I recently joined my wife in retirement (accompanied by a giant pent-up sigh of relief). Yesterday, as we felt our aging bones calcify by the minute, we discussed possible light employment options for household pin money. She suggested part-time work for herself at a local arts and crafts shop.
“Great idea!” I said. “I’ve thought about a used bookstore. Or maybe a tropical fish store.”
Then I thought, “Wait a second…do those even exist anymore?”
I can’t recall seeing a store that specializes in tropical fish since, oh, “Afternoon Delight” was a hit song. What in tarnation happened to them?
When I was a teenager I had a 10-gallon tropical fish tank in my bedroom. It had an overhead hood light, a thick layer of pink and blue pebbles, artificial coral, assorted plastic plants, and a couple small ceramic structures, such as a sunken galleon or treasure chest. I had the usual assortment of small, freshwater tropical fish, like black mollies, neon tetras, zebra danios, redtail sharks, guppies, angel fish, a coolie loach to scavenge for debris, and my pride and joy: a beautiful ruby-red male Siamese fighting fish (also known as a “betta”).
At one time I tried mating my fighter with a creamy pinkish female betta that I’d named “Rosy.” My man got about halfway through blowing bubbles for the bubble nest—to hold the eggs that he would eventually squeeze out of her—then abruptly stopped. I never figured out why. I’m guessing he either found Rosy less sexy than I did, or maybe he was a latent homosexual.
I used to relish lying in bed at night near the glow of the tank, sleepily gazing at my fish as they swished through the water, the soft burbling sound of the water filter lulling me to sleep.
As much as I loved doling out affection to my fishies, I also enjoyed purchasing them. Once, I found a store that had rare glass catfish, a translucent fish whose bones are visible. One of the great mysteries of my youth was returning from vacation and finding that all of my glass cats had disappeared. I’m assuming the other fish consumed them, slender bones and all, out of hunger, but spontaneous combustion is also a possibility.
My first job, not counting newspaper delivery (click here), was a summer job as afternoon clerk in a local tropical fish store. I & J Tropical Fish was in a rundown building just north of Mansfield, Ohio on Ashland Road. It was the perfect job for a lazy 17-year-old, because only a few customers ever visited. And it was always the same people.
My main duties consisted of shaking flaky fish food into the tanks, occasionally cleaning them (a real chore), and guarding the cash register. To alleviate the boredom, I smoked cigarettes that I stole from the pack that the morning clerk—a pregnant, married woman—stored under the register. Since I was at the experimental age and it was only a few cigarettes here and there, I thankfully never developed a habit.
Being your typical confused and horny teenage boy, I also got my jollies in other ways. Once when things were especially slow, I slipped into the dirty storage room in back and sat on the yellowed toilet with a Penthouse Magazine for reading material. (I’m pretty sure it was the August 1976 issue.) Right when I was approaching the climax of the story I was reading, I heard the entry door jingle.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” I heard a woman inquire.
It took me several minutes to wrap up my business, make myself presentable, and scurry out front. I’ll never know if she detected my cotton mouth or the beads of sweat on my forehead. She probably did.
The owner of the store was a guy named Bob. He was a family man, a bony guy with black hair, about 35 years old. I think the “I” and the “J” were his kids’ initials. I remember that he always had a concerned look. Just before he hired me he gave me a pop quiz.
“What is another name for a Siamese fighting fish?” (Betta.)
“What happens if you put two male Siamese fighters together?” (They fight…duh.)
Although I was usually alone, once in a while Bob drove into the gravel lot in his plush, customized, stereo-equipped van to check on me. The first time he did this, about a week after I was hired, I actually had a customer. Bob stood behind me while I handed the man his change. With Bob over my right shoulder, silently observing the transaction, I was as nervous as he looked concerned.
“Here you go,” the man said, as he surprised me by returning a five dollar bill. “You gave me too much change.”
After the man left, Bob waited about 30 seconds, allowing my head to fill with warm blood. Then he spoke in a low, deliberate voice. “You need to be very careful when you give customers their change.” Uh, thanks, Bob.
One time about a month after I started, my dad dropped in after work. He was happy that I actually had employment, since it helped cover the repair expenses for the station wagon I’d recently wrecked. Bob just happened to be there.
“How’s the boy doing?” Dad asked Bob with unconcealed pride.
Bob stammered. “Well, uh…he’s uh…he’s getting better and better!”
I’ve thought about why there are no tropical fish stores anymore. Of course, it’s the same reason why there are no hamburger joints like Burger Chef, and why small farms are disappearing. We live in a world of giant, generic conglomerates, and the “little guy” just can’t compete. Maybe it started with McDonalds. Later it was Wal-Mart. Tyson. Barnes and Noble. Target. Jiffy Lube. PetSmart. Petco. Pet Supplies Plus.
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot—Joni Mitchell
I’ve often wondered, too, when exactly did I & J Tropical Fish go out of business? I think the lot is occupied by a dive bar now. The dilapidated building looked like it might have fronted a methamphetamine lab, and I do know that abuse of crystal meth later exploded in the 1980s and ‘90s. Maybe the building caved in, or the health inspectors discovered the yellow toilet in back. Or maybe Bob cashed in his meager chips and hauled his wife and kids and their purple super-van to Florida.
I didn’t care for Bob all that much. Let’s just say, I can’t imagine him and me laughing over beers at Rocky’s Pub. But he did after all give me my first real job. So for that I say, “Thanks, Bob.”