He has caught grenades, bicycles and weapons. Can fame be far behind?


James Kane was not afraid of the grenade. He not even a little bit. But he was feeling a rush of adrenaline.

After all, finding an ancient weapon in Sheepshead Bay was a big deal for someone who desperately wants to get attention. A YouTube video of a grenade being pulled out of the water along the Brooklyn shore could become viral gold. “Some magnetic fishermen go their entire lives without this happening,” Kane said, strolling excitedly along the boardwalk. “I have never won a lottery in my entire life, not even a scratch-off. This is historic. It's pure madness. Hundred percent.”

Mr. Kane is a magnetic fisherman, which is exactly what it sounds like: he regularly throws a magnet into the water to see what comes up. This became a strangely popular pastime during the pandemic, although Kane claims to be the only person doing 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 raised in Queens, and spent a year watching the shore while working at NYC Ferry. He also worked shifts as a crane operator for a sanitation company, an education in how much stuff is at the bottom of places like the East River. For the past five months, he has treated magnet fishing like a full-time job.

The grenade was not without precedent. Two months earlier, Kane managed to retrieve a gun from a lake near where he lives. He could have been used in a murder, he suggested, and was told there was a possibility he could be subpoenaed. He was eager to avoid that entanglement.

On that unseasonably warm November afternoon, Kane, who is 39 and looks a bit like actor Seth Rogen playing a sailor, simply ripped the thing off its magnet. It took quite a bit of effort, since the magnet (from Kratos Magnetics, for $140) was advertised as having an “attractive force” of 3,800 pounds. The gunpowder had been drained from the bottom, so he figured the corroded explosive was something that would put him on the map, rather than get him out of there. 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 it? Was it already something known? Just the week before, he had found a top-loading Smith & Wesson in Prospect Park Lake. And he also found a completely different grenade about a month ago, which he said led police to evacuate a restaurant near the United Nations. But to his disappointment, the dispatcher that day did not react.

“You're going to know Let's Get Magnetic,” Kane told the operator, referencing the name of his YouTube channel. “I'm getting famous.”

His partner, Barbie Agostini, continued filming while the police arrived. Two patrol officers who showed up took some photos of the grenade with their phones. Meanwhile, a woman pushed a baby stroller inches away. More police eventually arrived to cordon off the area, but the content creation didn't stop there. Another officer crouched on the ground to take more close-ups. Wanting to get a broader view of the commotion he had caused, Mr. Kane moved slightly down the sidewalk and continued fishing.

It wasn't long before a well-dressed young woman in a pinned hat stopped and watched as Mr. Kane pulled a piece of trash out of the water with his magnet.

“What are you fishing for?” she asked.

“Anything metallic,” he told her. “This is a 20th century bed frame.”

The woman seemed astonished at this dubious piece of history.

“God bless you,” he said.

Several weekends after the grenade, Kane was celebrating. Let's Get Magnetic had just reached 1,000 subscribers on YouTube. It's a small audience, but that meant he was finally able to monetize his channel. He, Ms. Agostini and his 15-year-old son, José, were at a pizzeria in the Jamaica Hills neighborhood of Queens. They ordered a large cake and talked about how far they had come and what might be next.

Before getting into magnet fishing, Kane used to broadcast himself playing video games. Not only did he fail to make a living that way, but his attempts were detrimental to his health. When he died in a game like “Doom”, his blood pressure would go up. “Your body thinks it's dying in real life,” he explained. “Hundred percent.”

“It took us a long time to develop a relationship,” Agostini said as he dipped his slice in oregano flakes. “I don't need you to die on me.”

Mr. Kane and Mrs. Agostini have known each other practically since they were born. As the story goes, their mothers met on the subway, became drinking friends, and both decided to adopt children almost at the same time. When they were young, they were inseparable, but then lost touch when Mr. Kane spent some time living on the streets. A work program helped him recover, and then he reconnected with Barbie on Facebook.

They became more than friends in 2016 and eventually moved in together. Barbie brought her son José and her daughter Rebecca. Things were going well (very well, in fact) until Covid hit. Schools closed and then Ms. Agostini needed back surgery. Mr. Kane was forced to give up the job as a crane operator that he liked, because someone needed to take care of the children. “The pandemic absolutely destroyed us,” he said.

