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Catfish and cops

We were sure the cops were going to take us in. I kept going over in my head how I’d get out. I had no family in town I could call for bail. I had nothing in my bank account, no friends who had more than a few bucks in theirs.

My friend Sid and I were hungover, as we usually were. We had been sitting around in my un-air-conditioned apartment that morning, drinking hair of the dog and water, lots of water. We had no idea what we were going to do. We both had the day off from our shitty, no-account jobs when the idea hit us: Let’s go fishing in the Missouri River.

Neither of us had ever been on the river near downtown Kansas City. But, yeah, we thought. There’s got to be fish in there. People used to fish the river all the time. What changed? Certainly, we could find a place to wet a hook and drink some beer and perhaps reel in a fine catfish.

We gathered our fishing poles and stopped by the bait shop on Swope Parkway for worms. We bought a couple of six packs at the liquor store on Main and 49th next to the burger joint called a Streetcar Named Desire. We popped a couple of those beers and headed through the Plaza and down Main Street toward downtown, toward the river.

Without really a plan or any idea where we were going, we drove aimlessly along sixth street and down into the Quay looking for access to the river. What we were going to catch and how, we were clueless. But with the bold spirit of adventure only a couple of drunks can muster, we imagined ourselves sitting on the rocks lining the stream, contemplating the day in the sun, waiting the way fishermen do for the strike that would make our day.

We found our way over the Grand Street Viaduct and down through the old and abandoned buildings lining the river. Back and forth we drove that stretch, looking for a break in the facades. Maybe we could access the river from the back of one of those buildings. But we could find no purchase for our big dreams. We kept talking about cooking up catfish with curry and coconut milk. Some rice maybe. We would get vegetables and more beer, maybe some whiskey to wash down our cool fish.

We finally happened on the parking lot where Captain Linn’s old river tour boat used to dock before he moved it upstream to where the Kansas entered the Missouri River. Grass grew up in the cracks in the lot. A small, square brick building where the concession sold tickets still stood. We parked next to the brick structure and took a few minutes to poke around inside. Vagrants had trashed the place, the windows broken out of their frames, graffiti on the walls, and the plaster-and-laths walls busted and slumping in piles around the interior.

We felt a kind of entitlement being there. The place was abandoned. No owner had cared for the place since the riverboat moved. It was our realm. We owned it and could do what we wanted. We spent some time throwing old bottles the drunks had left against the walls of the building, leaving sprays of glass around the building.

When we’d had enough, we drove the car to the other end of the lot. There, next to another brick building that housed the water intake for the steam power plant on the hill behind us, we found some concrete steps leading down the water’s edge. The stream was muddy and foamed around the water intake and the steps.

“Do you think there’s any fish in there?” Sid asked.

“We’re not going to find out unless we try.” I shrugged my shoulders.

“We’ll both have to sit on the steps.”

The place was less than ideal. The steps lay between an old concrete mooring and the water intake building. An iron handrail stood to one side. This didn’t match our grand idea of sitting streamside. Trash and broken bottles were everywhere. The water looked at fetid as the surroundings. But neither of us had ever seen the river from this perspective before. It spread out to the other bank several hundred yards away. There, trees lined the banks.

“That’s where it seems we ought to be,” Sid said. “But it looks like this is what we have.”

“Let’s make the best of it,” I said, pulling on another beer.

Almost as soon as we’d gotten out of the car, thick layers of sweat formed on our foreheads and faces. It was high summer, and the temperature had to be in the high 90s. We fetched our poles and worms.

About the time we headed down the steps, we heard the whoop of a police siren. Looking over our shoulders, we saw the prowler skid to a stop next to Sid’s car. The two officers got out, their hands on their holsters.

“Stop where you are,” an officer with brown hair said.

They looked us over and seeing we had only fishing poles and six packs hanging from our hands, they eased up a little.

“Come over to your car.”

Sid and I walked over and set our things down.

“Put your hands on the hood and spread your legs,” the other officer, who had blond hair, told us.

We did as he said. In my mind, we were cooked. Both of us had been drinking that morning. Here it was, early afternoon. They’d get us for sure, being both of us underage and with our beer.

The cops frisked us. It was the first time for me, but Sid looked like an old pro. We locked eyes. He hitched an eyebrow.

The blond cop frisking Sid pulled Sid’s small bag of weed out of a pocket. Blondie also found the husk of a plastic ballpoint with aluminum foil wrapped around one end that Sid used as a one-hitter. My spirit crashed. Not only were we going to jail for being underage but we were going to have a possession charge, as well.

“That’s mine,” Sid said. “He doesn’t know I have it. He’s got nothing to do with it.”

The cops turned us around.

“What do you guys think you’re doing?” the blond officer said.

“We were just going fishing,” I said.

Both officers looked down at the muddy, foamy water, considered the trash. They looked dubious.

“You’re going fishing in that?” the brown-haired policeman asked.

“Yeah,” Sid said. “We figured we had nothing to do today and we thought we’d try to fish the river.”

“What the hell do you think you’re going to catch?” the other officer asked.

“I don’t know . . . catfish,” I said.

The blond-haired officer spoke up. “You’re trespassing on gas company property, do you know that?”

“No,” we said.

“Well, you are and that’s a hell of a charge,” brown hair said. “Then, we have this.” He held up the bag with a paltry amount of weed in it and the pipe.

Sid and I didn’t know what to say. We stood there, our hands in front of us. I was waiting for the police to pull out their handcuffs.

“Here’s what we do,” blond hair said. “You pour out that beer and throw this marijuana, and I suppose it’s marijuana, in the river. Then you get the hell out of here and don’t come back.”

I have never felt such relief. We opened the beers one by one and poured them onto the pavement. Sid went over to the river and emptied the bag and tossed the pipe in the river.

“That’s about all the littering we’re going to let you do today,” blond hair said. “Take these cans and put them in your car and drive away.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Unless you want us to take you in. Trespassing. Possession. Paraphernalia. Underage in possession.” Brown hair looked at me. I smiled nervously.

“No,” I said. “This is great.”

“Now get on.”

Sid and I gathered up the cans and put them in the car with the fishing poles. He drove cautiously across the parking lot and up the road leading to the landing. The cops followed us all through downtown and south past the Crown Center shopping district. Sid gripped the wheel with iron fists, determined not to swerve or make any suspicious moves. The last thing we wanted was a drunk-driving charge.

When the cops turned off of Main and we were free of being followed, Sid turned to me.

“We started looking for something a little different to break up the day. How do you think we did?”

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