Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Last Fisherman

I met Dan Dzenkowski well before dawn on a Saturday morning in July 1989, at his dock, which was next to a fish market on an inlet called Stirling Creek, in Greenport. Dan was the last pound net fisherman on Long Island Sound. We shook hands and boarded his boat. He was 64, friendly and open and perfectly willing to accommodate me and my questions. His brother Joe was another story. I shook Joe’s hand and he scowled, and kept scowling for the entire trip.

The other mate hadn’t shown up yet and after a wait of a few minutes, Dan telephoned him, woke him up, and reminded him that they were working that morning. He turned out to be a much younger man, named Jim, who went about his business without any nonsense but without any hostility either.

As we waited, a trawler eased alongside the fish market for its supply of ice, which the one-man crew shoveled into three tubs the size of bushel baskets. Dan told me than Greenport used to be far busier. Each day an ice house would deliver a ton or more of ice to keep the catch fresh. Fishing boats would line up for ice in the morning and return later, their holds filled with weakfish and striped bass and squid. These days, Dan said, three or four boats at most needed ice.

Dan maneuvered his boat down the creek — which he pronounced crick — and through Greenport Harbor, turning south past Long Beach Point, and then east along Peconic Bay toward Orient, an hour away. Joe stayed on deck for the duration. Jim dozed in the cabin. I talked with Dan as he stood at the wheel.

He told me – no surprise here – that the fishing was not as good as it used to be. Fishermen have retired or found other work and few young men want to sacrifice the security and relative ease — weekends and holidays off, steady hours — of a conventional job. And there aren’t as many fish as there used to be.

As a young man Dan grew potatoes and cauliflower on a North Fork truck farm, catching lobsters evenings and in winter. Fishing accounted for a substantial part of his income for about half of his 64 years. By then, however, most of the small farms were gone, and their maritime equivalent — the fishing boat with a crew of two or three men — was disappearing too. Stirling Creek had been taken over by cabin cruisers and condominiums.

At the lighthouse beyond Orient Point we made a hairpin turn and plowed through Plum Gut into Long Island Sound. The sky was growing lighter although the sun hadn’t risen yet. Only one of Dan’s six nets were in the Sound – the others were in Gardiner’s Bay, but we were heading to the Sound first because the net is staked close to Plum Gut, which funnels water between Gardiner’s Bay and the Sound at six knots, and the only safe time to work it is at slack water, which was approaching.

A pound net is set up perpendicular to the shore. The fishermen stick eight or ten large posts into the water leading out from the beach, and then string a net along the posts. The net intercepts the fish as they’re swimming along the shore and forces them to swim out from shore. The pound, which is also made of netting, is attached to poles at the far end. The fish are led into the pound which is constructed so that once they get in, they can’t find their way out.

Dan’s judgment that morning was solid — the water was calm and he easily edged the boat against the pound net’s outer side. Without exchanging a word, the crew moved into action.

On the bow, Jim looped a rope to one of the net’s outer stakes. The boat rocked briefly, then stabilized. Then Jim and Dan each dropped into one of the dinghies we had been towing. Each found his balance standing on the bow and maneuvered along the net to the far end of the pound. Now Pulling themselves back toward the boat, they began to raise the net by unhooking it and re-hooking it at a higher spot, flapping it to loosen the hundreds of spider crabs that clung to it, making the pound smaller and smaller as they progressed. When Jim arrived at the boat, Joe hopped down onto his dinghy alongside him, and together they returned to the far end of the pound, where Jim crossed onto Dan’s dinghy. Joe returned to the boat and tied the dinghy to the stern.

Now standing in the same dinghy, Dan and Jim began easing their way back toward the boat, hoisting the net with hooks, closing it even further, shaking the spider crabs loose.

I could look down from the deck of the boat into the pound, which the three men had made much smaller by tightening the net. The fish knew they were trapped, and they looked panicked, flashing and bolting across the pound and around its edge, quick as lightning.