As the sole breadwinner for her new family, Kane scrambled to find a way to work from home. So he tried streaming until blood pressure problems arose. Not to mention the entire session. His new vocation is much more flexible and active, which does not mean that it is risk-free.

“The bicycle spokes were cutting through my gloves,” Kane recalls. “I was stuck with acupuncture needles that someone threw in Corona Park. There is green slime. I kept fighting and got a 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 trash. Unique cutlery is still considered a decent score – apparently it can be used after being boiled for an hour. But sometimes the family will get lucky.

He once found a bag with waterlogged bills worth $200. On another occasion he found an iPhone 13. The owner let him keep it. It's what Ms. Agostini, who used to work with developmentally disabled adults before her back surgery, now uses to film her family's exploits in the water. She loves her new career as a videographer and Internet researcher. “It's the poor man's archaeology,” she explained.

Kane maintains that this iPhone will launch him into YouTube stardom. He speaks reverently of other magnet fishermen with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, most of them in Europe. For his line of work, he acknowledges that being in New York is a disadvantage: nothing here is that old, and American coins are not magnetic.

He's also not sure he's willing to dive into the hyper-polluted East River to find some really good stuff. But his biggest problem is that everything in the city is highly regulated: he has been threatened with arrest several times, even though he insists that what he does is completely legal. Still, he keeps a stash of weapons in his apartment, or at least parts of them.

After lunch, Mr. Kane, Mrs. Agostini, and José returned to their duplex. Mr. Kane pulled out a Styrofoam chest filled with his favorite finds. They included the magazines from four guns, the barrel of a sniper rifle and two small cannonballs that could predate the city itself, and which he plans to donate to the American Museum of Natural History.

There is evidence of a collector's lifestyle throughout the apartment: unopened retro video games and hand-painted Japanese anime figures covered almost every free inch of wall space. Mr. Kane took out some small pieces of metal from the cooler, one shaped like a bow and arrow, and another that looked like a ball peen hammer.

“This is black magic,” he said. “Hundred percent.” Then an Audi key fob appeared that still lit up when I pressed a button. “This opens a car,” she said. “We just don't know where the car is.” Next came her collection of iPhones, which she proudly displayed on her purple couch. They all worked. Well, all but one. “It smokes if you light it,” she said. “But that's the only problem.”

Kane has aimed his magnet at dozens of sites so far and has a lead at a location near Kennedy Airport. And he has a litany of ideas on how to profit. He wants his family to become famous. And a popular channel could be a way to launch your own line of personal protective equipment specific to magnet fishing, or to sell a slingshot-like device that would allow someone to launch a magnet great distances.

But Kane could happily work for the city, helping clean ponds and playgrounds. Or they could hire him to teach kids about magnet fishing and, therefore, the history of New York. Although he claimed that fishing with magnets in public made him anxious, it was clear that he had the personality for that kind of work.

You could tell by the way he worked the Sheepshead Bay boardwalk.

A crowd was also beginning to form at a nearby park and at the dialysis center across the street, including some metal detectorists and people who had collected coins in their youth. Even if he had not yet become famous, Mr. Kane clearly enjoyed putting on a show. He was yelling as he pulled a Marshall's shopping cart out of the water. People gasped and jumped onto park benches as he lifted a giant tube, the occupant of which slid and slid all over the place. A live eel in Brooklyn!

While waiting for someone to deal with the grenade, Kane also managed to drag three bicycles, an old municipal trash can and a kitchen sink onto Emmons Avenue. He reached into the trunk of a car, which supposedly cannot be removed from an illegally parked car without destroying the wheel to which he is attached. It was unclear how he ended up in Sheepshead Bay.

Finally the bomb squad arrived. A man in a white zip-up sweater stepped over the yellow tape and looked at the grenade. As he picked him up and carried him back to the van he had arrived in, Mr. Kane shouted from across the block, as if he were trying to call up an A-list celebrity for a selfie. What he most wanted to know was if he could keep his find as a souvenir, although the officer had to inform him that the charge of this World War II training grenade was still active. So the answer was a resounding no.

Mr. Kane was disappointed, but he considered any dialogue with anyone on the bomb squad a great victory for his career as a magnet fisherman. After all, who could forget the guy who found a real grenade in Brooklyn?

“I almost killed everyone in the area,” he said. “But that definitely would have made the news.”

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