James Kane was not afraid of the grenade. Not even a little bit. But he was feeling a rush of adrenaline.
After all, finding an antique weapon in Sheepshead Bay was a big deal for someone who desperately wants to be noticed. A YouTube video of a grenade being pulled from the water along the Brooklyn shoreline could be viral gold. “Some magnet fishers go their whole lives without this happening,” Mr. Kane said, pacing the boardwalk excitedly. “I’ve never won a lottery in my entire life — even a scratch-off. This is historic. It’s pure frickin’ insanity. One hundred percent.”
Mr. Kane is a magnet fisher, which is exactly what it sounds like: He regularly tosses a magnet into the water to see what comes out. This became an oddly popular hobby during the pandemic, though Mr. Kane claims to be the only person who does it in New York City. This may or may not be true, but he definitely has an insider’s perspective on the city’s waterways.
He was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens, and he spent a year staring at the shore when he had a job with NYC Ferry. He also pulled shifts as a crane operator for a sanitation company, an education in just how much stuff is at the bottom of places like the East River. For the past five months, he has been treating magnet fishing as a full-time job.
In the Bronx, Mr. Kane fished out a laptop. His hobby became popular during the pandemic.Credit…Alex Kent for The New York Times
The grenade was not without precedent. Two months before, Mr. Kane managed to pull a gun out of a lake near where he lives. It might have been used in a murder, he suggested, and he was told there was a chance he might be subpoenaed. He was eager to avoid that entanglement.
On that unseasonably warm November afternoon, Mr. Kane, who is 39 and looks a bit like the actor Seth Rogen playing a deckhand, just yanked the thing right off his magnet. It took quite a bit of effort, given that the magnet (from Kratos Magnetics, for $140) was advertised as having a “pull force” of 3,800 pounds. The gunpowder had been emptied out of the bottom, so he figured the corroded explosive was something that would put him on the map, rather than blow him off it. Still, he put it on the ground and covered it with a plastic bucket — just in case.
As he dialed 911, he paused to wonder: Would the operator remember him? Was he something of a known quantity by now? Just the week before, he’d found a top-loading Smith & Wesson in Prospect Park Lake. And he’d also found a completely different grenade about a month ago, which he said led the police to evacuate a restaurant near the United Nations. But to his disappointment, that day’s dispatcher didn’t react.
“You’re gonna know Let’s Get Magnetic,” Mr. Kane told the operator, referencing the name of his YouTube channel. “I’m getting famous.”
His partner, Barbie Agostini, continued filming as the police arrived. Two beat cops who showed up took some pictures of the grenade on their phones. Meanwhile, a woman pushed a baby carriage inches away from it. More cops eventually came to cordon off the area, but the content creation did not stop there. Another officer squatted on the ground to take more close-ups. Wanting a wider-angle view of the ruckus he’d wrought, Mr. Kane moved slightly down the sidewalk and kept fishing.
It wasn’t long before a well-put-together young woman in a pinned-on hat stopped and stared as Mr. Kane pulled a hunk of junk out of the water with his magnet.
“What are you guys fishing for?” she asked.
“Anything metal,” he told her. “This is a bed frame,” he said, “from the 1900s.”
The woman looked astounded at this dubious bit of history.
“God bless you,” she said.
Several weekends after the grenade, Mr. Kane was celebrating. Let’s Get Magnetic had just hit 1,000 subscribers on YouTube. It’s a small audience, but it meant he could finally monetize his channel. He, Ms. Agostini, and her 15-year-old son, Jose, were at a pizza joint in the Jamaica Hills neighborhood of Queens. They ordered a large pie and talked about how far they’d come, and what might be next.
Before he’d turned to magnet fishing, Mr. Kane used to stream himself playing video games. Not only was he unsuccessful at making a living that way, but his attempts were detrimental to his health. When he died in a game like “Doom,” his blood pressure would spike. “Your body thinks it’s dying in real life,” he explained. “One hundred percent.”
“It took us long enough to get into a relationship,” Ms. Agostini said while dousing her slice in oregano flakes. “I don’t need you dying on me.”
Mr. Kane and Ms. Agostini have known each other practically since birth. The way they tell the story, their moms met on the subway, became drinking buddies, and both decided to adopt children around the same time. When they were young, they were inseparable, but then they lost touch, when Mr. Kane spent some time living on the streets. A job program got him back on his feet, and then he reconnected with Barbie on Facebook.
They became more than friends in 2016 and eventually moved in together, Barbie bringing her son, Jose, and her daughter, Rebecca. Things were going well — great, actually — until Covid hit. The schools closed, and then Ms. Agostini needed back surgery. Mr. Kane was forced to resign from the crane operating job he’d grown to like, because someone needed to take care of the children. “The pandemic absolutely destroyed us,” he said.
