The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld
Copyright © 2014 Justin HockingISBN: 978-1-55597-669-9
All rights reserved.
OPHELIA, PART I
Late 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 six months," 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 lost."
"I can vouch for that," I say. I'm suffering multiple variations on this lost 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.
I've come a long way in getting over my fear of the ocean, but I'm still new to surfing, and on a day like this the gnawing apprehension persists. I moved to New York City with a naive sense of enthusiasm and hope, but now that I'm actually trying to get my life together in this place with so many social undercurrents and financial riptides—now I'm spooked.
"Come on, Justin," Dawn says after I express my Shakespearean anxieties. "These are the best waves of the year." She pulls up her wetsuit zipper, stretches into a deep forward bend. Armed with her surfboard, she charges down to the jetty, where the swell thunders in at its tallest, most powerful point. I hang back on the beach, where part of me wants to drop anchor, play it safe, surrender to paralysis. But there's a deeper pull at work, a stronger longing to get up and get moving—to hazard the risk and follow Dawn down into the churning sea.
Meaning I ruminate to excess about rip currents, sharks, heights, depths, failure, the future, death by drowning.
Or I latch on to something or someone I want and spend years in fervid pursuit.
My obsessiveness encompasses the word's Latin roots: ob (opposite) and sedere (to sit).
Meaning I can't sit still.
I crave motion, action, momentum. Skating, paddling, peddling: without these all-consuming physical activities I become easily bored, falling prey to darker obsessions, anxieties, self-destructive tendencies. I need an obsession to give my life a central organizing principle, to feel something like a sense of purpose. To keep from turning on myself.
In grade school, it was breakdancing. Some modern dancers from the local community college gave lessons in our school cafeteria, teaching us the moonwalk and the worm. When the film Breakin' came to town, the best breakers were invited to perform a floor show in the local movie theater. The most exciting event of my childhood: a bunch of us white Colorado kids rocking parachute pants, red bandannas, checkered muscle shirts, all of us dancing down on the syrupy theater floor, busting body locks, King Tuts, and backspins for a captive audience of a hundred or more. In return, we got to watch Breakin' from the front row, free of charge—something I did ten or twelve times, the characters Turbo and Ozone my new heroes, objects of my movement fetish, imaginary homeboys.
One of my best moves was the wave. It started in my fingertips: they reared up skyward like spindrift, then crash-curled downward, the energy rolling into my wrist—cresting up through my elbow and shoulder—before flowing out my other arm, dissipating into air. Sometimes the wave surged down my chest, through my hips, and into my knees, then rebounded back up and out my chin—the body wave. I did this for hours at a time, restless as the ocean, possessed by its rhythm.
I never stopped moving, popping and spinning, dancing, to the point that my parents grew concerned and eventually exasperated, suggesting that I sit still, slow down, take up other hobbies, or even just read a single book, for Christ's sake.
When I was eleven, my father—another craver of motion—moved us from Colorado to La Jolla, California, where I took up body boarding. I was just graduating to surfing when we moved again, this time to the arid inland hills of east San Diego. No waves in sight, I started skateboarding—a skateboard being the perfect on-land vessel to satisfy my motion-lust.
In this case, the obsession lasts twenty-five years and counting.
My first job out of college was part-time manager of a skatepark in Boulder, Colorado. In the summers I migrated north to Oregon, where I ran the skateboard program at a summer camp on Mount Hood. I eventually went to graduate school to study writing, but also because more school meant more summers off, which in turn meant road trips to almost every skatepark in the state of Colorado, mile-long drainage ditches in New Mexico, bone-dry swimming pools east of L.A., San Francisco's precipitous hills.
The constant need for motion and change made my romantic life difficult. When my long-term relationships ended—partly due to my skateboarding addiction—I spent months and sometimes even years obsessing over the women I'd lost.
After grad school, I sat still long enough to put together a book, albeit one about skateboarding. Called Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, it included a short piece of mine titled "Whaling," which detailed my Ahab-like obsession with skateboarding and the novel Moby-Dick.
