Ernest “Papa” Hemingway has been dead for over fifty years, which means he hasn’t been around to experience the creation of milestone achievements like a cell phone, the internet, or yoga pants. But you’d be foolish to argue that his imprint has ever diminished in modern culture. His books are displayed at the front of most stores, they just made an HBO special about him, and the bar I went to in Hollywood this weekend is actually called “Hemingway’s.” In my early writing days the fact that we both write, possess outlooks on life that lean towards nihilistic, and are nicknamed Papa, inspired me to think of a connection between us two. I tried to use it to my advantage, nearly copying his literary style, but the deeper I got into this one story the more I realized it didn’t make sense to apply the bleak World War I mentality onto a story about texting and rejection from sorority chicks.
In result, I quit that story some time ago, but a part of me still longs to resemble the legend known as Papa Hemingway. I knew imitating wasn’t going to work anymore, but the personality resemblances were still available. Hemingway loved to party, fight, and fish. I already love to party, fighting isn’t going to happen, but fishing? Having grown up in a little convenient bubble for most of my life, I never even had the opportunity to see if I liked it.
So the other day when my good friend Harvey — Facebook messaging me throughout the day since he’s “working so hard” — sent me reports about a phenomenon of tuna fish coming to the coasts of Newport beach, I thought about all this. This swarm of tuna fish was a sensation, he said, that hadn’t happened for fifteen years.
“We’ll make mad sushi out of them,” he said. “They’re biting, Papa.”
“Biting. They’re biting.”
“Sweet. I’m bitting, too. Seriously, what the f*** are you talking about?”
“Biting. The fish, dude. They’re biting the bait.”
As soon as I understood what biting meant, I was ready to party. I imagined myself holding a thirty pound tuna by the hook, smiling alongside my buddies as we coasted through the expansive sea. I’d get it enlarged and framed on my wall, having the epic story prepared to share with my future guests at moment’s notice.
The boat would take off from Newport at 5:00 AM, so we arrived at just after 4:30. During the car ride I was overwhelmed with the amount of preemptive insults directed my way. I was the subject of ridicule, it seemed, before I even did anything.
“You won’t catch anything,” they said.
“You won’t even be able to hook for bait.”
“Persians can’t fish.”
I let them make fun of me, thinking in the back of my mind that I’d have the last laugh. I was confident that my connection to Hemingway would somehow transfuse itself into some sort of majestic, natural talent for fishing. But, as you probably inferred from my cynical tone in recapturing this experience, as well as this piece’s title, it didn’t work out that way.
First, when getting handed my rental equipment, I tried to rest my stuff against something while I tied my shoes. Unbalanced, the rod tilted over and fell, knocking over a stand of souvenir supplies — like postcards, bumper stickers and colorful pencils.
“Oh sorry!” I shouted.
“Just go,” the cashier said.
Ten minutes after 5 AM our boat (which I kept calling a ship) set sail. I befriended a dude from Salt Lake City, who said he was terribly excited to get back into sea fishing.
“What do you mean? You don’t have any seas in Salt Lake City?” I asked, which prompted three or four people, including my so called friends, to laugh at me. This faux pas of a comment, combined with my knocking over of the souvenir stand, basically foreshadowed the entire day.
Ten minutes into the boat ride, as the boat lobbed over big waves and jogged into the overcast sky, I got nauseous. “I don’t feel good,” I told my good friend Harvey. It’s all in your head, he said, which felt nice to an extent, but totally untrue. A few cloudy minutes later I found myself in desperate shape hunched over the side of the boat. After an intense series of internal back and forth, I shot it all out like a hose might douse a spreading fire. I tasted the regurgitated breakfast burrito I had just consumed—the spongy yellow eggs, the potatoes, the excessive taco sauce. It was quite possibly the most disgusting thing I had ever experienced.
When I returned to the common-folk, I thought I would be met with sympathy or at the very least, some kind of pity. But my victimization seemed to render more criticism than compassion: “When you puke,” a crew member said, “You do it in the back of the boat. Not the side. That way it doesn’t get on the boat. Got it?” he asked, tapping my chest.
Well, that was that, I thought as I finished up, ready for the next chapter of the day.
But it didn’t work that way. You see, spewing from sea sickness isn’t like puking from alcohol, which, in the latter case, you simply call it a night and go to sleep. Sea sickness will last with you as long as you’re on a boat. So the more I walked around, the more I realized my body was like: hey, congratulations on puking once, but we’re still on a boat.
To try and relax I headed into the grill area, where a dude was grilling bacon. I passed out for some thirty minutes out of misery, with my head in my hands. When I woke up my good friend Harvey handed me some snacks.
“These should help,” he said. I gargled some sprite, munched on milanos, feeling better. But after more choppy waves, the humidity, the stench of bacon, cheese and salt water, all confined into this little area, became overwhelming. I darted back to the same spot I had puked from thirty minutes prior, preparing for part two. This was also the same moment that an Oakley clad, goatee sporting dude felt compelled to come over and chat.
“So, you from Chicago?” he asked, in reference to my Bulls hat.
“Um, no. Just wear it for fun. I’ve actually never been to—“
And part two began. Sprite and mint milano mushed into one bursting out of my oral hole. When I finished and stood back up, I heard a sizzle, seeing that the Oakley shaded dude had popped open a can of beer. “Let it all out,” he said, taking a cool sip of Coors Light. “Thanks,” I managed to mutter. It was 8 AM and looking around, many others were now doing the same. And that’s how I knew something was terribly askew: while I was busy vomitting up sprite and milano cookies, others were killing it with Coors Lights.
