I was hungover a few Sundays ago as it usually happens. Actually, it may have been Monday—Labor Day. I had to pick up some dishes I left at a friend’s barbecue up on Eagle Street in Greenpoint and I decided to stop by Huron Street as I haven’t been by in a while. The shitty graffiti on the south wall was all the same and the bottling company on the north side of the street had pretty much given up pretending like it was going legit and that people actually believed in the fake security cameras it posted up when they repainted their wall, after the India Street ferry officially opened. A bunch of concrete Jersey barriers at the end of the street were knocked over, reminding me that people used to drive cars into the East River at the terminus of streets like this in Greenpoint all the time. I couldn’t remember if Sandy was responsible for this, or if the bottling trucks had since backed into them. I could see for certain where Sandy did take its toll: the cracked concrete platform just beyond the barriers was almost entirely gone, swept away down river or somewhere else nearby to add to the sunken pier, cars, car parts, and other remnants of industry that lay in that water creating a near impossible obstacle course for any line to pass through unimpeded. To the north I saw the Green Street pier, the old, abandoned artifact of days gone by, a spot I predicted would be washed away by Sandy, and by most accounts should have been for public safety, at least for the safety of the foolish people crazy enough to go out there. Sandy wasn’t the end of Green Street—I actually ninja-crawled my way to my old haunt a few weeks after the hurricane. The storm had basically skeletonized most of the inshore platform, tearing away the huge, rotted-out planks, but the steel I-beams were still intact. I maintained that, for a motivated individual, it was still possible to get out to the end of the pier, out to the relative safety of the concrete out there. But as the moon tides since then had done, I looked at the pier and all the games of Frogger and Super Mario Brothers that I used to imagine as I would run out to the end, out of the spotlight’s shine, out of view of the security camera, into the “safety” of the darkness at the end of the pier, I surveyed the pier and knew it was over. There was no way anyone was getting out to the end of the pier again.
Prior to Sandy, I predicted the fishing derby would be the end of the pier, and secretly I hoped every year that some super storm would destroy it before somebody got killed out there. Derby members, myself in particular, were responsible for bringing people out there, too many people in my opinion, and too many irresponsible ones as usually happens when word gets out. The few locals who knew about it weren’t happy with us, that much was certain, and many times I myself was not happy with who showed up on the pier and how they conducted themselves, but no one person could really own this pier, the same way (hopefully) no one person could get it shut down. It was anarchy and that definitely held appeal for me. The fact that it held fish was pure bonus.
Even before I moved to the area in 2007 I knew what I liked most about the neighborhood. An old semi-girlfriend of mine took me down North 8th Street while I was back on the East Coast for a visit. Back then its cobblestone pavement was littered with broken glass, weeds, cars, and more car parts. It was a trashed hallway between two overgrown junk yards, lined by hurricane fencing and barbed wire, at points here and there slumped and stooped. If you’ve lived a certain lifestyle, you know that if there’s a fence, there’s usually a way inside. At the end of the street was a Con Ed building, surrounded by another fence and barbed wire, and there was always a way inside. Many nights, even those before I moved to Brooklyn were spent stumbling down this shady-looking street, ducking under the fence, and ruining other people’s otherwise quiet nights by arriving happily drunk with a 6-pack of Bud Heavy tall boys. Once they left, that concrete slab was ours, as was the whole city skyscape. Heading 20 yards south put us where thousands of people spend their summer weekends at the Williamsburg Flea Market and Smorgasburg. But back then, it was all cracked concrete, weeds, and junk, and it was ours if we wanted it.
I grew up freshwater fishing with my dad and his brother, my cousins, and my brother, out in a series of ponds near Rising Sun, Maryland. Later on in life, I started having some newfound respect for my dad for taking us out there, as Rising Sun was a big Ku Klux Klan town back in the day, maybe it still is. Anyway, this is where I caught my first bluegill and my first bass, the latter of which I’m pretty sure I did my first report on back in first grade. I’d catch bluegills and crappie out of the small pond when I was bored, but largemouth bass were the real prize. When I got a little older, I started fishing the Indian River Inlet near the beach towns in Delaware with my dad and my uncle. When we were kids, we’d dig up sand crabs and put them on a hook to fish for tautog, but our shitty freshwater rods with 8lb mono never had a chance. Still, it was fun hooking a fish every cast and learning how to tie our own knots. This is also where I started to learn how to use the bucktail, which I still say, as do many others, is the best lure ever made. As I got older I started finding other things to do, mainly boozing and skateboarding. I never forgot how to fish and the lure of the waterfront was never lost, but for a while I just never did it. When I first moved to Los Angeles after college, one of the first things I’d do in a town where I didn’t know anyone was go to the fishing pier in Santa Monica and hang out with the scraggly fishermen, but I think I fished once the whole time I was in California; from the river for spawning stripers when I lived in Sacramento.
