GLOUCESTER — There is an old saying in Gloucester that fish smells like money.
It’s a great saying, rich with optimism and fantastically unapologetic in its attempt to cover up the olfactory truth — fish smells like fish.
Which is why the town proud to be called America’s oldest seaport may also have America’s oldest laundry problem. They that go down to the sea in ships come back with disgusting clothes.
The issue of gross laundry is so ingrained in this famed maritime community, and the rituals to deal with it so everyday, that many fishermen insist that they don’t do anything special to deal with their garments. Then they rattle off a laundry list of special things they do to combat, quarantine, or destroy their fishy clothes.
“My girlfriend won’t let me past the kitchen door,” said Larry Hudson, a lobsterman who comes home each day drenched in the stink of the herring they use for bait.
And it is there, at the kitchen door, that his girlfriend puts him through a classic drill — the “don’t you dare touch anything” approach.
“I’m to strip down at the kitchen door, take my clothes straight to the laundry room, then go straight in the shower,” Hudson said. “I can’t touch anything, and I definitely can’t sit on anything.”
The side benefit of Hudson’s strict ritual is that he is able to do something that makes the guys on his boat laugh each morning — he wears the exact same clothes every day until they basically disintegrate.
Ira Shank, the captain of Hudson’s boat, said that those who try to ignore the stench do so at their own peril. “Laundry can get you divorced in this town,” he said.
His own wife won’t let his work clothes anywhere near the family clothes, he said. “I have to leave them in plastic bags outside near the trash. They smell so bad that sometimes the raccoons will tear through the trash bags and not touch the laundry.”
The Shanks have not yet gone the two-washing machine route, which many fishing households rely on — one for “sad clothes,” as they say, and one for the “glad clothes” — because a cycle of fishy clothes can easily stink up the load that comes after it.
“If you keep putting fishy clothes in the laundry and then do your wife’s delicates, it adds up,” said Chris Souza, who sells washing machines at the local Sears. “That fishy smell just won’t go away.”
At Doyon’s, another appliance store near the main train station, salespeople will steer fishermen away from washing machines with plastic tubs, which hold the stench, and toward higher-end models made of porcelain and stainless steel.
For offshore fishermen, who can spend weeks at sea, the stench can reach epic levels. Some will throw their clothes in a bag with a bar of soap and drag them behind the ship. After drying in the engine room, the clothes will stand up, stiff as cardboard. Others don’t even try to battle the stink. Instead, as soon as they hit port, they march into Nelson’s, a shop on Main Street that has been outfitting the Gloucester fleet since 1874, and buy all new clothes.
“The door will open . . . and they’ll walk in with slime still running down their arms and gurry on top of their heads,” said Talitha Bihun, a longtime employee. “But that’s a good smell for us, because it means they’ve got money to spend. These are guys who don’t exactly like to go boutiquing, so this is their boutique. They love to show each other up with their gear.”
A full third of Nelson’s business is gloves, which can quickly go from brand-new to sinus-clearing. One man who works at a local fish processor comes in every single morning to buy a new pair, a ritual like getting his morning coffee.
Up the street at the Crow’s Nest, the fisherman’s bar made famous by the book “The Perfect Storm,” Allison Mondello, the day bartender, said she loses her cool when her fisherman husband puts his gloves in the dryer.
“I’ll tell him ‘Don’t even. That’s not how it works. Not in my Samsung,’ ” she said. “I take them to the laundromat and dump them in with Lysol.”
There are, of course, a million techniques for trying to get the stink out. Some swear by Lestoil. Others say Borax, baking soda, and even vodka.
At Homestyle Laundry on Main Street, where Julio Machado has been washing fishermen’s clothes for 16 years, he says the key is to use extra soap, bleach, and OxiClean. And you need to wash each load twice in one of the big industrial machines.
“A lot of them come in and say, ‘Sorry, I’m not allowed to bring this home,’ ” he said.
But there are many in town who say that it’s all futile; you’ll never beat the smell.
Ann Molloy, whose family owns one of the stinkiest businesses in town, Neptune’s Harvest, which grinds fish guts into fertilizer, knows that as well as anyone. “Once it’s fish clothes, it’s always going to smell like fish clothes.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.