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.
It was simple enough to manage a bus and boat for the following Sunday. What could not be managed was Herbie, who had withdrawn in an understandable huff. The fish supper was hastily relocated at the Bells. Otherwise, the previous Sunday's program would be followed.
It was not followed. Unhappily, a writer from the London Daily Mirror had seen fit to hold a party that Saturday evening and the temptation proved too great for a good two-thirds of the membership. When the four really serious members, we veterans of Montauk, arrived at the Bells for breakfast, it was plain that several London dailies, a New Zealand wire agency and a Sydney afternoon paper were in no fit condition to go to sea. The jukebox blared hard rock. The bar was doing a roaring trade. And there was no sign at all of the black pudding.
Eventually we tracked it down, concrete-hard in the freezer. While the proprietors attempted to clear the bar. we sliced and fried the stuff as best we could. Then the bus arrived. In Bury, Lancashire, they would be horrified to hear of black pudding—heat-seared on the outside, solid ice in the center—being crammed down without ceremony by a seriously slewed bunch of newspapermen, as they boarded a bus.
For board it they did, in spite of a wild hope expressed by George that they might forget the whole thing. And they did not board it alone. Suddenly, Costello's Angling Club seemed to have doubled its membership. There were half a dozen girls, some of whom had been attracted from The Lion's Head by the commotion outside the Bells. There was a middle-aged man dressed as if for the office, in a pin-striped suit and carrying a tightly furled umbrella. He was to cause trouble later. There was Barry Murphy, the underbarman of the Bells, and a man known, it seemed, as Lord Edward, whose claimed connection with Costello's Angling Club was that he was a non-playing member of the Bells of Hell darts team. Few of the party were unprovided with bottles and as we were about to leave, the joint proprietors of the Bells appeared with heavy cartons laden with further supplies. The booze wasn't all. The reek of newfangled cigarettes wafted through the bus and, apprehensively, George Gordon, Ivor Key, Steve Dunleavy and myself, the only serious persons aboard, watched the back of the driver's neck to see if his short hairs were starting to bristle, as they had every right to do. He evidenced no concern, though, until a man and a girl, who indeed had seemed curiously separate from the rest of the party, asked if he could drop them off at Sixth Street.
"We're going to Sheepshead Bay," the driver told them tersely.
"Why is the downtown bus going to Sheepshead Bay?" the man asked. "Please don't take us to Sheepshead Bay!" For a moment it looked as if they were going to be shanghaied no matter what. "Come fishing with us!" caroled Lord Edward. But, generously, we allowed them to set down reasonably close to Sixth. South through Brooklyn, the bus rolled along in a miasma of booze and ribald song. The one thing that had gone right was that we were on time. As the waterfront finally gleamed before us in the half-light of predawn, an unholy cheer went up.
It must have been the first indication to the regulars aboard Helen II that, instead of the boat being half empty and having the prospect of a pleasantly un-crowded day ahead of them, they were to be subjected to a visitation that no honest anglers should have to suffer. Whooping, carrying their bottles, the members and non-members of the Costello's Angling Club came aboard, to the fascinated horror of the regulars. Two of them in particular, solid characters in their mid-50s, clutched their rods close and averted their eyes as the huge bulk of Michael McGovern of the New York Daily News yawed in swinging a rum bottle. It seemed necessary to say something to the mate. "I've seen worse," he replied to the muttered apologies, but he didn't sound entirely convinced.
"Where are we going to fish?" George asked him, to show that some of us, at any rate, were serious.
"The Mud Hole," said the mate. His expression showed that he could think of nowhere more appropriate.
It took a good hour to reach the Mud Hole and a certain pattern began to establish itself. The incurables were mostly stretched out on benches below, some comatose. The walking wounded favored the upper deck—snatches of song and, occasionally, the sound of fracturing glass drifted down the companionway. Ever one to seize on a betting opportunity, Peter Myers was offering 5 to 1 against McGovern going overboard before the end of the day and 10 to 1 against him knocking somebody else into the sea. They were generous odds.
Even so, McGovern was one of perhaps half the club membership who took up a position at the rail when we got to the Mud Hole. Untutored, however, he let his sinker down before the Helen II had come up to her anchor, thus achieving, when the other sinkers went down, a tangle that involved eight lines, including two from the far side of the boat. Inevitably, the latter belonged to the pair of anglers who had so patently disapproved of us when we came aboard. They remonstrated with us. Lord Edward was not content to accept this meekly.
