copyright Document / Morin 2010
I walked to the wake at Greeley’s Funeral. Same set-up as all the Sicilian wakes. Carlo’s—the Captain who counted on Sophie’s gang to unload his F/V Holy Family’s trips of fresh fish, at Empire, or Star Fisheries., usually, all those years… Mary’s—Carlo’s wife, who described fishing as “one hell of a stinkin’ way to make a living” and now Sophie the Bull, their Boss Lumper. I look around. Who do I know? The audience chairs, full, lined up in back. Who’s left? Sign-in, scan the family photos, pass the casket on the right. Should I kneel at the casket, like the woman, crossing herself, before me? Sophie—laid out, in a neat dark, suit, tie, blue rosary beads on delicate gold chain twined just so, in the fingers of his big hands, folded. Still rust “tanned”, but what’s THIS?! WHITE hair! Last time I saw him, a few years’ back, in the passenger seat of his car, his wife driving, outside Giovanni’s for a haircut, his hair was still jet black. As always. He seemed to remember me. Then moving toward the reception line of relatives, daughters? Nieces? Didn’t know, any, but needed to ask for the son. There, they pointed. End of the line. I turned to him. Kind of recognizable. Forty or so years does make a difference…. I could still picture his teenaged, handsome face under the mask of his current age. ”Are you the one who was lumpin’ with your Dad the time you got the Red Fish spine stuck through your boot and he got down on his hands and knees and pulled it out with his teeth?” I asked. “I dunno, long time ago…” he answered. Made eye contact, tho’ and it stuck, I hope.
And I’m still looking down, in memory, from the Hatchway, seeing his Dad, scrambling, forking , loading my bushels, gliding up and down the aluminum ladder I placed down into the hatchway of the Fish hold for them. I’d see Sophie, then, lithe, in jeans, boots, carrying his modified, short tined pitchfork, wearing a brown paper bag, rolled to fit his head, protecting it from the gurry-fish slime drip below. Sophie was elegant, and economical—no wasted effort–in all his moves. And attuned to his crew’s. You had to be, to fit into the routine of “the lumpin’ racket”, as he called it. As he did, expertly. Despite his deprecation, of their sense of their own peculiar qualifications, ie: “Strong back and very small brain…” Sophie The Bull was the epitome of DUENDE—fluid, elegant, graceful, balletic, even. Not a ounce of fat on his sinuous, frame—like the braided steel cables that towed, or dragged the net, coiled tight on the winch. “Indian Muscles.” “How do you think he got the name “BULL”?! How else to make a living whose wages depended on moving vast TONNAGE of slippery, iced fish from the confinement of narrow fish holds’ pens to bushel containers, hoisted by rope, and winch through hatch, guided by the hatchman, steadily, to the Dumper up on the dock as fast and efficiently as possible, as part, usually, of a perfectly choreographed team? The faster the better. The WEIGHT was the object—as much, or little, as the hold held for that trip. If the trip was small, or a “broker”, maybe it could be handled by one lumper, and the hatchman and winchman from the boat’s crew.
Big trips kept every one busy. Starting at dawn. Straddling and forking fish into the bushels, sending them up as fast as possible, so you might have time to catch another boat. Sophie’s crew were tight, and trustworthy, too. The Boston lumpers, not so much. Rumor had it that in Boston—the guys tried to kill each other off for a chance to break in. Watching “Cowboy”— the infamous Boss Lumper, on Atlantic Wharf —swathed in his Leopard skin poncho, standing defiantly astride the edge of the dock, dumping, swearing a Blue Streak, you had to believe it. Cowboy, face flattened, punchy, would fling the empty bushels back AT the hatch man (me!) from long practice dodging the empties, and curses, heaved back at him. Carlo, the Captain, and I, even developed certain hand signals, to indicate that the Boston lumpers down the hold had “round and firm and fully packed “ the last bushels with selected “money fish” for themselves. Thievin’..! But the Gloucester Empire and Star Wharves’ lumpers were “kinder and gentler”. And trustworthy. And funny.
The work itself was esteemed and rewarded for what it was. HARD. They BROKE THEIR ASSES! And other body parts. As Kenny, Sophie’s other partner, shyly disclosed. “I broke my back, and was back lumpin’ right after the surgery.” Kelly, Sophie’s Uncle and third partner, told me of having “cherries”—mysterious calluses that were surgically removed, for medical research, from his, and other lumpers’ knees. “From kneeling on, and forking’ the iced fish, packed in the holds…” Their hands, were deformed, too, from gripping the pitchforks, bushels, and penboards, and often “artha-rittik..”. It was painful work, and compensated by good, well-earned, enviable pay, if you broke in, and survived it. Everyone knew, and excused whatever their predictable, “excesses”—“self- medication”, the horses—Rockingham Park…Vegas! Nothing, no scuttlebutt, on Kenny though. Nothing on Sophie, either. He lived to 87, predeceased by Kenny, who also had his own lobster boat, and Kelly, who’d secured his own personal “legend” as a gill net fisherman, and “everything” on the waterfront.
As I left Greeley’s, it all came back, ghostly, with a great melancholy. Walking back home, I realized we’re all in their wake. Sophie, his crew, their “racket”, their brutal work, the industry itself they served, are awash, sinking, or sunk, like The Holy Family—burned and sunk. By mistake. Years ago. Men whose lives were sustained, nobly, by brute labor that stressed, strained and broke their bodies, but provided security and sanctity for them, their families and the working waterfront of The Most Famous Fishing City by the Sea, “A helluva stinkin’ way to make a living”?! Or icons and avatars, attesting to our indigenous ingenuity and resilience?
I wonder. How many workers can now claim nicknames or any resolute identity that attest to the style of their physical work skills’ excellence, worth, and competence? Identities bestowed by the esteem of their peers? Whose work literally fed us, and ensured our survival? Our own current work lives, jobs, and identities are relatively diminished by such AWESOME men. Our “lives of quiet desperation”, as Thoreau admonished. Men, like Sophie The Bull, in whose wake we and our City, follow. To what purpose? To what end? I wish to Hell…
Peter Parsons is a Gloucester native and Social Worker, who has fished out-of-Gloucester and lives in town. He is co-author with Peter Anastas of When Gloucester Was Gloucester: Toward an Oral History of the City.