I grew up in East New York in an old attic apartment on Glenmore Avenue. We had no tub, just a closet of a toilet at the foot of the stairs and a shower stall at the other end of the foyer. Then one day my parents said we were going to move to Canarsie and we'd live very near "the beach."
When we finally were about to move I was pretty near five and I remember there was this guy named Charlie that lived around the corner that was about twelve years old. Very blonde with freckles and chipped front teeth that he spit through. I remember Andrew, my big brother, and I were standing inside the lot next to our home, behind the gate, and a bunch of the neighborhood kids on the sidewalk side. Andrew told them we were moving to Canarsie, which we thought was on the other side of the planet because one of the expressions you heard in those days was, "I'll knock you from here to Canarsie." The kids gave us a lot of shit over that. Then Andrew said we would live in a place called Bayview. That's when Charlie started saying "Bellevue", and that we were moving into an insane asylum. He kept telling us all these horrible stories and laughing and pretty soon I felt the flood well up inside me and I started to cry. That's when Andrew hit big Charlie and Charlie started to beat up Andrew and I started hitting Charlie while crying. I don't remember who rescued us, but the last thing I remember on that hot, Brooklyn, summer day was Charlie clamming in my face and the sense of disgust and revulsion I felt from his warm saliva in my face.
My parents straightened us out that we weren't moving to Bellevue, that it was a clean new place a block away from the water. All I could think of was Aunt Edna, Aunt Pearl, Uncle Eddy and all the relatives that lived out in Far Rockaway where I loved to go to the beach in the summer. Little did I know it was Jamaica Bay with wetlands and polluted water that was off limits to swimming, and that Bayview was a city project.
Most of the neighborhood turned out to be undeveloped wetlands. The projects were surrounded by swamps and "lots" and the pier that jutted out onto Jamaica Bay, just a block away, under the Belt Parkway. It was very old and the wrought iron rails and fixtures had rust and there was an old bait house and about three deepsea fishing boats came and went from there daily. About the size of tugs. With names like Tambo, and The AmberJack.
I fell in love with the place. I loved the age of it. The old New York concrete water fountains, the benches, some missing sections of wooden slat and paint peeled. The seagulls everywhere, crying their seagull song of hunger as they scavenged and begged and bullied smaller birds. And the old fishermen that took up their posts around the pier. Crabbers, with their nets hanging over the sides. And the rods and reels. Eelers, and Flukers casting out long while Butter Fish were being snagged from just off the edge. These old crusted, wrinkled men. Mostly Italians from Sicily and Naples, but there were also Polish, Black, Puerto Rican and Irish too. Just mostly Italians.
It was a huge thing, this old pier. It had a look of once being quite elegant and important. Before the water got polluted. But what I loved was the unmanicured, unmaintained quality of the place. It had a roughness and an atmosphere of adventure. I would climb all over that pier. My young pals and I would go down the tired wooden ladders built into the structure, and hang out on a level just above the pilings, green with seaweed and stuff we hated the feel of. When we got older, around ten and eleven we'd smoke cigarettes and retell or make up stories about the pier and the different creatures that snagged kids off the into the murky green water. We loved our tales of courage or something disgusting to it.
At certain times of the year the beach areas were covered with Horseshoe Crabs. Ugly creatures that fascinated us. Like prehistoric, armored tanks with long hard stingers that we swore could kill a man. Even though they were very slow, someone always had a story about how one stung someone and they died.
We'd walk between them, and there were thousands of them on the wet parts of the sand, digging in to lay eggs, I guess, and one of the guys would get crazy and pick one up by the tail and chase another guy down the beach. We used to crack up.
I didn't like when someone flipped one over and left it that way. With all them little clawfeet waving about in a crab panic. I would set them right.
We'd talk to all the old timers fishing around the pier. We'd press for stories or just watch them being men. They were really men and we wanted to be men.
A chunky little man with bloody fishing clothes and rough heavy hands that pulled the discolored nonfiltered cigarettes from his foreign mouth was a regular there. He spit and cursed and talked broken English and made us laugh as he pulled up the little cages to see if he caught anything. If the bait was gone he'd talk about this one crab down there that he knew personally.
