THE FIRE ISLAND NEWS
THE NEWS THAT MATTERS SINCE 1957
by FRANCIS BENNETT
Captain Kolonick was blind. Most people don’t know a blind person, but I knew Captain Kolonick. Because I knew him since I was a little kid I’m not afraid of blind people like most folks are, although folks rarely admit it. They’re probably afraid that blind people will hurt themselves by bumping into stuff or falling down suddenly when they’re around, and that would make them feel guilty or responsible somehow. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll get blind themselves by hanging around blind people. I don’t know.
Captain Kolonick was not scary. He ran his own business, all by himself, and he was pretty good at it, if you ask me. My father called him the ‘sole proprietor’ of the Fire Island Fisheries. The Captain was a shellfish dealer. He bought clams and oysters from the local diggers around the bay and sold them to the big hotels and restaurants in New York City. The other wholesalers along the canal where his warehouse stood bought ‘swimmers’, as the Captain called fish, but he stuck to shellfish. He was considered an expert. He could feel an oyster, for example, and tell you how old it was, how long it had been out of the water, and where it had been caught. The old diggers told me that he could tell if there was a pearl inside just by running his fingers along the outside front edge of the oyster’s lips. They claimed that’s why you never got a pearl accidently when you opened oysters to eat them. Captain Kolonick felt every oyster that came into his warehouse and stashed the pearls under a loose floorboard upstairs in his apartment for his retirement.
He knew his clams, too. Simply by hefting a clam he could tell whether it was juicy and succulent or dry and tough. We'd often see him tapping two clams together next to his ear and then sorting them according to some mysterious sound only he could hear. The best clams, he said, made a tonk . . . tonk sound when you knocked them together. If they went tick . . . tick, they wouldn't be the best eatin, he claimed. I've been tappin clams ever since, but darned if I can hear the difference.
Clam digging was my first real business. I started when I was twelve. Before that I delivered newspapers and caddied at the local country club. They were just jobs, but clam digging was like going into business for yourself. Every kid who could lay his hands on an old boat, raft, or plank of wood, floated it out onto the flats along the shore of the bay and started mushing his feet in the muddy bottom on the lookout for clams that grew there. It was pretty simple and didn't call for any special skills. When your foot hit a clam, you just bent down in the water, pulled it out and tossed it into a bushel basket floating alongside you in an inner tube. When the basket was full you headed to Kolonick's canal and sold them to him for ‘fair market’ prices.
Kolonick's shanty was about the size of four two-car garages laid in a row, and he knew every inch of it. He'd roll back the big wooden doors every morning at five-thirty and step out onto the dock that fronted the canal and walk about eight feet, right to the edge of the water, tilt his head back and smell the weather. Swore he could smell the weather.
"Gonna warm up a bit today," he'd say. "Bay's a little choppy, boys, so stay near the shore beds and pick the shallow ones." Then he'd sniff once or twice and turn his face into the wind. “Gonna rain before five so don't stay out past four; good heavy rain; downpour, I'd say. Yup . . . get in around four.” Then he'd turn around, walk right over to the bushel baskets stacked in rows alongside the open doorway, pick up a stack, carry them into the warehouse and set them on top of the sorting table without a stumble or a miscue.
He was blind, all right, but he wasn't scary, if you know what I mean. We even forgot he was blind after a while because he knew his way around and never tripped or groped around like you think blind guys will. A lot of different people came in and out of his warehouse every day, and he knew everyone by their footsteps. If it was a stranger, he knew it was a stranger. But if it was one of the professional diggers, or one of the kids who would dig during the summer, or one of his dealers, he knew exactly who you were before you would even see him.
"Crabber," he said to me one day as I jumped out of my pram up onto his dock with a load of clams to sell, "your boat needs caulking. That little engine of yours is whining too high . . . pushin too much weight . . . you got water in her… you better take her out and caulk her."
Unbelievable! I'd been leakin like a sieve for two weeks. “You’re right, Cap,” I responded as I looked from him to the bottom of my boat and then back to him. "You're right about that. I gotta get some kids to help me drag it up your ramp and give it a good caulking."
