A Day in Prospect Park: It’s Legal to Fish, But What About Turtles?

When I found a new apartment last month, there wasn’t much about the old one I feared I’d miss. Between the roaches that had taken to crawling out of the shower walls and the roommate that had taken to having sex so loud you could hear it from the street, I knew I would be just fine on my own. But while my new neighborhood, Greenpoint, has many more 99-cent stores and a much finer selection of smoked meats, there’s one thing I knew I would miss: Prospect Park.

Since March, the park had been a retreat where I enjoyed a respite from my squalid living conditions. In the park, there were no windows crashing into my room and spilling broken glass all over my bed. There were no dirty dishes piled high in the sink. There were only happy families, and soccer games, and sports beverages for sale, and lots and lots of grass.

Friends dismissed my anxieties about leaving the park behind for Greenpoint. You’ll have McCarren Park, they argued. As if one could compare the dead fields and dusty baseball diamonds of McCarren with the rolling greens, the lush hills, the wooded trails of Prospect Park. McCarren Park doesn’t even have any trees! It’s very nice, to be sure, and I’m just as fond of McCarren Pool as the next person, but the two are hardly the same thing.

Sometime in July, I started riding my bike in Prospect Park in the evenings—I figured the only thing worse than leaving the neighborhood was going to be feeling like I missed out on it while I was still there. Occasionally, the odd baby carriage gone astray put the fear of God into my soul, and I wearied of negotiating the inevitable conflicts of interest between serious cyclists and dilettantes like myself, not to mention the ever-present rollerblader problem. But I grew very fond of my evenings on the loop. Cycling in the park made me so happy that when I came home afterwards, I didn’t even hate my fuchsia walls anymore.

A few weeks ago, after throwing my bike down, I sat down on the banks of Prospect Lake. I was moving the next weekend, and I doubted I’d have time to be back while it was still summer. Hordes of dark birds swooped down and skimmed the surface of the lake; a few swans nestled in the bushes on the far shore. About 20 feet to my left, a South Asian man was fishing. I thought about some things, and I thought about nothing, and I thought about how gross it is to fish in the lake, and I wondered what people do with what they catch. I assumed that most of the people I had seen fishing at the lake didn’t plan on catching anything at all, that they were just sitting with a piece of string in the water, sort of how I was just sitting with my legs out on the ground. I wondered if anyone ever ate what he caught. I decided that maybe homeless people did. I felt sad.

A gaggle of blond children and a blond, Russian-speaking woman approached. Two were on bicycles, which they briefly rode in circles before abandoning to gather at the shore. At the same time, we—the children and I—noticed a tugging on the fisherman’s line. “Look, he’s got something!” they cried, and ran to his side.

He stepped backwards and forward, struggling to pull it in. The children were becoming very excited. His face set with determination; he didn’t even glance at them. Wrestling mightily, he pulled it out. It was a turtle.

He laid the turtle on its back and fiddled with his second line. “It’s a turtle! Oh my God, do you see that? A turtle!” The children chattered excitedly. “One time I had a turtle,” one little blond boy boasted. “No you didn’t,” another blonde rejoined. “Yes I did—I had a turtle.” Heeding his task coolly, the fisherman failed to acknowledge the rising commotion. He cut the line from the hook in its mouth and, abruptly, he spoke. “Do you want the turtle?” he asked.

The circle around him tightened as he bent over the turtle, its fat limbs treading the air, and the children crowded around him. By now, I was craning my neck to get a piece of the action. A couple who had been sitting in the gazebo made their way to the circle and stood on its edge; I figured if they could, so could I. I hopped up and trotted over. My hands rested on my hips.

Peering between the heads of children, I watched the fisherman pull the turtle’s neck slowly, coaxing the hook from its mouth. The turtle resisted. The man pulled. The turtle’s neck, like some giant rubbery penis or a clump of Silly Putty, extended to two, three, maybe five times its normal size. The turtle wasn’t giving it up. I knew that a turtle’s neck was flexible, but I couldn’t believe that it was so long.

Then the fisherman pulled out a knife and chopped the turtle’s head off.

Pandemonium. My hand flew to my mouth and my feet jumped back. Embarrassingly enough, I yelped out loud. “Oh my God, he cut its head off!” the children squealed to each other. “Oh my God, did you see that? He cut its head off!” The couple backed away slowly towards the gazebo, shaking their heads. We looked at each other. I can’t be sure, but I think they were just as appalled as I was. I could have sworn he had raised his hand all the way over his head before he brought the knife down.

Totally ignoring, or maybe just not that impressed with, the tumult he had inspired, the fisherman threw the headless turtle towards the lake. Its body turned somersaults in the air, splashing and sinking. Then he carefully pried open its jaws and extracted his hook before tossing the lifeless head back into the water, too. He tended to his line. He didn’t look at anyone.

The blond lady pulled a blanket from her bag and shook it out as it gently billowed to the ground. The children crowded around her, still yammering. I rode away, and the fisherman was alone again.

Fishing is legal in New York City parks, but only with a permit. Permit or no permit, though, it is undoubtedly illegal to catch a turtle, kill said turtle, and dispose of said turtle’s body in the waters from whence it came. I wish I knew how often this sort of thing happens, but I haven’t been back to the park since. I walk by McCarren Park every day now, and that seems good enough. It turns out there are a few trees there after all. I haven’t seen anyone decapitate a squirrel yet, but I figure it’s just a matter of time.