When Dan and Jim were about five feet from the boat, Joe extended a grooved plank to their dinghy and Jim used it to climb up on board. Joe grabbed a mechanical scoop net, and Jim, operating a pulley fastened to the cabin, lowered it into the pound, where Dan, who had his own scoop net, filled it with fish.

Joe called out, “O.K.” Jim switched on the pulley, lifting the scoop net over the deck and opening its bottom to spill fish into and over the edges of a plastic basin. The fish smacked together. Dan filled the scoop net twice more before the pound was empty. Then the men lowered themselves into the dinghies to reset the pound. I counted the catch — winter flounder, fluke, an eel, bonito and bluefish, lobster, moss bunkers, butterfish, scup, spider crabs and horseshoe crabs, squid, sea robin, skate, Spanish mackerel.

By 6:20 a.m. we were back around Orient Point, heading west in Gardiner’s Bay to repeat the routine at Dan’s six other nets. The sun suddenly was a dull orange disk above Plum Island. A tern cried as it flew past.

As he piloted the boat Dan told me pretty much what I had expected to hear: the fishing was not as good as it used to be. He said he was catching the same species as always but there were fewer of them: “You catch as much but you don’t catch as much of it,” Dan said.

He told me that the pollution scare of 1987 and 1988 — when medical waste was befouling beaches in New York and New Jersey — hurt him seriously. He sold some of his fish to the fish market near his dock in Greenport and sent the rest to Fulton Market. “Last year was the first time the guy I deal with called and said don’t send any more in,” he said.

At the time, there was a total ban on commercial fishing for striped bass, because of PCBs. Like all commercial fishermen, Dan believed the fears were exaggerated. When stripers were legal to keep, Dan would fish until Thanksgiving because bass are so numerous in the fall. At the season’s peak he would ship 200 60-pound cartons of bass every day for a week. Now, because of PCBs, Dan quits about October first. At the day’s first pound, when two fine specimens had thudded to the deck, Joe barely glanced at them. He grabbed them by the tails and flung them back into the Sound.

At the second net, in Peconic Bay, an osprey was sitting on a stake. “This is where the fish hawks get all their fish,” Dan said. “They just sit there and pick what they want.”

At the third net, every stake was a perch for a cormorant. “Especially in spring that net will be solid black with birds,” Dan said. “You get a couple of hundred birds on a trap, they can really do a job on them. Plus, they drive the stuff out.”

Black-backed gulls sailed behind us as the boat rumbled from one net to the next. They screeched in anticipation when a load of spider crabs — inedible and no good for bait — was dumped overboard. When the crabs hit the water the birds shut up, realizing that the crustaceans were not what they were hoping for.

The birds’ luck changed after the sixth net. Dan set the boat’s automatic pilot and the three men began cleaning bluefish: the belly of a large blue will sometimes hold a smaller fish, which will putrefy and ruin the bluefish. They worked fast, slicing open bellies with a ripping sound, scraping out the innards, which they tossed overboard, sending the gulls into a frenzy. The boat moved steadily forward, with Dan showing no concern as it neared the next pound. I stood alone in the cabin, looking from the pound, which was growing ever nearer, to Dan, who did not bother even to glance up. I held my tongue. The boat bore down on the pound net. I looked back at dan again. We were going to slam into the net. At exactly the right time – and at precisely the last second -- Dan quit cleaning bluefish, returned to the cabin, and guided the boat alongside the pound with such matter-of-factness that it could hardly even be called grace under pressure.

We were done by 9 a.m. At the fish market near the dock the men lifted the catch onto a platform, weighed the fish, and packed them with crushed ice in waxed-cardboard cartons. The market bought 45 pounds of Spanish mackerel, 17 pounds of bonito, 16 of squid, five of flounder, 12 of porgies, and 60 of bluefish. Dan, Joe, and Jim packed the remainder to be shipped to Fulton Fish Market — 370 pounds of blues and 48 pounds of porgies. They didn’t bother to weigh the bait fish, which they would sell to lobstermen and conch fishermen. The day’s total: 583 pounds of fish, or the equivalent of about 10 60-pound cartons. Five or six years ago, Dan said, he would ship 4,000 to 5,000 cartons a year to New York, half of them bass. Now he ships about 1,000. A decline on that scale takes its toll. Dan said only three crews fish pound nets on the North Fork of Long Island now. Two decades ago, he said, there were 25 or 30.

