There was something haunting about the song on the car radio - the sad refrain of displaced surfer, 1960s style.
"My woody's outside . . . covered with snow. New York's a lonely town . . . when you're the only surfer boy around."
It was 6 a.m. Sunday. Sunlight clready was piercing the concrete canyons of the forgotten lower West Side. Cabs clattered and clawed their way along rutted streets, clanging through the potholes.
The ad said the Palace II, New York's only remaining fishing party boat, would pick up passengers from the Big Apple in another 45 minutes at a pier on West 24th Street.
Once, the elevated West Side Highway carried streams of traffic along the Hudson River past 24th Street, but a few years ago it went the way of things in teeming metropolis. It rotted away.
Now the rusty remains of steel underpinnings end at 2lth Street amid abandoned warehouses and marine terminals.
Between two rotting piers stood a little clutch of anglers, waiting for the Place to arrive from Hoboken. There were 10 already, sipping coffee.
I pulled up. "You guys going fishing?"
"This is the place," said Julius Stern.
"Great. Can I leave my car here?"
There was a small clearing among the beer cans and busted concrete.
"Sure," said Stern, a short, cheerful guy who carried a European accent, even though he'd lived here 40 years. "It'll still be here when you get back. Maybe missing a couple wheels, the battery. But it'll be here."
The others nodded.
"Hey," on exclaimed, "in case nobody told you, this is New York."
By the time the 110-foot Palace arrived from its base on the Jersey shore we were 20.
Georgie Stone had arrived. He stands about 5-foot-4, hard-muscled, tattooed. He was trailing a shopping cart full of fishing gear, two rods, his lunch and four quarts of Ballantineale.
"Eight minutes away I live," he said "I'm here 15 years. I'm a regular."
So is Stern, who takes the subway down from 162nd Street when he goes fishing 40 times a year.
The place already was jammed with 80 anglers from the Jersey side. The New Yorkers filed aboard and looked for spots to claim along the rail.
The muttered about the good old days when the Sea Queen used to leave from the East River. They had it all to themselves before it wen bankrupt three years ago.
"We didn't have to take what the Jersey guys left."
The Palace has been running for 50 years out of Hoboken and New York. The captain, Lester Balletti, learned his trade from his fater, and now his son is mating for him.
Balletti reminisced about the first Palace - a 180-foot floating mansion his father bought during the Depression. It had wicker settees, carpets, bird's-eye maple trim.
We cruised down the Hudson past the World Trade Center and beautiful Battery Park in the "new" Place, a converted World War II subchaser.
Down in the galley, the cook served up steaming platters of ham and three eggs for $1.25.
Capt. Balletti steered past the tip of Manhattan, which glowed in the morning light. He steamed past anchored freighters, the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island and under the soaring Verazano Narrows Bridge.
It was a 90-minute run to the first stop off Sandy Hook, N.J., where the fluke were supposed to be biting. Balletti stopped the engines, tooted the whistle signal to start fishing. The boat drifted among a horde of private boats and other party boats.
It turned out to be a mediocre fishing day. The Palace churned along as far south as Long Branch but the tide never was quite right and the fluke fishing was spotty, at best. A catch of five by day's end was a success.
The best was last. Balletti gave up on New Jersey and headed north. At 3:30 he stopped the boat off Coney Island amid a rush-hour crush of fishing boats. A tide was finally making up. Big Al Spore, George Stone's Mutt-and-Jeff pal who stands 6-foot-8, landed a 3 1/2 pound fluke, which figured to win the big-fish betting pool.
Stone raced over and smothered the flatfish with kisses.
At 4:30 it was over. We headed for home.
In lower Manhattan an angler stopped by the rail to point out the sights.
"That's our gay pier," he said, pointing to a decaying dock.
"See all the nude sunbathers?"
He pointed to the next pier.
"That's where the hustlers work. They have to keep moving or they get arrested. They walk up and down the pier while the guys drive by.
"Over here you see these two boats? Those were confiscated by the police. They were smuggling marijuana."
The car was still there. Even the radio. When I turned the key it came on instantly, playing bigtown's favorite jingle.
"I . . . Love New York . . ."