"Got plenty of caulking in the shed, help yourself, Crabber. I'll give it a haul with ya after you unload your catch. You don't need no kids," he offered without ever turning away from sorting and bagging oysters at the sorting table.
Amazing, I thought. The guy knows everything.
"Didn't do too good today, heh, Crabber?"
I looked down into my pram at my meager half-bushel catch for the day. I looked at his back as he sorted oysters, down again at my crummy half-bushel, back at him, then back at my half-bushel. Jeez, I had to get to the bottom of this.
"Uuuh, Cap," I began as I walked slowly over to where he was standing, "mind if I ask you a question?"
“How did I know?” he asked me first with a big smile as he turned around. “Well, Crabber, I been listenen to you run that old outboard up the canal for two summers now, and I know your sound pretty good. You went out alone this morning, and you’re back early, so I figured you’re not loaded down with clams or passengers…must be water in the boat… flat bay. Boat needs caulking. You see?”
“Jeez, Cap. That’s pretty good. No kidding. You figured that all out just from hearin my engine?”
“I know your engine sound pretty good, Crabber,” he repeated as he walked out of the warehouse and over to the dock where my boat was tied. “Let’s get this thing over to the ramp, and I’ll help you yank her out. No time like the present.”
Jeez, he was amazing. How did he know exactly where my boat was tied? Amazing; sometimes I wondered if maybe he could see.
* * *
With my boat laid up for the caulking to set, I went clamming the next day with Toby Wyman. He had a real sixteen-foot outboard with seats and a fast engine. He was a senior and a smart businessman, so he’d take me along and charge me five dollars for my part of fifty cents worth of gas. Not much you could do if your boat was laid up, and you wanted to go clamming.
He had a fast boat and secret clamming spots and made three times the money I made every day. I was paying pretty close attention to everything he did, figuring I could learn a little something from this older kid, if I kept my eyes open.
“How come Cap Kolonick calls you ‘Crabber’, John?” he asked as we pulled away from his dock.
“Aaw, he heard me complaining one day about not makin enough money, and he asked me if I was a Clammer or a Crabber. I said Clammer, and he said, ‘You sound like a Crabber to me.’ Ever since then he’s called me The Crabber.”
“Doesn’t it bug ya?”
“Naah . . . I like the Cap.”
“It’d bug me. That old blind guy gets on my nerves sometimes. He acts like a goddamn wise old owl, like he knows all kinds of wise shit.”
“He’s pretty smart, Toby. You gotta admit it . . . for a blind guy.”
“Yeah . . . well, he ain’t THAT smart. Sittin around that ratty shanty buyin clams from kids and old guys. I’m gonna be a lawyer and make some real money. I’m not gonna sell clams the rest of my life.”
“A lawyer, huh? That’s pretty good . . . Never heard of a blind lawyer, though. Have you?”
“Naah . . . guess not. But I ain’t blind. I’m going to law school soon as I get out of college.”
As we came to the end of his canal and broke out into the open bay, he turned the engine up to full throttle, and that sort of put an end to the conversation. He headed directly across the choppy bay toward the flats over at Fire Island covering the full seven-mile run in about fifteen minutes. I could see the shadows of the island’s beach grass just above the horizon and watched the small dots that were the scrub pines grow bigger by the minute as the powerful engine raced us toward Toby’s secret clamming ground. I figured he was letting me in on his secret because he knew my boat would never make it this far. As I said, Toby was a pretty smart businessman.
About two hundred yards from the shore he eased back on the throttle and started to circle slowly over the mud flats that surrounded the island.
“John, grab the anchor out of the forward locker and toss it over when I tell ya will ya?”
“I got it, Toby,” I replied.
He circled around some long memorized navigational marker until he was satisfied, then he gave me the signal.
“Okay, toss it, John.” I threw the anchor to the upwind side of the boat and guided the chain over the gunwale until it paid out to the rope end and then cleated it off at the bow. The boat swung slowly downwind of the anchor until the line was taut, and we were ready to go to work.
“Let’s go clamming,” he said as he pried a bushel basket apart from a pile of six we had stowed in the middle of the cockpit and set it in an inflated inner tube. He dropped the tube, with the basket inside, into the water and jumped in waist-deep beside it. Immediately he began pumping his feet up and down on the muddy bottom and had a clam in his basket before I followed my tube and basket into the water. This guy was a dynamo.
