My introduction to bonito—a medium-sized fish of the mackerel family—came at a Coney Island pier about 25 years ago. Unable to decide on a major, I had dropped out of college—on this occasion, the University of Colorado in Boulder—for the second time in three years. I called my parents to tell them what I'd done, but I was determined to make it on my own, at least for a few months, so I didn't ask them for a ticket home to San Francisco or for money. Instead, I hitchhiked from Colorado to New York City and arrived three days later with a small duffel bag full of clothes and barely enough cash to cover a week's rent for a tiny room in a dingy hotel just off Manhattan's Columbus Circle. The next morning I applied for work at Macy's and was hired for what must have been one of the most tedious jobs in town.
I was stuck in a huge, airless, dusty basement room where my assignment was to match up pairs of women's shoes. The store recently had held a sale during which thousands of left shoes were displayed in its windows. All the right shoes had been dumped in the basement. At the end of the sale, the left shoes were collected and heaped on top of their mates. My job was to claw through this small, multicolored mountain of leather, rematch the pairs and put them in boxes.
Macy's didn't pay a lot—at least not to me—so I was constantly broke. I did my laundry in my room, in water heated on a hot plate. I couldn't afford to take the subway to work. I never had breakfast, except for an occasional glass of juice. Every day I ate a lunch of one hot dog and an orange drink at Nedick's. Seven nights a week my dinner consisted of spaghetti boiled in an empty juice can and topped with stewed tomatoes. Once, when somehow lost a $10 bill and couldn't come up with my rent on time, the hotel locked me out of my room. I spent a very long night in Grand Central and reported to work in the morning exhausted and even hungrier than usual. Luckily, a man who worked in the shoe department stock room was able to lend me money for the rent.
But my purpose here isn't to write an American sequel to George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. I only want to show that after three weeks of such a life I was in desperate need of diversion. I asked around about fishing possibilities nearby, and the same young man who had lent me money told me about the pier.
I pawned my self-winding watch and bought a very cheap bait-casting rod and reel, complete with line. On a Saturday morning I squandered some change for weights and hooks and a few shrimp for bait, then took the subway out to Coney Island.
For a young man who had grown up accustomed to fishing on lonely beaches in Hawaii, it was quite an experience. The backdrop here was a parachute ride and a roller coaster instead of volcanic mountains.
The fall day was lovely, though, the sky blue and the sun warm, and there were hundreds of fishermen on the pier. It was midmorning when I arrived, and I remember walking up and down for several minutes, stepping over cigar butts and wads of chewing gum, looking for a place to fit in. Finally I squeezed between an elderly man in a baggy old business suit and a younger, heavier fellow wearing what looked like a train conductor's uniform.
Even though I had no more than a foot or two of room on either side, neither of my neighbors paid any attention to me. I baited a hook with a shrimp—I was momentarily tempted to eat it myself instead—and dropped it over the pier railing. lowered it carefully into the water, then took up the slack in the line once the weight hit bottom.
I looked around. I realized nobody was paying much attention to anybody else. Along both sides of the pier, hundreds of us stood shoulder to shoulder among lunch and tackle boxes, leaning on the railings, staring down at the lines disappearing into the murky water.
Distance had removed us from the city sounds, and the silence, once I was aware of it, seemed strange—as did the fact that nobody was catching anything. I certainly hadn't expected fast fishing from the pier, but I'd expected something. Still, no one else seemed to be expecting fish, or to care much about them.