“It seems like every year you lose a few,” Dan said. “It’s something that a few years from now you probably won’t see any more.”

Burgundy with a Tea-Totaler and on a Budget

If I were to devise a personal definition of frustration, it might be this: being set free in Burgundy with a severely limited budget and accompanied by a wife who was three months pregnant and therefore not interested in even a moderate sampling of wine. Granted, a driving tour of France is not high on anyone's list of hardships. But for someone with an interest in wine, a visit to one of the world's great wine regions — some would say its greatest wine region — with a packet of traveller's checks notable for its thinness and a companion devoted to teatotaling can be a frustrating glimpse of what it might be like to spend a life in hell.
Burgundy — the wine, not the region — has become something of an obsession for me. To those who have fallen under its spell, it is the world's most intriguing wine.

"Something about Burgundy excites spirituality," Matt Kramer has written in his book, Making Sense of Burgundy. "Where Napa Valley restores hope that beauty has a future in the modern era and Bordeaux simply makes one want to live, so as to continue to sample its extraordinary array, Burgundy elicits a different emotion. Even the most skeptical are willing, after savoring a genuinely great Burgundy, to concede that there may well be — dare one say it? — a Presence in the universe beyond our own.

"One thing is clear: the Earth speaks in Burgundy as it does nowhere else. And the grapevine is its interpreter."

mearsault lable

It is that notion — the Earth speaking through the wine; the wine being the absolute essence of soil and rain and sunshine and wind — that is among wine's attractions. Kramer does not refer to the estimable food writer Waverly Root, but in Kramer’s 1990 book he is talking about precisely the same thing that Root talked about in his 1958 book, The Food of France: "…food, with the exception of a very few minerals, is made up of the living things, vegetable or animal, which spring from the soil of a region, the people of which are made, in the most literal sense, of the food they eat. … The land [forms] the food. The food [is] intimately and inextricably involved with the geography and the climate and the history and the habits and the culture — in short with the entire environment — of the land."

In an era of factory farms, agribusiness, and chemical pesticides, it is a notion with no little attractiveness — food and wine as part of an ecological system, part of an absolute connection to the good earth. And in the wines of Burgundy, it seems, that connection has reached its greatest manifestation.

And so I admit that Burgundy is approaching the level of an obsession with me, or if not an obsession, an unrealizable dream. It is a dream inspired by inaccessibility. I do not mean you cannot stride into a wine shop and buy any number of bottles of excellent Burgundy. You can — if, that is, you have the approximate income of a big league outfielder. Burgundy is not only arguably the world's finest wine, it is the world's most expensive wine — to the frugal wine-lover's great disadvantage. The laws of supply and demand are nowhere applied more starkly than in Burgundy. The total production of wine is tiny compared to other wine regions, and yet Burgundy aficionados abound, passionate about the wine and willing to buy it, bad vintage or good. If you are interested enough in wine to peruse the wine columns and journals and many books that serve as a consumer's guide to the cabernets and Cote Roties, the pinot noirs and riojas, the barolos and barbarescos, then Burgundy's greatness is a fact you must constantly confront — in the frustrating abstract.

We started our tour in Dijon, an ancient, dingy city of 150,000 people, described lovingly by M.F.K. Fisher in her book "Long Ago in France." She lived there as a young woman 64 years ago, the wife of an American student, serving her apprenticeship as both a cook and an eater. Her Dijon was an inexpensive provincial town not far removed from the Medieval days when it was the seat of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy, a town with superlative restaurants and chefs, where even the ordinary residents excelled in the kitchen — a town where, it was said, it was impossible to get a bad meal.