We treaded clams for two hours about fifty yards apart. Toby filled a full bushel to my half, and I could see why everyone said this guy was going places. He must have legs of iron. He never stopped. Pump, pump, pump . . . clam. Pump, pump, pump . . . clam. Pump, pump, pump. . . two clams with one foot… a dynamo. He was going to make a great lawyer, I thought. Pump, pump, pump . . . clam. Pump, pump . . . clam. Wheew. Louis Nizer, look out.
I finally filled my bushel after about three hours and headed to the boat, dog-tired. Toby was already working on this second bushel when he saw me heading for the boat and drifted over to join me.
“How ya doin, John? Ya killin em and fillin em?”
“I’m fillin em, but they’re killin me. I’ve gotta give the old legs a rest.” I tied my tube to a cleat on the boat and pulled myself over the gunwale, flopping into the bottom of the boat like a dead sea bass.
“Hand me a sandwich, will ya, kid?” he requested, still standing in the water next to the boat. “I’m gonna keep clamming right here while we eat lunch.” He kept pumping and dropping calms into his bushel with one hand while he ate a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the other. “Whath are yaa planth for cowage?”
“Jeez, I don’t know, Toby. I’m just starting high school. Guess . . . I don’t know . . . I guess.”
“Welw, yu bebber shtart thinkin abou it,” Gulp, “now’s the time,” final gulp. “Really, kid. It’s real competitive out there; now’s the time to start planning. What do you think I’m doin out here? This is college tuition you see in this basket. Each one of these little knobs is college tuition,” he continued as he held up a clam to illustrate his point. “No tickie – no shirtie; no dough – no go, little guy. My old man’s a bum, but I’m going to college and then to law school.”
He kept pumpin and clamming, and for the first time I started to get nervous about my future. I haven’t saved a dime, I was thinking, as I stood up and jumped back into the water. I’m in ninth grade, I realized for the first time, and haven’t even started a savings account.
The rest of the day was misery. The water got colder and the clams scarcer. My legs were like lead, and the wind started to pick up and chilled the dampness on the upper half of my body. I kept slumpin along because I didn’t want Toby to see me quit before he did and figure there was one less competitor out there. Toby clammed like a man with a mission; the more he clammed the more I saw my future slipping away. He had filled three and a half bushels by four o’clock. I had one and a half. I wondered how many guys like Toby there were in the world. Probably a lot, I figured. Guys like me would get steam-rolled by all those Tobys.
Finally he started back toward the boat. Amen. Aaamen. I dragged myself back and struggled over the gunwale just as he started the engine and headed slowly toward the anchor. I made believe it was effortless, but the truth is I almost died pulling it in. I didn’t want to talk to him anymore, because I was whipped and depressed by his energy, but he started in immediately.
“Start cullin the clams, will ya, John?” I want them all sorted before we get to Kolonick’s. Just dump em in the bottom of the boat and resort them back into the bushels by size.”
As if I didn’t know how to cull clams, for Christ’s sake. I culled his first into three baskets and an overflow basket. Chowder clams, the largest, brought the lowest price. Cherrystones, the medium size, were worth twice the Chowder price, and Little Necks, the tiny ones about the size of a silver dollar, were clammers’ gold, selling for about fifteen dollars a bushel. By the time we covered the seven miles back to the mainland I had all the clams culled into seven baskets; three and a half of his, full… three of mine, half full.
As we approached the mainland and had turned down the coast toward Kolonick’s canal, Toby slowed down and brought the boat close to the rocky shore about a half mile up the coast from the canal entrance.
“John, I’m going to hold the boat next to the shore. You jump in and grab some of those small rocks to stick under the clams in each bushel. Cap Kolonick never checks if they’re all culled. He just weighs em and pays by weight. We’ll make about an extra five bucks apiece. Right here is good. Jump in right here and toss in some of those rocks right there.”
I just stared at him.
“Come on. Come on. Let’s go. It’s getting late.”
“Hey, Toby, I’m not slippin rocks in on Cap Kolonick. Are you nuts? The guy’s blind, for Christ’s sake. I’m not gunna do that.”
