Tuesday, October 14, 2008

JAPAN: Blood, Sex & Tears (Interspersed With A Bit Of Surfing)

My interest in Japan is twofold: On one hand, I’m curious about Japanese surf culture, how a sport that’s fundamentally individualistic and renegade fits into a society built on the group, obedience, playing by the rules. On the other, I’m trying to purge myself for sins committed in Japan some two decades ago.

I grew up in Southern California, came to surfing at age 12, rose up the amateur ranks, and joined the ASP tour in ‘86. This was the era of Carroll, Curren, Occy, Pottz, a time when surfing was trying to shake off its dubious past and step into its professional and mass-marketed future. I did pretty average—my best results were a couple of 3rds; I finished most seasons in the mid-40s—and when my career came to an abrupt end in 1991, I fell into a severe depression. I’d spent five years living my dream and suddenly I was put out to pasture, a has-been at age 25.

I drank a lot of beer, sabotaged a perfectly good relationship, and moped around for a few months, until I realized that it was the self-expression part of surfing that I so loved, and if I couldn’t make my living riding waves, I could make my living writing about riding waves. You see unlike most publications that require its writers to have college degrees, surf magazines demand only firsthand immersion, a willingness to sleep on couches, and a strong constitution.

For the next fifteen years I would travel the world writing for Tracks, Waves, Surfing, Surfer, The Surfer’s Journal, The Surfer’s Path, Adrenaline, etc. And while it’s been a wonderful, saltwater-drenched ride, I recently hit something of a dead end. I felt like I’ve said all I could about the WCT, the hot young upstart, the A-list surf trip. I found myself viewing surfing from a more pulled back, anthropological perspective.

Thus, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to “better understand Japanese culture through the lens of surfing.” I got it, and so here I am, scribbling away in a tiny nomiya bar in Shibuya whilst the non-English speaking proprietor sings along perfectly to Jerry Lee Lewis.

My first few weeks in Tokyo were filled with the standard observations that whack most gaijins (foreigners) over the head upon arrival: the ubiquitous drink machines, the conveyor belt sushi, the pigeon-toed women, the magazines that read back to front, the taxi doors that open automatically, the surname first, Christian name second, the sing-songy “irasshaimase” that’s sung when you enter stores, the over-wrapping of even the most basic items that completely contradicts Japan’s advanced recycling program, the slurping of noodles that your mother told you was bad manners but here is standard practice, the way the Japanese will wait for the light to change before crossing the street, despite the fact that it’s four AM and there’s not a car in sight. That I wasn’t more cognizant of these differences during the eight or nine visits I made to Japan in the late ‘80s bespeaks the myopic, blinkered nature of pro surfing. I remember miso soup, broiled fish, and pickled vegetables for breakfast, and the fact that nudey magazines had the private parts scratched out, but beyond this, I remember only jockish narcissism.

What struck me about a month into my stay, especially after my vivacious wife Gisela arrived, is how absurdly delicious the food is. I imagined myself trimming down, eating light, mild meals consisting of rice, sushi, a cup or two of sake. Instead I found myself gorging on okonomiyaki, gyoza, ramen, soba, tempura, sukiyaki, yakitori, sushi, sashimi, tonkatsu, goya champuru... I’d sit down to dinner with no appetite, then suddenly find myself under a kind of gluttonous spell cast by the exotic flavors and the fact that I couldn’t even begin to pronounce what I was eating. And the drink! Some years back it was learned that the oldest man in the world swore by his nightly drop of shochu. Since then this clear, potent spirit made of either barley, rice or sweet potato has become Japan’s drink of choice. I told myself that these indulgences were “research,” that the more dishes and drinks I could knock back, the closer I’d get to understanding Japan.

Disaster struck on a sweltering hot Sunday. Gisela and I are strolling through the Aoyama District where poodle walkers sashay in Louis, Dolce, Issey and black Bentleys with blacked-out windows idle down the steam-cleaned street when suddenly we hear sirens, and then a few seconds later, watch a convoy of police cars race past.

“Something’s happened,” says Gisela with intuitive conviction.

Sure enough, a couple hours later, back at our shoe-box of a Roppongi flat, I’m tooling around on the internet when I come across this on Japan Times.com: “7 Killed, 10 Injured in Akihabara Stabbing Spree”

It turns out that while we were sipping coffee and marveling at the beautiful people, a deranged 25-year-old was plowing his rented truck into a crowd of pedestrians. When bystanders jumped in to help, they were met by a knife-wielding lunatic, who leapt out of the vehicle and managed to stab twelve people before police could apprehend him.

