At Fort Armistead Park, A Fishermen's Fellowship

Crime Scenes

August 20, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,

Here's the scene on a hot Wednesday afternoon at the end of the wooden pier at Baltimore's Fort Armistead Park:

A newly arrived immigrant from Vietnam struggled to reel in a 2-pound catfish from the murky depths of the Patapsco River.

A black man from West Baltimore put a net in the water to capture the writhing fish.

A white man from Arbutus grabbed the line and hauled it in.

Then all three men - from two generations and three cultures and races - stood over the pail and admired the biggest catch of the day.

Less than an hour earlier, a city judge had denied bail to a white man who police said came to this park early Tuesday and attacked a 76-year-old black fisherman while yelling racial slurs.

Police said the man, who had a tattoo of Hitler on his stomach, told detectives: "This wouldn't have happened if he was a white man."

The Vietnamese man, Joey Dinh, the white man, Travis Rightsell, and the black man, Joshua Payne, called the attack unfathomable, a violation not only of societal norms and civil society but also of the unstated bond formed between men engaged in their favorite pastimes.

"When you come to fish, you put all of your problems away for a few hours," said Payne, a 65-year-old shuttle bus driver for Johns Hopkins Hospital who comes to the park to fish and forget life for a few hours when his overnight shift is over. "When you go fishing, you get along. We don't even know each other, and we've been helping each other all morning."

Only a handful of fishermen were on the pier Wednesday afternoon, braving the sun on a sultry day. A city police cruiser went slowly back and forth along the park's narrow roads.

The 28-year-old Dinh was the hero of the day. Using shrimp he had bought for $5.99 a pound, he hooked the catfish but struggled while it was in the water. At first, it appeared his line got stuck, then others speculated that the fish had gotten entangled in a second line.

"That's a fish," exclaimed Rightsell, 26, who moved last year to Arbutus.

"It's nice," said Payne, standing on the other side of Dinh and growing exasperated by a crab that kept dragging down his line and then letting go.

"That's a blue," said Rightsell.

"Catfish," answered Payne.

"It's stuck," said Rightsell.

"It's not coming in," answered Dinh.

They bantered back and forth until the fish was in the bucket and the three men stood around to admire it.

Dinh wouldn't fry it in a pan with butter, he explained, but deep-fry it or chop it up and put ut in a Vietnamese soup, a delicacy of his homeland that he left just two years ago.

He explained the intricacies of its preparation, and the two other men listened with interest. The answer to the question, "Who will cook it?" transcended all differences.

"The wife," Dinh said, and the three men, who had never met until that morning, nodded in agreement and shared a laugh.

Dinh, who lives in Woodlawn and works at a nail salon, said he hadn't heard of the attack until Wednesday afternoon and expressed surprise. He had fished at the park a half-dozen times this year and said he's never experienced any problems.

Rightsell said he learned of the beating Tuesday night. "Why would anyone want to attack a 70-year-old man?" he said. "That man wasn't doing anything to anybody. All he wanted to do was catch some fish."

When the excitement over Dinh's fish subsided, the three men returned to their poles and crab lines. They might never meet again, and might not be friends away from this one obscure pier.

They agreed on this: The attack was horrible, but they'll leave it up to the rest of the city, the state, the nation, to debate the complexities of the crime, what it means and what it tells about ourselves and our neighbors.

These men came to Fort Armistead for one reason and one reason only, and they left it to Payne, the elder in the group, to put the whole thing in perspective:

"The fishing is good, sometimes."

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