The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Michele Bender

March 31, 2012

MICHELE M. BENDER | Something fishy’s going on around here

— At age 6, Mom introduced me to the concept of Lent. My kid reaction was typical. “I hafta give up WHAT? For HOW LONG?”

When it came to food, I was always a weird kid. Texture mattered more to me than taste. I hated anything sticky!

My fetish wasn’t limited to food. My first grade teacher could only make me apply glue at gunpoint.

Time marched on. Catechism taught me Lent was a season of self-evaluation and spiritual growth. I still didn’t get how giving up sticky sweets, which didn’t appeal to me in the first place, would improve my character.

Then I discovered the Lenten “perk!” We were expected to go “meatless” on designated days. But we could eat FISH!

I LOVE FISH! My grandfather joined the Navy at 16, and was primarily stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

Fisherman’s Wharf turned G-Pa into a seafood gourmet. When my dad attended college in Philly, G-Pa introduced him to more fishy favorites.

During summer vacations, G-Pa and I discovered more of Neptune’s bounty.

I had dislikes.

Mackerel was just icky, and squirmy calamari squished.

Mussels made me feel like I was eating an eyeball. And I shunned trout because I’d never eat something that got caught because it wanted to eat a worm!

But delicious stuff remained: Haddock, sole, cod, shrimp, shark, scallops, crab and lobster!

Working at our church fish fries seemed the next logical step. Waitressing may have been a bad choice because I don’t always play well with others.

When a lady requested crab cake with mac ’n cheese, I delivered her meal promptly.

“I ordered crab cake,” she roared. “This  ISN’T IT! Take it back and bring what I asked for!”

Humiliated, I slunk back to the kitchen where a wiser, veteran worker put the plate under a heat lamp. “Wait five minutes and take it back.”

“Did she expect frosting and birthday candles?” I snarled.

When I returned the same dish five minutes later, the Gorgon smiled.

“This is more like it!”

After stints as an applesauce dipper and a halushki scooper, I became a cashier. Three or four of us greeted customers, filled order forms, passed them to the waitresses, took cash and made change.

Dozens of mind-numbing summer jobs had prepared me for accurate change-making. I found my “fish niche!”

And then came 1999, the year the government minted new quarters celebrating the 50 states.

I never expected this seemingly harmless idea to bite us on our fannies.  

Our prices were average by local fish fry standards: $7.25 for fish dinners; $7.50 for shrimp or crab platters.

“Dear, I’ll take a baked fish dinner with baked potato and cole slaw.” A lady untied her babushka and removed a $5 and 3 $1’s from her wallet. “And, for my change, could I have one Maine quarter, one Delaware and a Kentucky?”

People never fail to amaze you! The craze caught on and we finally had to post a sign saying “We regret that we are unable to honor requests for specific coins in change.”

Lenten regulations say only one full meal may be eaten on Good Friday. I plan to hop over and eat mine at Red Lobster.              

See you there!

Michele Mikesic Bender is a Johns-town resident and a member of The Tribune-Democrat’s Readership Advisory Committee.

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Michele Bender
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What is the biggest key to reducing gun violence in Johnstown?

Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
Monitoring folks in treatment centers and halfway houses.
Tougher sentencing by the court system.
More police on the streets.

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