Authors: Justin Hocking
Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write
from the Deep End
Copyright © 2014 by Justin Hocking
Some of the chapters in this memoir have appeared elsewhere, in slightly different form: “Beach 90th” in
, “Shipmates” in
, “All I Need Is This Thermos” in the
, “The Midland Oiling Museum” in
, “The Mariner’s Tale” in
, “Ophelia Part I,” “Moving,” “The Duke,” and “As We Begin our Final Descent into New York” in the
, and “The White Death” and “An Old Friend” in
. “Beach 90th” was also published as a limited edition chapbook by Swift Season Press.
This is a work of creative nonfiction. The author re-created scenes and dialogue to the best of his ability, and with full knowledge of the fallible nature of memory. Many names were changed to protect the privacy of those involved; certain time sequences were altered to heighten the narrative.
This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation, Amazon.com, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-087-1
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
First Graywolf Printing, 2014
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013946924
Cover design: Kapo Ng
Cover art: Rockwell Kent,
. Rights courtesy Plattsburgh State Art Museum, State University of New York, USA, Rockwell Kent Collection, Bequest of Sally Kent Gordon. All rights reserved.
the Godfather of 108
Next to the wall of books is a painting of the seacoast at High Island that your mother did in the early fifties before you were born. Maybe it’s no accident that you have camped at that very spot a hundred nights, sleeping-bagged under Meekham’s pier, so you could be there when the good waves rolled in with the main tide just before dawn. Maybe that painting of Mother’s kick-started this longing for the sea that your readings of
∼ MARY KARR,
Frightening as my dream of Cain was, it offered me hope by offering me the shelter of a story. And stories are where human meanings begin.
∼ GREGORY ORR,
Thanks to Lucy Bellwood for her inkwash illustrations, which appear on
, and to Gabriel Liston, whose scrimshaws on carved soap appear on
. The images were created specifically for
The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld
, in response to the text.
ate summer 2005 and everything’s underwater. The news warns us that New York City could be the next New Orleans—flooded subways, ten thousand shattered windows. Lower Manhattan as the new American Venice, streets turned into canals, the seafloor studded with broken glass. The storms spin up from the Gulf in alphabetical order: Katrina, Lee, Maria, Nate. None make it very far north, not until mid-September, when Hurricane Ophelia ravages the Carolina coast, floods the Outer Banks with a foot of rain, and wreaks $70 million worth of damage.
On September 16, Ophelia arrives off the coast of New York. From far above she’s your typical hurricane, a crown of cotton thorns. But down below, she thrashes the surface of the sea, capsizes ships in her self-destructive fury.
Like so many of us new to the city, she wants everyone to remember her name.
But even she can’t handle the pressure, can’t make it here in New York, and just days later Ophelia drowns herself in the North Sea. Her suicide’s wake sends undulations of raw energy back toward Gotham. Smoothed out by hundreds of travel miles, this energy arrives in the form of perfectly shaped swells at Long Beach, Lido, Montauk, and the Rockaways.
Places that I watch obsessively, via satellite.
Curled over my computer at 6:00 a.m. in my Brooklyn apartment, I’m tracking the storm, reading the reports—
Chest-high to head-high swells with sixteen-second intervals, excellent conditions, go surf now!
—when an incoming text sparks my cell phone.
Waves look perfect
, the message reads.
We’re ditching work. U coming?
It’s from my friend Dawn, who despite working seventy-hour weeks in the fashion industry is a Texas-bred tomboy—she surfs any chance she gets, in any conditions, with a bad-ass exuberance that I admire. Having already called in sick, I step into surf trunks, load up my board, and swing by Dawn’s apartment. She and Teagan are waiting on the curb in shorts, flip-flops, and hooded sweatshirts, their surfboards propped against a brick wall lashed with silver and blue torrents of graffiti.
We drive east, through Bushwick’s drab cement grid, then arc over Maspeth Creek and English Kills—tributaries of Newtown Creek, a Superfund site spiked with ten million gallons of spilled oil—these ruined waterways like New York’s trackmarked veins after a century-long overdose. Brooklyn spits us out into Queens, past cinder-block car washes and fast food joints and a cluster of graveyards: Linden Hill, Mount Olivet, Lutheran, and St. John—the only shards of green space for miles. Singing along with Teagan’s collection of Smiths songs, we angle down into Woodhaven and Ozone Park, under crumbling subway trestles, past Indian restaurants and windowless strip clubs and cell phone stores, and on through Howard Beach’s rows of seventies-era Italian banquet halls and seafood restaurants, all of it a blur in the borough’s slow southward tilt to the coast.
We get the first tangy smack of salt water on the long bridge over Jamaica Bay; it’s here that the pace of our conversation picks up, echoing our pulses as we approach the sea.
Teagan is sharp-witted, a fast-talker. Quick. So much so that she’s been dating one of our mutual friends, Adam, without me knowing it.
“We’ve dated on and off for like
,” she says. “The problem with Adam is that, like most boys, he wants a girlfriend to take care of him, fix his problems, and deal with all his bullshit, but he also wants to sleep around with everyone else in the world. I’m telling you: men are all
“I can vouch for that,” I say. I’m suffering multiple variations on this
theme at the present. For one: I’m in a failing long-distance relationship with a soft-spoken skater-girl named Karissa. I want her to still love and stay faithful to me, even though she lives two thousand miles away, in Colorado.
Then Dawn discusses her own chronic boy woes, and I follow up with my ex-girlfriend woes, until the conversation turns to work, another consistent letdown.
Like me, Dawn and Teagan are sick of working such long hours, cooped up in cubes. They envy our male friends, most of whom are professional skateboarders, artists, bohemians, under employed construction workers, over employed drinkers.
“Can you imagine any of our guy friends working in an office?” Teagan wonders out loud.
“Justin works in an office,” Dawn reminds her.
“Oh, right,” Teagan says. “How did that happen?”
I can’t blame her for forgetting, for wondering. It’s seriously incongruous with my career trajectory up to this point—backpacking guide in the San Juan Mountains; summer camp counselor on Mount Hood, Oregon; skatepark manager; creative writing instructor at a Colorado university. The fact that I work a corporate job on the sixteenth floor of a Midtown high rise both surprises and depresses me on pretty much a daily basis. A sad facsimile of my true self up there, wearing slacks, hunched in a cubicle, compulsively checking the internet surf report.
Finally: the toll bridge to the Rockaway peninsula, the long thin jawbone of Long Island.
I pay three dollars and fifty cents in exchange for a horizon that’s lost to me back in the city.
We park and ferry our boards up cement stairs, across the wooden boardwalk, down to the beach. As we walk barefoot across morning-cold sand, the sky unfurls above us, reclaiming from the city all its stolen blue bandwidth.
This is what all the hype’s about: perfect, sun-shimmering sets of head-high rollers coming in smooth, sixteen-second intervals, the ocean an endless stretch of blue-gray corduroy, the waves scrolling in silver and then peeling evenly into whiteness.
The best swells I’ve ever seen, anywhere.
But while Dawn and Teagan busy themselves with surf wax and wetsuits, I stand shivering on the sand, heart racing, not sure if I’m ready for hurricane-grade surf, though by this point Ophelia has been downgraded to tropical storm status.
It’s here, as I stare into the stirred-up maw of the Atlantic, tuned in to its relentless, percussive crush, that the association finally clicks: these waves are the aftermath of a storm named after English literature’s most famous drowning victim. The fifteenth system in the worst hurricane season on record, the result of warming seas, a warming planet.