Nor did we get a bad meal, six decades later. What we did not get, though, was a Burgundian meal. We arrived in Dijon late on a rainy, dank Sunday afternoon and, after checking into our hotel, set out on foot and under umbrellas. We found the restaurant recommended by our hotel keeper, and it looked wonderful — dark and cheerful, filled with people earnestly and happily eating their Sunday evening dinner. Alas, we next learned what we were to learn elsewhere — that in Burgundy, if not in all of France, restaurants have only one seating for dinner, and if you arrive after all tables are taken your only choice is to look elsewhere.
We did, but on a Sunday night the options were limited, and so we settled on a Moroccan restaurant where we were served excellent couscous, rich and savory with lamb and chicken. It was a quality meal, but it was less than satisfactory. We were in the gateway to Burgundy, after all, the city in which it was impossible to get a bad meal, and if I had wanted to eat North African food I would have gone to North Africa. I ate, though, and tried to hide my disappointment. Monday was another day, and lunch another meal.

Like Sunday, Monday was dreary. It rained on and off. The facades of Dijon are almost uniformly earth-toned, a palate not shown to its best advantage under sodden, leaden skies. There is hardly a pastel or primary color to be seen. Unfortunately for us the Monday noon hour in Dijon is also an off-time for restaurants. Again we settled — this time for crepes. I was hungry after a morning of museums, and the crepes were a perfectly adequate lunch. But for my second meal in a famous gastronomic city at the head of Burgundy, it was thoroughly disappointing. Where were the rabbits, the beef, the kidney and liver and sweetbreads? Where, as Fisher wrote, were "the snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy"?

Discouraged, I skipped wine at lunch.

That afternoon we drove into the heart of Burgundy, wending our way slowly through the Cote D'Or — the Golden Slope — as one might nibble at the charcuterie served before a meal to sharpen and preserve one's appetite for what followed. We cruised through the towns whose names on the direction signs, as Waverly Root put it, let you feel like a tiny insect crawling across a magnified wine card: Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Aloxe-Corton, Nuits-Saint-Georges. This was where my frustrations as a perspective Burgundy-drinker would at last be satisfied, I hoped.

To travel north-south along the Cote D'Or, you can drive the superhighway that has been strung along the base of the slope — which is perfect, say, for hastening to Pommard or Volnay if you have no interest in Vougeot — or drive the ancient hillside road past the vineyards and along the narrow village streets, noting the famous names here and there on the winegrowers' headquarters. It has been said that winegrowing country is generally not beautiful landscape, but this northern half of the 30-mile Cote d'Or — the Cote de Nuit — was pleasant countryside, even under gray skies.

We stopped in two villages — Aloxe-Corton and Savigny-les-Beaune — and rejected hotels in each as too expensive. We tracked down several houses with rooms to rent, but they were filled. Finally we proceeded to Beaune, the ancient town that is the capital of Burgundy and the halfway point on the route down the Cote D'Or.

savigny label

As we drove I was thinking both of Waverly Root and A.J. Liebling, who was a better writer than Root but who admired Root's first-rate book, "The Food of France," almost without reservation. Both lived in Paris as young men during the 1920s, the years of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation — though neither, apparently, found membership in that generation. (Root's amusing memoir of those years, "The Paris Edition," has a chapter called "I Never Knew Hemingway.") Both were too busy — Liebling as a nominal student at the Sorbonne who in reality was learning the gastronomic arts thanks to his father's unknowing largesse, and Root as a reporter and copy editor on the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune and a kind of independent gustatory researcher whose studies peaked with the bi-weekly arrival of his paycheck.

I was thinking in particular of an incident that Liebling relates in his own memoir, "Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris." Liebling toured Burgundy as he was leaving France for America, via the Mediterranean port of Marseille. It is hard to think of a more perfect locale for him to pass a week in the country, unless perhaps it is Bordeaux, or maybe Provence, or perhaps the Emiglia-Romana region of Italy. He was a prodigious eater and drinker who considered wisdom at the table and the stamina to put it to good use to be qualities of the highest order. He joked about Proust in his book and how the memory of a madeleine inspired "Remembrance of Things Past": "In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece." (It is gratifyingly obvious that Liebling, who lived part of his adult years on the eastern end of Long Island, was partial to the good regional food of places other than France.)

