kinds of symbolic posturing involving gentrification and real-estate prices and the much maligned state of the G train. But why reach when the story itself is so perfect, so ridiculous, so able to stand on its own?
March 9, 2013 was a brisk Saturday. Spring was intimated but not yet present; there might have been snow on the ground in those dirty, slushy lumps. I met a group of friends at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum in Chelsea, where there was an exhibit on high-heels. Then we killed some time on the High Line, had a late-afternoon transitionary meal, and headed to Brooklyn. We drank, we talked, we dawdled, until time came we had to make something of our night. So we went to a bar in Bushwick. It was a blurry night — drinks, dancing, members of the group breaking off at various points for cigarettes or ATM trips.
I left around two in the morning with my roommate. We walked back to the L train and transferred at Metropolitan to the G. The car was crowded with a homeward-heading crew, leaving Williamsburg and Bushwick for Gowanus and Park Slope. I don’t remember which station it was. Definitely north of Bedford-Nostrand and south of Metropolitan — maybe Myrtle-Willoughby. When we were stopped at the platform, the fish literally blindsided me. The doors closed and the train was on its way before I could make sense of what had happened.
When we were stopped at the platform, the fish literally blindsided me.
There is a picture of this moment, of me immediately post-fish impact. It was captured by my roommate, who was sitting directly opposite me. I am sitting down, holding my glasses with both hands slightly removed from my face, which is stuck in a look of disbelief. There was no reason to take off my glasses — I suppose it seemed, at the time, the appropriate physical response to being smacked in the face. Sitting next to me is a lucky woman who would have been in the fish’s line of flight were it not for my face — she is looking down at her phone, which she is holding horizontally, so she can take a picture of the fish on the floor in front of her.
The fish lies there, prostrate, surrounded by streaks of water that mark its trajectory after its path was interrupted by my face. It is a whole fish, clean of any markings or cuts. It looked as though it had been pulled from the iced display of a seafood market only hours earlier. The fish looks to be about ten or twelve inches. It was not a thin fish, like a fluke or flounder, but not hefty or convex like a bass or salmon either. Properly filleted and lightly breaded and cooked in a pan with some oil it would have made a respectable dinner for two. It was silvery in color, with speckles of red along its back, and a red-stained mouth. Based on the picture and cursory Google searches, most agree that the fish was likely a red snapper.
Properly filleted and lightly breaded and cooked in a pan with some oil it would have made a respectable dinner for two.
Other passengers of that train-car joined me in my astonishment; I remember a few “what the fucks” and maybe a “holy shit” or two. When the train reached the next station and the doors opened to let passengers on and off, I picked up the fish by its tail, stepped onto the platform, and deposited it in the nearest trashcan. This was not an act of Good Samaritan righteousness — I think, more than anything, I wanted to mitigate my own embarrassment .
The rest of the ride home was uneventful. When the G train came above ground at Smith and Ninth Streets, I took to my phone to tell my friends about what had happened. An hour ago—less!—I had been in a bar with them, having an ordinary Saturday night. Many were confused by the texts, unsure of what I was insinuating. And how could I have truly conveyed what had happened in short-form messaging? So my roommate sent the me the picture he had taken, which I then forwarded along. That did the trick.
I said earlier that this is a New York story — I don’t mean that being hit in the face with a fish on mass transit is something that could only happen in New York, but rather that, since it happened in New York, the story itself must be imbued with some sort of meaning, some grand interpretation. Nothing in New York happens in a vacuum. There are too many people, too many opinions, too much history. Consider it a quirk of the city — even a truthful thing that happens to you is never really your own.
Since it happened in New York, the story itself must be imbued with some sort of meaning, some grand interpretation.
