129 Ways To Get a Life
129 Ways To Get a Life (The Podcast!)
11. "Learn to Clean and Scale a Fish."

11. "Learn to Clean and Scale a Fish."

A girl walks into a fish market...

“Should I come behind?” I nervously shuffle my feet and stare at the scene before me.

“Do you want me to just do it for you and talk you through it? Do you want to do it?” He asks. 

“I feel like I want to do it… I’m terrified, though. I think it’s… is it going to be so gross?” 

I’m met with a nod. Yes, it is. Join me. 

“Okay.” I take a deep breath and step behind the counter. What counter, you ask? Great question. 

The fish counter. 

Some list items are vague and leave room for imagination. Others – as in the case of #11, “Learn to Clean and Scale a Fish” – offer no such creativity. Technically this particular line item had the qualification of, “If he’s a fisherman…” but I cannot imagine learning to gut a fish JUST for a lover. No, if I’m going to stick my hand inside the body of a sea bass, it has to be for me. 

And so, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in late March, I strolled into Greenpoint Fish and Lobster Company, a highly regarded seafood restaurant and market in the neighborhood. I’d passed the establishment many times, but never before ventured inside. Upon entry, I was met by the smell of freshly buttered lobster rolls and perfectly fried fish, along with the sight of happy diners chatting over mid-afternoon Cava and coffee. It was smaller than the outside would indicate, giving a full-but-not-too-cramped feel to the space. Servers bustled through the narrow dining area as kitchen staff worked diligently behind the bar. It was the picture of quintessential Sunday brunch. 

I waited timidly by the host stand, taking in the scene and hoping that my pending ask wouldn’t get swallowed up by the coordinated chaos of the great Sunday rush.  

“Are you here for a table?” The shockingly chill hostess glided over to me. I gulped, anxious. No, I was not here for a table. I sputtered out my request, “I understand this is a little weird,” I said as she stared at me rather bemused. “But is there anyone here that could teach me to gut and scale a fish?” The hostess grinned and jerked her head toward the fish counter. “You need to talk to Lamar.” 

I refocused my attention to the fish counter, a cornucopia of sea creatures on ice ready to be bought and baked (or fried, sauteed, boiled, cured, whatever. I liked the alliteration). I’d been so focused on the goings-on inside the restaurant I had completely overlooked the fish, which is wild considering they’re why I entered in the first place. After a few minutes of staring at seafood, Lamar, the restaurant’s kind fishmonger, emerged from the kitchens. He stared expectantly at me from behind the counter. 

Using what at this point has become something of a well-rehearsed stump speech, I made my ask: “Hello, I’m a writer working on this project… blah blah blah… I know this is probably the strangest request you’ve ever gotten, but would you be willing to teach me to clean and scale a fish?” 

I braced for laughter. Or a curt no. Or a quizzical, “You good?” 

But Lamar didn’t even bat an eye. His first response was a suggestion to just watch a YouTube video (great one here from chef and ecologist Daria Allen). I pushed back. “No, it kind of has to be in person for the project to work.” 

“Oh okay, sure, then.” And just like that, I’d found myself a fishmonger. 

Lamar stuck his hands in his green apron as he explained he’d need to request an uncleaned fish when placing his delivery order, as the goods usually arrive at Greenpoint Fish and Lobster sans guts. But as long as there was a fish to clean, he was game to teach.  

And so, a little over a week later, I arrived back at Greenpoint Fish and Lobster and got to work. 


Originally there was recorded audio that I planned to add in for this section. I’d captured the entire lesson on the voice memo feature of my iPhone as it sat snugly in the top pocket of my jeans. And let me tell you, this recording has everything: ews, oohs, ahhs, fish cleaning sounds, commentary from Lamar, more fish sounds, a guest appearance from a friendly line cook, even more fish sounds, laughter, disgust, joy. 

But I’m not going to play the fish tape. 

After I listened back to the audio and plopped a transcription into the body of this essay, I reviewed the piece. Something was off. Instead of feeling complete, it read like I had tried to cheat the system (sure, the system that I created, but I digress). It’s not that I haven’t done plug-and-play pieces before. But for example, in the case of #9. “Sit on a Park Bench and Feed Pigeons,” the interview was the point of the essay. With fish cleaning, something about cutting and pasting the experience and calling it a day… It feels inorganic. To use a seafood metaphor, it is like perhaps I am not fully scraping out the guts of my fish for fear of what I’ll find inside. 

Or maybe that’s just the pretentious rationale I’ve landed on to justify not using shitty audio. The other thing I learned when I listened back to the recording is that sticking an iPhone in the top pocket of your jeans and hoping it’ll produce high-quality content is not a solid plan. The audio was, to quote the editor I tried to hire to help with it, “so bad that you don’t have to pay for this.” Eventually I will learn how to correctly record my list interactions; today is not that day. 