It was quite ironic considering that I’d spent most of the day marveling at how civilized Tokyo is, how its inhabitants operate with a heightened sense of social and moral responsibility, how they all seem to be intrinsically aware that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” I can’t tell you how many times we’ve stopped strangers in the street, mispronounced the name of whatever destination we’re trying to find, and had them literally walk us there, sometimes blocks away. I remember thinking that while America has road rage and schoolyard shootings, Japan has excessive politeness and cordiality.

What’s even more ironic, though, is the video I find on LA Times’ website seconds after reading about Akihabara: In grainy black-and-white, a man attempts to cross a busy intersection. He’s slammed by a car, goes head over heels, and lands hard on the pavement. The offending vehicle slows, as if to ponder the ramifications, then speeds off. But this isn’t the shocking part. The shocking part is the stream of cars that literally drive around the lifeless body, the pedestrians that curiously addle to the edge of the sidewalk, stand on tiptoes to get a better view, then continue on their merry way. Several minutes and at least a dozen people pass before someone jumps in to help. The clip then cuts to interview footage: the thuggish but sweet-faced African-American kid who says something like ‘damn right Id’a helped the guy, that’s what choo do’; the chafed, retirement-aged highway patrolman who concludes his tirade with the scripted, “sad state of affairs when a man’s bleeding in the middle of the street and no one comes to help out, I mean how can you just walk past something like that?”

What’s interesting is how the Akihabara Massacre answers this question. I think of my friend Scotty, who came around a corner in deep Mexico, encountered what appeared to be a horrific car accident, pulled over to help, then found himself being robbed at gunpoint by banditos. I think of a renowned environmental organization who were busted awhile back for embezzlement. If “the greatest sin is the desecration of a child’s spirit,” as my dear father so loves to quote, then the second greatest sin is the desecration of these simple “brother’s keeper” precepts.

I surfed Chiba, Shonan, Shimoda, and Miyazaki, and though the waves were terrible, the people were fantastic. Japanese are astonishingly methodical in the way they go about surfing. They carry portable showers, change mats, and coat hangers to dry their suits. They do extensive stretches at the shoreline before paddling out. I watched a guy in Shimoda pull first a pair of knee-high stools from his customized van, and then his spit-shined longboard, which he deftly set on the stools so as not to let it touch the pavement. It struck me as ridiculous, the pageantry trumping the act itself.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but surfing is innately improvisational. The fact that Matt Johnson shows up at Malibu drunk and boardless in the opening scene of Big Wednesday is not an embellishment, but a truism. The fact that Tom Curren did some of his most genius surfing ever in the ‘90s Search era on borrowed boards speaks volumes. Being unkempt, barefoot, half naked—winging it, in other words—is half the allure.

My friend Naki, a Japanese surf photographer who’s lived between Kamakura, San Clemente, and Kauai since ‘94, has an interesting take. He says that because of the heavy work schedules and inconsistent surf, there are these long incubatory periods during which videos are watched, magazines are read, and imagination is stoked.

"California is where it’s original and cool. Japanese try to copy and digest. It’s like a father/son thing. We watch: how the top pros walk, how they wax, what car they drive.”

He goes on to say that Japanese surfers are a lot more self-conscious than surfers elsewhere. Because it’s built on the group, because “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” there’s a kind of sheep mentality. Surf magazines in Japan, for instance, contain pages of “How To’s”—how to bottom turn, how to cut back, how to hit the lip—and according to Naki, these are studied religiously. Not until one’s mastered the basics in this “by the book” manner will they try and put their own spin on it. I find this fascinating because it completely counters my introduction to surfing. At Malibu in the ‘70s, if you gave any indication of deliberate, methodical effort you’d be laughed out of the water.

And then there’s Japanese porn.

My initial titillation came a few years back when Gisela and I rented In The Realm Of The Senses, the true story of Sada Abe. Set in the ‘30s, the ex-prostitute Abe meets the sexually omnivorous Kichizo Ichida and the pair embark on a wild fucking spree that starts as some of the greatest jerk off fodder ever filmed, then turns sick and obsessive, then spirals into that asphyxiation-at-the-point-of-orgasm stuff which, for vanilla sexers such as myself, is extremely tough to watch. He eventually asks her to strangle him to death, which she does, then cuts off his penis, wraps it in a magazine, puts it in her purse, and goes walkabout on the streets of Tokyo. When the cops finally catch up to her two days later she has a calm, dreamy look in her eyes. She produces the severed organ, explains that, “I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories,” and goes on to become one of the most famous murderesses in Japanese history.