"I know your type," he said loftily. "You are grocery fishermen. Leave us sportsmen alone." Only the bulk of McGovern at Lord Edward's side, unstable but menacing, prevented an unpleasant incident.
Meantime, the gentleman in the business suit had been seized with panic. Boldly climbing the steps to the wheel-house, ignoring the "no admittance" sign, he had made the discovery that nobody was steering the boat. He flew down the steps again in panic and announced this fact—to be told that, the boat not being under Way, there was no necessity for a driver. This did not entirely convince him. He wanted to go home, he said. Couldn't somebody radio for a helicopter to lift him off?
"That man," Ivor Key said, "is 42 years old and he has never worked in his life. He married this rich woman who does everything for him. Every morning he gets up at 10 a.m. and climbs into the tub that she's run for him. Then every few minutes she comes in to top up the hot water and turn the page of his newspaper. She'd pay for a helicopter, too, if she knew he wanted one." But the situation did not arise. Without regard for the sharp crease in his striped trousers, the chairman of the board, or whatever he was, subsided onto a bench and began to snore lightly.
The situation at the rail was interesting. At first, it had been crowded. Now, though, as when some thin red line of defenders is being decimated, gaps appeared and grew larger. We four original club members fished steadily. Steadily, too, whiting were swung aboard. They were not particularly impressive in size. Few would have weighed more than 1½ pounds, but there was money riding on them—pool prizes for the first, the most, the biggest and the last fish. Already, I had secured the prize for the first fish to come aboard. Now it was a fight, as far as I could see, between George Gordon and myself for the biggest bag.
Ivor Key was the first of the inner circle to give up his rod. As we learned later, seasickness had claimed him and he swears that he spent a full three hours in the head. When he was feeling better, he says, and emerging into the daylight, someone walked by carrying what the cafeteria aboard the Helen II coyly advertised as a "tube steak." The waft from the frankfurter sent him back into the head again. So he was out of the running. Steve Dunleavy, though remaining at the rail, was flagging. His work rate was obviously declining sharply. We did not know then that he had been presented with a bottle of Mount Gay Barbadian rum on the run out. Now it was taking its toll. That left Gordon and me to fight it out. At no time was there more than a couple of fish between us. Fingers bleeding from the sharp teeth of the whiting, which we disregarded in our hurry to unhook them, we yelled out the score at one another. We were well into the 20s before we noticed that we were almost alone on the rail.
Angling had proved of little abiding interest to most of the members of the angling club. Instead, a card game called Horse Race, on which bets could be placed, was the big attraction, Tony Heyes holding court in the below-decks lounge and calling the odds. The big winner, it turned out, was Miss Joanne O'Donnell, a singer at the Bells. She won $58. She had also caught two whiting before settling down to cards, which was to prove significant later.
George and I continued to fight it out at the rail. We had misjudged at least one of the club, because midway through the afternoon a small, plump photographer called Micky Brennan came wandering down the deck with his rod. "Haven't caught a bleeding thing all day," he said. "I've been up in the bows."
"It's impossible not to catch a whiting in the Mud Hole," Gordon said. "Show us what you have been doing." Brennan let his lead weight down over the side, allowed it to sink a few feet, then looked up expectantly. "Gimme your rod," said Gordon.
The 10 minutes he took out to prove to Brennan that the bait had to be on the bottom proved to be his undoing. When the klaxon of the Helen II brayed to signal the end of fishing, I was four whiting in front. I had the last one, too, and reckoned I had the biggest.
But that was to reckon without Miss Joanne O'Donnell. "One of mine is bigger than that," she declared when she saw the pride of my catch. "I'll get it." The fish, however, was not to be found at first. It finally turned up in the possession of Lord Edward, who vainly attempted to claim the prize himself. Because he had not been seen to fish all day, this claim was judged invalid. Furthermore—on the advice of the mate who had reckoned it might take the pool—Miss O'Donnell had marked her winner by cutting the tail from it when she caught it.
On such a sour note, the second annual outing ended. The bus, by now more like an ambulance, made its way back to the Bells of Hell. Nodding over the stove, a few stalwarts went through the motions of cooking up a dish of whiting. Nobody had the heart to mention electing a commodore. Sadly, we took our crisp fillets into the bar with us while we watched on TV the last two rounds of the fight between Joe Bugner, the English boxer, and Ron Lyle in Las Vegas. Bugner lost. Nobody actually put it into words—it looked, though, as if Costello's Angling Club had come and gone.
A hot night, several gin and tonics and George's evocative talk about fishing back home gave birth to the club.
Unlike most of the membership Herbie had his own tackle. What he did not have was a phone.