The Observer

Quit crabbing

T's 'fresh' halibut ads nothing to get heartburn about

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sam Allis
June 15, 2008

The Observer stands in solidarity with Roger Berkowitz, owner of Legal Sea Foods, whose fish ads on Green Line subway cars have triggered caterwauling from the Boston Carmen's Union.

I love the offending one: "This conductor has a face like a halibut." Also: "Hey ugly, you're scaring the fish." And my personal favorite" "This trolley gets around more than your sister."

Union president Steve MacDougall excoriated Berkowitz for running these insulting halibut ads and demanded that the MBTA take them down. I'm guessing MBTA general manager Dan Grabauskas knew he'd face trouble if they stayed, and caved. To be fair, he's got to face these guys at contract time. In the end, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo called them "inappropriate and disrespectful to our employees."

(MacDougall was unavailable the three times I called him for comment. On the third try, Friday morning, I was told he would be unavailable all day, period. I asked about Saturday. The voice on the other end of the line said, "Good luck.") Too bad. I'd love to have talked to that crazy, zany guy.

The ads are flamboyantly boorish. They are refreshing breaths of foul air. They lighten up the real estate we share with the rats. We need more of them. Do they offend people other than T drivers? No.

As of Friday morning, the MBTA had not received one complaint about any of the ads from customers, according to Pesaturo. Zero. More curious, the ads went up in mid-May, but there were no complaints to the MBTA until early June. Why?

(The ads appear only on the outside of Green Line cars, explains Pesaturo, because the trolleys mostly ride above ground, and thus are visible from street level. Grabauskas only ordered the "halibut" ads taken down; he left the rest alone.)

And, for the record, is it really so terrible to be compared to a halibut? I routinely am compared to much worse. There are days, in fact, when being called a grouper would be the nicest thing that happens to me. In fish terms, I'm more apt to be likened to a skate or, on a particularly bad run, a clown triggerfish.

I carry no brief for Berkowitz, by the way. I haven't laid eyes on the man or talked to him in two or three years, but I always enjoy his company on the rare occasions we run into each other. I'm not looking for a free halibut dinner either. I'm with him because the reaction of the Boston Carmen's Union is ludicrous.

Complaining Green Line workers must be very, very, very sensitive puppies. Remember, these same ads adorned Boston cabs from January to March and, to the best of my knowledge, no one batted an eyelash. I didn't even know they were there.

The counterpart of the subway halibut ad read, "The cab driver has a face like a halibut." You never heard a peep out of the cabbies. They had better things to do than whine about them if they noticed them at all - like, look out for rides. Had I noticed them I'd have laughed convulsively. Lovely stuff. Also good for stuffy old Boston.

Trolley drivers aside, it's hard to fathom how someone can take offense at any of these ads because they not aimed at any individual or group. They're rude to everyone. It's not your sister. It's everybody's sister. Have we arrived at a place where we can't laugh at that?

The Observer was crestfallen to learn that Berkowitz was going to apologize on the radio last Thursday for his dastardly ads. I thought he'd lost his backbone. Not to worry. My spirits were buoyed when I read the heroic text of said apology, which includes:

"We should have never, ever said, 'This conductor has a face like a halibut' when the truth is, most conductors don't look anything at all like halibuts.

"Some look more like groupers or flounders. I've even seen a few who closely resemble catfish. And there's one conductor on the Green Line that looks remarkably like a hammerhead shark. So we feel very badly about this mischaracterization, and we won't let it happen again."

Hurrah for Berkowitz. Answer folly with folly.

It gets better. MacDougall did not take the Berkowitz response well. He reportedly called Berkowitz "elitist" and urged all unions and working-class families to boycott Legal Sea Foods. Which means that: Berkowitz floated the bait, and MacDougall took it.

I doubt that Legal customers are even aware of the Great Fish Fight, much less MacDougall's clarion call to bring Berkowitz to his knees. A better idea, Steve, would be to get together with Berkowitz and talk this out.

More than a few people have noted that Legal Sea Foods has gained tremendous publicity from this imbroglio, and I suppose The Observer's scratchings must be counted as part of that.

They are also reminded of the alleged P.T. Barnum dictum to the effect that he didn't care what the newspapers said about him as long as they spelled his name right.

At the end of the day, even if the halibut ad was a tad insensitive - and I just can't take that charge seriously - the union reaction has been wildly out of proportion to the offense.

What's up with these guys?

So I say to all of the good people who drive the Green Line, indeed all of the Boston Carmen's Union: Folks, get a grip. There's a lot worse out there than halibut hurt.

Sam Allis can be reached at

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