For now, we’ll be using our imagination. So bear with me as I set the scene. It’s a Monday morning before the restaurant officially opens for the day, and I’m standing on the customer side of the fish counter as Lamar beckons me to come behind. Outside, rain drips down the windows and wind rattles the outdoor awnings. Ariana Grande’s break-up banger “we can’t be friends (wait for your love)” plays overhead as I make my way around to the staff side of the fish counter. Lamar hands me a pair of black latex gloves and then pulls on a set of his own. A few curious members of the kitchen staff watch our interaction, but other than that we’re completely alone.

On the counter in front of me waits a healthy, heavy, shiny, uncleaned, unscaled Long Island Black Sea Bass. It is dead. Thank God. I take it in, deeply uncomfortable as a glassy beady eye seems to stare right back at me. With a shudder and a gag I turn to face Lamar, who is patiently waiting to begin. 

Bessie <3

Deep breath. “I’m ready.” Let’s do this thing. 

He gives me a tour of the sea bass, whom I have decided to name Bessie, but I do not reveal that information to Lamar until later in our lesson. “The first step is typically to scale,” he explains. He grabs one of the fins and wiggles it a little bit. “Taking off the fins is optional. If you want to do that, it’s easy. Use scissors. But first we have to scale. Are you right or left handed?” 

As I am still reeling from the concept of cutting off a fish fin with basic kitchen shears, he has to repeat the question. “Right handed,” I stutter. Lamar nods and begins the demonstration. 

He grabs a fish scaleryes, that is the actual terminology – and begins to shave the scales using the tool. I watch in awe as one swift swipe against the backbone sends scales flying all over the floor. Of course, having scaled thousands of fish, Lamar is a pro. He makes the motion look as easy as tying a shoe.

Okay, but when you are just learning, tying a shoe is not easy, and neither is scaling a fish. That’s what I discovered the second Lamar bequeathed the tool to me and stepped back to watch his pupil work. I swiped the scaler across the sea bass with the same hesitation of a novice swimmer jumping into the deep end. “Apply pressure,” Lamar gently nudged. My stomach churned as I pressed one hand down on the body of my bass and dug in a little. 

The process was slow moving at first; anything new is. As I worked, Lamar and I chatted. He asked about my writing project; I asked him about his past. Every few minutes, I would announce that “this feels like being on Top Chef,” to which Lamar would laugh and lightly encourage me to keep scaling the fish. 

I was mildly surprised to learn that I was not, in fact, the first person to ask Lamar to teach how to clean and scale a fish. Turns out, I am one of many in a long line of customers to walk up to a fish restaurant with a lesson in mind. It happened more often at [gourmet market] Citarella, Lamar explained. But the request I thought to be so bold and wild wasn’t weird at all. It’s actually something a lot of people want to learn. 

In hindsight, it makes sense. Every self-respecting New Yorker should know how to clean and scale a fish. Right? We’ve got rivers on either side of us! Think about how much we could cut down on our grocery bills if we were able to not only pull a perch out of the Hudson, but also clean and scale it ourselves. New city living hack just dropped, folks. (But maybe have a doctor on call after you eat the fish, because who knows what else you’ll drag out of that water when you get your dinner.) 

“See, that’s good!” 

Seven minutes into the activity and I had become something of a pro fish scaler. The fear is gone, and in place I found a peaceful catharsis. It was actually quite fun. With the right pressure, the scales fly off, just as Lamar said they would. I beam and stare at my scale-free Bessie. Lamar lets us pose for a picture. 

Bessie <3

“Next part is pretty simple.” 

My stomach turns upside down as he takes a knife and cuts the fish open. He notes that pressing too hard will puncture the guts. “Is that bad?” I ask, which is something of an idiotic question. When would puncturing a gut be good? 

Lamar explains that it’s usually not the end of the world. “You’re going to clean it anyway. But let’s say you were going to present [the fish] at a restaurant and wanted it to look nice. All of this [the guts] would splash onto the meat itself. So if you ever go someplace and see those little blotches, it’s because whoever gutted it went too far and opened up the belly.” 

In that moment, I felt a kinship with the late great Anthony Bourdain as he learned the now-infamous lesson, “don’t order fish at a restaurant on a Monday.” It was like I’d been let into some sort of fine dining fish club, suddenly in possession of information that would potentially help me identify the quality of the clean and cook of my meal. Splotches on the meat indicate messy gutting. 

“Do you want to do this part or should I do it for you? All of this is pulling the gills out.” 

Well of course I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to run away and never again peer inside the belly of a bass. But as I told Lamar, “This is disgusting, but I have to face the fear. So I’m… (gags)... pulling this out?” 

