In New York City, on 44th Street between Second and Third Avenues, there is a bar of some fame called Costello's. It is by no means a fancy bar but it has an illustrious past. When Tim Costello himself owned it—it was then on the corner of Third but has since been transported, beer stain by beer stain, to its present location—it was the haunt of journalistic luminaries such as John McNulty and James Thurber, whose original drawings still decorate the walls. Now, however, it has a rather different clientele. It is the acknowledged meeting place of the English-speaking foreign press.
Most of them are correspondents for English, Australian and New Zealand newspapers who are based in New York. There is also a constant flow of writers on short assignments here from London. Sydney and so forth. On most evenings, therefore, some fireman is visiting. This makes for a very unhealthy life.
Often—commonly after the third or fourth gin and tonic—a certain nostalgia for home is expressed, usually in an oblique way. Elsewhere, Irish exiles might link arms and sing I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, but in Costello's someone will ask the company if it recalls the century that Ted Dexter hit against the Australians in Manchester in 1964, or make reference to a long-ago soccer or rugby game. One steamy night last summer, and it might have been five or even six gin and tonics by then, somebody, possibly George Gordon, who was then on the London Daily Mail, talked about fishing. It was a vilely hot night, and whatever George actually said it evoked the coolness and tranquillity of fishing—a pond with lily pads and the early mist rising from it, or the clean surf creaming in on an Irish beach. At that moment, I think, Costello's Angling Club was born. The first annual outing took place soon afterward.
Only four of us headed out from Montauk, on the eastern tip of Long Island, that June day. We were not ambitious. We sneaked up on the fluke fleet that had clearly been in position before we had figured out the best place to go, but once there we scored freely, as cricketers say, all around the wicket. A mighty freight of fluke was aboard when we came in, some of them splendid nine-pounders. At the pier we were photographed by tourists. And we came very close, I was told confidentially later, to getting our photographs in The Long Island Fisherman. I think we were pushed out by a late bag of stripers. Naturally, we at once started to lay plans for this year.
Our catch had been much publicized, if not in The Long Island Fisherman, then in Costello's. A snapshot of it hung over the bar until the pushpin fell out. There were many inquiries about membership. We explained that there were no formalities. That was another of our mistakes, as was deciding to hold our outing as early in the year as possible. No small, neat charter boats would be in the water. We would have to ride a head boat, which the potential size of our party appeared to necessitate anyway.
With some formality, a date was set and a program drawn up. The club would convene at a Greenwich Village bar called the Bells of Hell, at 3:30 a.m. on the chosen Sunday. The Bells had not been designated without thought. Its proprietors, Peter Myers and Tony Heyes, are both from the north of England. Heyes is from Liverpool and might therefore be entrusted with the arrangements for the black-pudding breakfast. Lancashire is black-pudding country. Purists might argue that two inland Lancastrian towns, Bury and Bolton, are the true black-pudding heartland—indeed, in Bury you can still walk into a black-pudding shop, buy one hot, peel away the dark skin to reveal the, er, congealed pig's blood and gobbets of white fat, dip it in mustard and eat it on the street—but we were inclined to overlook this so long as the real article could be obtained. Polish black pudding is easy to get in New York but it was not until three days before the outing that our researchers turned up a cache of real black pudding in a small town in New Jersey—there is a Scottish community there, it seems. I will not reveal the name of this town.
Breakfast consumed, members would board a rented bus for Brooklyn and Sheepshead Bay, there to board the Helen II, on which rods, bait and rail space had been reserved. Traveling with us would be one of the famous: Herbie, the waiter from Costello's whom Thurber long ago named the World's Worst Waiter, as framed articles in the bar testify. If he remembered to, Herbie would serve drinks. He would certainly fish himself, for we had learned that Herbie was a dedicated Sheepshead Bay man. What is more, he would be bringing his own tackle, unlike us rod renters.
Fishing, naturally, would then take place all day; there would be pool prizes and on a blackboard, English racecourse style, would be posted the changing odds on the anglers as the day went on. Bets could be placed at any time, not necessarily upon oneself. All bets would be settled, and the pool prizes awarded, in Costello's that night. By special arrangement, Herbie would shuck himself out of his foul-weather gear and cook and serve a formidable fish supper. And then—and finally—we would proceed to elect the 1977 Commodore of Costello's Angling Club. A full day but a promising one. Everything was set. Fifteen of us would assemble early on Sunday morning and, sensible to a man, we agreed that no one should be so foolish as to go to the Bells on Saturday night to while away the time until 3:30 a.m.
It was not to be. Normally it would take close to a hurricane to prevent one of those 75-foot Sheepshead Bay head boats, with their heated rails and cozy below-decks accommodations, from putting out. Nevertheless, my phone rang at nine o'clock that night. Visibility nil, said the skipper. No chance for the morning. Even with radar he'd scraped his craft's bottom that afternoon coming into harbor. I began to call members, the Bells of Hell and Costello's to cancel the arrangements. As good as their word, the members were all at home. The only number I couldn't raise was Costello's. It closes early Saturday nights. So I called George Gordon for Herbie's number. George paused for a moment. "He doesn't have a phone," he said, "and I have no idea where he lives."
Herbie lives, we were to learn later, way uptown. And, of all the club members, he was the only one to report, rodded and booted, at the Bells at three o'clock the next morning. Not expecting our arrival, the Bells had shut early. That, looking back, seems to have been the moment when the seed of the disaster was sown.