"Ah meeee. I tella you, that somabitch, gonna get it dis time. I tella you. Dat a Ciacci, he one a smart crab. Alla time he get a lunch off a me and den he's a gone. What do I look, a ristorante? Dis time I putta dis whole ting in heah and I bring it right up. And Bingita bop, I catcha dat scooch." And he laughs and takes a whole Striper and runs the little wire on the bottom of the cage, through the fish's open mouth and then punctures the rear on the way out and then hooks that end of the wire to the cage. Lifting the cage by the rope, pulls up the sides, and then he swings the wire box 'round his head, like David with his sling, spraying us all with a bit of the fish water and what not that makes us squirm a little, but we pull ourselves together and hope no one noticed or heard our girlish squeals of disgust. Then he tosses it into the green water with a crash. My mind would travel down under the surface with it. My head full of pictures of crabs walking about the bottom among the years of things lost over the side. I was sure the floor of the bay was littered with all sorts of valuables.
There was an old Black man on the other end of the pier that used to put out three polls at once. Wedged the grips of the rods into cracks and splits in the wooden part of the dock so they couldn't be yanked out. He also had a grappling hook with a lead pipe slipped over the shank and then a long heavy, hemp rope.
"Okay, stan' back, stan' back now. Ahm gonna be swingin' dis and you gonna get yer ass caught up. So stan' back." And he'd twirl this thing over his head, making a spooky whirring whistling noise as it spun, and then he'd release and the hook flew way out from the pier, the rope racing after it, unwinding and leaving and bloosh!
"What are you fishing for with that?"
"That ain't fer fishin'." A short over chewed cigar stuck deep into his black face, with little silver hairs poking out of his cheeks and neck. Darkly colored flannel shirt and yellow rubber overalls. "Dat's trollin'." I studied his old eyes that always seemed moist. Like tears about to come. The whites were a tinge of yellow. The brown cap he wore with union pins on it.
"Trollin', the hooks, they drop ta da bottom wit da wait 'n all, right? Den Ah drags it in and it grabs up all sorts a stuff."
"Wow! What kind of stuff? From ships? How old is this place, really?" We all heard stories of the Mafia and Murder Incorporated using the swamps and creeks for dumping off bodies. We heard the stories of bodies being found wherever they started a landfill project.
"Ah finds some pretty good stuff sometime. Dats why Ah does it. You think Ah need da exasize?"
"One time Ah pull in a lady's poyce wit huh wallet init an' money and what not."
"One time Ah broughts up a old machine gun wit a Nazi mark on it an' Ah know it came from a damn submarine."
"Sure. Listen, boy, one time Ah trows out my hooks and start to pullin' it in right away an' it's real heavy like. Ahm pullin' and pullin' figurin' Ah snagged a body or somfin'." He then starts pulling in the rope he just threw out. Lots of drag on it.
"Really? A body?" We gasped half terrified and mostly hoping there would be a body at the end of the rope he's pulling in now. Imagine seeing a real body. All bloated up with water. Bullet holes. Everyone in the neighborhood would be so jealous. We'd be the coolest. And he's really working to bring in whatever it is he's snared.
"Ah's pullin' it in an it be heavy an' my back almost cain't bring it in. An Ahm pullin' an' pullin' the damn ting. An' jes' as Ah gets it in close like, Ah starts liffin' it an' outta da watuh, comin' up, Ah sees a baby's carriage. Ahm pullin' a goddamn baby's carriage outta da damn bay." With the slightest gesture from him and we're helping pull the wet, rough, rope. "Now it's fulla watuh, an' seaweed and sand, so's it's twiced as heavy, right? Ah pulls an' Ah don' know if Ahm gonna find me a baby in it. Ah gets it up on da pier, an' when Ah looks inside it Ah don' know what to 'spect. But Ah finds a steel box wit a lock on it an' Ah cain't breaks it. So at home dat night Ah breaks it wit a hammer an' a pry an' it was fulla money." The resistance on the rope is greater now and I could feel my little muscles getting sore and my hands felt like fire. I can smell the smell of this man. His skin and sweat, and the wet salty rope. The smell of fish and blood and cigars.
"Really? Lots of money?"
"Yes suh. No booshit! Musta been a tousand bucks or maw." A thousand bucks! What if we're pulling in a chest of jewels or something right now? "Dis one's pretty damn heavy too. Ya never knows what ya git when ya trow out da line." I wonder if he knows the code of the streets that says if you find some money and you're with someone, you have to give dibbs? Is there a different code for trollers?
We pulled and winced as the rope dug its bite into our soft little palms. We pulled and ached with the strain and now whatever it is is lying on the bottom just below us and all we have to do is drag it up to the pier. We all took one deep breath and heaved and hoed and up it was coming. Our little hearts pounding. Our eyes straining to be the first one to spot it coming out of the green. And then it came. An old rusted frame of a bicycle with kelp hanging on to it like a lover. Our spirits sank. Chafed and fatigued in the humid New York Summer, and nothing to show but an old bit of rusty junk.
