The cardboard box arrived at my office unsolicited, over the transom, from a Staten Island, New York, address I didn’t recognize. I didn’t think much about it. When I got around to cutting the packing tape and opened the flaps, a story from another time and place emerged.
I was struck by the black-and-white photos from the 1940s, including one showing two men standing on a covered barge wearing broad-billed swordfish caps, cigarettes hanging from their lips, each holding a pair of nice stripers by the gill plates. I didn’t know it, but I was about to meet Capt. Bub Kohn, a World War II-era waterfront character and charter skipper from Great Kills, Staten Island. Bub and mate Charlie Assencio were in their mid-40s when the photos were taken — top of their game, full of life, cocks of the walk.
The good captain has been dead for nearly 40 years, but the box contained snippets of the life of a tidewater denizen: photos of his charter boat, more photos of fish, buttons for something called the Soft Mud Yacht Club Striped Bass Contest (more on that later).
The box was followed months later by a visit from the skipper’s son Dick Kohn, 79, of Great Kills, a longtime fisherman, boatman and former mate on the Staten Island ferry; he was accompanied by his childhood friend Howard Hill Jr., 78, a retired New York/Sandy Hook, New Jersey, harbor pilot.
Dick showed up with more photos and memorabilia, 70-some-odd years’ worth of stories and a son’s lasting affection for his father, whose memory he did not want to see lost to the passage of time. This story, in essence, is a son’s love letter to a father.
During the course of several hours, he recounted conversations with his father, word for word, in his distinct south shore Staten Island accent, a nuanced version of the classic metropolitan New York accent. You and I never met Capt. Bub, but chances are we knew someone like him — old school, tough-minded, fun-loving, independent. Bub had standing among his peers, and that’s what mattered most. “They were a different breed,” Howard says. “Good guys. They hung out together. They liked to drink. A bunch of characters.”
Along with chartering, Bub and his wife, Thelma, ran a fish market for 46 years and a wholesale clam business. Bub worked hard, fished hard and enjoyed a shot and a beer, like most of his buddies. Always had a Chesterfield in his mouth. Always had a buck in his pocket.
“You would have loved my old man,” says Dick, who became a mate for his father during summers starting when he was 16. “He was something else. My father was a very good fisherman. He knew his stuff. He loved it. Like you love it, and like I love it.”
Edward Wolfgang Kohn (Bub was a nickname, bestowed by his mother, that stuck) was born in 1900, but the period covered in this story is confined to about 30 years, from the late 1930s through the late ’60s. The working waterfront then — particularly coming out of the Great Depression and immediately following the war — was the antithesis of the gussied-up, postcard-pretty harbors of today. Far more tired and neglected.
Staten Island was still the “forgotten borough” of New York City, a place where there was open space and small, quiet neighborhoods a half-hour by ferry from Manhattan. The pace was slower. Deals were done on a handshake. Reputation meant something. “We still burned leaves in the streets and went to church on Sunday,” Dick says. Staten Island was predominantly Catholic, and Friday was a big day at the family’s Great Kills Seafood Distributors, especially before the ban on eating meat was lifted in 1966, and for a good time after that, as well.
Money was tight after the war, but Bub usually had a few dollars in his pocket. “My father was a hustler,” Dick says. “He had a sense of humor, and he really had a lot of friends. He always had a buck in his pocket. Always. Between the clams and fishing and the fish store, it was a seven-day-a-week job.”
“You kept working and working and working,” Howard says. “You had to make hay when the sun was shining. Everybody scratched for everything.”
This group of friends enjoyed a camaraderie based around fishing, boats, physical labor, and shared experiences and stories told and retold as they knocked back a few cold ones at the end of the day. “They drank a lot,” Dick says. “No kidding around. Beer. Ballantine ale. Not the hard stuff. A shot and a beer. And they all smoked. They drank beer, and nobody had a lot of money.”
Dick and Howard speak of a prevailing ethic of the period: You helped friends who fell on hard times. “During the war especially, everybody took care of each other because no one had anything,” Howard says. You loaned money to people in your circle, sold fish at half price to those who couldn’t pay full boat — you gave people a break.
“My father had 60 clam diggers working for him, and when Christmastime came, he took care of them,” Dick recalls. “Everybody got a set of long underwear and a bottle of rye. And if a kid had to get a tooth fixed or something like that and the digger didn’t have any money, my father would lend him the money. He made a lot of friends, and he never turned anybody down.”
Dick recalls a conversation over the fish market rent between his father and Tommy Nolan, who owned the building. Nolan entered the fish store one day.
How you doing Bub? he asked.
I’m doing pretty good.
You think you’re going to make it?
Yeah, I think I’m going to make it.
About the rent, Nolan continued, give me 5 pounds of flounder for this month.
“True story,” Dick says. “And he stayed with my dad right till the end.”
Another memory involves a bookmaker friend who worked out of a diner in Great Kills and sometimes fronted Bub money to buy extra fish for a big holiday.
“With Good Friday coming up,” Dick recalls, “he’d say to my dad”:
You need any money, Bub?
I could use a couple grand.
Pay me when you get it, Bub.