One of the main reasons I joined the first Brooklyn Fishing Derby was to reconnect with fishing. The previous year I’d picked up a rod again up in Maine with my cousin, who was living on Peaks Island. I actually had several reasons for signing up for the derby: (a) as a journalist, to see if this was some hipster joke or if people would actually fish, (b) if the latter part of (a) was true, then how seriously, and (c), and this was probably most personal to me, to find the secret fishing spots along the East River, the ones forgotten by everyone except for those on the margins of society, the holes in the fence, the druggies, the homeless, and the fishermen. Years of writing about and following my graffiti writer friends taught me to fear no fence. And the real urban fishermen always knew a way in, and I wanted to find them too.
Right after the derby started they closed the North 5th Pier. At the time the entrance was underneath and through one of the buildings on the block. They shut it down pretty well, but there was a way around if you went around the corner down the end of North 3rd Street, where the big white 184 Kent Street building is now. The newly opened East River Park between North 8th and 9th closed at dusk, the same time I was leaving work. Just a few years before you could sneak in there anytime you wanted. Sure you had to dodge some barbed wire, climb over some trash, and hack your way through some weeds, but you could access the water at your leisure and nobody would bother you. Now there was a gate. Now there was a park ranger telling you to get lost.
You see it all the time now. All the development and building taking the waterfront and parceling it out. We now have more access to the water than we have in many years, but now we have someone telling us when and where we can be there. They’ve cleaned it all up and taken all the character with it. They’ll turn off the lights on the pier if it’s late. There’s always a threat of them closing fishing off from certain areas. Go to Brooklyn Bridge Park now. They’ve designated a 10-yard area at Pier 6 as a fishing area, but the entire area from there up through and under the Manhattan Bridge is accessible now, but you can’t get caught fishing there, even at night when no one is around. Anything that was left to be discovered is gone, and whatever is left is what the city gives you. Once, it was all free to the right-minded person.
I remember during the first fishing derby riding on my bike along the waterfront from Greenpoint to Valentino Pier in Red Hook, marking all the spots you could potentially fish in a little notebook. GPS on a phone didn’t exist back then, if you can imagine it wasn’t even that long ago. I made notes as I wrote down addresses and street names. Barbed wire fence. Hole in the south side. Unlocked gate. Jersey barrier, climbable. I ran into a Justin Bieber photoshoot under the Manhattan Bridge and should have thrown a bottle at him for being a Leafs fan. The one spot I didn’t, and still haven’t, figured out was the Snapple factory in Red Hook. But in Greenpoint, the streets ran right up to the East River, perfect access, if not a little bit shady. One thing I quickly learned is that if you’re fishing and mind your own business, most people won’t mess with you. Nevertheless, a little American-made steel doesn’t hurt either. One of the earliest things I noticed at the ends of these streets were the constant presence of mini-vans. At first I thought they could be narcs or worse, before I realized it was nothing at all to worry about. Hasids picking up prostitutes were a regular thing in these parts.
I tried all the spots. India, Java, Greenpoint, Kent, Huron. I even snuck into Noble Street where that one poor bastard died a few years before, and I didn’t catch anything. I snuck into the Con Ed yard at the end of Grand Street and fished for hours. I saw a couple other guys sneak out onto the catwalk over the fast rushing water, but didn’t head out there myself until a few weeks later. For the first three weeks of the derby I was re-conning spots and coming up empty. This changed once I got a tip from my friend Thomas about the pier just north of Huron. If one looks dead west from the end of Huron Street, one will see what looks like a sunken bridge, sticking halfway out of the water, usually with a couple birds perched on its dry beams and a permanent REVS sculpture welded on top of one crossbar. To the north one will see a dilapidated wooden pier, full of trapdoors, booby traps, rotten planks, and well fenced off from the shoreline. Sections of the pier were rebuilt, for whatever reason, on top of the old pier, so it had multiple levels of different heights, jagged parts that jumbled rotten wood with old steel. A spotlight shines from a telephone pole, and under that is a security camera. Nevermind those perils, just to get there required circumventing a barbed wire fence that stuck out a good three-feet over the water, tons of crumbling, broken concrete blocks, more felled fencing and barbed wire, balancing on a submerged steel I-beam, ducking past the trucks and shipping containers, and somehow not drawing attention to yourself from the security in the yard, the workers at the bottling distribution plant, and whoever else parked in the lot who might want to blow up your spot just to fuck with you. But to get to that spot, just under the spotlight, hidden away from the eyes of security, tucked in the rocks and behind the tall weeds, just along side of the pier, there were fish.