As the sole breadwinner for his new family, Mr. Kane scrambled to come up with a way to work from home. So he tried his hand at streaming until the blood-pressure issues arose. Not to mention all the sitting. His new avocation is much more flexible and more active, which isn’t to say it is without risk.
“I would get cut with bike spokes through my gloves,” Mr. Kane remembers. “I’ve been poked by acupuncture needles that someone dumped in Corona Park. There’s green slime. I just fought on and got my tetanus shot, and I haven’t gotten sick yet.”
While Mr. Kane still dreams of finding a treasure chest full of coins, he mostly finds junk. One-off pieces of silverware are still considered a decent score — they’re apparently fine to use after they’ve been boiled for an hour. But sometimes the family will luck out.
He once found a bag with $200 worth of waterlogged bills in it. Another time he found an iPhone 13. The owner let him keep it. It’s now what Ms. Agostini, who used to work with developmentally disabled adults before her back surgery, uses to film her family’s exploits on the water. She loves her new career as a videographer and internet researcher. “It’s the poor man’s archaeology,” she explained.
Mr. Kane maintains that this iPhone will launch him into YouTube stardom. He speaks reverently about other magnet fishers with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, most of them based in Europe. For his line of work, he recognizes that being in New York is a handicap — nothing here is that old, and American coins are not magnetic.
He’s also not sure he’s willing to submerge himself in the hyperpolluted East River to find the really good stuff. But his biggest issue is that everything in the city is so regulated — he’s been threatened with arrest several times, even though he insists that what he does is completely legal. Still, he is storing a cache of weapons at his apartment — or at least parts of weapons.
After lunch, Mr. Kane, Ms. Agostini and Jose returned to their duplex. Mr. Kane pulled out a Styrofoam chest full of his favorite finds. They included the magazines from four guns, the barrel of a sniper rifle and two tiny cannonballs that might predate the city itself, which he plans on giving to the American Museum of Natural History.
Evidence of a collector’s lifestyle exists throughout the apartment — unopened retro video games and hand-painted Japanese anime figurines covered nearly every spare inch of wall space. Mr. Kane pulled out some tiny pieces of metal from the cooler, one in the shape of a bow and arrow, and another that looked like a ball-peen hammer.
“This is black magic,” he said. “One hundred percent.” Then came a key fob for an Audi that still lit up when he pressed a button. “This unlocks a car,” he said. “We just don’t know where the car is.” Then came his collection of iPhones, which he proudly displayed on his purple couch. All of them worked. Well, all but one. “It smokes if you turn it on,” he said. “But that’s the only problem.”
Mr. Kane has cast his magnet at dozens of sites so far and has a lead on a spot near Kennedy Airport. And he has a litany of ideas on how to cash in. He wants his family to become famous. And a popular channel could be a way to launch their own line of personal protective equipment that’s specific to magnet fishing — or to sell a slingshot-like device that would allow someone to fling a magnet super far.
But Mr. Kane could just as happily work for the city, helping to clean out ponds and playgrounds. Or he could get hired to teach children about magnet fishing, and therefore the history of New York. Although he claimed that magnet fishing in public made him feel anxious, it was clear he had the personality for such a gig.
You could tell by the way he worked the boardwalk in Sheepshead Bay.
A crowd was also beginning to form from a nearby park and the dialysis center across the street, including some metal detectorists and people who’d collected coins in their youth. Even if he’d yet to become famous, Mr. Kane was clearly enjoying putting on a show. He was yukking it up as he pulled a shopping cart from Marshall’s out of the water. People gasped and jumped up onto park benches as he pulled up a giant pipe, its occupant slithering out and skittering all over the place. A live eel in Brooklyn!
As he was waiting for someone to deal with the grenade, Mr. Kane also managed to pull three bicycles, a vintage municipal trash can and a kitchen sink onto Emmons Avenue. He hauled in a car boot, which supposedly can’t be removed from an illegally parked car without destroying the wheel it is clamped to. It was unclear how it ended up in Sheepshead Bay.
Finally, the bomb squad arrived. A man in a white zip-up sweater stepped over the yellow tape and peered at the grenade. As he picked it up and took it back toward the van he’d arrived in, Mr. Kane yelled from down the block, as if he was trying to flag down an A-list celebrity for a selfie. He mostly wanted to know if he could keep his find as a souvenir, though the officer had to inform him that the charge in this World War II-era training grenade was still active. So the answer was a definite no.
Mr. Kane was disappointed, but he considered that he’d had any dialogue with someone from the bomb squad — a huge win for his career as a magnet fisher. After all, who could forget the guy who found a real, live grenade in Brooklyn?
“I almost killed everyone in the area,” he said. “But that definitely would have been on the news.”