© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2002
EVERY NIGHT, they try to get him. If one person comes close, the others egg on the hunt.
That's how catching a fish works.
"Got him?" one man asks.
Feet thump quickly toward the railing. Hands grab the rod. It bends like an upside down J.
"Got him?" another repeats, farther down the catwalk.
Not this time.
HE is a fish, any fish. Maybe the hammerhead shark that Thadius Moore almost caught and Klint Carmickle nearly almost caught, all within a span of minutes Monday night.
Maybe a ladyfish, drawn to the lights of the Gandy, destined to be chopped for bait.
The ladyfish is a "him," too.
I CANNOT PRETEND to understand this, entirely. When I want fish, I go to Publix or Whaley's and do not speak in personal pronouns. But every night on catwalks of the Friendship Trail Bridge, alongside the Gandy, people wait hours for him, wait with their bait, perched above the bay.
I wonder who they are, and so I stop.
DIRK AND LOIS Hoffer have come from Seminole Heights. He is 73; she, 71. Mr. Hoffer is an Assembly of God minister. He wears a plaid shirt; she, a flowered one. Sweetly, he holds her hand as her sneakered feet follow the planks.
One night a half-century ago, he drank too much liquor and fell ill upon a Navy ship. Contrite, he asked God to send him a good girl; and, back home, young Lois appeared. Now he speaks of miracles and, when pressed, fish.
"We've never had a lot of success catching anything off Gandy," he says, nonetheless beaming like a shiner in the light. "But we really just like to relax."
AND THEN I get it: People aren't here to catch supper.
In Sunset Park, blood pressure rises over stormwater runoff. In Tampa Heights, they feverishly study a neighborhood plan. Gandy Gardens rails about a road.
Here, on the catwalk, a radio spills salsa and merengue, obscuring the rumble of cars overhead. Couples stand several paces apart so that lines don't tangle. There is room to think.
JOE BURGESS is here. He's 42, a chef. He lives in Oakford Park, near Channel 13. The others include locksmith Freddy Pagan and girlfriend Lidia Rodriguez, from Citrus Park; security guard John Russell, 22; Jen Hoyt and boyfriend Jason Thurlow, from Clearwater; Dustin Young, 27, and Richard Burton, 20, aluminum workers in Tampa on a job.
They bring coolers, Coleman stoves, folding chairs, books, even TV sets.
"Better than sitting home," says Hoyt, 27. "It gets you closer to the water and farther away from the city."
THE U-SHAPED wooden path starts on the Tampa side, approaches the middle of the bay, then wraps under the bridge for a return home.
At the crossover, I find Moore, 27, Carmickle, 30, and Josh Knuth, 28. Moore and Knuth, friends at Southern Illinois University, followed work to Florida and met Carmickle.
If not for fishing, they'd be out meeting women.
Some nights, they set up right after work and stay almost till sunrise.
"It's nice when you get a breeze coming off the water," Knuth says. "The pelicans are gawking at you, waiting."
WAITING for fish. Much like everyone else.
It's not so bad.
Knuth figures they could be in Minnesota in a foot of snow, instead of lingering over warm Tampa Bay near November, taking guesses at what snags their lines. Mussels? Maybe.
"You got him?" Moore asks.
Knuth shakes his head and grins, anyway.
Not this time.
-- Tampa's Kennedy Boulevard was once called Grand Central. Now Grand Central is a weekly City Times column. Writer Patty Ryan can be reached at 226-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.