The East End Hookers
When I was twelve, my dad and grandfather took my brother and I snapper fishing. We stopped at a gas station on the way that had a bait-n-tackle shop attached. “Oh yes sir! They’re catching them. Oh yeah, good size! Yup, YES SIR,” said the mechanic, a skinny young man covered in grease and grime. His hair, in a pony tail had been dyed blond too many times. His teeth, pointing in impossible directions, jutted out of his mouth like yellow Chiclets. “We need sharp hooks and good bait Jimboy,” said Gramps looking down at me through thick glasses; always benevolent with his words. “Two packs of snapper hooks, two bags of shiners, four bobbers, anything else, Mister?” The mechanic asked as he pecked at the cash register with black hands. It was the staining kind of black that came from working on cars. The register rang as the cash drawer shot out to make change. My Dad was getting last minute directions to Three Mile Harbor as a little mutt with dark chocolate eyes looked up at me wistfully from the opening between the garage and the bait shop. He dropped his head back down between his two front paws making a most curious grunt followed by a sigh.
Chugging along in our Caprice Classic down windy, tree lined roads we searched for the fishing pier. When we saw the water, we knew we were close. “Oh man LOOK, the tide is SOO HIGH,” Pete said as he jabbed me in the ribs. Ignoring his taunts, I looked out the window finding the eel grass barely visible, its pointed tips just above the surface. We went down several streets in search of the pier. Clusters of signs were attached to a pole that marked the entrance to each street. Finally, one emptied down to the harbor, bringing us to a parking lot with a boat ramp off to the side. Tall pilings wore shingle caps tacked to their tops, framing the pier. It was a favorite perching spot of the seagulls that squawked to one another in their own language. There were moments when I felt as if I could decipher this secret language. Seagull laughter sounded different from seagull hunger, different from normal gull sassiness. Initially fascinated by these birds, I quickly tired of them as they never stopped trying to steal our bait. “Go, GET,” said Pete, swatting his bamboo pole wildly. “Go to the dump you garbage vultures!” We unrolled the strings from the poles. Gramps dropped our bucket attached by a rope to the water below. “We need to put the bait in the pail, soften it up,” said Gramps, hauling it back up after capturing enough water. Meanwhile, Dad was helping us put bobbers and hooks on. He burned the excess string with the end of his cigarette so it wouldn’t fray. Two large commercial fishing boats were held to the pier by heavy ropes attached to enormous metal cleats. Seine fishing nets hung drying in the sun, cinched together like my mother’s curtains. I decided to fish right between these two boats in the shady water.
We were hooked the second the bobber blinked under the water and disappeared from sight. It happened so fast! The reflex to pull up on the bamboo pole was nearly subconscious. Landing the catch left me breathless. Usually it meant the blue-silver body of a snapper reflecting in the murky water, becoming visible only after a meteoric rise to the surface. You couldn’t ever be certain of the identity of your catch. There was great fun in solving this mystery. We filled the bucket that day in August of 1986. It was simply wonderful; it was the beginning of my love affair with fishing.
We pulled into our driveway with the familiar sound that tires make on stones. Swinging myself out of the hot car I breathed in the fresh air. The smells of the ocean, fish, beach plums, honey suckle, pine trees, and even the Russian olives all played a part in making the fragrance; the lovely perfume of the East End. “Who’s gonna clean these fish? You guys want to go next time RIGHT?” My Dad said before refreshing us on what to do. “Be careful, those top fins WILL stick you.” My brother jumped at the ugly prospect of processing the fish, super excited to look inside the bellies. Pete finds this sort of thing absolutely fascinating. “Oh boys, snappers look great. I’ll get out the pan.” I looked upwards from where her voice floated down lyrical, like a bird’s song. There, with her elbows resting on the window sill was my grandmother; a short, round woman with a full head of salt and pepper hair. Pete dug a quick hole in the sandy ground, then proceeded to cut off heads, scale and check the contents of EVERY stomach. “Shiners… Shiners…, WHOA, look at this! This one ate a baby CRAB!” Pete said, holding up the half-digested exoskeleton of a very small crab. The digestive juices had drained the crab of all its color, rendering it transparent. I had had enough. “I’ll go get you a plate for the fish,” I volunteered.