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Where Fish Come In
It was very early one morning. So early that one of us strenuously pretended sleep while the other gave urgent reminder that this was the day we were to go to Fishermen's Wharf. Daylight came early and it was just four o'clock when we began preparations. A cup of hot coffee while dressing served to get us wide-awake, and we were off to see the fish come in.
Fishermen's Wharf lies over at North Beach, at the end of Meiggs's Wharf, where the Customs Officers have their station, and to reach it one takes either the Powell and North Beach cars, or the Kearny and North Beach cars, and at the end of either walks two blocks. When you get that far anybody you see can tell you where to go.
Fog mist was stealing along the Marin shore, and hiding Golden Gate when we arrived, and the rays of the sun took some time to make a clear path out to sea. Out of the bank of white came gliding the heavy power boats of the Sicilian and Corsican fishermen, while from off shore were the ghostly lateen rigged boats of those who had been fishing up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, their yards aslant to catch the faint morning breeze. As they slipped through the leaden water to their mooring at the wharf we could see the decks and holds piled with fish and crabs.
Roosting on piles, and lining the water's edge on everything that served to give foothold, were countless seagulls, all waiting for the breakfast they knew was coming from the discarded fish, and fit companions were the women with shawls over their heads irreverently called mud hens, and old men in dilapidated clothing, who sat along the stringers of the wharf, some with baskets, some with buckets and others with little paper bags, in which to put the fish which they could get so cheaply it meant a meal for them when otherwise they would have to go without. The earlier boats were moored and on the decks fires were burning in charcoal braziers, on which the fishermen cooked their breakfasts of fish and coffee, with the heavy black loaves of bread for which they seem to have special fancy. As the odor of the cooking fish came up from the water the waiting gulls and men and women moved a little closer.
Breakfast over the fishermen turned to the expectant crowd and began taking notice of the pitiful offerings of coin. Tin buckets, newspapers, bags, rags and even scooped hands were held down, each containing such coin as the owner possessed, and in return came bountiful supply of fish. A fine, fat crab for which your market man would charge you forty cents was sold for ten. Beautiful, fresh sand-dabs, but an hour or two out of the water, were five cents a pound, while sea bass, fresh cod, mackerel, and similar fish went at the same price. Small fish, or white bait, went by quantity, ten cents securing about half a gallon. Smelt, herring, flounder, sole, all went at equally low prices, and as each buyer secured his allotment he went hurrying off through the mist, as silently as the floating gulls. When these were all supplied the rest of the fish and crabs were taken up to the wharf and put on the counters of the free market, where they were sold at prices most tempting.
Shrimps, alive and active, crayfish, clams, squid and similar sea food was in profusion and sold at prices on a parity with that of the fish. As the day wore on the early buyers were replaced by those who knew of the free fish market and came to get good supplies for their money. Here were boarding-house keepers, unmistakable anywhere, Bohemians in hard luck who remembered that they could get good food here at a minimum of price, and came now while on the down turn of the wheel. As a human interest study it was better than a study of fish. Fishermen's Wharf is where the independent fishermen bring their catches to San Francisco, but it is not where the city's great supply comes in. To see that we had to go along the docks until we came to the Broadway wharf where Paladini, the head of the fish trust, unloads his tugs of their tons and tons of fish. It is not nearly so interesting to look at, but it gives a good idea of what comes out of the sea every day to supply the needs of San Francisco and the surrounding country. These tugs bring in the catches of dozens of smaller boats manned by fishermen who are toiling out beyond the heads, and up the two great rivers. From far out around the Farallones, from up around the Potato Patch with its mournful fog bell constantly tolling, from down the coast as far as Monterey Bay where fish are in such abundance that it is said they have to give a signal when they want to turn around, from up the rivers, come fish to the man who has grown from the owner of a small sail boat to be the power who controls prices of all the fish that go to the markets of the city.
By the time we finished with Paladini's fish we felt ready for breakfast and took a car down to Davis and Pacific street where we found Bazzuro's serving breakfast to dozens of market gardeners who had finished their unloading, and there, while partaking of the fresh fish we had brought from Fishermen's Wharf, we saw. another phase of San Francisco's early morning life. Here were gardeners who came in the darkness of early morning to supply hucksters, small traders and a few thrifty people who knew of the cheapness, and in Columbo market they drove their great wagons and discharged their day's gathering of vegetables of all kinds.
But a few steps away is the great fruit market of the early morning and here tons of the finest fruits are distributed to the hundreds of wagons that crowd the street to such an extent that it takes all the ingenuity of experienced policemen to keep clearway for traffic. Threading their way in and out between the wheels and the heels of horses, were men and women, all looking for bargains in food. Amid a din almost deafening business was transacted with such celerity that in three hours the streets were cleared, fruits and vegetables sold and on their way to distant stands, and the tired policemen leaning against friendly walls, recuperating after the strenuous work of keeping order in chaos.
It is when one goes to these places in the morning and sees the cheapness of these foods that he can understand in a small way why it is that so many Italian restaurants can give such good meals for so little money. One wonders at a table d'hôte dinner of six or seven courses for twenty-five cents, or even for half a dollar, and one accustomed to buying meats, fish, vegetables and fruits at the exorbitant prices charged at most of the markets and fruit and vegetable stands now sees why the thrifty foreigner can make and save money while the average American can hardly keep more than two jumps ahead of the sheriff.