While in the Cote d'Or he ate and drank on a scale that I can only call Liebling-esque, separating his repasts with long walks that allowed the effect of one huge meal to wear off while rekindling his appetite for the next. The young writer made friends with an inn-keeper, who, although French, was not from Burgundy. The inn-keeper saw in Liebling a chance to gain access to the best cellars of his town, Gevrey-Chambertin. Introducing Liebling as a rich American bootlegger, the inn-keeper led him from one vineyard to the next, sampling all the greatest bottles. "In that way," Liebling wrote, "I got to drink more good wine than most men are able to pay for in their lives. … At night I would stagger home to eat the jambon-persillé — parsley-flavored ham with mustard and pickles — that every meal began with, followed by hare or beef or fowl in a sauce of better wine than you could buy in other regions in labelled bottles. All the good wine I could drink came with the meals, but [the inn-keeper] had invented the bootlegger story to get at the superlative wine of the vineyardists. He was a Lorrainer, from Nancy or Metz, and so an outsider, possessing no vineyards of his own." In Burgundy, it seems, even some residents must conspire to get their hands on the good stuff.

Liebling was aware of what an awesome treat he was being given — even then Burgundy was twice as expensive as excellent wines from Bordeaux.

"Burgundy is a lovely thing," he concluded, "when you can get anybody to buy it for you."
I had no hope or expectation of getting anybody to buy it for me. The question was whether I would summon up the cash and the nerve — it takes some courage, I submit, to drink a $50 bottle with dinner — to buy it for myself.

The hotel we stayed at in Beaune was ancient and, from the outside, beautiful. The reception area was a stone cellar with vaulted-ceilinged chambers that you stepped down into from the narrow cobbled street and it was lined with bottles of wine, which could be bought from the hotel keeper. But the rooms were ugly and dark, and noisy, and the price, although moderate, was too steep for ugly, dark, and noisy. The hotelkeeper did, however, recommend a restaurant in town that looked excellent. We hurried to it through the rain, slogging along the streets that wind in a maze within the walls of the old city, walking past wine shops and shops that sold wine accessories. But when we entered the restaurant, the proprietor dismissed us with a wave of the hand — no room, all the tables were taken. Likewise we were turned away from two other establishments, until finally finding one, on the outskirts of town, that had two seats for us. We had a decent if not spectacular Burgundian meal and I, drinking alone and so restricted by temperance and fear-of-hangover to the list of half-bottles, chose a Haute Cote de Beaune. It was a drinkable bottle of pinot noir, young and fresh — a burgundy, true, but not the burgundy I had been envisioning and hoping for, the old, muscular wine with the gout de terroir, the taste of the land, that burgundy lovers cherish.

The next morning we packed up early and left the hotel. We visited the famous Hospice de Beaune, an ancient hospital that raises its operating funds by doubling as a wine merchant and auctioneer. We also stopped at a nearby cellar where a middle-aged man showed us around briefly, uncorked a keg and, using a long glass tool that resembled a turkey baster, drew out a tube full of red wine with which he filled a glass. The wine was delicious. But the man, under the misconception that he could speak coherent English, immediately began regaling us with a tale that I think had something to do with Thomas Jefferson, although I'm not certain. In our haste to escape this speed-talker, who used English words with a complete omission of syntax, making his monologue vaguely familiar but incomprehensible, I forgot the name of the cellar and the wine.

Our next stop was across the street, at the Marché aux Vins — the Wine Market. I knew this would be my chance to taste Burgundy, not just from one town or vintage but from many. At the Marché we were given a tastevin, a wide, shallow metal cup traditionally used for tasting wines in Burgundy. We descended into the catacombs. The long, low, vaulted passageways were lighted by dim bare bulbs and candles, and paved with gravel. Wine racks and bottles leaned against the walls. Every 10 feet or so was an upended keg on top of which sat a candle and an open bottle of wine — 19 kinds of wine in all: white burgundies, beaujolais, and lower-end red burgundies. Back upstairs, in the nave of an old church, was the real thing — 18 top-flight red burgundies.

bottles label

If not exactly heaven, what lay before could at least have been considered a version of paradise.