On its most successful Good Friday, the store took in $15,000. “Everybody in the store went in the back, and we broke open a case of beer and my father said, ‘Get some littlenecks,’ ” Dick remembers, laughing. “And we sat there and ate littlenecks and drank beer … camaraderie and fellowship.”
Capt. Bub fished Raritan Bay, Sandy Hook and sometimes out of Long Island for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish and summer flounder. “He was very good on the weakfish,” Dick says. “My dad caught a weakfish once that was so big they had it on television, with the weatherman. But he did best with the striped bass. He knew his stuff.”
Bub was a popular skipper who knew how to make his customers laugh. “When you work hard all year to go out on a charter boat with a bunch of guys you work with, you want to have a good time,” says Dick, who fished a Dyer 29 for years. “When they went out with my father, they had a good time.”
Bub apparently had a bit of thespian in him, too. “The first guy who got a fish, my dad would go down below and get out a box of cigars,” Dick recalls. “He’d put a cigar in the man’s mouth, light it, pour him a shot of booze, put a high hat on his head — like Lincoln’s hat — shake his hand and say, ‘This is what you get for getting the first fish. The trip is a success. Now you have to pay me.’ ”
Clients came back year after year. “Everybody wanted to go out with Bubby Kohn and his mate because the mate was just as funny as my old man.”
And when the charter got back to the dock, Dick recalls, “My dad would take everybody up to Flick’s restaurant for a shot and a beer and to get paid. And he’d get a couple of bucks tip for me. I was back at the boat, cleaning the boat up.”
Bub ran a 33-foot custom wooden sportfisherman, Rebound 1, which he bought and repaired after it had been in a fire. “She was clinker-built. She leaked, but we always stayed on top of it,” Dick says. “We had a Gray Marine 6-cylinder gas engine in it. The boat was fairly old. My father worked on it all the time. It was always well-painted, and when we weren’t on charter there was always Ballantine beer and Coca-Cola in the ice chest. He kept it looking smart.”
An old business card describes Rebound 1 as a Fast Sport Fisherman. “The boat only did 12 knots,” Dick says. “When we were running, I used to put it up a notch, and my father would come forward and pull it back,” he says, laughing.
During the season, fishermen gravitated to places such as Jackie Carola’s tackle shop on Highland Boulevard in Great Kills. In those days, news of a big fish was enough to cause a man to leave the dinner table and rush down to the shop.
“We’d be sitting down having dinner, and we’d get a phone call. ‘They’re weighing in a big fish. Get down to Jiggy Jig’s,’ ” Dick recalls, using Carola’s nickname. “And everybody who was into fish would be there.”
Jiggy Jig and Bub were friends. “He and my father got along very well because my father didn’t buy a half-dozen hooks — he bought the whole box,” Dick says.
On his visit to our office, Dick and I looked at a photograph taken in 1947 of his father standing beside a fish hanging in front of Carola’s shop. The striper might have weighed 25 pounds, maybe a bit more, nice but nothing extraordinary. But more than the fish, the photo captures a moment in time. The skipper’s work clothes, haircut, watch, posture — even the way he holds the filterless cigarette between thumb and forefinger — speak of a bygone era.
“Good picture of your father,” I say.
“Yeah, I miss him,” Dick answers.
Fulton Fish Market
Bub had a clam house on Lemon Creek in Prince’s Bay, Staten Island, where he bought, culled and washed the clams brought in by dozens of diggers. He and his son would load them onto their truck and take them by ferry, well before dawn, to the old Fulton Fish Market along the East River in lower Manhattan.
“Most of the diggers would sell their clams in burlap bags, and they were muddy and dirty.” Dick says. “The gimmick there was, we put the clams in bushel baskets that they put fruit in. My dad would take the truck out to all the vegetable stands and get the baskets after they were used once. He would buy them by the truckload. And then we marked the tops of the baskets ‘chow’ for chowder, ‘cherry’ for cherry stones and ‘neck’ for littlenecks. The buyers who owned restaurants would go to Fulton and see all the wet, dirty burlap bags of clams, and then they’d see these bright bushel baskets. They didn’t care if they came from Raritan Bay. They wanted the basket. And they’d say, ‘Give me six baskets of necks.”
Dick remembers fondly the early morning trips to Fulton in his father’s 1955 Ford F-500 rack truck. “What an adventure,” he says. “There was always something going on. Fights and joking and kidding around. You had to be there. We’re talking 4 o’clock in the morning and the place was jumping. Jumping.” They sold the clams and bought fish for their market.
The buyers ate breakfast at Sloppy Louie’s before the market opened. “They all knew each other, especially the ones from Staten Island,” Dick says. “Morning, Bub. Good morning, Bub.”
The presunrise breakfast remains etched in Dick’s memory. “I remember the butter came out in ice, OK,” he says. “The coffee was right there when you sat down. The eggs were over light — and they were over light, not broken. Never. The rolls were fresh.”
Bub and the other buyers would talk fish, lobsters, clams, prices and so forth. “And they all helped each other,” Dick recalls. “If it was a Good Friday, you might get a phone call and a guy would say, ‘We’re out of flounder, you got any?’ You’d say, ‘I got an extra 200 pounds, you want 100?’ They all worked together, like a brotherhood, because they had so much in common.”
