Gloucester 400 Stories Project: Fish-Packing TalesMarch 22, 2022 / Good to Know, History/Maritime, Local Characters
Permission to post Gloucester 400 Stories Project Excerpt| Fish-Packing Tales | Written by By Maria (Mia) Millefoglie
Scenes of the Vietnam War, protests on our street, and hippies at sit-ins played out on ourtelevision screens. It was 1968 and people marched against injustices throughout our country, while I simply fretted about my body. That tumultuous year, our parish leaders announced news that shocked our community: Saint Ann’s High School would close its doors and release us from its parochial hold. Eight years with the Sisters of Mercy was a long enough sentence. My girlfriends and I celebrated the news with whoops of joy, delighted to shed the mandatory gray pleated skirts that would have made even Twiggy look fat. We bid farewell to the bells that signaled our hourly prayers; and good riddance to an invisible line that separated boys from girls in hallways, church pews, and in the schoolyard. With no other options in town, we were going public! I fantasized about Gloucester High School and how handsome boys would walk me to classes. I would go to prom and wear a sequined dress; I would be thin, flirty, and free. None of this ever happened.
Summer started with lots of beach time and hanging out with my girlfriends. We were the “West End Girls” who roamed the west side of town with the Fort in its belly, and Pavilion Beach— Pollution Beach to locals—on its borders. Dressed in hip-hugger jeans and billowing peasant shirts, we strode the streets hoping to get a sighting of one of our latest boy crushes. Shoes were optional. There was an air about us, a look that said we had somewhere important to go. But to be honest, I was aimless and clueless; that is, until my mom made a plan for me.
We were in the kitchen; Mom at the stove adding heat to an already sweltering room and I at the table complaining, as usual, why we always had to eat pasta.
“Maria,” she said, lifting the wooden spoon from the pan, “you’re gonna pack fish this summer.”
“Mom, I’m babysitting every weekend.” My protest sounded weak and defeated before the battle had even begun.
“Not enough. I gotta keep you off the streets and away from the boys!”
Mom resumed cooking without even glancing at me, not noticing my face flushed to a hot red. Mom had the street part right, but I didn’t even have a boyfriend. And now, no guy would come near me if I smelled like dead fish.
“Why don’t you go pack fish and stink at the end of the day!” I yelled with all the might of a teenager who still lived under her mother’s roof.
“It’ll do you good.” A satisfied smirk crossed her face, and she drained the pasta.
Mom sent me to the old fish plant in the Fort. The smell of rotten fish permeated the air, and the constant roar of grinding machines must have kept neighbors up at night. The Fort itself was a proud and worn-down neighborhood filled with Sicilian families who made their living from the sea. Fishermen there struggled as they lost ground to foreign fleets; families were losing too. Urban Renewal schemes were demolishing homes and businesses from our working waterfront. I didn’t see much renewal; it looked like destruction to me.
On my first day at the job, the boss handed me a sharp knife and never said another word. I stood next to Josie, the mother of one of my friends and the only person I recognized in the long line of women. Josie held the slimy mackerel down with the palm of her left hand. With her right hand, she swiftly brought the blade down, slicing through skin and flesh. Heads and tails flew in all directions. I tried to imitate Josie, but the knives scared me. Josie must have complained to the boss man that this was no place for a fourteen-year-old who let the mackerel slip like silk through her fingers.
No one said I was fired, but the next day I had a new job at the herring plant on the State Pier. I never learned how Mom managed to find these jobs so quickly, but her drive to keep me away from boys must have been intense. Maybe, my aunt Maria had some influence as she worked as a fish cutter at this plant.