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Fishing In The Basement: A Manhattan Tale

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
June 29, 2011

I keep thinking about this story. It’s so unlikely, so unreasonable, but I can’t stop wondering … could this be?

The time is 1955. We’re in a building, 992 Second Avenue in Manhattan to be exact, on 53rd Street. The teller of this tale is Jack Gasnick, the owner and operator of a hardware store on the first floor — Gasnick Supply. There was such a store, we’ve checked. There was a Jack Gasnick, we checked that too. And the store had a basement.

In a letter to The New York Times published on Aug. 22, 1971, Mr. Gasnick describes how in the summer of ’55, there’d been a hurricane, Hurricane Diane, and a stream, he says, that flowed under his Second Avenue building had swollen and flooded the basement. To his surprise, he wrote, “When the flood receded, there was left in its wake two or three flapping fish.”

Curious, he looked and found a hole, covered with an iron grate, on the basement floor. Using a crowbar, he and his brother lifted the grate, and when he peered into the darkness …

… fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and upon its either side, dark green-mossed rocks. … With plumb-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed upwards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.

One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.

He doesn’t say how long it was before he felt something on his line, but …

Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three-pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother.

Could this be? Could there be three-pound carp living in streams hidden underneath Manhattan buildings, or is this the fishy equivalent of the fantasy alligators that always lurk but never emerge from the sewers of New York?

Checking The Story …

Well, The New York Times tried to update this story in 2007. A reader remembered Gasnick’s letter and (assuming it was true) asked, “Do people still fish under Manhattan?”

The Times Metro Desk asked a reporter, Andy Newman of the Brooklyn bureau, to look around and he found no current evidence of underwater fisheries. What’s more, he talked to a scientist who said the whole tale seems a little unlikely.

John Waldman, an aquatic biologist at Queens College, told Andy that he couldn’t imagine a community of carp trapped underground in Manhattan. “Fish don’t live in the dark for generations,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.” (There are isolated pockets of so-called “cavefish” but they’re pale, blind, very small … and are found in the American South.)

Fat basement carp? For one thing, what would they eat? They need a food source, and away from sun, photosynthesis and plant life, they’d probably starve, not grow.

Somebody’s Pets?

It’s possible, he thought, that “someone dumped them into this underground rivulet” shortly before they reached Mr. Gasnick’s basement, or maybe they migrated down from some surface pond hidden in someone’s backyard. But there are no underground streams in the neighborhood today, and no new fishermen have turned up saying “me too, my basement has ‘em.”

But Wait!

But one corroborator did emerge. My friend Geoff Manaugh, who is obsessed by all things subterranean, wrote about the Gasnick basement fishing story on his blog, called BLDGblog, and on Nov. 14, 2010, two years after his post, someone (calling himself “anonymous”) left this comment:

Yes, this is true, and the address was 992 Second Avenue. The store there was named Gasnick Supply Co., and I worked there from 1982 to 1989, and indeed, under a trap door in the basement, there was a running stream. Jack Gasnick, my boss and store owner, claimed to have caught fish in there, but [Me: ooooh, we're so close] I never witnessed that, so I can’t attest to it. [Darn.]

Don’t bother to look for the building [wrote Anonymous], it’s gone — demolished about seven years ago to build overpriced high-rise condos.

Not only is the building gone, the store’s gone, Jack Gasnick’s gone, the stream, if it ever existed, has gone too. Who knows if his story was true? Jack, some say, liked to embroider. I was able to find basement fishing stories from other cities that are newer and seem to check out, but in Manhattan, all the trails have gone dry.

But that doesn’t stop us from rolling this notion over and over in our minds. Geoff, who can roll with the best of us, wrote in his blog …

But how much would I love to find myself in New York City for a weekend, perhaps sent there by work to cover a story — when the phone rings in my hotel room. It’s 11pm. I’m tired, but I answer. An old man is on the other end, and he clears his throat and he says: “I think this is something you’d like to see.” I doubt, I delay, I debate with myself — but I soon take a cab, and, as the clock strikes 12am, I’m led down into the basement of a red brick tenement building on E. 13th Street.

I step into a large room that smells vaguely of water – and six men are sitting around an opening in the floor, holding fishing poles in the darkness.

You can almost see them down there, can’t you? [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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