Lamar guided my fingers around the fish gills and stepped back as I wrestled with the horrific sensation of ripping gills out of a dead fish. 

Nervous and slightly nauseated, I babbled: “Is it supposed to be hard? Oh, God. Oh my God. Oh, my God, this is. I appreciate you. What the hell, it’s hard. Fishmongering, man! So can I do this? Is it supposed to be this hard? Am I weak? Okay what have I done. Did I ruin the fish. ARE THOSE TEETH?” 

They were not teeth. Those are still the gills, Lamar explained. I backed away in fear of what I still could not believe were not fish teeth and watched as Lamar finished my job. He then handed me the fish scaler once again. “Now you need to scrape out the guts.” 

This part was not so bad, a similar motion to the fish scaling, the only difference being the addition of fish juice flying around. And though the experience was confirmation that I’ll never be a doctor (not that ever I thought I would), it was fascinating to see the inside of a fish. Raw, real, exposed. Vulnerable. 

After the gutting was finished, we snipped off the fins, which at this point felt like no big deal. I’d touched gills, I could certainly trim a flapper. 

“You just gotta rinse it, and then you’re done.” 

We brought Bessie over to the fish rinser (otherwise known as a sink) and cleaned her up. Washed away the goo and gore, and soon she looked like every other fish at the counter. Just a piece of meat ready for sale.

Bessie <3

And with that, we were done.  

I brushed the scales off my clothes, washed my hands, promised to bring cookies the next day as a thank you (NYT Tahini Chocolate Chip, 10/10 recommend), and left. The whole encounter took less than 20 minutes. 

Walking home, I marveled at how strong I felt. Sure, to some people, gutting a fish might be a classic Tuesday. But for me, this was a big accomplishment. I had not only faced and overcome a fear, but also I had dived into an activity I’d thought impossible and just kind of gross. And for the record, it was gross. Feeling around the inside of a fish is not for the faint of heart. Yet it was also liberating. There is an incredible amount of power to be found in the act of taking the things which scare you and turning them into something productive, educational, nourishing even. 

I walked away with the sense of independence and pride I so often encounter after these activities. It’s a funny contradiction, isn’t it? By being vulnerable and asking for help, I have unlocked yet another tool in the ever-expanding kit for living an interesting life. 

Even more than that, I am continuously shocked at the kindness and generosity of strangers as I make my way through this project. Not because I don’t think people are good – I’m a perpetual optimist, looking on the bright side to a fault – but because I don’t think we usually appreciate how open folks are if you’re only willing to ask. There were two easy answers Lamar could have given to my question: yes or no. He said yes, and as a result I now know exactly how to clean and scale a fish. 

Of course the question remains, what am I going to do with this information? At the moment, there’s not a situation imaginable where I’d need to quickly clean and scale a fish. But you never know. Perhaps part two of this essay will be me on a survivalist fishing trip where I catch and kill my dinner. At the very least, I’m now slightly more primed than before to survive an apocalyptic situation. I’ve always thought my role in the end times would be “vibe squad,” the one who plans the game nights and makes sure everyone’s having fun, but knowing how to clean and gut a fish… it might be what keeps me alive after we all grow sick of charades. 

Another thought was to buy my own fish and cook it for a dinner date. Perhaps it could be my version of the viral “Marry Me Chicken.” “Better Bethroze Bronzino?” Food for thought.

But right after the lesson, I simply resolved to take the experience at face value and move on. And to my surprise, it applied itself in a deeply moving way. 

A few days after the fish gutting, I had a small procedure which required the area around my ribcage to be cut open, not so unlike the operation performed on Bessie, my sweet sea bass. I was nervous going into the surgery, as anyone would be. It’s nerve-wracking to be exposed, and even more terrifying to be awake while it happens. Even before the first cut was made, I was shaking in my boots (literally – I was in rainboots). My heart raced and palms sweat as I contemplated begging for the surgeon to stop.

But then an unexpected sense of calm washed over me as I thought about my foray into fishmongering, of all things. Mind focused on shiny scales and gooey gills, I steadied myself, put headphones in, and blasted tunes as the professionals got to work. I was going to be okay. I would get through this. I’d already done something scary this week – what was one more uncomfortable event? 

So if my time at Greenpoint Fish and Lobster taught me anything, it’s that life is full of unknowns, events and activities which seem daunting and terrifying. All we can do is face the impossible head on, and most of the time, things will turn out just fine (unless you’re flying Boeing, then good luck). 

I’m writing this horizontal-style, stitches throbbing in my side as I ponder what terrifying task I’ll tackle next. I don’t know. But that’s the fun part, isn’t it?

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129 Ways To Get a Life
129 Ways To Get a Life (The Podcast!)
A series in which a 20-something exclusively follows the advice of a dating column published in 1958 to explore modern love and life.