Where Are All the Tropical Fish Stores?

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.” 

I Would Prefer Not To

Urinals

“Can you stop by?”

This was the Skype message I recently received from my supervisor. Those of us Bartlebys who have worked in an office environment and have been unlucky recipients of such a message from the boss (aka “The Big Cheese”) know that, no matter how cool and self-assured one might be in other situations, there’s always a quickening of the pulse when such a message is received.

It used to be a phone call, or a head appearing in one’s office doorway. Then it was email. Now it’s Skype.

I was half-tempted to type back “I would prefer not to.”  But I sold out and typed “OK.”

As I walked toward his office, I wondered if this would be one of those “Shut the door” type conversations. Sure enough, it was.

“Shut the door,” he said abruptly. “Have a seat.” How polite of him. My heartrate had by now increased dramatically.

“Don’t get excited,” the big cheese assured me, unsuccessfully.

In addition to words and voice tone, body language is also very revealing in these encounters. And at this moment, his body language indicated that, yes, this would be yet another session of existential revelation, explanation, justification, and eventual atonement.

My body language indicated that my heart was now pumping enough blood to cause the front of my shirt to vibrate like the skins on a drumhead at a Hottentot wedding celebration. So it was kind of difficult to instruct my involuntary cardiac muscle not to “get excited.”

He leaned over his desk, folded his arms, and looked at me with solemnity over the top of his wire glasses.

“Just answer me…”

He paused for dramatic effect. I waited with bated breath to see if I would be granted or denied admittance through the Gates of Heaven.

“…did you or did you not forget to flush the urinal yesterday?”

I was busted. Oh, God. I’ve always had a feeling that one day I might slip up.

Indeed, I had made a visit to the bathroom yesterday. And after doing my “business,” I followed the same ritual I always did. I walked to the sink, washed my hands in lukewarm water (for some odd reason, this one bathroom doesn’t provide hot water), dried my hands with a small paper towel…then walked across the tile, grasped the door handle with said paper and opened the door, then flipped the used paper in the nearby waste can.

However…on this one occasion…I forgot to use said paper to push handle on said urinal before exiting said bathroom. And I remembered that an anonymous gentleman was, at that moment, conducting his own business in a parallel urinal. He must have narc’ed (squealed) on me.

(You ladies might be interested to know that men’s public bathrooms are perhaps the most unsociable places on earth. Sinks are acceptable locations for idle conversation, although men being men, conversation is infrequent. Urinals are definitely off-limits. Conversation occasionally occurs, but eye contact is forbidden, unless there’s loud rock ‘n’ roll or football going on, and the men are drunk.)

“Uh…yes,” I stammered. “I mean…I did forget. Is that a big deal?”

The cheesy one sat back in his swivel chair and, with a doleful expression not unlike an elderly basset hound, stared at his hands, now folded in his lap.

“Always…” he began, “always flush the urinal. This incident has reached Rosemary.”

Rosemary is the Human Resources Director. She’s a petite, attractive woman about 30 years old. Half my age. Her nickname is “Rottweiler.” I’m assuming she earned this nickname because, not only does she have a pet Rottweiler (a dog with a reputation for “territorial aggressiveness”), but every time an employee leaves the company, she sends out a company-wide email with the employee’s photo stating “John Doe is no longer employed at (the company). Should he visit our facility, he must be treated as a visitor.” This cold declaration is followed by various security requirements that employees must follow—and John Doe must adhere to—if John Doe visits former facility.

I can understand taking away an employee’s electronic badge before he leaves. But I’ve never understood either the necessity or the effectiveness of these company-wide emails.

Rosemary not only hires people, handles their benefits (paid time off, 401K, health, and life itself), processes their resignations, delivers news of their layoffs and firings, but after employee has vanished, she alerts the workforce that former employee is, essentially, persona non grata. The only analogy to this last action that I can think of is someone who might desecrate a gravesite.

Rosemary may be petite and attractive, but she has more power and influence than the company president. Think a smaller version of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But getting back to our little drama…I expressed atonement to Herr Limburger for my thoughtless action the previous day. Then, with trepidation, I asked him if I needed to visit Rosemary.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” he said, just as solemn as when I first sat down. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again. There will, of course, be mention of this incident in your next performance appraisal. But your employment situation is still secure.”

Whew. I staved off a company-wide email from Rosemary.

Cheesy one apologized for, as he termed it, the “brouhaha.” I told him “That’s okay, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“Hey, don’t apologize,” he said. “This is my job.” Indeed, it is.

I left his office. I felt a strong urge to visit the scene of the crime and flush all the urinals, as a sort of psychological purging.

I also felt a strong urge to determine who the asshole was who narc’ed on me.  Then decided “screw it…I would prefer not to.”  And, then, a revelatory moment:

I pinpointed the reason for Rosemary’s high-security emails.

 

bartelby

(Bill Bragg, 2012/foliosociety.com)