Excerpt from There’s No José Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants (Nation Books, 2007).
Ed.’s note: There’s No José Here is a behind-the-scenes account of Mexican immigrants in New York City, focusing on a 34-year-old livery cab driver named Enrique. From the floors of hidden sweatshops in Bedford-Stuyvesant to the impoverished rural villages of Mexico, the book traces the journey of Enrique and his family as they continue a seemingly endless search for economic opportunity and stability. The excerpt below is taken from mid-way through the book, when Enrique’s family and two friends spend an afternoon fishing in Queens.
Despite the fact that his work sucked up nearly every free moment, Enrique still found time to fish. Along with José and their friend Darío, a Mexican who worked at a pet shop in Manhattan, Enrique was an avid—albeit consistently unlucky—fisherman. Weather permitting—and this meant anything short of a blizzard—most Sundays would find the three men on some lonely bridge or aging boat, dreaming of twenty-pound trout. To make the $1,150 rent, Enrique was now working a full day on Sundays, so the three friends usually went out on what they called the evening shift, from 7:00 p.m. to early Monday morning, around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. I am not so intrepid: I wait to join them on a Sunday that Enrique has taken off from work. On the day of our expedition it is cold but clear, that moment in New York City’s weather pattern between the humidity of summer and the ice of winter when the fall peeks through and offers a week or two of reasonable climate. I meet José at his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment and we walk a few blocks to catch a bus to the subway station, where Darío is waiting for us. Enrique has already left with Juana and Junior earlier that morning, to purchase some clothing at a mall in Queens, and is now at our meeting place.
We take the subway to the end of the line, and then hop on to another bus. After the hour-and-a-half jaunt we are in Rockaway Beach, right across the water from John F. Kennedy Airport.
Fishing in New York City is a bit like skiing in North Dakota: it’s the same equipment, yes, but there’s a whiff of desperation about it. During my youth I would spend a few weeks each summer visiting grandparents in Minnesota, fishing on lakes where even the occasional motorboats were seen as noise-producing nuisances. Fishing was an escape from the relative bustle of cities like Fargo and Minneapolis, a chance to be alone and clear one’s head. Had it been a word in common usage by seventy-year-old Scandinavians, my grandfathers would probably have described it as “meditative.”
In Queens, on the other hand, it feels like we are casting for fish in the middle of a polluted industrial plant. We set up shop on a narrow slab of sidewalk running along a bridge, divided only by a chain-link fence from cars zooming past at freeway speeds. Plastic bags and empty beer bottles litter the sidewalk, and the trash that isn’t swirling around our feet is snagged in the fence, flapping in the wind. If that isn’t enough to break the spell of the natural beauty that surrounds us, the roar of jets taking off and landing across the waterway surely does the trick.
José, Darío, and Enrique each have two fishing poles, and after sticking a concoction of animal guts on their hooks they cast their lines out. They then lean their poles against the rail and stand around, waiting for a bite. An hour passes, with little conversation. Enrique and Darío each have tugs on their lines and excitably reel in large catches of blue-green seaweed. It is getting cold. Juana has given up on witnessing anything of worth and is seated on an upside-down plastic bucket against the fence, with Junior on her lap. Her hood is pulled tight over her head, but still she shivers. The chill has even stopped Junior from his customary sprints and non-stop yelps.
“Boring, huh?” Darío says, looking out to sea. I don’t want him to think I am as cold and miserable as I feel, so I try to put on a good face.
“Bored? No way, this is what I came to do,” I reply with artificial cheer. “Have you guys been having luck around here?”
“Nah, not lately,” Enrique replies, butting in. “Two weeks ago José caught a fish that was this big,” and he holds his hands out three feet apart. “But I think we’ll have good luck later on. Still too early.”
Hearing his name, José wanders over. “I don’t think they’re biting here today. We should go to the ship.”
“The ship?” I ask. “What ship?” I have taken the bait.
“Yeah, the ship!” Darío seizes on the opening. “The güero should see the ship. Let’s stick around here until six, then do a round on the ship.”
“You go out on the ship at night?” I ask. That sounds cold. Enrique explains enthusiastically that for only thirty-five dollars a seat could be reserved on a boat that leaves at dusk. If we go tonight, he tells me, we will get back by no later than 2:00 a.m. and be sure to reel in a few beauties.
