Passions: The World According to Carp

Philadelphia parking magnate Joe Zuritsky has a little obsession he’s devoted millions of hours and piles of cash to: breeding the perfect koi

There is a simple if little-known convention of magazine writing: If possible, always start a story with an anecdote about somebody shooting somebody else in the balls.

 

And so we begin on a winter evening in the late 1980s, when Joseph Zuritsky, the chairman and CEO of Parkway Corp., one of the city’s largest operators of parking garages, went to retrieve his Porsche from a parking spot inside a Center City garage. As Zuritsky approached his car, he saw a man named Arnold Gray, an insatiable if incompetent career criminal, sitting inside.. A window had been smashed, and the vehicle’s radio was sitting on Gray’s lap. Zuritsky, perhaps the world’s worst choice of potential victim, was carrying a handgun, which he used to coax Gray out of the car. What happened next is a bit fuzzy, but when police arrived several minutes later, they found Gray lying on the ground. He’d been shot in the buttocks. That was not the worst of it for Arnold Gray, though. The bullet had managed to pass through his body — and become lodged in his scrotum.

This is the kind of story people tell about Joe Zuritsky. For even when he’s not wielding a gun and shooting people in their nether regions, Zuritsky is the type of guy who tends to get what he wants — someone who’s built a small family company into one of the city’s most controversial, reviled and politically connected businesses. Here’s another story: Several years ago, he brought a year-and-half-old named Rose to a local hospital. There was something wrong: Tumor? Hemorrhage? Zuritsky wanted an answer. He arranged for Rose to be seen by a phalanx of specialists — a surgical resident, a radiologist, an anesthesiologist — who shuttled the poor girl from test to test: x-rays, a CAT scan, an ultrasound, blood work. In the end, nothing was found to be wrong with Rose; she was perfectly healthy, except for one conspicuous defect: a giant bulge in her side. This was not as serious as it sounds. Rose was a fish.

Zuritsky is 65, but with his swept-back hair, rimless glasses and broad, well-
weathered face, he retains the strapping look of a former wrestler, somebody who could kick your ass even if he is on the cusp of retirement (or isn’t packing heat). But for more than 35 years now, Zuritsky has had, to put it mildly, a thing for fish. And not just any fish. Over nearly four decades, he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours buying, raising, talking and thinking about koi — the colorful mutant carp prized for its beauty, its bearing, and its ability to command buckets of cash at sale. He has built lavish ponds, gardens and pools to accommodate his vast koi collection. (He installed a special window in his Penn Valley house so he could watch the fish in an adjacent pool swim underwater). He co-founded the country’s largest koi club. And he has judged the world’s most prestigious koi show.

Yet those endeavors may eventually pale in comparison to the audacity of Zuritsky’s latest koi-related quest. Over the past several years, he has spent much of his time and energy transforming a former asparagus farm in Penns Grove, New Jersey, into a sprawling modern-day koi farm. His primary objective, he says, is to produce “high-quality American koi,” a not-so-fancy way of announcing that he plans to do something nobody else in this country has ever managed: breed some of the most prized, and expensive, fish in the world. The quixotic enterprise only adds to the sense that the most curious creature in Joe Zuritsky’s world isn’t the little gilled god that commands so much of his mind. It’s Zuritsky himself.

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