Japan’s an extremely sexy country, though in a way that’s different to, say, France, Italy or Brazil. You see very little affection displayed in public. I recall when I went to meet Gisela at Narita Airport. She was arriving from JFK, i.e., an international flight. Normally that point where arriving passengers meet their loved ones is a logjam of hugs, kisses, chins nuzzling necks. Not at Narita. Husbands would greet their wives with a nod, pat their kid on the head, and off they’d go toward the parking lot, efficiently, coldly.

But the same way the preacher’s daughter is the ravenous wildcat under the sheets, so too does this upright society have its shadow side. At the sex store up the street from our flat, I was surprised to see entire shelves devoted solely to coprophilia, golden showers, BDSM. I could tell you about the video we saw—the seven salarymen who take to their blindfolded victim with buzzing vibrators; the caged girl on hands and knees who suffers the pleasure/torture inflicted by a water cannon-like purple dildo machine with flashing neon lights and chainsaw-like sound effects; the gallon jugs of KY jelly and black tarps and boxing ring-like bedrooms—but that would be inappropriate.

I can tell you about the “hentai” manga that shows pre-pubescent nymphets with cum-splattered faces, dogs fucking nurses, octopus-like monsters gang raping flocks of schoolgirls, and in one particularly disturbing image, a blade-shaped phallus/murder weapon. I read somewhere that the Japanese see this stuff as a kind of safety valve, an antidote to the pressures of the treadmill. While America blames Marilyn Manson for its schoolyard massacres, Japanese see it in an opposite light. Better blood be spilled on the page than in real life.

Chikan is a distinctly urban way to get your rocks off: In trains so crowded that the white-gloved conductors have to stuff in every last protruding limb so the doors can shut, perverse bastards have devised a way to exploit the issue. Call it hit-and-run dry fucking, the ability to sniff out private moments in public places, a kind of erotic take on the punk rock slam pit: chikaners place themselves within grinding distance of their victims, strategically wait for that cascade of bodies that happens at every stop, swiftly writhe their way to orgasm, then slip out the door.

One thing I learned about Tokyo: all the best stuff happens down narrow lanes, often under train tracks. The best food is served not in big, fancy restaurants but rather hole-in-the-wall joints. The best bars are little bigger than your average closet, and seat maybe five. The best takoyaki (fried octopus balls covered in sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonita shavings) can be found in ramshackle shacks under tufts of electrical wiring. Tokyo appeals to that same part of the psyche that was drawn to cubbyholes, crawl spaces, and tree forts as a kid. Intimacy with the city takes place not on the big boulevards and main streets, but off the beaten track, behind drape-covered doors you have to duck under.

I’d heard stories of Japan’s heavy localism, and envisioned showing up to Nagasaki, paddling out to some rural beachbreak, having some angry local get in my face and order me to “Get the fuck out!” and then using this as a segue, localism in surf culture mirroring Japan’s xenophobia throughout the sakoku period. Truth is, I never made it to the beach, let alone surfed.
I did spend a couple hours in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which is a disturbing, powerful ride that’s laid out with the same tension/release, peaks/valleys that make for great novels.

It starts with backstory—WWII, Hiroshima, the B29 “Bockscar,” the offending bomb nicknamed “Fatman,” the fact that they had Kokura in their sights but it was covered in smoke, thus Nagasaki was Plan B. Then the bomb is literally and figuratively dropped, which is illustrated by a tattered wall clock stuck at 11:02. You wade through an extensive display of melted bottles, coins, household appliances, a particularly moving schoolgirl’s lunchbox, a scorched clothing and cap that forces you to ponder the fate of the victim, a burnt helmet with shards of skull lodged into it, and still more glass, more coins, more photos of the devastation. At the time it felt almost monotonous—do we really need to see another piece of scorched concrete?—but later I realized this was strategic—lull them into numbness then ram the point home.

The survivors’ testimonials are detailed and visceral. You learn exactly what melting flesh looks and smells like. You hear about the piles of dead stacked along the very river you crossed to enter the museum. You come to realize that the severely burnt survivors had nowhere to go—the hospitals were all up in flames. You wince at the rogue illnesses that cropped up in the aftermath.