Beauties or not, this doesn’t sound enticing. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve got to work tomorrow,” I say, joking (they all have to work as well, and will be rising hours before me), but also serious. “I don’t think I’ll be joining you this time, but maybe in the future.” They all smile and say sure, maybe some other time, but I have a feeling they are going to do their best to drag me along when the time comes.
We spend the next four hours huddled around the poles, waiting in vain for action. Baits are switched, then switched again. No luck. I have a hard time seeing what draws the three out here each week. Even though I don’t have a pole myself, it can’t be said that I am missing out on the experience. We are all “fishing”: shuffling our feet, staring at the murky water, shivering. Juana and Junior have long ago given up on our failed experiment and returned to the warmth of the car. That sounds nice.
I begin to cough every few minutes. The coughs are dry, forced, but they fit into my plan of claiming a developing sickness if the men try to trap me into a trip on the boat. For some reason, the spirits of our group—notwithstanding my own, of course—remain high, despite the lack of action and freezing wind. I have retreated into a cold, silent bubble; Enrique, José, and Darío keep up a steady chatter that often ends in raucous laughter. José, normally quiet, has somehow located an endless string of jokes, which he tells at the rate of three a minute, his stoic face replaced with shrieks and giggles.
Enrique, never quiet, has become even louder than normal, and his range and creative application of expletives is dizzying, bordering on the nonsensical. Hijo de la chingada, eso puto fue más duro que su pinche madre, no? El cabrón anda de pendejo, la pinche chingadera. . . . Darío is joining in the fun as well, recounting stories of the stupidly rich gringos who would pay several thousands dollars for dogs the size of rats. Every now and then Enrique walks over to me and—mid-expletive—slaps me soundly on the back, just to make sure I am still alive.
As I go through various strategies for getting out of the evening boat trip and continue to half listen to this strange band of brothers, I slowly begin to see what might be drawing them out here Sunday after Sunday. It surely isn’t the fish, judging by how little they seem bothered by their lack of success. There is something more important than fish to be found during these hours, I start to realize. Here, there is some sort of power, peace of mind. No one is pestering them in English, no one is demanding to see identification. They are still immigrants in a bustling city, for sure, but they are also afforded some breathing room from their daily stresses. They can joke loudly, act ridiculously, and make the sorts of comments that men make when women aren’t around. In what is at times a confusing and intimidating city (though perhaps not intimidating for Enrique—the word didn’t seem to apply to him in any form), on this slab of pavement they are in charge. It is windy, ugly, cold, and uneventful, but at the moment this small corner of New York City real estate is absolutely theirs. No immigration officials, annoying bosses, or threatening landlords can ever reach them here.
My spirits are buoyed slightly by what I see as this little epiphany. It is now beginning to get dark, and the conversation again turns to the boat. Darío and Enrique are teasing José about his tendency to throw up whenever he’s out at sea. The idea of spending another four hours watching José vomit while shivering with a crew of crusty fishermen holds little appeal. I again explain my desire to go home, which is now greeted with vociferous resistance.
“What?” Enrique yells, feigning outrage. “I thought you fucking said that you wanted to go fucking fishing with us”—as if I hadn’t just spent six hours standing around and bullshitting in the freezing weather.
José chimes in. “Güero, you’re going with us. Why do you need to go home anyway? It’s early.” He was apparently unconcerned about the inevitable retching that he’d soon be doing, and wanted me to share the experience.
I let out another round of dry coughs. “I think I might be getting sick,” I say in the scratchiest voice I can conjure. No one seems moved. “Uhh, and I borrowed my girlfriend’s bike to get to José’s apartment, and she needs it back to go on a ride this evening.” This, like the coughs, is a lie—who would bike in this weather?—but I am desperate to return to my warm apartment and watch some television.
“La vieja?”_Darío asks incredulously, referring to my girlfriend. “You let her tell you what you can do?” We go back and forth like this for a while: me confirming that in fact my girlfriend called the shots, them laughing about my predicament and attempting to explain that I had mistakenly reversed the roles in the relationship. Thankfully, they eventually give in, and when we leave they drop me off at José’s before heading out for the night session. Next time, I promise them, I will _really go fishing and will block out at least a twelve-hour period of time so that we can get down to business.
When I call Enrique the following morning, he informs me that after five hours on the boat they had returned empty-handed. “But next week we’re going to try a different spot. A man on the boat told me about a place on Long Island where the fish are always biting.” I don’t bother to ask what this man was doing on the boat if he had his own private paradise. I don’t volunteer to join them again, either.