The story is specific enough, yet simple enough, to invite thoughts of how others might have told it themselves. Imagine the “Seinfeld” episode: it’s George, obviously, who gets hit in the face, and Jerry who stands there listening to the story in his apartment, responding only with his nasal whine. (“Who throws a fish? On the subway?”) Elaine could care less — she’ll get the B-plot in this one — but George schemes some kind of inept revenge, with Kramer’s assistance. (“You need a fish, George? I know a guy at the Seaport. I’ll get you a fish.”) Or try “30 Rock”: Liz gets hit in the face on the way to a date, prompting an embarrassing moment when the date asks about the smell. She eventually tracks the perpetrator down, only to find that it was her dirtbag boyfriend Dennis (“I used to play fish-throw with my brothers when I was a kid. It’s a classic, dummy.”) Better yet, picture Fran Lebowitz telling the story, in conversation at the 92nd Street Y. She would invariably conclude that a New Yorker of her vintage would not be taken aback, would even be expecting something like this to happen, and welcome it as a much-needed shock to the system. I could go on. The story is really a million stories, all told with equal weight.
Imagine the “Seinfeld” episode: it’s George, obviously, who gets hit in the face, and Jerry who stands there listening to the story in his apartment, responding only with his nasal whine.
But when I share the story, the impulse isn’t necessarily to enliven it with artistic embellishment. The impulse is to interpret. Everyone has an answer to the fundamental question of What It All Means. They need to take the story and mold it into a moral. I wish this weren’t the case, but no one gets to hold a New York story to himself, airtight from others’ narratives. And I’m telling this story now, in a public forum, because I accept this reality. I probably don’t agree with your interpretation, but who am I to stop you?
Friends, family, coworkers, that guy from that one party — all have chimed in. The most common imposition of meaning is some variation of The Bloomberg Lamentation. At one point, it goes, not that long ago, New York was a different kind of city. A rougher, more dangerous, and dirtier city, but a city with character, grit, and personality. The fish, in this interpretation, is emblematic of something lost. It harkens to a time before bike lanes, and broken-window policing, and condos, and luxury rentals, and the mall-ification of everything below 96th street. That New York is dead, says The Bloomberg Lamentation, but the fish is a spark of what things used to be like — of danger, sure, but also of everyday art and wonder and hilarity.
The other most common interpretation has to do with gentrification. Recall the journey I was on, from post-gentrification Bushwick/Williamsburg to post-post-gentrification Park Slope. Think about where I was when the fish appeared from the ether — still-gentrifying Bedford Stuyvesant. There I was, a recent college-graduate and knowledge worker, heading from one haven of kitschy bars to another, stuck in between, in a neighborhood where my cohort hadn’t yet completed the process of displacement. This interpretation is political, moral, and marks me as deserving of the incident. This interpretation insists that the fish is a corrective, a physical strike against the forces of capital, against the change being wrought across the city and upending the lives of the working class.
There is truth to both of these interpretations. The fish is a totem of the old New York — an absurd and dirty affront to the boringness of the city today. The fish, and its collision course with my face, is a symbolic gesture, and I do admit my position in the real-estate ecosystem that makes this gentrification possible. The beauty of a New York story is that there is never one canonical meaning. You can take the story of the fish in the face and make it support whatever interpretation you want, within reason.
I do not own this New York story, but, like you, I do get my shot at wringing meaning from it. So here is my take on the incident — call it the null interpretation. I want to contend that the story of the fish in the face is just that. I want to believe that in the early hours of March 10, 2013, while riding the G train home in Brooklyn, I was hit in the face with a fish, and that there is nothing more to say about it. It happened to me, it could happen to you, and, goddamnit, it’s probably happened to someone else since then. New York is vast — the world is vast — and anything can happen at any time. I have listened to so many takes about the fish in the face — most hot, some mild — and the only response I can muster is to deign to take any stance of my own. I simply admit that maybe some things in this world have no interpretation at all.
So I’ll leave it at that. Create the incident in your own mind: imagine me sitting, oblivious, not a care in the world, and then imagine the fish arriving, in slow motion, from outside the frame, rotating in the air as it slaps against my exposed cheek. Savor it. As far as I’m aware, there is no thrower of the fish, no point of origin, only the fish itself, materializing mid-flight as it crosses the threshold of the subway car’s double-doors. The story of the fish in the face, more than anything I’ve ever experienced, is proof that the world is indifferent to us and all our interpretations. Isn’t that such a wonderful thing?
Martin Bergman lives in New York and still rides the G train (with some trepidation).