CAPTAIN BOB


Today I got a nice email from Lola Star, out at Coney Island, reminding me of Captain Bob. I wrote this essay in 2008 after running into Bob in the city one day.  I'm posting it for him,  for Lola, and for the anniversary of Sept 11, 2001, which is upon us once again. —Romy

As I was coming out of the F Train at 23rdStreet yesterday I saw my old friend Captain Bob up ahead of me in the crowd, and I hurried to catch up with him on the stairway to the street. I had my camera with me so I took a picture of him standing on Sixth Avenue, and then I took one of the homemade tour guide badge he had pinned to his shirt. 

Bob's tour guide badge, August 2008 (Photo Romy Ashby)
I hadn’t run into Bob in the subway since sometime last November, when he told me all about the costume he was making for the contest out at Coney Island on New Year’s Day. It was going to have satin pantaloons, a resplendent vest and frock coat, and stockings made of a material, called crinklecorn, meant to resemble the skin of a sea creature. He found almost everything he needed at the Salvation Army, and all of the cutting and sewing he was doing himself. The pièce de résistance would be the big fish that he would wear on his head, with scales made of artichoke leaves painted with iridescent nail polish. He bought five boxes of artichokes at a big market somewhere on Kings Highway, and when he told the produce manager what he was going to do with them the guy gave him a discount.  He still needed some feathers, Bob told me, but he only needed a few. He had just called one feather dealer who told him he only sold feathers by the ton, to which he had replied, “What does a ton of feathers look like? The Empire State Building?” 

Captain Bob on the F Train to Coney Island, November 2007, describing his forthcoming costume  (Photo Romy Ashby)

I can’t count the times I’ve run into Captain Bob at the flea markets around town. He’s always on the lookout for some old book about Vaudeville or a yard of fabric just the right color and texture for something he’s making. He always has his drawing pad full of mermaids, and he always wears shorts, even on the coldest day of winter. He's someone I see pretty regularly without having a plan to meet. I’ve been running into him for years. He’s just all over the city, at all times of the day. 

It used to be that I knew where he was almost all of the time, when he was working the little tin cabana on the barge over at the river where the old lightship Frying Pan and the fireboat John J. Harvey were tied. Every evening the same collective of characters would show up and sit around the little cabana drinking beer and talking. From a distance you could see Captain Bob’s white sea captain’s hat glowing in the lamplight as he moved about opening beers for the regulars. 
The John J. Harvey and the Frying Pan, 2007 (Photo Romy Ashby)

I liked to sit on the bridge of the Frying Pan and watch the sun set over New Jersey. I didn’t talk to Captain Bob much back then, but he always waved to me when I came and went. I would see him on 23rdStreet a lot in the early mornings, pulling a red wagon loaded with scrap wood for his fire. It was after September 11th, 2001 that I got to know him.

I remember one particular evening, shortly after that date, when I went over to sit in my spot on the Frying Pan. Fighter planes circled ceaselessly overhead, and down by the Statue of Liberty an ominous plume darkened the sky. The old fireboat John J. Harvey had been called out of retirement to pump water from the Hudson to spray at the pile of the World Trade Center. There was a spectacular sunset that evening, and I watched the  approach of the big white hospital ship Comfort as she made her solemn way up the Hudson, with what looked like the entire crew standing at the railings looking at the city.  It was a heartbreakingly beautiful evening. There was nobody else on the lightship Frying Pan, but down in the cabana was Captain Bob, and the few people who gathered around his wood fire burning in a metal drum.  

In the following weeks I went to sit on the lightship every evening. It was the only place that felt something like okay, and Captain Bob was always there on the barge with his fire going. He rigged up a turntable and played crackly old Marlene Dietrich records. Sitting there, one could almost believe that there was no trouble in the world at all. 

One night Captain Bob told me how after eating sturgeon at a cookout with some Gowanus Indians, Peter Stuyvesant leaned over the bow of his ship, anchored in the Hudson, and threw up.  “The sturgeon just didn’t agree with him,” Bob said. “How do you know that?” I asked him, and he said, “I read it in the ship’s log in the museum up the river at Tarrytown.” 

At Christmastime Bob made his own sugarplums, and he cooked steaks for people on the fire. He said he found perfectly good steaks in the trash behind D’Agostino’s. He cooked hamburgers that he got in the same way, and rare as hell, too, but they never made him or any of his friends sick. 

Bob left the barge in 2002 and went out to Coney Island, where he painted himself a sign and made himself a tour guide. The barge has moved to 26th Street, and most of the boats are still there, but without Captain Bob it isn’t the same. The little scene there always seemed too good to be true, and it was. 

Bob and his sign, Coney Island (Photo Romy Ashby)

Bob gets his mail at Mermaid Avenue, but when anyone asks where he lives, he says, “My address is ‘One Atlantic Ocean.’” Yesterday he told me that the day before, he swam all the way out to Breezy Point and back. Then he gave me his card and reminded me that he still does walking tours on Saturdays and Sundays at noon and two. Anyone who wants to can find him waiting at Nathan’s, on Stillwell Avenue, out at Coney Island.


Captain Bob's costume, Coney Island, January 2008 (Photos Romy Ashby)

22 August 2008

It's been a while since anyone has seen Bob McCoy, although the story went that he was in a nursing home. Any updated information about Captain Bob would be most welcome. 
copyright Romy Ashby 9 September 2019

3 comments:

  1. How lucky you are Romy to have met Captain Bob!! People like the Captain make our world a better place with their stories shared!

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  2. I found this article aster seeing Lola's Facebook post today. I was seeing if anything came up on him as I'm sure a few people have done already. Great article.

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  3. Thank you! Captain Bob was always a pleasure to be around, and so interesting. I miss running into him.

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