And yet it was 11 in the morning. And these wines were for tasting, not — in these circumstances, anyway — for lingering over: vino de meditazioni, wine to meditate over, as the Italians say.

When I had emerged, an hour or so later, into the surprisingly bright daylight of that overcast morning, I had sampled 15 of the 37 wines. White and red, young and old — an '85 Chassagne-Montrachet, an '88 Vosne-Romanée, an '89 Monthelie, an '83 Aloxe-Corton, a '77 Mussigny, a '78 Charmes-Chambertin. It was a wonderful experience. The old wines in particular were something completely different, transformed into a drink that was beyond my previous experience with wine.

But it was also a tease. It was not possible for me to justify buying any of those bottles, priced at $50 or $60 and higher (even though that was half or one-third what they would sell for in the United States). Wine is made to accompany food — "Food is the meaning of wine," as Matt Kramer put it — but I was tasting in a vacuum. What my $40 admission to the Marché aux Vins got me was an intriguing and seductive taste of Burgundy, but only a taste.

With lunch that day I drank a small pitcher of Passe-Tout-Grain, a wine produced of gamay and pinot noir grapes \. It was fresh and fruity, and I enjoyed it enough to have the waitress jot down its name for me — but it was not Burgundy. That afternoon we left the Cote d'Or and drove south through a downpour to the Beaujolais region, where the wine is priced far more accessibly than Burgundy. I had andouillette for dinner, accompanied by a half-bottle of Moulin-a-Vent, fresh and delicious, the way Beaujolais is supposed to be. But it was not Burgundy.

All of which is not to say that we did not have wonderful meals and wine in France. There was a memorable roasted quail and a hare stew with a bottle of Tavel in Provence. In Lyons, at the exciting, crowded, noisy little restaurants called les boucherons, there was a superlative veal liver, and the sweetest mussels I've ever eaten, and a carp cooked in red wine that tasted like the essence of a fresh-water lake on a plate, all accompanied by a pitcher of the Beaujolais village that serves as the house wine in bistros throughout France. Also in Lyons, there were baguettes and coffee for breakfast at the giant food market — Halle de Lyon, a fantastic place where the beauty and bounty of the displays of Roquefort, brie, blood oranges, grapes, leeks, haricots vert, Charolais beef, patés, blue-footed Bresse chickens, pheasants, brioche, turbot, and clams make up for the shopping-mall decor — followed in mid-morning by a couple dozen fresh oysters and two glasses glasses of muscadet.

We'll return to Burgundy someday. I'm already in training, working out on the cote de Rhones, the Australian sirahs, the South American cabernets that are affordable and drinkable — although I realize that moving on to Burgundy will be like preparing to face Tom Seaver by playing slow-pitch softball. And I will admit to having three or four bottles of the most inexpensive Burgundies stored away. I'll drink them sometime and try to capture some hint of what the real stuff, the good stuff, must be like.

Until then I'm resigned to echoing A.J. Liebling: Burgundy is a lovely thing, when you can get anybody to buy it for you.

auxey duresses label

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Christmas on West 47th

I have no qualms about confessing that my experience with jewelry is limited. Except for my wedding band, I own none myself, and I’ve never splurged on silver or platinum or diamonds for my wife, Gina. Gina has rather specific tastes, and shows little compunction about making those tastes known when, for example, presented with a new scarf or sweater that does not meet her standards, so I’ve always been too intimidated to buy her rings or bracelets or necklaces. I didn’t give Gina a diamond engagement ring not only because I didn’t have the money but because we decided on a Friday that we would get married on Tuesday, and so didn’t really have an engagement that called for a ring. And as for my own wedding band, I dodged the whole question – she herself shopped for it and picked it out. True, I’ve bought her earrings, twice. The first time was when she announced, several weeks before her birthday, that she admired a pair of peridot earrings – peridot being her birthstone – in a jewelry store in New Canaan, near where we live. The second was when my daughter, who was four, and I went to another nearby shop that sells trinkets and picked out a pair for $5.