“Come on. Come on, kid. Everybody does it. What the hell are you, a rookie or something? Come on. Hurry up.”
“I’m not doin it, Toby; not to a blind guy. Jeez, that stinks. Count me out.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, John; hold the goddamn boat steady. I’ll do it myself, for Christ’s sake. Come on. Get back here and hold the boat steady.”
I moved to the back and idled the boat while he hid a half-dozen smooth rocks under the clams in each of his baskets.
“You sure you don’t want any, kid?” he asked when he had finished his own.
“Nope,” I answered sullenly. “Not on a blind guy.”
“Suit yourself,” he said nonchalantly as he took over the controls and headed toward Kolonick’s canal.
Cap Kolonick weighed our clams and paid us accordingly for the Chowders, Cherrystones, and Little Necks he felt on the top of each bushel. I was depressed and felt sick. I guess I was disillusioned, as my mother calls it; not by Toby, but I thought Cap Kolonick was smarter than that.
* * *
I put my boat back in and clammed every day for the next two weeks. The weather was hot and humid and the coolest place was out on the bay, clamming. I felt heavy. My mother said I was acting sullen, and I guess I was. I felt depressed about that goddamn Toby and, I don’t know, kind of embarrassed around old Cap Kolonick. He was good to me, and I wanted to be proud of him, if you know what I mean. But jeez, those older kids were making a dummy out of him. The whole thing made me feel heavy and slow.
I wondered if I should tell the Cap they were screwin him, but I figured that would ruin it for him. He’d lose confidence in himself, being blind and all, and wouldn’t enjoy the clam business or nuthin. I figured I better keep my mouth shut.
“What’s botherin ya, Crabber?’ he asked me one day as I walked up from the dock at the end of a day of clammin. “Ya get skunked or something?”
“What makes you think somethin’s botherin me, Cap? I’m doin fine; got two and a half bushels today…whole bushel of Little Necks,” I answered him, trying to sound confident.
“You’re walkin slow, Crab. No spring in ya step. Ya voice sounds out of tune; too low some days, too tight others. Ya sure nuthin’s botherin ya?”
“Jeez, Cap, ya just can’t HEAR all that stuff. Ya can’t hear everything, Cap,” I snapped back at him.
“Nope . . . you’re right, Crabber. I can’t hear everything. But what I can’t hear, I can feel. I can feel the weather changing and the seasons comin. I can feel the wood move under my feet when a truck turns into my yard, and I can feel it when my dog is scared or sick. I can just feel it, Crabber. Bein blind ain’t all bad. I feel stuff the average guy misses. You know I can feel people, too. It’s almost like I know what they’re thinkin as soon as they come near me.”
He was repairing bushel baskets while we talked. He’d remove all the broken slats and reweave the basket with new inch-wide wooden slats that he tacked into the ringed collar circling the top of the basket. His hands were fast and sure, and I figured he must a done a million of em by this time. After he weaved in the new slats, he put the basket on the ground, stepped inside, and pulled up by the handles, causing the basket to return to its useable shape. He was an expert.
“I can feel you now, Crabber, and if I’m not wrong, you got somethin on your mind, right?”
“Guess I’m reflectin, Cap. Thinkin about stuff; thoughtful . . . you know?”
“What ya thinkin about, Crabber?”
“Uuuh . . . well . . . just life stuff, Cap. Like . . . people screw people, and ya got to keep an eye on them . . . uuh . . . so to speak . . . if ya know what I mean?”
Cap was smiling now. “I know what ya mean, Crabber. Somebody screw ya lately?”
“Naah...not me..nobody. But they do and ya gotta watch em. Some people, that is.”
“I guess you’re right there. Some people bear watchin; no doubt about it.”
“Like you, Cap. What if people started tryin ta screw ya cause ya was blind and all? I bet some people would even try to screw a blind guy . . . or like a cripple guy or a little kid or something.”
“Yeah, some people would, Cap. Even you gotta keep an eye out . . . uuh . . . so to speak.”
“Yup, even me.”
“Some people got no respect for nothin.” I was getting pretty worked up now. “They just don’t give a damn, Cap. That’s what I’m findin out. They just don’t give a damn.”