And then just when you’re positively convinced that nuclear warfare is the most inhumane thing imaginable, you’re tossed into a large, high-ceiling room devoted solely to the history of nuclear war development. In a detailed chronicle that’s presented as a giant wall mural, you see that for every move to put an end to it, there’s a counter move that ensures its survival. The world becomes one giant chess board—Russia inches forward, America counters, while they’re facing off France adds a new pawn to the game... It’s meant to galvanize you into joining the fight against nuclear arms, but it does much more than this. It lessens your faith in humanity.

But the kicker is the final photo: A demure-faced nine-year-old boy stands amongst the post-apocalyptic wasteland, his dead baby brother strapped to his back. In the wall text, the photographer explains that he’s actually at a cremation site, how when the baby brother is taken by one of the stand-in cremators and set aflame, the older brother tries to keep himself from crying by biting down on his lower lip. He bites so hard, the photographer says, that a trickle of blood drips down his chin.

Suffice to say, I walked out of there crying.

Japan’s a unique country in that it existed in a kind of vacuum for two-and-a-quarter centuries. Having observed the way in which the Japanese took up Christianity brought by the Portuguese, and seeing this as a threat to national purity, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu declared sakoku (meaning “closed country”). From roughly 1633 to 1858, foreigners were not allowed in and Japanese were not allowed out. There was, however, a trickle of contact, and this took place in Nagasaki, where Dutch traders brought, along with their wares, medicine, literature, physics and astronomy.

I became interested in this as a potential thread to surfing. How did the Japanese respond to this imprisonment? What does this do to a country? Could a line be drawn from the first Europeans right up to the US Naval officers who brought surfing to Japan in the post-WWII years?

It turns out that much of what I’d suspected is true. At the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, I learned about nampaks, those Japanese who became obsessed with all things Dutch. At the Edo-Tokyo Museum I discovered a haikuist called Somo Katu who visited the US in 1860 and came back with flags, playing cards, maps, newspapers, bottles, and in what’s laden with symbolism, the blueprints for a hot air balloon. One could argue that sakoku imprinted a kind of “outsider complex” on the Japanese psyche. Having been shut off to the world for two centuries, there was the sense of being behind the eight ball, needing to catch up. And like the preacher’s hellcat daughter, they embraced the outside world, particularly the west, with a vengeance. As writer Paul Theroux put it, “by losing their Japanese-ness, they become even more Japanese.”

What’s refreshing, what’s a pleasant digression from all the posturing and attitude that pervades the California surf scene, is the general innocence and enthusiasm of the Japanese. Several times I’d be talking to a waiter or bartender, notice a wetsuit tan or some kind of saltwater tattoo, and ask “Are you a surfer?” and without fail, their eyes would light up and they’d enthusiastically nod in the affirmative as if they were suddenly ten-years-old.

On the flipside, though, is localism. From what I’m told, in taking up every facet and nuance of surf culture, the Japanese have added localism to the list. Doesn’t this sound out of character? The irony of embracing this rapturous import then building a kind of moat around it... But of course hypocrisy is part of the surfing spectrum as well. Part of the human condition.

So getting back to previous sins.

It’s 1989, I’m a young, loud, and snotty pro surfer and so are the majority of my fellow competitors. A well-known photographer of the time, Cap’n Fun, arrives to the Marui Pro in Chiba with two suitcases full of ‘70s polyester he’d picked up at a San Diego thrift store. We’re talking giant collars, skin-tight bell-bottoms, white patent leather platform shoes, glitter ball necklaces, feather boas, vibrant wigs.

A half dozen of the best surfers in the world, along with yours truly, gather in Cap’n Fun’s hotel room, sip beers, and piece together outfits, the more hideous the better. We then head up to the local 7-Eleven, buy a couple fifths of Jack Daniels, maybe 20 beers, and bags of chips, rice crackers, and Pocky Sticks. We hop the Tokyo-bound train with a swagger that recalls Alex, Pete, Georgie and Dim in A Clockwork Orange.

Our first transgression is the ghetto blaster we snatch from a pair of happy-faced schoolgirls, turn up to ear-splitting volume, and use to fuel our cavorting, ridiculous dance moves. Then we steal a fire extinguisher and chase each other up and down the aisles. Then we tear down the posters that hang like Tibetan prayer flags. Then one beer spills, another, another, another, and the next thing you know, the floor’s like an ice skating rink. What twists the knife of guilt that surfaces in my stomach when I ponder this stuff are the faces of our fellow passengers: they just smiled. Our behavior was so obnoxious they hadn’t even the means (nor the words) to deal with it. I can still see the gray-haired salaryman peering over the top of his newspaper, faking a little laugh whenever we caught his eye, perturbed, repulsed.

