Late Monday night, when the gangs weren’t banging on the Newport Pier, Chris Garcia proposed to his sweetheart. She said yes, and they drove back to San Bernardino.
From his perch near the telescopes, Bruno Madrigal said the gentle rolling of the nighttime surf never fails to spark thoughts of his family in Cancun.
At least a couple of times each month, he comes back just to stand and stare across the water.
And Michael Aresta, his teeth chattering in the chilly air, tossed his line into the sea, praying only for the mackerel to bite.
“When the tide changes,” Aresta said, leaning far over the scarred wood railing, “the fish go wild. It’s like you are feeding them crack. Sometimes, you don’t even need any bait. Some nights, they make me look like a professional.”
It is well after midnight, a time--until only recently--when crime on the pier was measured by an occasional overhead cast or smuggled beer in a squid cooler.
But this is Southern California, and the gangs have become all too frequent visitors to this nocturnal paradise.
So unnerving was an incident last weekend, when gunfire wounded three and had some anglers diving for cover, that the city government has threatened to close one of the last all-night entertainment refuges on the Orange County coast.
Monday night and into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, officers made regular passes along the long, narrow stretch of concrete in a show of force not seen since a similar eruption in July.
“Yeah, I’ve been hearing for a few years that they have wanted to close this pier down,” said George Dewey, 44, one in a knot of about 30 anglers settling in for the long night. “I’ve been coming here for years. I know every inch of it. . . . I consider it my home. If they close this down, they close people like me down.”
Most nights, even during the week, Andrea Woods of San Bernardino County said, the outer railings are lined shoulder-to-shoulder with anglers, their gazes fixed on a certain bobber in the water. On this night, however, about 48 hours after the most recent spurt of violence, even Joe Montana’s debut with the Kansas City Chiefs on national television couldn’t explain the noticeably thin ranks of the hard-core regulars.
Still, there was only passing reference made to the shooting, in which one teen-ager was arrested.
Thomas Easley of Costa Mesa said he wasn’t there early Sunday morning, but he is a regular here for sure.
“I was here the night before, I guess,” he said, tugging at his black baseball cap. “I remember, because the sharks were biting real good that night. . . . You know, it ain’t no big deal. These days, you can get shot just riding down the freeway.
“It was probably some drug deal gone bad and somebody came up here looking for somebody to pop,” he said.
The theory had no takers in the small group, and the subject quickly changed back to fishing, as Easley offered pointers to anyone within earshot.
“You see that spot over there?” he said, pointing to a particularly crowded corner at the end of the deck. “That’s the most famous spot out here. That’s where you catch the sharks, the bat rays, the halibut and cod. I caught a five-pound octopus off there last year.”
Known as “Pop’s Corner,” the position is named, so the story goes, for an elderly man who hawked photographs of youngsters proudly holding the old man’s fish.
Easley, 29, said he comes to the pier looking for “a little relaxation away from the house.” And, as long as the fish are biting, he swore he wouldn’t sleep until it was time to quit, sometime around 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Bundled in his jacket, he could be alone with his thoughts as easily as he could join the quiet banter of the rest of the group who seemingly share everything, from smokes to pocketknives.
“When I’m out here, I think about the presidency,” Easley said, reaching into a cooler for a Pepsi. “You know, they’ve got this country all screwed up. It’s really bad right now.”
Before he was out of topics and the fish had begun to tug at his line, Easley also had mentioned his taste for the stringy consistency of barbecued raccoon. “I love it,” he said.
Steps away, Aresta’s hunt for mackerel had improved by the minute. Although not able to keep up with the amazing pace of Charles Chen, who was hauling up two at a time, Aresta was pushing for a respectable finish even though his girlfriend, Woods, had long ago retired to the car.
“I think she is really mad at me. I promised her we would leave by 11:30 p.m.,” Aresta said at about 1 a.m. “I can’t leave while they are still biting.”
The late hour clearly was wearing on 3-year-old Sara Reid.
Earlier in the evening, she couldn’t have been more excited as she waved a rubber fishing lure in her mother’s face. Hours later, her mom was gently rocking the child in her lap, oblivious to both the late hour and news of the recent violence.
“We didn’t hear about it until we got here. We really aren’t concerned about it,” said Teresa Reid, who with her husband, Sara and 9-year-old daughter traveled from West Covina just to fish from the pier. “The way we figure it, things like that are going to happen anywhere. You can’t get away from it. We come out here because it’s quiet, and it’s one of the only places that stays open all night.”
One of the few other places open all night is the Seaside Donut Shop at the base of the pier. A popular after-hours gathering place for anglers and locals when lights go out at joints like Mutt Lynch’s, the place stood awash in fluorescent light with not a customer in sight after midnight.
“I used to walk a lot on the beach late at night and early in the morning,” Sam Letourneau said, before retiring earlier in the evening to his nearby apartment. “Things have changed, I’m telling you. I could hear the gunshots from my window the other night. It turns out, they caught the guy right outside my window.”
Sean Smith was standing outside the Seaside on Monday evening, in about the same place where the first shooting happened in July.
“I always thought this was a real safe place,” Smith said. “But when the first shooting happened, I almost ran right into the guys who did it. There were people lying in the street that night.”
Smith said he ran to the aid of one of the wounded and began pumping his chest in an attempt to jump-start his heart.
“I was talking to him, telling him to ‘Come on.’ I thought we were getting a little pulse, but he was dead right away.”