Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Portraits of Economic Parallels - Part 2

For part 1, please click here.

Caution: This part of my essay includes some less-than-wholesome material

After reading about the Queen of Mean, some of my die-hard conservative friends may be crying "Foul!" and insisting on a time-out.

"I can see where you're going with this, and it's simply not fair," they'd be protesting. "So, Leona Helmsley is your 'parallel portrait' for capitalism? Well, she's so atypical of conventional capitalists that it's disingenuous, picking a caricature of Cruella DeVille as the poster child for prosperity."

To which I reply, "Just wait until you see my poster child for socialism."

South Street's Fulton Fish Market

In 2005, New York City managed to achieve something many native Gothamites considered impossible: city authorities moved the storied Fulton Fish Market from its home along South Street in Lower Manhattan to a state-of-the-art fish warehouse in the Bronx.

Old-timers decried the end of an era. Restaurant owners cheered the relocation as a triumph of common sense, since they could now shop for fresh fish in a more sanitary - and sane - environment.

Tourists to South Street Seaport will recall the smelly, dank fish market housed in an ancient brick building in the shadows of an elevated freeway along the East River. I only ever went inside once, and was so disgusted by the rank odor, slimy floor, and fishmongers smeared with blood and guts that I never went back. Anybody who ate fish for dinner in any reputable New York City restaurant knew that just that morning, their meal had been on ice in this wholly undesirable place, but due to both intransigent tradition and a mish-mash of union rules, waterfront logistics, and no other neighborhood being willing to tolerate the stench, this is how it was.

For decades, even after most fishing boats abandoned the nearby wharves and office towers crowded its site, the Fulton Fish Market stubbornly stayed put, both to the consternation of commercial developers running out of prime Manhattan real estate, and the delight of residents and visitors alike who relished the historical aura of the place. It was so... anachronistic, this freeze-frame from the 19th Century amidst cosmopolitan Manhattan, like immediately stepping back in time the minute you smelled it from a block away.

Gloria as Annie (no, not that Annie)

It was into this primal setting that a singular woman named Gloria Wasserman stepped a couple of decades ago. Not that anybody knew her real name, however. Nobody can even remember when she became a fixture along South Street. But she called herself Annie, and she projected the persona of a licentious bag lady to the men who labored there. Indeed, Fulton Fish Market was virtually an all-male bastion of burly, macho, coarse-talking testosterone, and Annie seems to have chosen South Street for her pursuits precisely because she knew how to survive in such a rough environment.

She would show up daily when the morning was still pitch black night. She would hawk illegal cigarettes, run errands, and even sell herself, as long as the men didn't care that her looks had faded long ago. Even into her 70's and 80's, she proudly proffered her, um... chest for the new, young guys to kiss for good luck. She would also flash the workers every now and then, just for a laugh.

Unbeknownst to her boys at the fish market, Annie had always led a life of curious provision, and as one of her daughters told the New York Times, the family didn't want to guess at where the money came from. Granted, she provided adequately for her loved ones, but chastity and propriety could never have aptly described their mother. She died several weeks ago in California, of all places, at the age of 85, but only now are the fish market's old-timers beginning to learn who she really was.

Living Off Others

Prowling the aisles and stalls of the fish market, Annie would feign cuteness with a sing-song "Yoo-hoo" which became her signature call. The stuff she'd sell her guys - including herself - was never expensive or first-rate, but feeling sorry for her, they'd usually pay extra, figuring she was desperate for a way to survive.

Little did they know that Annie, according to the Times, lived in a city-owned rent-subsidized apartment and took her meals at a Catholic charity kitchen. And that she sent upwards of $4,000 a month to relatives in New Hampshire and California. And that she helped pay for a granddaughter's college tuition. And that she'd scour the Catholic charity's clothing room for items to send - by the boxload - to family on both coasts who apparently didn't need it. When doctors told her she needed to get off her feet, fishmongers raised $3,000 to help what they thought would be Annie's impoverished "retirement."

Little did they know.

While the Times piece paints a poignant, wistful picture of an enterprising woman making the best of challenging circumstances, what we really find is a how-to manual for exploiting and stealing, don't we? Gloria Wasserman had learned from a young age that men love a flirt, and she was able to parlay that into a lifetime of bawdy deceit.

Sure, she may be a hero to feminists who detest what they perceive as the subordination of women in a male-dominated society. Urbanites will consider her a martyr to individualism and self-sufficiency, simply winking at the creativity with which she survived life in the big, bad city. Even a worker at the Catholic charity quoted in the Times describes Wasserman as a type of "grandmother" to other women on the street.

Well, "Granny Annie," even though speaking ill of the dead rarely holds the speaker in high regard, your gig is up.

Next: Conclusion

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