James Henry's peace is in the flat dark water of the Potomac, and on Thursday's that is where he goes, to cast off and watch the river and wait.
Yesterday he fished the marina. "Always fish," said Henry. "Stay out of trouble." He sat with a cigarette and some soda and two new rods. He sat all alone, shirt open at the collar, fishing as though urban renewal had never swallowed the Washington marina.
"Catfish, carp, bass," Henry said. "Always throw them back. I'm a bachelor. I don't bother cleaning nobody's fish."
He had settled onto a splintered piling under the rumbling thump of the Southwest Freeway bridge, in the shadows. When he was 8 he fished here too, a Southwest kid too little to pull in the catch. Stole his father's bamboo pole and lit out for the river bank in short pants and sneakers, no socks.
His mother wailed. "All you ever do is fish, do you ever go to school?" And Henry ducked away from her, into the sweet warm evenings to go watch the river again.
Now he is 55 and a janitor at Walter Reed Medical Center, free every other Thursday. He climbs into his old red station wagon and heads down from his Georgia Avenue apartment to the water. "Once I caught a 32-pound carp," he said. "Back in 1964." He did not throw it back.
There are different places along the Potomac for a man to sit quietly with a fishing rod, and Henry knows most of them. The marina was first, though: no freeway bridge back then, no massive restaurants just down the way. The boats crowded in around the brick Washington Marina building and a long produce market stretched out nearby, selling vegetables, fish, live chickens.
"Police was strict in those days," Henry said. "Ride horseback, tear you up down here." They'd say he had no business hanging around and then they would walk him home, their horses stepping behind him all the way back to 934 1st Street SW, and at the front door his mother would betray him and say they were right, he had no business being out there.
The house on 1st Street was cleared away from urban renewal. Henry cannot remember exactly when. "I've lived so many places - I don't know when they tore them down," he said.
Barges and cranes came out to the river and the bridge went up in 1959. The produce market was cleared away. Restaurants that take credit cards appeared along the waterfront, the fishing boats stopped coming in, and the marine store shifted from boat sales to more boating accessory sales: Slickers, hatch hinges, centerboards. "Everybody's gone down here," said Robert Stickell, who owns the Washington Marina Co. "They've all moved out in the suburbs, where they've got more room, more facilities. Marine facilities will probably never come back here, because there's no room."
It still smells of marina where Henry fishes now: sour, warm, damp rope and seafood. The blue crabs and scallops wait in bushel baskets on ice, brought in by truck, laid out on the decks of the Peggy Neal, or the Wayne Christie.
And Henry sits alongside, saying a cabin cruier is what he would like ("I'd pick up a nice fine girl and take her out on the Chesapeake Bay"), catching whatever happens by, including dreams.