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Star Fish

Author Peter Koch Illustration Graham Roumieu

QUEENS, NEW YORK

Hunkering in the shadow of the elevated J train, which rattles past the rooftops of Richmond Hill, Cameo Pet Shop isn’t your run-of-the-mill animal emporium.

With its vintage fish food posters and century-old mechanical cash register, little has changed here since owner Steve Gruebel returned from the Vietnam War in 1970 and took over from his father. Thousands of cats, dogs, birds and fish have come and gone since then— all except one, a hulking, scarred, snaggletoothed black pacu fish named Buttkiss, who has resided in a tank at the front of the store since John Lindsey was mayor.

Having just celebrated his 44th birthday—including a festive party that turned out dozens of longtime neighbors— Buttkiss is probably the oldest pet fish in New York. How old is he? He’s so old that he has arthritis in his gills, and one regular customer swears he’s developed glaucoma in one eye. Gruebel isn’t convinced. “How can a fish get glaucoma?” he asks—adding with a wink that fish oil is often used to treat the disease in humans.

The cloudy lens, he contends, is from Buttkiss rubbing up against the sides of his 75-gallon aquarium. After offering to demonstrate, Gruebel turns and peers into the tank. On the other side of the glass, Buttkiss approaches, “wags” his tailfin playfully and darts back and forth, rubbing along the sides of the tank like a clumsy puppy.

Gruebel bought the fish from a wholesaler in 1967 and sold him a year later. In 1970, after Buttkiss outgrew his owner’s tank, Gruebel welcomed him back to the pet store.

Since then, the fish has become a neighborhood fixture—not to mention Gruebel’s loyal sales partner, one who can reliably identify new customers. “If you walk in the door and say, ‘Holy cow, look at that fish!’ then I know you’ve never been here before. Because everybody knows Buttkiss.”

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