By the time we arrived in Tokyo a Top 30-ranked pro had puked out the window, a world title contender was nearly blinded by whatever chemical it is that they put in fire extinguisher spray, the entire car had been evacuated by our fed-up fellow passengers, and a river of dubious fluid and rolling beer cans sloshed to the front of the car at each stop.

Needless to say, the cops were waiting for us. But we were clever. Cap’n Fun had declared a meeting point (“McDonalds on the corner of Roppongi Dori!”) and we scattered like buckshot. I can still remember tearing through the station, hopping turnstiles, and laughing hysterically at my twisted Aussie mate who flashed BAs at the cops, bystanders, anyone who happened to be looking.

We ended up at a fashionable club called Lexington Queen where we made fools of ourselves on the dance floor, offended American models, and got severely pickled on JD and Cokes. If there was a Robin Hood element, which is how we rationalized it at the time, it was that the staff and clientele at Lexington Queen were pretentious and uptight, and we were lighthearted and self-deprecating and thus liberators, crusaders for freedom.

But that was two decades ago. Having spent the last four months experiencing Japan with new, more mature eyes, I see things quite differently. In its order and regimentation, a new kind of freedom surfaces. Ten-year-old kids can ride the subway alone. Women can walk down dark alleys late at night. Non-Japanese speaking, clueless gaijins can ride bullet trains across the country, show up to unfamiliar towns, and know there will be a hot meal and bed to sleep in. Japan is like something out of a fairy tale. I mean where else in the world does this happen?

I’m walking down a dark, narrow alley in the pouring rain when suddenly I feel an umbrella over my head. I look over, and there’s the male-half of the couple I nodded to in the 7-Eleven, with a warm smile on his face.

“To keep you dry,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say, and take the handle.

“Where are you from?” asks his simpatico girlfriend.

“New York.”

“What are you doing here?”


“Do you have a place to stay? Friends?”

"Yes, I’m staying here with my wife and good friend.”

“OK, just want to make sure you have friends.”

“Yeah,” adds the boyfriend. “Japanese difficult for foreigners.”

“That’s really nice of you,” I say, and when we bow goodnight, and I try to hand the umbrella back, he insists I keep it.

And that’s Japan for you. You step out of the house at one in the morning for ice cream, and come back with new friends and a free umbrella.

*special thanks to Fulbright Japan

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I was ten-years-old and Dogtown-obsessed, and though I’d yet to actually step foot on a surfboard, I’d seen Super Session twice and had Gerry Lopez’ tube riding stance so deeply etched in my brain that the plum tree that created a tunnel over the sidewalk at the end of our street was less flora and concrete than it was the Banzai Pipeline. My two older brothers and I rode Logan Earth Skis, Bennett trucks, and Road Rider 4s and wore Vans deck shoes, Op cord shorts, and long sleeve tees deliberately frayed and oversized because that’s what Alva, Jay-boy, Biniak and Shogo wore. We were middle class valley kids trying to look poor and our scabby knees, puka shell necklaces and sweat-matted hair parted way off to the side were badges of defiance.

We listened to Zep, Nugent and Frampton, and skated Toe Nails, the Toilet Bowl and Jungleland. On weekends, when my mom was visiting her twin sister in West LA, we’d get dropped off at Kenter, Revere or Bellagio—schools with wave-like banks and hostile locals. We’d made a pact that should anyone ask, we’d say we lived in Santa Monica. I still remember my well-rehearsed response: “26th and Wilshire. I go to Franklin, my bros go to Lincoln.” It was disastrously uncool to admit you were from the valley.

But there was another equally depressing issue gnawing at me, and this was the fact that I’d never skated a pool. Kevin had once, Steven had sort of, but for reasons related to orthodontist appointments, fishing engagements, or after school specials that had seduced me at precisely the wrong times, I’d always missed out. Pools were like good waves—they’d happen for a fleeting couple of hours. If you were there you scored. If you weren’t you had to hear about it for weeks on end. And while classic surf sessions are generally killed by boring stuff like onshore winds or shifting tides or dropping swell, pool sessions came to abrupt, dramatic finishes that often involved irate homeowners, fang-bearing German shepherds, and billy club-wielding cops—huge street cred on the elementary school campus, in other words.

