MY STORY OF IRVING FELDMAN
I first went out to Jack’s Fish Market about nine years ago, when the old man got shot on a Thursday morning.
Two punks, one gun, and an old guy from the Holocaust.
They came in shortly after he opened, when the drawer was all but empty – and his son was at the Public Market – and they shot him when he didn’t have enough money to give them.
I went out there the next night after work to see what kind of place it was.
That’s when I met the son – Irving Feldman – and I instantly liked him. Over the years since, I’ve made myself at home at the fish market. The place, the people, the culture, and Irving, have all become like family to me.
Basically, it’s an inner-city fish market where the owner’s a Jewish guy and the customers are overwhelmingly black, and of very limited means. One of just two Jewish businesses to survive the race riots back in ’64, it is an often loud, crowded place alien and frightening to suburban sensitivities. On Friday nights, when business is briskest, it is a scrum of people in no discernable order hoping to get some porgy or grouper, bluegill or haddock, fresh cleaned or deep fried.
There is a long stainless steel counter, with basins for fresh fish, often piled by species, with men behind a second counter, cleaning fish, and a bank of fryers where fish and fries are constantly cooking. Irving rules over a symphony of movement on one side of the counter, a mass of customers crowd on the other side.
At first it mystified me. I was the lone white guy, clearly out of my element, not even knowing how the ordering system worked or what I was supposed to order.
But I stuck it out, and I came back, and I kept coming back. And now when I walk in, some one of the guys cleaning fish will yell out, “Bob’s here!”
Like I said, it feels to me like family.
And one of the genuine gems of Rochester. I have repeatedly suggested to newspaper photographers and student documentarians that the fish market was a visual gold mine, a place at once cold and beautiful. I’ve wished I had the time and talent to write a novel set in the market. It is the sort of place a Steinbeck or O. Henry would have gone to listen to dialogue and learn the dialect of the real world.
The old man – his Polish name too hard to pronounce, and known universally as Jack – healed up, and came back to the fish market to fill in or say hello. But I am only passingly acquainted with him, a couple of handshakes and mumbled greetings.
In my experience, it has always been Irving’s fish store.
And this ends up being about Irving.
On Friday he walked into federal court and pled guilty to cheating the EBT system out of $1.4 million. That’s what they call food stamps now. Instead of oblong coupons, they’re on a payment card. For five years – 2010 to 2015 – he gave people cash for food stamps. He rung up a certain amount, and gave them something less than half of that amount in cash, while billing Uncle Sam for the entire amount. He did that for about a quarter million dollars a year.
He also did this thing where he had people use their EBT card to buy fish at other retailers, which he would buy from them for a fraction of what the government paid for it, and then he would resell it to his customers.
That’s what he pled guilty to.
He’s facing as many as five years in federal prison and a fine of a quarter million dollars.
I heard about that on the radio Saturday morning.
It shocked and saddened me.
But it is what it is, and rules are rules and laws are laws – and stealing is stealing. Over the weekend, he told me he was wrong, and I told him I loved him. And that’s where that stands.
I also asked him about the store, and whether it will stay open. It means so much to so many, especially to the 10 or so people who steadily work there. The lady at the counter is from Vietnam and the lady at the fryers is from China and the men behind the stainless steel are from the avenue. None of them are perfect, but all of them are good, and all of them acquit themselves proud in their labors. I hope their jobs can endure.
And I hope Jack’s Fish Market endures. I hope that this six-decade gathering place can be what it has always been. I hope the business can survive the prosecution and a transition, and the absence of Irving, and that the doors can stay open. I hope it can make enough money, honestly, to pay its bills. It is a landmark I hope our city can keep.
I’ve known Irving was in trouble.
Not with the law, but with his life.
We have spoken about our spouses and children, and kept running tallies of who was doing what. But as the storm gathered, and I tried to presume upon our intimacy with a probing, “How are you doing?” he always gave a perfunctory, “Fine,” or said that he needed to get more rest.
But he didn’t look fine.
He looked like a guy with a monkey on his back. And once he looked like he had been beaten severely. He said he fell, but people on the street said otherwise, and there were lurid stories told.
Sometimes, some of the people in his orbit didn’t seem legit.
And for at least a couple of years, whenever he was out of earshot, the people around him whispered to me about his decay. I was literally stopped on three separate occasions while jogging on Hudson or Joseph by people who knew I knew him and who wanted to talk about him. They were somewhere between disgruntled former employees and brokenhearted friends.
But when I saw him he exuded his normal warmth. We were jovial and brotherly, but there was a polite propriety between us that prevented me from directly asking him about a reality he was living and about which I believed I knew almost everything. I didn’t know if that made me a good friend – for respecting his space – or a bad friend – for failing to break through and try to help.
I never would have suspected Irving of food stamp fraud.
I’ve seen him scan hundreds of EBT cards, but always for fish – raw fish. I never saw any change proffered or money change hands as part of one of these transactions.
He did keep a ledger of petty loans, a tattered spiral-bound notebook where he would scribble a name and an amount after someone had made a pitch for money or food. If they were truly hungry, he usually fed them for free, but I have seen times when he has loaned $20 or $40 to someone who I was certain was going to immediately go and buy drugs with it.
I did notice that I saw people take money out of the notebook bank, but I never saw them put it back in.
There is often a man in the store, borrowing or renting space, who sells CDs and DVDs in cases with photocopied labels. And on many occasions people have come through looking to sell items that I presumed were stolen.
But I’ve stood waiting for fish beside police officers and politicians, and I’ve always understood that I was a visitor, and that expecting somebody else’s world to work exactly the same way as mine is kind of arrogant.
And again, my experience at the store has largely been a sweet one. I admire the people who work there, I value their friendship, I feel respect and affection for the people who are patrons there. I have seen so much goodness there. I have seen Irving give free fish and fries to any number of hungry people. Some homeless, some clearly stoned or mentally ill, many with little hungry children at their side. More than once, in the days before Christmas, I have seen Irving pull out a hundred dollars and tell a young mother to get some things for her kids.
An elderly man in a pressed suit took $300, I think it was, one time, to pay for his daughter’s wedding the next day. I have likewise seen him pay for a funeral, and I’ve seen Irving’s money go to pay for school clothes or graduations of neighborhood kids.
The children of the neighborhood know they get free fries at Jack’s, and if they ever get truly hungry, they know Irving will feed them.
I have likewise seen compassion and good cheer among the group waiting for their fish to fry. People helping people – sometimes helping me – and often laughing loud and free.
It is a good place, and Irving is a good man.
But he has done a bad thing, and he will have to pay the price.
I don’t believe he took the money out of greed. Maybe he had a habit to pay for, or someone preying upon him, or maybe he had to underwrite the operation of the store, or family expenses. But I’ve only known him in working clothes, with hands cracked and coarse from ice and fish and toil. He invited me several times to come open the Public Market with him, at 4 a.m., and on more than one holy day I’ve been there as he has been called to hurry home or to temple.
Irving’s brother is a successful New York City lawyer, and cousins are millionaires many times over, but Irving followed his father and became a fishmonger. Not to the moneyed folks on the eastside, but to the poor people in the northeast. To the poor black people who really are the heart of Jack’s Fish Market.
Like I said, this weekend he told me he did wrong, and I told him I loved him.
And that’s where that stands.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2016