"Thas the way of it sometimes. Cain't always come up wit sompin' good." He looked at our disappointed faces and laughed his cigaret throated laugh. So we'd move on.
One time when I was a bit older a few of us were hanging out at the pier because there was nothing else to do. It was late afternoon and The Tambo just got in and some of the day fishers were getting off with their catch and we just stood above the boat on the pier, smoking cigarettes, spitting, cursing, and generally trying to be big men and not boys.
On the deck of the Tambo was an old hand that worked the boat. He was bald and thick and had hair all over his arms and chest, shoulders and back. His stubby fingers and thumbs covered with dried blood and bait as he pulled all the Fluke and Flounder from the hold. The fish the crew caught them for sale to restaurants or individuals.
"Ay, you boys a wanna buy some a fish?" He's talking to us. We just joke and tease each other and him in good humor, trying desperately to be cool.
"I wouldn't eat the fish coming out of that toilet." We all laugh and slap each other five. How cool we are with our cigarets and our muscle shirts. DA haircuts and tight dungarees.
"Yeah, the sewers empty into the bay. It's polluted." We laugh and strut at our manhood. Lighting off each other's smokes.
"So you catch much today?"
"Yeah, we catch a every a day."
"You eat that?"
"Sho, I like a fish. Fish a good a to eat. You no like a?"
"You catch any Canarsie White Fish (rubbers that floated around)?" We go ape on that one. Even the old guy is laughing.
"So you boys are pretty tough a guys, eh?" Still laughing.
"We get around." We againg exchange "fives." Still laughing, he reaches down and picks a huge old fishing knife and then one of the Flounder. He puts the fish on the top of a plank and cuts off the head in one clean move. He looks at us again, he's still laughing and he lifts the fish with two hands over his head, tail up, and shoots the blood down his open mouth like squirting wine from a skin. It squirts like a stream of piss from the headless body of the fish and right down his throat.
"Oooh! Jesus!" We all squealed out our disgust and revulsion without the slightest self control. All the old men on the pier started laughing quite hard.
"That's gross! You really sceeve, man." He was laughing harder now as he wiped the blood from his lips. We left. We weren't so tough.
We also loved the wetlands that everything in the neighborhood was connected to. Walking through the high liontail weeds. So dense and taller than us we could play all sorts of adventure games. Full of heroes and courage and honor. I loved that neglected chunk of Brooklyn.
We built rafts to travel the creeks which were also rich with stories of drown men and swamp creatures. Everyone knew the story of Johnny Johnson, a young Black boy from Bayview that drowned in Fresh Creek. I remember how my mother cried when Johnny drowned.
We'd float away from the shore on our precarious, found material flotilla and catch Killies and Minnows and Silvers with a piece of screen and twine we found. I remember one time when I was real small, catching a jar full and bringing them home all packed in with no room to really swim.
Pets! Finally, pets. The Housing Authority didn't allow dogs or cats. I hated them for that. But fish! I was so excited. I put the jar on the window and went to sleep that night thinking to myself "I'm an aquarium owner with tropical fish." When I awoke every one of them was quite dead and starting to smell already in the Summer heat. I was devastated. I never brought any home again.
But I so ached for a dog. I befriended every dog, stray or not that I passed or caught sight of. God I loved the beasts, and they loved me. At first the strays were usually cautious and kept a distance. But by squatting low and putting out my bent wrist, as my old man showed me, and patiently I'd whistle and kiss and they'd come. Once they came, they were mine and we loved each other. I would play a whole day in the weeds with some stray pooch. At the end of the day when I had to go home for supper I would always go through the same hell of saying goodbye so I could leave alone for my "No Pets" apartment. It was not an easy thing to do because of the obvious emotional pulls, but because the dog didn't really have any place in mind to go and wants to stay with you. And they always looked so confused and betrayed when you had to finally tell them "No" and not let them follow. They looked so sad and betrayed and I felt like crying and hoped they could forgive me and remember me as a friend. Yet as much as that hurt, I did it over and over again.
As the years rolled on and more homes and apartments and shops were built, the area changed. Got more populated. Families were starting to return to the pier. Not to fish. Not to swim, the water was still polluted, but to sit on the grassy areas, or the benches and look out into the bay at the little marshy islands full of seagulls and mystery. To take in the sun and the salty air. To picnic with transistor radios, throwing baseballs around.
The other side of the bay was quite far off and mostly undeveloped too, so in fact the scene serene. Except for the jets on their way into Idlewild. And the Belt Parkway whizzing by. But the gulls and pigeons and trees, the openness, was a wonderful feeling.
I haven't been to Canarsie in years. I'll always love it.
4 October 1998