“More than ya think, Cap…people you’d least suspect…cryin shame if ya ask me.”
“Ya just gotta watch em. That’s my new rule. Watch em.”
“How many ya gotta watch?”
“How many…whatta ya mean, how many?”
“How many ya gotta watch, Crabber? Everybody…some guys…a couple of guys…how many?”
“Uuh…everybody, I guess.”
“Take a lot of time.”
“Well…yeah…I guess it would. What aya gonna do though? Ya gotta watch em.”
“A lot of time…too much time…ya can’t watch em all.”
I felt sort of deflated. I thought I was getting through to him, kind of without saying anything, if you know what I mean? Somehow, though, I felt like he was suddenly getting through to me. He had a way of doing that. When you’re telling him something, he ends up telling you something, only you don’t realize it until you get home.
I headed home and gave some thought to how much time it would take to keep an eye on all the guys like Toby. It depended, I figured, on how many of them there were. Then I remembered Toby’s energy for clammin and realized how tough it would be just to keep an eye on him.
I woke up the next day with this burning desire to help Cap Kolonick. I figured the hell with Toby and the rest of those wise guys. Somebody had to tell the Captain that they were robbin him. I couldn’t keep hanging around his shanty and doin business with him and letting him be my friend and not tell him those guys were screwin him.
I pulled on my shorts and tee shirt and flat white sneakers and headed over to Kolonick’s without washing. The Captain was already up and washing down the old wooden interior floor of his shanty with a high-powered hose. He was standing in the far corner of the room facing the opposite wall. He aimed the jet straight along the floor starting at his feet and slowly raised the hose until he could hear the jet hit the far wall. Then he would take one step to the right and reverse directions with the hose until the jet was back at his feet. That way he didn’t miss anything. Stuff like that he figured out carefully.
“Mornin, Cap,” I shouted over the hiss and spray of the hose.
“Crabber, you’re up early,” he shouted back. “Getting an early start on those clams?”
“Nah…just thought I’d come by and talk to you before I went out.”
He turned off the hose and threw it on the ground to one side then walked over to his sorting table and wiped his hands dry on a big terry cloth towel.
“Bout goin clammin with Toby Wyman a few weeks ago, ain’t it, Crabber?”
I was stunned. I hesitated a few seconds before answering.
“Yeah, Cap. I got to tell ya sumpthin. I been worried about it, but I figured I had to tell ya.”
He walked slowly over to me with his big hip-wading boots sploshing on the wet floor. He put his hand on my shoulder and stared at me by looking over my head and past me at something only he could see in his mind.
“Ya bin worryin, Crabber; worryin about old Capt. Kolonick. Thanks for that, boy,” he said real quietly, still staring over my head. Then he turned around and slid his hand around my back to the other shoulder. “Come here, Crabber. I want to show you old Captain Kolonick’s secret stash. Ya know all the pearls the diggers figure I got stowed? Well, I got em, all right. I want to show ya.”
We walked together over to one of the doors in the far wall that led upstairs to his apartment and to his tool shed and basket room.
“Ya know, Crabber, Toby Wyman ain’t a bad kid,” he continued as we walked. “He wants to go to college; should, too. He’s smart and full of ambition. He’ll go places. Make a damn good lawyer.” We arrived at the door to the basket room, and the Captain fiddled with an old lock for a few seconds before he got it opened. “Rusty Phelan’s got a chance at the major leagues, ya know, Crabber. Hell of a ball player, they tell me. And little Willy Tanner is head of his class in school; science; a little genius. Nice boys. Goin someplace; all of them.
A bunch of robbers, I was thinking. Wise guys, if ya ask me. He walked me around ten rows of bushel baskets piled from the floor to the ceiling. In the back wall was another little door.
“Ya see, Crabber,” he continued with his hand on the doorknob, “we’re all strivin. Scared, too, most of us; but just strivin. Ya overlook a little…ya forgive a little…ya got plenty of time left for yer own strivin.” He pulled the door open, and there, filling the entire floor of the old coal bin, and piled waist-high, was a mound of those small rocks from the shore, just like the ones Toby slipped under his clams a few weeks before. There must have been hundreds of them.
“Pearls…in a way,” he said.