The Box Pool’s appeal was twofold. It was located in the backyard of an abandoned house off Sunset not far from the Playboy mansion, and I was being taken there by my older cousin Jeff, who surfed, smoked pot, and was slated for a “Who’s Hot” in next month’s issue of Skateboarder.

We rode the Wilshire bus to Westwood, skated across UCLA, scurried along a dangerously narrow and curvaceous
back street, and arrived at the bottom of an ice plant-covered slope.

“Right up there,” said Jeff, pointing to a mesa of eucalyptus trees.

Like most of these pool assaults, it was a back door entry. We crawled through a hole under a chain link fence, bushwhacked through a forest of weeds, then parted the foliage to see what looked like a scene straight out of Dogtown and Z-Boys. Shirtless, suntanned, stringy-haired skaters traded runs in a blindingly white, rectangular pool with turquoise tile. A giggly blonde in Dittos and sun hat rolled joints and sipped Heineken. Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings played on an 8-track tape deck.

I entered sheepishly, cousin Jeff coached me into my first run, and as I roared down the slope, up the transition, into that weightless, astronaut-like sensation of ‘getting vertical’, kick turned, then out of the transition, up the slope, and back in line behind my stringy-haired peers, I felt euphoric, at least three years older. Adrenalin coursed through my veins, serotonin washed about my head, and a newfound confidence spiraled in my belly. I thought of Larry Bertlemann in Super Session: “Anything is possible!”

On my second and third runs I got progressively higher, and by my fourth I got two wheels out over the round hole where the light had been, which I used as a kind of target. I heard cousin Jeff announce to our fellow skaters, “And this is his first pool!” which meant everything. And then on my next run I got even higher, so high, in fact, that I felt like I was floating, which I was—my rear wheels were literally in the light hole.

The next couple seconds are hazy but according to Jeff’s colorful recount, my trucks locked in the light and I went spilling down headfirst. I remember seeing stars, a huge bump on my head, and a throbbing right thumb. And then in the calm, be cool manner that would define the era, I remember cousin Jeff picking me up, hoisting me over his shoulder, and carrying me out of the deep end and onto the steps, where the giggly blonde suddenly turned all maternal.

Cousin Jeff’s next move was straight out of the Dogtown handbook. He borrowed the Heineken from the girl and told me to take a big gulp. Then he borrowed the joint and said something like, “Suck it in real deep and hold it in for as long as you possibly can.”

The next few hours were by far the most surreal of my entire ten years. We went to a matinee showing of King Kong at the NuWilshire Theatre. I remember slurping from a big, ice cold Coke then passing out. The next morning, head still throbbing, right hand heavily swollen and black and blue, my mom took me to Cedars Sinai where I was diagnosed with a mild concussion and a fractured thumb. And while the following three weeks of having to wear a cast and not being allowed to skate have vanished from memory, that split-second of weightlessness between kick turn and disaster are still vividly with me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I was seventeen and delusional and Carl Lewis was breaking world records and the Stones had just released Dirty Work and godhead Gordon Gekko was insisting “lunch is for wimps” and I blame all the above for my foolishness. That and the fact that I had my eyes on a pro surfing career, sixteen years of Catholicism which manifested in “binge/purge” self-flagellation, and a sun-drenched short attention span, which is to say that one day I’d read about Ivan Lendl’s intense training program in Tennis and go sprint a few miles on soft sand, and the next I’d become possessed by Iggy Pop’s Raw Power and aspire to challenge myself on more, shall we say, Bunker Spreckles-like fronts. The tug o’ war—or better yet, the head-on collision—of these conflicting ideologies never dawned on me. I repeat: I was seventeen and delusional.

So I’m at a friend’s girlfriend’s Pepperdine University graduation lunch at an upscale French restaurant in Malibu, nibbling a tarte a la tomate, sipping Dom Perignon, when my pal Dino kicks me under the table, nods in the direction of the men’s room, wipes his hands with his flamingo pink cloth napkin, and excuses himself.
I obediently follow him through the “WC” door and into the toilet stall.

“A little sumpin’ sumpin’ before the main course,” he says, and pulls from his sport coat a wrap of the white stuff. He deftly scoops up a tiny mound with his overgrown pinky fingernail and I—fffff—snort it right up, nearly swallowing his finger in the process. He does the same, we check ourselves in the mirror, sniffle like a couple of flu-addled Eskimos, then join the Last Supper-like table with Cheshire grins.