But this year, with Christmas approaching, I sensed that Gina needed a ring and that specifically she wanted me to give her one. Even more specifically, I knew which ring she wanted – a very expensive gold one sold by a very expensive international jewelry company that had recently displayed it in an elegant full-color advertisement in the Times Magazine. When she first saw the ad she showed it to me and told me how much she admired the ring. A few days later I noticed that she had torn it out and had left it on a table in her studio, next to a page of sketches she had made showing the ring from several perspectives. I can be oblivious, and I can fake obliviousness to avoid seeing what I don’t want to see, but there was no mistaking what I had to do. I wasn’t sure how I would find a ring maker, or even if there was any such thing for someone who didn’t own a jewelry store. But after some thought, I decided a likely place to find one would be in Manhattan’s diamond district.

I was scheduled be in midtown on business on the second Monday of December and so I told Gina about my plan – this was potentially too big of an undertaking for there to be any question of a surprise. She photocopied her sketches but, because of the dubious ethicality of copying a company’s design, we decided I should leave behind the ad itself.

My meeting was at the Sky Club, in the Met Life building, and in early afternoon, when it was over, I walked the few blocks from there to West Forty-seventh Street. I had been expecting a short, narrow, dark side street with maybe a dozen shops in which families of Hasidic Jews – everyone knew that the diamond district was run by Hasidic Jews – were huddled over their counters. Instead the sidewalks were packed and the insides of the shops were busy and gleaming with glass and fluorescent lights that made the diamonds, the watches, the pearls, the chains glitter seductively. I wasn’t sure what to do – the size of the place and its busy-ness and the self-assuredness of everyone intimidated me. Like a gawking tourist, I walked along the south side of the street, from Fifth Avenue to Sixth, looking into but passing every shop. Hawkers called out to me, asking if I needed help. No, I assured them, as if I knew what I was doing. When I reached Sixth Avenue, I took a deep breath and crossed the street, determined to go into the first shop I came to on the north side.

It was a small place, which was fine with me, and there were no other customers, which meant I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself in front of a more savvy shopper. Two women sat behind the counters. One of the women asked if she could help me.

“I’m interested in talking to someone about having a ring made,” I said. I unfolded Gina’s drawing and showed it to her.

“No,” she said, not unpleasantly. “Try fifty-five.”

It took me a second or two to catch on.

“Fifty-five West Forty-seventh?” I asked.

She nodded.

Fifty-five was a few doors to the east and much bigger than whatever number I had just been in. I opened the glass door and stepped in, and immediately a young woman behind a glass counter asked if she could help me. I looked around – the room was the size of a small grocery store, filled with glass counters, sellers behind them, and customers crowding the aisles. I took out the drawing and showed it to the woman. She had shoulder-length light brown hair and fake fingernails, and had not gone too lightly on the makeup. She looked carefully at the drawing.

“I’ll have to send you down to one of our jewelers,” she said.

Damn, I thought. She’s going to send me somewhere else. This would throw me off the track. Where was she going to send me down to? Thirty-second Street? The Lower East Side? I didn’t have time to go down to those places and was sure I wouldn’t have time again soon. She pointed to the back of the room where I could see a staircase. The jewelers were down there, she said.

“You might have trouble finding someone who speaks English,” she said.

“What do they speak?”

She looked right at me as if trying to figure out what I meant. Since I was thinking “Yiddish,” it occurred to me that she was examining me for signs of anti-Semitism.

“Cantonese?” she said.

“Oh. I thought maybe they spoke Brooklynese.”

She grinned. She said that if I had no luck downstairs, I should come back and she’d try to figure out where else I should go.

I zigzagged along the aisles and past the counters of Fifty-five. The room was dazzling, a smaller bazaar of faces and glinting light inside the larger bazaar of West Forty-seventh Street. Downstairs the room was smaller and the ceiling was lower but it was nevertheless another bazaar of booths, of jewelers rather than diamond sellers.

