In the still-dark mornings, at the Texaco gas station in Menemsha, local fishermen load up on lures and bait, cheap cups of coffee and the daily newspaper before setting out to sea. Behind the rustic station is a long wooden bench where the men gather.
“Early in the morning, it’s always the same crowd,” recalls Albert Fischer 3rd, an 11th-generation Islander. Mr. Fischer, a commercial fisherman in his younger years, can still rattle off names of the old guard.
“It’s like cows going into the barn,” he explained. “Everybody has got their place on the bench. If you find yourself sitting in someone else’s spot, you might get the hairy eye.”
Forty-six years ago, the area behind the Menemsha Texaco was dubbed Squid Row, the punch line to a story few Islanders can recall clearly. The bench that lines the back wall of the gas station is branded with those words, a nickname that has become commonplace in Menemsha, and all over the Vineyard.
The name is a play on skid row, a northwestern term for the trail made by a logger skidding trees along the muddy ground, and dates to the 17th century. Since that time, skid row has been used primarily to describe the sections of major American and Canadian cities with the largest populations of homeless people. Typically, these areas are the darkest and most desolate parts of town. With this in mind, the title of Menemsha’s Squid Row is inherently ironic.
Menemsha is an idyllic part of the Island. It is a fishing town enveloped by placid blue water and sandy green hills and blessed with the Island’s deepest and most intense sunsets. In front of the Texaco station is a parking lot that signals the end of Basin Road and the start of a flat, yellow beach marked by a white lifeguard tower. Beyond the beach is the Vineyard Sound, calm and blue and framed by a hilly, brown horizon and stacks of fat white clouds. One of the most breathtaking destinations on the Vineyard, Menemsha and its docks are as far from the aesthetic of a typical skid row as could be. But Menemsha is a fishing village first, and the name does fit with the proud, self-effacing identity of fishermen as the ocean’s orphans: transients, storytellers and drunks.
Over the last 50 years, the identity of the Vineyard has shifted from a New England whaling town to a New York summer destination. Menemsha, with its rusted boats, barnacled docks and stacks of hunter green and orange lobster traps, is a reminder to Islanders and tourists of the Vineyard’s maritime history.
The legend of Squid Row will continue to grow long after the truth of its history has gone, but for now, the questions behind its genesis remain answerable.
In the summer of 1966, Albert O. Fischer 3rd was working for his brother Doug Fischer, who had the year before taken over as owner of the Menemsha Texaco.
“I need a backstop for this bench I made,” Doug told Albert. At that time, fisherman had already begun to gather in the back of the gas station to drink coffee in the morning before setting out. In the evenings, they reconvened after the catch to drink beers and talk shop. One day, bass fishing off of Squibnocket, Albert spotted a long piece of driftwood floating in the water. He brought it back to his brother and nailed the long, twisted plank to the back wall of the station, above Doug’s bench. The board, a little longer than six feet, gnarled with knots and perfectly flat, resembles a giant dog bone.
According to Albert, Doug Fischer originally coined the phrase for that dock, muttering it under his breath as he watched his customers dropping jigs into the harbor.
“It’s like squid row out there.”
Mounted on the top of the back wall of the Texaco is a light that shines on a small spit of harbor near the dock. At night, the light attracts small squid to the area. Catching them is as easy as dangling a squid jig, available for sale in the gas station, over the edge of the dock.
It was Mary Jane Pease, another regular to the Menemsha docks in 1966, who came up with the idea of painting the name Squid Row on the driftwood backstop. The bench had served as a spot where she could watch her children as they played. She painted the large letters herself, in a thick, red oil paint. To this day, almost 50 years later, the sign remains essentially the same. The fire truck red letters are chipped and faded, but the paint has protected the wood underneath from years of storms and saltwater winds. As a result, the letters are raised up off the worn-down surface of the driftwood, and the effect is of tattoo ink on skin.
And that is the story. At least, that is the original story. Since its beginnings, the bench and the dock on which it sits have served as settings for new stories, family stories.
During the summer days, finding a spot on the bench can be difficult. Around sunset, the dock behind the Menemsha Texaco is packed with tourists and locals alike, licking ice cream bars, watching the sunset and fishing for squid.
“A lot of people congregate there. I’ve even seen parents jump off of the bench to pluck their kids out of the harbor,” Mr. Fischer said.
In the summer, the small spit of dock also hosts concerts by local musicians.
Squid Row, once a fisherman’s handshake, has become an institution. After almost 50 years of hosting sea-weary fishermen, summer families and squid-hunters young and old, the quotation marks have fallen away. Squid Row is now an Island landmark.