Neither father nor son ever caught a striped bass that topped 50 pounds. Dick’s largest weighed 44¼ pounds, and Bub’s big fish went 48½ pounds — although his son recalls a bass that his father lost that probably would have broken the mark.
He’d hooked the fish trolling with a friend in a 26-foot skiff in lower New York Bay. “Had it alongside the boat,” Dick says. “The fish was 40 feet away. He came up to the top and flipped his head, and my father said the plug went right over the the top of the boat and into the water on the other side.”
What did you do then? the son asked his father.
I cried, said Bub.
“He saw the girth on the fish, and it was huge,” Dick says.
Not all the big ones get away, especially when they’re caught in a dragger’s net. Dick remembers a trip he and his father made when he was in his teens, to Fulton around Christmas, to buy fish for the store.
“We were going through the stalls buying fish, and he grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘Come here, Dick, look at this,’ ” the son recalls. “And lying in the stall was an 88-pound and a 92-pound striped bass. I still have that picture in my mind. I’ll never forget it.”
He was touched by the memory, and emotion welled up in his voice and eyes. “I’d like to catch one like that someday, but I don’t think I ever will,” he says wistfully. “And a lot of people have the same feeling. You catch the biggest striped bass, and everybody knows who you are. Everybody.”
Bub started Great Kills Seafood Distributors in the 1930s, and it remained in business 46 years. For a lot of those years, it was the only fish market in town.
Day in, day out, Thelma Kohn ran the store, greeting customers, working the register, cutting the fish. She was a steadying influence, which was obvious when a fire destroyed the market sometime in the ’40s.
“My father got a call in the middle of the night: ‘Get up to the store. It’s on fire!’ ” Dick recalls. “He got up there, and he and my mother stood across the street. The fire engines are all over the place. They’re breaking the glass in the front windows, and the flames are coming out. My father says to my mother, ‘Dammit, I should have gotten insurance for the store.’ My mother turns around to him and she says, ‘I got it. I never told you because you didn’t want it. But I got it anyway. The policy is in the register, under the change compartment.’
“My father ran across the street, through the door and past the firemen and grabbed the cash register and ran out. Got enough money from the insurance to rebuild the store in one month.”
Thelma also played the numbers every week, something she also neglected to tell Bub. “The money came out of the cash register,” Dick says. “Every week the guy came in and got the money from my mother. My mother hit the number. True story. God strike me dead. She took the money and said to my father, ‘I’m going to Italy and Switzerland, do you want to go with me?’ He says, ‘No, you go.’ And she went and had a ball.”
Soft Mud Yacht Club
Capt. Bub started the Soft Mud Yacht Club Striped Bass Contest after the war, in the 1940s, according to his son. At the end of the season-long contest there was a dinner, and the person who caught the largest striped bass won a cash prize. Locally, it was a big deal.
The Soft Mud Yacht Club was a paper club, and the name is a nod to the muddy bottom the clam diggers who sold to Bub had to traipse through to get to their skiffs. It also was a dig, or a “zing” as Dick calls it, to an established yacht club of the time.
“It was like a brotherhood,” Dick says. “For $2 you could be a member of something, a bunch of guys who enjoyed hanging around together. These guys all drank together and stuck together and fished together.”
The fishing tournament is still going, but Dick says it’s not what it used to be. He’d like to see it return to what it once was, but it’s hard to turn back the clock. More than that, he’d like his father remembered for his role in starting the contest.
“My father wanted to be somebody, like we all do. And he was a very hard worker,” Dick says, pausing for a moment to collect himself before continuing. “And he stayed with it. I’d like my father to be remembered for starting this thing.”
Dick and I look at a dinner photo of the Soft Mud Yacht Club gathering from the winter of 1948. Everyone is staring at the camera. Some are wearing jackets and ties. Most are smiling. Dick points to various men in the photo.
“This guy’s name was George Janaskie,” Dick says. “His son is still alive. George owned a gas station. If you went into the head, you had to climb around the fishing rods because they were all stacked in there.
“This guy’s name was Probst. He worked in the city in the stock market. He didn’t like to be seen coming into the front door of the bar, so he would go in the side door. His nickname was Side Door Probst. This is the game warden — they called him Silver Bullets. I don’t know if you know this guy, but you should — Dusty Doerzbacher, Little Bear, Montauk, famous headboat man? You got to look that up. This is Jiggy Jig. This is my dad with a tie on. This meant so much to my father that he brought these guys together. And they were all pros. Every one of them.”
And on it went. Old names with questionable spellings. Ghosts crowded into a restaurant, standing shoulder to shoulder behind a narrow table covered with a checkered tablecloth, drinks and cigarettes in hand, life still stretching out ahead, moonlight on the water.
“They’re all gone?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, probably every one of them,” Dick says.
“No, positively every one of them,” his friend Howard corrects.
“Happy times?” I venture.
“You’d better believe it,” Dick says.
“I wish I’d known your dad,” I say.
“Now,” he says, “you do.”