In late May 2003, I traveled from Colorado to New York to meet with a potential publisher for Life and Limb; it was during this trip that I spotted my first New York City surfer. Walking down Christopher Street on my way to pitch the book, I saw him ascend from a subway station, up between green Art Deco lamp posts, a surfboard tucked under his arm. There was something astonishing about it, like an ice climber on the streets of Los Angeles.
Standing there staring, I felt a subtle shift in the Gulf Stream of my obsessions.
I'd been skateboarding for decades but had gotten only a small, teasing taste of surfing during my teenage years in East County, San Diego. Like the majority of actual New York residents, I had no idea surfing was even possible here. Could you really ride the subway to the beach? If so, could you surf in the morning and hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same afternoon? The surfer and the idea of this underground hyper mobility—between the city and the ocean, between the natural world and New York's endless cultural universe—were both signal fires, drawing me eastward.
My meeting with the publisher went well and led to a modest book deal. Afterward I celebrated with my close friends Paul and Natalie in Brooklyn. They lived in a massive apartment in a former button factory, a quintessential artist's loft with a rope swing in the hallway and exposed-brick walls covered with Paul's enormous, photo realistic paintings of violet horses and polychromatic light bursts.
The kind of place that makes a tourist think living in New York is nothing but fun times, nonstop art-making, rainbows and rope swings.
And as it turned out, they were looking for a roommate.
A few months later, just after my thirtieth birthday—despite the serious misgivings of my friends and family, and especially my girlfriend Karissa, who still had a year of school left—I pulled up the moorings of my life, packed everything I owned into my little Toyota pickup, made the two-thousand-mile trip from Colorado to New York City.
New York, the place that Herman Melville scholar and biographer Andrew Delbanco calls "that peerless school for the study of literary careerism."
I was banking on the skateboard anthology's success and planned to follow it up with a novel, but other than that, I had zero job prospects. In an existence defined by motion, this was both the boldest and the most senseless move of my life.
THE AUTUMN BOWL
Such dreary streets! blocks of blackness, not houses, on either hand.... At this hour of the night, of the last day of the week, that quarter of the town proved all but deserted. ~ Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
From a skateboarding perspective, the timing of my arrival in Brooklyn is fortunate. Some friends have just finished building an epic wooden skate bowl inside a semi abandoned warehouse on the East River in Greenpoint, a ten-minute ride from my new apartment.
My first evening in the city, my old college friend Kyle Grodin and I skate down Bedford, cut south at Kent, then roll through the desolate, post industrial border zone between Williamsburg and Greenpoint. A blustery September night; blue and green lights crown the Empire State Building, reflecting onto gray cloud cover like a dirty halo. The distinct smell of petroleum; a lone guy in a fedora and checkered Vans playing the trumpet on an abandoned corner; elaborate graffiti on every wall and water tower—Neckface, SARS, LES, multivalent wheat pastes by Swoon. The further north we skate the more bombed-out and abandoned the neighborhood becomes, until a row of massive, vacant warehouses rises up from the shadows. Smashed-out windows and crumbling brick walls, rickety catwalks spanning the upper floors, the entire complex tangled in razor wire.
Looming here on the banks of the Harlem River as it spills its poisoned guts into the Atlantic, these warehouses comprise the defunct Greenpoint Terminal Markets, a once-vibrant center of naval industry. Our destination was originally one of the largest nautical rope factories in the world. Months later, after I get a job in Midtown, I sometimes ride my bike to work along the waterfront in east Manhattan, right below Bellevue Hospital, where, from the other side of the river, this whole area has a severely decayed, third world look to it, like Beirut in the 1980s or San Francisco in shambles after the Great Earthquake.
Grodin and I enter the building through a creaky metal door that we have to heave open with both hands. The passage leads into a dismal stairwell littered with broken beer bottles, bricks, piles of soot. Then down a couple uneven steps into a shadowy open-air corridor with rusty fire escapes spiraling up into the dark between sixty-foot brick walls. Above us, a thin slash of starless sky; straight ahead, a narrow porthole onto Manhattan's vertical sea of lights.