I’ve almost written this bit before, but before was Open Salon. I used the bit to introduce my first first major work after graduate school finished for me in Newark, New Jersey May of 2011. By late fall I was considering PhD programs, but not seriously, and starting to write a historical novel based on my field work. I was fifty four and was one of the few in my graduate seminars who was not already in or going to a PhD program. Most were at least twenty years younger than I, and I had struggled to do my work one class per semester, while most of them were doing several.
Long before those kids were born I was fishing commercially just off of the Coney Island beach on a leaky thirty two foot junk trawler set up for gill netting. I was fourteen, and waking up to the brown skies of pre unleaded gas era dawns a sea, killing fish to Carly Simon on the am radio.
Coney Island is visible to the naked eye on a clear day from Sandy Hook, and the first page of that first project described my first day on the Marilyn. The action took place the year before, during midsummer 1970 when I was aboard at thirteen, with two former marines trying to kill themselves by filling up the tired boat with fish that they would sell for seven cents a pound, should they not sink on the way back to the Belford Seafood Co-op on the far side of the Navy Pier.
I watched He’s Got Game last night, set on Coney Island, a fictional account of a reality so remote from my own teen years that had really taken place just just a short distance away in a totally different place and time.
My first day on the Marylyn, which we all survived, except for the boxes and boxes of fish, delivered to the co-op gutted and iced, ended for some reason at an Italian restaurant in Red Bank. It was like some kind of manhood ceremony...I was the only kid there. Nobody yelled at me, and my father even talked nicely to me, as the small private dining room seemed to rock under my feet.
I did not play ball well, often, or fish for very long. By fifteen I was training to cook, and by seventeen I was running a kitchen. I was not going to college, I thought, ever. I never had game, or wanted game. I wanted to be asea on deck, not fishing. This was never an option. I got picked to train in Texas, there were no other offers. I went.
I saw Coney Island on clear days for many years, from Sandy Hook, when I was working up and down the coast. The air and water got cleaner, but I was in a fog. In 1989 I had joined a mobbed up health club not far from the beach, close to the small house I was working out of. The club had a full court indoors where pick up games went on some weekday mornings. I’d go up there and shoot a few baskets from time to time.
One day I ran into the pick up games and lined up at the foul line with the sit outs to shoot for a spot in the next game. The losers had to shoot with us, and the first five to hit would take on the winners. As I stood to shoot one of the sweaty losers tried hard to distract me...nobody else, just me. I’m no ball player...but I hit that with no rim.
I saw him in the news papers not long after, he was running a large sports betting ring, and had gotten busted. I wondered how he could afford the Jaguar, I had noticed him pulling up in, even more so after he had tried to mess up my shot.
I never had game, but always could get it done If I had too, through no fault of my own. I certainly would have missed that shot had he not messed with me. I never went up to shoot after that. I liked the rowing machine.
Killing fish was easy, but killing was nothing I wanted to do after fifteen. I had had enough. I was more interested in staying alive, and not getting yelled at.