If you grew up near the Hudson River (before River Road’s toxic riverfront properties were replaced by trendy malls, expensive restaurant chains, and upscale condos) or spent summers down the Jersey Shore, you probably know how to crab. Chances are, buried somewhere in your parent’s basement is a collection of rusting crab nets that haven’t seen the light of day since 1981. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know that the creator of the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” had to have crabbed among us. He was probably the kid with the camera.
Although my remote control had scrolled by “Deadliest Catch” many times, it wasn’t until I was trapped inside by “Snow-mageddon” that I actually watched it. Luckily for me, it was a weekend marathon of re-run’s showcasing the real men of professional King Crab and Opi crabbing in Alaska. As I sat there and watched these fearless seamen brave the icy storms of the Bering Sea my thoughts travelled back to my days as a Hudson River crabber and I can’t help but marvel at the danger my fellow crabbers and I dodged.
We ancient Hudson crabbers of the last millennium may not know the experience of working on a boat while being pounded by 30 foot waves in below zero temperatures in the middle of an ice storm for six months braving squalls and tempests, but in some sense, our dangers were graver. First of all, if the Hudson was at low tide we had to walk shoeless (because we only got one pair of Converse or Pro-Keds a year and they had to last) across the marshes of toxic waste dumps to reach the decaying abandoned barges where we would cast our nets. We had to toe-dodge syringes, shards of broken beer bottles, the razor sharp pop tops of soda cans, and the decomposing flesh of rotting bodies. (Okay, so “rotting bodies” is part of the riverfront mythology, but did you ever smell the river at low tide?)
My father would come home from work to take us to the bait shop on Bigler Street in Fort Lee before depositing me, my brother, Eddie Faraday, Jimmy Younghans, Frank Moltisanti, and Don Nicoletti on some vacant riverfront property off River Road in Edgewater with nothing but our crab nets. Then he’d return to work leaving us unsupervised with nothing more than a warning—don’t get the lines crossed or tangled. There we’d join all the other kids whose father’s had dropped them off. For hours we’d boil in the sun in these days before sunscreen. We arrived at low tide, and by the time dad picked us up six hours later it was high tide, and we had to swim from the broken barge to his Rambler while carrying all the nets, and any crabs we were lucky enough to catch, above our heads.
I remember swimming through the Hudson back to shore, my eyes blinded by the rays of the late afternoon sun trying to figure out which one out of the line-up of men, arms crossed, leaning against the uneven rows of parked Chevy’s, Falcons, Dart Swingers that lined the broken pavement of some former factory, was my father. Kids from Edgewater, Fort Lee, Cliffside Park, Fairview, North Bergen coming together for an afternoon of shared companionship. It was our very own lower East Side.
The other popular place to crab was off the side of Bunty’s dock near the base of the George Washington Bridge. That was the safe place to crab. Not only because Bunty was there to protect all us kids and teach us how to swim in the river, but while we were waiting for the crabs to bite he taught us how to bet on the horses, and heartily fed us thick slices of cheddar cheese and saltine crackers while he had his Rolling Rock Ale. No gourmet lunch ever tasted so good. The salt water, the feel of the wet twine burning the palms of your hand as you hauled the crab net into shore, and the toss of the heavy steel cage back into the River was enough to work up a sailor’s appetite.
When the flags atop Columbia Presbyterian Hospital descended at 5pm we knew it was time to head home. Little did we know, we crabsmen and women of the Hudson, that we already were home.