I surveyed the room for several seconds and then approached the first counter. The man behind it was short, stocky and bald, and he wore a crew neck sweater with a crucifix hanging from a chain around his neck.

“I’m looking for someone who can make a ring like this for me,” I said.

I showed him the sketches. It was clear that he barely understood me. He looked at the sketches. He looked some more. It was as if he had no idea what he was looking at, as if I were showing him a subway map for a city he’d never heard of and asking him to direct me.

“It’s a ring,” I said. “Can you make one like it? Gold?”


“How long will it take?”

“Two week.”

“Can you give me an idea how much it will cost?”

He frowned. He tilted his head.

“Five hundred dollar,” he said.

I was impressed. This was less than I had expected.

“OK,” I said. “I’m going to talk to some others down here. If I find someone lower, should I come back to you?”

“You can try,” he said.

I walked into the middle of the room and stopped at a counter with a Chinese man and woman sitting behind it. I showed the sketches to the woman. She appeared to think I wanted a watch. But when I made it clear that the sketch was of a ring, she directed me to another Chinese man at another booth. I sighed and was starting to walk toward him when I heard a voice behind me.

“You need something made?”

I turned to see a young guy with short dark hair and wearing a dark football-type jacket.

“Yeah. A ring,” I said.

“I know somebody. Come with me.”

“Does he speak English?” I asked.

He looked at me over his shoulder and grinned slightly: “Yeah.”

I noticed that as he walked, he tucked away a large wad of cash.

“He’s good,” he said. “I go to him and I’m in the business.”

He led me off the main floor and down a corridor. I thought, who is this guy and where is he taking me? Maybe I’m going to get bonked on the head and sold into slavery. More plausibly, maybe I’m going to cornered and rolled for my cash. The corridor was lined with what normally would be small offices, or large closets, but which instead appeared to be used as jewelry-making businesses. Each had a Dutch door and in each I could see one or two people working. After passing four or five, he stopped and called out a greeting to a fellow in one of the closets, and then told him that I was looking for someone to make a ring.

“He’s good,” he said to me as an aside. “He makes copies of Tiffany stuff all the time.”

Since I was looking for someone to copy a ring designed by another expensive jewelry company, I considered that a reasonable reference. In a tone that suggested they had done business on friendly and satisfactory terms before, he told the jeweler to do a good job for me. Then he turned and disappeared down the corridor.

The jeweler – the owner, apparently, of this very small business – was one of three men working in this glorified closet. As he and I talked, the other two continued to work; one of them using some kind of Bunsen burner-type tool. I showed him the drawings and asked him how much it would cost to make. In perfectly understandable English with a Spanish accent, he asked me what kind of gold I wanted – 14 carat, 18 carat? I had no idea so I said 14 carat. He got a calculator, tapped in some numbers having to do with the price of gold per hundredweight, and gave me a figure. It was so much lower than the $500 quoted by the first fellow I visited that I had a hard time believing it. How about for 18 carat, I asked. He calculated again and showed me a moderately higher price. I told him 18 carat would be fine. He asked if he could keep the sketches and then he produced a spiral notebook and made a sketch of the ring himself.

“When can you have it done?” I asked. “I’d like to have it for Christmas.”

He thought for a moment. “Call me Thursday. You can look at the wax on Friday.”

The wax? I liked this idea: he would make the ring for much less money and I would have a chance to look at a wax model before I decided.

He told me he’d need a deposit, at least $20. I had $24 in my pocket, so I gave him $20 and he gave me a receipt.

Upstairs I passed the counter where the woman who had sent me downstairs was working.

“Do you know any of the jewelers downstairs – which ones are good?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “They’re all good.”

I told her the name of the guy I had found, as if it would mean something to her.

“How much is he charging?” she asked.

I told her. She looked at me and raised her eyebrows.

“You can’t beat that,” she said.

Two weeks later we had the ring.

The contents of this page are copyright 2004-2005 by Tom Andersen