I should tell you that aside from the time cousin Pete and I rubbed a bit of residue on our gums when we were thirteen and Dogtown-obsessed, I’d never properly done cocaine. I’d heard it referenced in endless songs (Clapton, Stones, Grandmaster Flash), I knew about Belushi’s last hurrah in Bungalow #3, and I’d seen Woody Allen’s famous sneeze scene in Annie Hall, but I hadn’t a clue about its euphoric properties, how divinely agreeable it was with my inhibited, inferiority complex-ridden temperament.

Pre-men’s room I was surrounded by a bunch of preppy, Benz’s-on-their-sixteenth-birthdays, spoilt rich kids. Post-men’s room I could not have felt more for Carolyn with the nose job and pretentious table manners, Joel with the hairy chest, gold chain and suspicious tan, and Sophia who lunched at the Ivy, summered in the Hamptons, and failed to make eye contact with our affable Hispanic waiter. These were my co-conspirators. I wanted to mmmwwwaa, mmmwwwaaa them on both cheeks, stick my tongue in their ears, make confessions.

We picked at our salads and chattered excitedly. There was talk of all night cramming for finals, Sunday afternoon martini gatherings at Bianca’s parent’s Colony house, and the best hotels to stay at during Cannes. Shortly after the grilled Norwegian salmon steak with champagne-raspberry sauce arrived, Dino gave the secret nod, and then again prior to the crème brulee and espresso. We inhabited a world far from sororities, fraternities, summer internships at Paramount and William Morris; we were essentially beach bums with decent cutbacks and logo-bedecked thrusters, but thanks to the gak, we were all team spirit, charming the pants off our friend’s girlfriend’s grandma, tapping glasses with tea spoons and making toasts, spouting on about new chapters and golden futures.

The party moved over to the graduating girl’s beachfront apartment on Malibu Road, which could easily have been a set from Wall Street or Less Than Zero or a west coast Bright Lights, Big City. Nagel prints covered the walls of the track-lit living room, Wham! played on the stereo, semi-mulleted men in shoulder-padded Armani suits cavorted on the black leather sofa with frost-tipped women in Thierry Mugler dresses while the waves slapped and hissed a mere tennis ball’s toss away. That I would attend parties that would parody this heyday of mine twenty years down the track was of course far beyond my myopic imagination. We wore our Zinka and Jimmy’Z and Reebok high-tops with total conviction. Self-irony was beyond us.

There were a good eight or ten more snorts throughout the night. Dino was a huge hit. I was that naïve that it took about five handoffs of those mini paper football folds for me to figure out he was dealing the stuff. I remember huddles around the glass coffee table, rolled up hundred dollar bills, index fingers smearing upper gums, single nostril sniffles, cum-like beads of dripping snot, and possibly some of the most senseless conversation in all history. I remember tapping my feet to Shiela E’s “The Glamorous Life” and grinding my teeth to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

I never danced. Unfortunately, I spent my teens and most of my twenties thinking that dancing was uncool, which cost me dearly on the sexual front. In fact when I stop and ponder this now I imagine myself a kind of forty-year-old Ebenezer Scrooge, only instead of neglectful fathers and Tiny Tims, there are curvaceous blondes in cut-off pink sweatshirts and sleek brunettes in fishnets and push-up bras smacking gum and calling me to the dance floor with determined, pink nail polished index fingers, and instead of whimpering with regret like Scrooge, I slug myself in the jaw repeatedly.

There was no sleep that night. The six or seven of us that decided we were too jacked to drive grabbed pillows and writhed in fetal positions on couches, bean bag chairs, and the faux zebra skin throw rug. I remember listening to ocean, the couple having sex in the next room, the drill sargeant-like voice of my guilty conscience. The NSSA Nationals were a couple months off and what the hell was I doing going on a fifteen hour cocaine, champagne, beer and vodka bender? Had I not been so wired up I may have been able to sleep my way back to common sense, but as it were I spiraled into self-disgust. I felt that same dirty feeling I felt after sleeping with bad perfumed, cigarette-smoking girls I was philosophically at odds with. Which left one obvious solution: Go surfing.

I tip-toed out of the house and hopped into my powder blue ’66 Karmann Ghia I’d bought a few months prior from Kirk Murray, a Malibu local hero who, when he’d handed over the keys, said “I’m just happy to let her go to someone who can surf,” which paralleled that final scene in Big Wednesday when Matt Johnson passes his board onto the wide-eyed gremmie, only in this case there was money involved: two grand cash. It was a great first car. I distinctly remember the “St. Christopher Be My Guide” button pressed into the center of the steering wheel, and the “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” wings stuck on the back window, which even furthered the sense that I was being sworn in, that the keys were to something far more than just a car.

