Fishing in Public

by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley
by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley

Christmastime in the median

Hey, folks. You know, I don’t know if I’m more frustrated, pressured, or just pissed. My darn editor calls on Wednesday p.m., needs a column by Sunday. Jesus, you try coming up with something in four days. Boy, if he didn’t have at least 50 lbs. on me, I’d be calling him every name I could think. But me being the nice guy I am, I’ll deal with it. It’ll just be a caffeine weekend.

He wants me to do like a recap for the season. Why? There was none. I did not catch one fish, and I tried everything. A lot of other folks didn’t catch anything either. The only thing I could count on was watching seals. Not even a pollack, which is garbage fish. This has never happened before. I tried every trick in the book — bait, lures, places, depth. You name it, I tried it. Talk about frustration.

So is it doomsday for the fishing? Some optimistic pals of mine say when it’s bad one year, the next year’s good. But are they dreaming?

Now it’s much too cold to even think about fishing. But with the holidays around the corner, my memory’s working overtime. I remember when I ran the dogfish factory, for certain. Once I got 80,000 lbs. of fish the day before Thanksgiving. And no crew to speak of. You need about 40 people to work that amount of fish. Talk about pressure! I got through it, though, because Portland waterfront people are used to pressure. Years gone by, when there was fish here, if I was broke come the holidays I could always find a place on a boat or at least take a shore job to get me through.

And then whammo — no fish. No money to be made. Even for a guy like me who had done everything out on the ocean you could imagine — fish of all sorts, shrimp, scallops, even squids. You name it (lobsters too, by the way). Urchins. It goes on and on. Then I couldn’t make a nickel. And there’s that word pressure again.

The pressure really came on a few years back. I don’t really know how to describe it, but I kinda got in some kind of relationship with a girl, Diane, who had a couple of kids I adored. And not a goddamn cent come the holidays. Now, what do I say to ’em, “Sorry, no fish, no Santa Claus this year”? Right. I don’t fucking think so. So, pressure again. If I had to rob a bank it’d be a better option than facing those kids with no gifts from Santa.

Then it hits me — back in my doper days, I had stood on a median with a cardboard sign. Might as well say begging, I guess. So voilà, I’ll try it again. You know, it’s harder than working. Sometimes you’d stand out in the cold and maybe earn, oh, say, six bucks. But this was my only choice.

I see they’re making a big deal of it now. I personally think it’s more a thing of prejudice than safety. I never see anyone get run over while doing what we used to call “running the sign” or “flag cardboard.”

The season I was forced to do it, I’ll not say how much I made, but I will say this: the kids had a great Christmas. A lot of folks figured I wanted the dough for a fresh bottle of vino. But if they caught the light just right and had a second to chat, I could explain what I was out for and they would really help me out. Some folks can be very considerate and helpful. Considering how popular I used to be, of course a lot of people knew me and what I was up to. Sort of embarrassing sometimes. But when it came down to it, the kids came first. I swallowed my pride for them. Do it again too.

Holding signs really seems to have caught on. Why, I see guys signing (and girls) at 5:30 a.m. on State Street. It’s a crowd out there. And I hate to say, but folks just might get hit by a car. Matter of time. Some drunk’ll say, “Why, that no-good son of a bitch, I’ll give him a good scare,” and pow, some poor fuck is dead. As an experienced signer, I’ve seen some folks aren’t so nice. They got a mean, dirty look. Most folks just drive by, not really giving a thought. One fella used to wave some silly badge at me. Ha! He’d threaten to call the cops and I’d have to move along, but sometimes I’d say, “Go fuck yourself.” People are weird.  

Like I said, I had some darn good luck that Christmas for the kids, but boy oh boy do I wish the fish would come back. I’d much rather be running a fish factory than running a sign. Christ, right now I’d be happy to catch a fish. I’m forgetting what it’s like.

Have a good winter, folks. Perhaps I’ll see you in the spring. We’ll see.

Oh, and by the way, my fresh-water license? It was for me a complete waste of 28 dollars. I didn’t catch one trout. My pal Randy does well, living on Sebago Lake and all, but I can’t just boogie up to Casco whenever I feel like it. So maybe it’s my fault, but I’ve spent my last dough on any kind of license, even though it covers salt-water fishing also. So fuck the government too.

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