North Coast Journal

March 1995 - THINGS


Fish signs and freedom

by Miv Schaaf

We all have our idiosyncrasies. I photograph fish signs. Didn't start out to specialize, you understand; somehow the signs just took hold of me. I think it is the innocence, the lack of subterfuge, the plain and homely honesty of them that appeals to me. FRESH FISH, they say, and that's what they mean, that's all they mean. You will find no fancy packages, glamorous bottles, beautifully labeled cans or even pristine Pliofilm plastic trays in tiers.

No, you will find fish - fresh, fishy-smelling fish. They have open mouths and startled eyes, as though they cannot believe they are here on hard wood in the glare of chrome and glass and not still swimming in dark waters with the moonlight pouring a silver sheen on their iridescent scales.

Well, there it is - beautifully edible as they are, you cannot help feeling sorry for the poor things. The interesting thing is, whoever makes these signs seems to catch in paint the same elusive simplicity of fish. No background for him, no commercially popular complicated pattern.

He puts them on a plain green or white board, as blank and ordinary as a sun-struck pond, on which the painted fish leaps, perhaps even sporting rainbow sparkles. The eye sparkles too - bright, alive, quick - either unaware of his counter fate or perhaps dreaming of past pools, pellucid waters.

Painting a fish market sign must be rather like fishing. One casts an eye heavenward, harking back to the streams of one's youth, for it is hard to imagine the fish out of water. And, for a happy while, as you mentally translate live into painted fish, you see dragonflies zimming about the dead cedar stump, water spiders skating calligraphics around bubbles, while on the bottom, urged by the current, quartz pebbles gleams and shift, that unmistakable thick stony clink.

Right next to a big gray rock, streaming flat on the sand, I put narrow river reeds. But then, not everyone dreams of Michigan's Au Sable River. To each painter, his own stream; that's why the signs are different.

I suppose there will come a time in our computerized, cost-conscious age when, like everything else, all the fish market signs will be a standardized design, machine stamped out in plastic, a hundred every minute. Like the signs, every fish market will be like every other and, the changing state of the oceans, rivers and streams notwithstanding, every fish counter will look like every other one, salmon on the left running down to squid on the right with the unsurprised oysters in between. It will be cost-effective, efficient, practical.

And, although I don't suppose anyone will think it matters, just a drop in the bucket so to speak, we will have lost still another small bit of American originality.

Miv Schaaf, now a Fieldbrook resident, wrote a column, Things, twice a week for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times.

Comments on this story? E-mail the Journal:

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents

North Coast Journal weekly banner