Considering Crabs


Jonathan Armenti/The Observer

Published: September 24, 2009

There are crab fisherman on graffitied piers that poke into the dirtier parts of New York City’s East River.  Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and Dominicans.  Thin lipped with incredulous wrinkled eyes.  Mothers as matriarchs, fathers given a sad sort of respect that their lives and accomplishments haven’t earned them, children with bare feet and smudged, raw mouths.  At the end of the pier is secured a large, whiplashing Puerto Rican flag.  The reds and blues snapping with the whims of the wind, snippets of Spanish heard between each violent crrrack!

Behind that is the vast expanse of Queens, its graveyards and gravity.  The lone, intimidating Citibank edifice stoically challenging the brown towering housing projects of Spanish Harlem.  The Harlem River Lift and the 103rd Street bridge the only links between the two boroughs, and Randall’s and Ward Island the only buffers.

My first venture past York Avenue into the dilapidated northern stretch of the East River is met with circumspect glances, some of the men pausing to consider me—a voyeur.  Once again, my own City had deluged me with the raw feelings of being a tourist.

The pier’s smell isn’t immediate; its totality is achieved towards the middle.  The curious odor of semi-stagnant water stirred with gasoline and trash, frothing upon impact with the rotting, crustacean-encrusted wooden pillars is offensive enough, but there is another stench entirely, completing the pier’s olfactory affrontery.  It is of the salty sweat of dead or dying crabs jailed in nets, their frantic struggle creating microscopic scenes of desperation.  Fear is something even a human can smell.

Crab fishermen cast thinly meshed cages with bait tied to the bottom-center to the riverbed.  The crabs, lured by the bait, sidestep in.  Every half-hour the fishermen reel the cages up the pier, transfer their catches into a bucket of some kind, and then repeat the process.  Some pier-fishermen are serious, professional, with proper equipment.  Some arrive with “cages” made of clothing hooks.  All are impoverished and hungry, for this is not a leisure-time activity.

While passing the men and women and children and their new or rusting nets and their frayed ropes I felt my right shoe collide with something.  I looked down and observed an unexpected scene: a terrified, defensive crab crawling over such foreign and dangerous territory.  Sea creatures have never appealed to my aesthetic sensibilities nor have I ever felt particularly brave in large bodies of water; therefore, seeing even this smallest specimen inspired me to emit an embarrassing squeal as my body convulsed backwards.




My fear of the sea and its creatures is as natural and unfounded as most human fears.  So foreign, unexplored, unconquered.  Its depths blacker than the backs of eyelids or the back of the moon.  Its depths deeper than Dante’s wildest imaginings – the 10th circle of Hell is the abyss.  An ancient seabed brotherhood: lobsters, crawdads, crawfish and crabs.  The lattermost is such a disgusting oddity.  Eyes unnaturally separated, moving exactly ninety-degrees differently from any other species, with pincers that break skin and draw blood.  And crabs don’t scream when they’re boiled.  I’ve often seen them crawling on top of each other in crowded Chinatown fishtanks – their own purgatorio.  Are they terrified of each other?  Claustrophobic?  Humans awaiting death in such communal quarters could hardly be so slow moving, so calm, so accepting.  But I suppose this is the difference between crabs and consciousness: the ability to decide that something is wrong, without apprehending what.

But this crab, alone and divided from the East River by the fisherman and then divided from the fisherman because of its unimpressive size.  Motionless.  The larger pincer raised for attack, the smaller lowered, for balance.  The fear I have towards the sea the crab must’ve similarly had for me—a fear gargantuan and paralyzing in scope.

Several of the fishermen and their wives humorously observed me observing the crab, and then resumed their stoic stare towards Queens, talking to each other while looking straight ahead.

“We’ve only caught two crabs,” one said.

“Maybe we should’ve kept that small one,” another said.

“It’s still early.  The sun’s warming the water up.  The crabs’ll be moving around soon,” a third said.

The crab’s fate and future, held in their conversation—to convince, to condemn.  But there was little spoken in our stare except the most universal: curiosity, suspicion, fear.  I wondered if the crab realized how near he was to freedom.  A matter of feet, a simple scuttle off the pier – kerplunk! into the river.  But then I wondered many other things and I moved towards it.  A disjointed dance ensued; I had taken the lead.

Herman Melville.  The paragon of writers obsessed with the sea.  Sailors, shoremen, pirates, all sharing in the unrequited love of the vast expanse of blues and greens and other deep and haunting hues.  The ocean absorbing and forgetting all those who’ve drowned and sailed and swam.  While we categorize, compartmentalize, codify the world, the world continues.  The endless ebb and flow.

The crab may die or live; who knows?  There are no tombstones in the East River, only skeletons and debris.  The sea wears the flesh off of bones, rusts the most titanic of ships, swells into the most destructive of waves, bleeds the ink of the greatest literary minds.  There are no memories; there is no romance or sentiment.  Only the sky, the constellation of Cancer, bears eternal witness to the crab.  And why?  Employed by Hera’s jealousy and hate to assist the Hydra in killing Hercules, only to be smashed ’neath his mighty foot.  The collection of stars is a testament to misguided loyalty, failure, and weakness only.

Like Ahab, the crab is desperate to return; thus he is desperate to survive his forced emigration onto the pier; thus he is forced to regard me.  Spanish Harlem and Queens continue their stolid staredown, oblivious to the life and death struggle occuring between them.




I took a piece of paper off the ground.  It was a red, faded flyer advertising a room for rent.  All but one of the three-quarter cut strips that act as frayed hems for such flyers were ripped off; it looked like Utah.  I removed the lonesome awkward strip, the phone number illegibly smudged from rain-induced ink bleeding.  I folded the fragile paper into a makeshift shovel.  It was with this I planned to rescue the crab from its ill fate.

But the crab proved too heavy for the paper, which had acquired a breakable crinkliness from age and weather, and besides, any successful scoop would’ve resulted in its pincers—still combatively positioned—being mere inches from my vulnerable skin.  Instead, the flyer became more of a prod.  A very difficult stage of the dance began, with many starts and stops.  The crab alternated between scuttling in retreat and then pincing wildly at the perceived red enemy.  Such a bizarre and clumsy spectacle did not go unnoticed by the fishermen and their wives.

“What is he doing?” one said.

“He is having fun with the crab,” another said.

“No,” the third said.  “He is leading it to the edge of the pier, back into the river.”

“We might catch it again,” one said.

“We might, and if so let us hope that it has grown larger and is worthy of keeping.”

Their commentary ceased as the crab took its final forced step onto the westernmost edge of the pier.  Its descent was too fast for me to observe from my crouched position; I hurriedly arose and scrambled to the ledge but only saw several rings of insignificant ripples being quickly stunted and absorbed into the East River’s gentle lapping.  The crab had returned to the river.

Who knows to what depth the crab sank before the water’s hidden, heavy currents began their manipulation?  Who knows if, upon impact with the river’s endless fluidity, the crab finally realized my intention, and considered me a friend and not a foe?  Who knows if the crab considered me at all?