It was noon now and we wouldn’t get back to land till 5 PM. I was nauseous, underfed, sleep deprived. I turned around to see that my friends were conversing with a fat, bearded santa clause man, who was decked out in all sorts of fishing gear.
“Is there any way to get back to shore,” I asked him, “because I’m pretty sure I’m gonna die, man.”
“Yup, die. Pretty certain of it, too. My name’s Jeremy, by the way. You might be the last man I talk to.”
“Is he with you?” Santa asked my friends. They nodded and laughed. Santa pulled out a pill and told me to eat it. Unfortunately, that too, came out the other way shortly afterwards.
“Jay-time, Harvey,” I said. We had brought three or four. If all else failed, I thought, at least there was that to look forward to.
“And by the way,” the loudspeaker announced. It was the captain. “If I see or smell any substances, your equipment will be revoked and you will not be allowed to fish. You will not be refunded.”
When we made out far enough into the ocean after a two hour long coast, it was time to actually fish. Fishing for tuna begins with the hooking process. How this works, I observed, is to press a ‘chovie’s (anchovy’s) nose into the tip of your hook with a good amount of pressure, while keeping your hand firmly gripped around the ‘chovie to not let it escape with its desperate protests. Once you have a good piece of bait hooked on, you cast it into the sea and wait for a sexy tuna to bite, then reel in close enough to the boat until a crew member could come and stab it in the gut, pulling it on to the boat.
“I hate these on pizza. I’ll have no problem killing them,” I told my good friend Harvey. I thrust my hand into the pool of anchovy bait but struggled to get a hold of one, let alone touch one.
“Here, puker,” a fishing guru said, easily grabbing one out of the pool. The guru was about twenty-five years old, wore a white shirt filthy with fish blood and scales. He had sunburned cheeks and ears. He put the ‘chovie in my hand. “Hook it,” he said.
“OK,” I said, my heart rate blowing up. “OK. Yup. Hook.”
Once I felt the slippery stupid fish squirm for life in my hand, I got nervous and sad. Without thinking, I opened my hand and let the fish drop onto the floor, where I watched it bounce and plea for its last glimpses of life. I nudged it over the boat with my foot and watched it land back into the ocean, hoping it was still alive.
“What’d you do that for?” the fishing guru asked.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I got scared. Can you bait it for me please?”
“I’ll do it once. Then you have to do it.”
“Deal,” I said, although I’m sure I coerced him to do it at least three more times.
For the next couple hours, left and right people pulled out beautiful, humongous tunas, and they celebrated with all sorts of hoots and hollers as blood blasted out of the tunas’ skin and died. All sorts of people were catching fish. Kids, seniors, women, men. But if I stood in one place too long, the nausea would creep up again. I just walked back and forth on the ship, made my rounds, asked people questions, did whatever I could to refrain from throwing up for the fifth time. I basically couldn’t do one thing right. I’d fish, and people would say “Hey, follow your line!” as our lines tangled. I’d stop fishing, and people would ask, “Why aren’t you fishing?” I’d place my rod against the ledge for a minute to use the men’s room, and when I’d come back, I’d see that a whole assembly had formed in the one minute: “Who the hell left this rod here?” I’d reel, and people would say, “No, let it swim.” I’d let it swim, and people would say, “No, reel it in!”
The best example of this probably happened when I rested a water bottle on a cooler in-between my puking episodes. When I went back to the cooler, the bottle was rolling around the floor. A lady said: “Somebody needs to pick that up. I’ve seen people break legs rolling on those.”
“Such an idiot,” I said, picking it up. “Who would just leave it like that?” The lady nodded in approval of my selfless act. For the first time that day, I felt like I was a member of the ship boat. This, I think, was my noteworthy move of the day: picking up a water bottle off the ground, which I, myself, had left.
I puked a few more times, whatever, and listened to some music to kill time. I watched my friends celebrate in genuine mirth at their good fortune, while I walked around aimlessly and people kept saying, get out of the way. When we had an hour left, after my fourth session, I’d had enough. I’d finally stopped feeling sick, and I was ready to have some fun. I grabbed a goddam little anchovy, hooked the shit out of its nose, apologized to it, and cast my rod deep into the ocean. Wow, I thought, seeing the bait fly hundreds of feet over the water. At that exact moment, bubbles formed around the ‘chovie. A tuna swam to surface and ate the little puppy up. I jeered with excitement! All that suffering built up for this moment! I started reeling!
“It’s not on,” the guru next to me said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not on…” he repeated.
Recapitulation: when I watched an eight year old boy next to me reel in a giant yellowfin tuna, and I dry heaved over the side railing of the boat, I officially retired from fishing. It was clear—I was no fisherman. In terms of Hem, our nicknames are the same—Papa— but we couldn’t be more different. Hemingway loved to fight; I’m the appeaser. Our writing styles don’t match. His writing, however brilliant, often feels like hard work to read through. My writing has its shortcomings—I’d be the first to tell you about them, or, just read some of the comments below—but look, you’re still reading. I also know Hem could really take down some scotch. I like scotch, but I gag. I doubt he ever gagged. What did I learn on a day in which I puked three times, got sunburned and didn’t catch a fish? That skinny Jews don’t belong at sea and, more importantly, I’m not Hemingway.