I burned past the high tide shorebreak of Zuma which six or seven times a year transforms into Off The Wall-like perfection, careened through the curves of Point Mugu where minus tides coupled with strong north wind swell gave us tiny glimpses of Snapper, Kirra, Burleigh, whirred past the farmlands and domestic abuse-addled barrios of Oxnard where Mexican hookers with pot bellies peddled their skanky wares in front of the paderia at lunchtime, then turned left into Ventura Harbor where Santa Clara Rivermouth’s shapely sandbars had become the spot of choice for me and my contest-obsessed pals.

But it was unsurfable. There was swell, but the tide was so high, the banks so deep, that rather than break they’d double up into a heaping shorebreak. And so I did what I always did when my conscience was eating at me and the pro surfing carrot dangled in my mind. I ran beach sprints. Sweat out the sins of last night, I reasoned. Good things come to those who train.

This is where, with hindsight of course, I envisage Lendl and Iggy at war. The tennis racket vs. the microphone stand. Snowy white Adidas shorts and shoes vs. ragged, beer-stained jeans and steel toe motorcycle boots. Only I had nothing in common with either. I was a sensitive, overly-ambitious suburbanite desperate to scale my way out of the mire of mediocrity.

I stripped down to my skin tight lycra boardshorts, smeared a gob of Bullfrog across my nose, popped something like AC/DC’s Back In Black in my mustard yellow Walkman, and began trotting toward the rivermouth. I hadn’t had a sip of water since, what? lunch yesterday. I sprinted and sprinted and sprinted. I’d set my eyes on a piece of driftwood or Doritos bag fifty or so yards ahead and make that my goal. I huffed up the fertilizer-scented offshore breeze, I felt my heart banging against my breastbone, I wiped the salty sweat from my forehead. And then after forty minutes, when I felt good and purged, I got back in my Ghia and headed home.

The 101 from Ventura to where I lived in Westlake was a good thirty minutes drive. Denny’s, auto malls, monolithic shopping centers, miniature golf courses, and farmlands flanked the highway. It was like a pendulum of lukewarm America swinging back and forth before your eyes.

The fatigue set in right around the Camarillo Grade, a two-mile incline that forced me into the slow lane. By Newbury Park I was fighting to keep my eyes open and by Thousand Oaks I was letting out blood curdling screams every half-mile or so to scare myself back to wakefulness. When I hit the turning signal for Hampshire Road I felt a huge wave of relief. Pass the Kmart with the grindable banks, pass the cul de sac where Brittany the magical French kisser lived, pass the mini mall where Ron kicked the shit out of the black belt in 10th grade, and I was home. I was mentally rehearsing my arrival: toss board and wetsuit in garage, wash feet with hose, plop face down in bed...

I remember urgent voices, blinding light, and stale coffee breath. I can’t recall whether the “How many fingers?” actually happened or whether this was pasted over from some TV or movie I’d seen, but such is the nature of memory in the 20th century. I remember looking around and piecing together the emergency room, reaching down to my legs to make sure they were still there, feeling a surge of powerful emotion, as if I’d just been through something traumatic, though I wasn’t sure exactly what.

“Do you know where you are?” asked the doctor.

“I was driving and, umm...”

“You’ve been in a car accident. You went head-on into a tree...”


“Your car’s totaled. Fortunately you didn’t hit anyone. Can you remember anything?”

It felt like being hit by arrows, the questions were too fast for my fuzzy head. I muttered an “Umm—”

“You were at a stop light. The woman in the car next to yours says you were convulsing, as in having a seizure. Are you epileptic?”


“Experienced seizures in the past?”


“Relatives with epilepsy, seizure disorders?

“No, not that I know of,” I said, then after a brief inner debate gushed it all: “Look, I did cocaine last night. Like a lot of it. I think we started around two in the afternoon and didn’t stop ‘til well past midnight. I also drank a lot of vodka and then went running—“

There were X-Rays, MRIs, CAT scans, and various blood tests. It appeared there was nothing wrong with me, though there was a slight blemish on one of the brain scans, which looked exactly how my seizure felt: bright, overexposed, like staring into the sun for too long. The doctor said it could easily have been a flaw in the machinery, but to be safe he prescribed me 500 mg of dilantin, which I diligently popped every morning for four years.

Because VWs have the engine in the front and not the back, my Ghia was left with a kind of swallow tail carved into the nose. I think I sold it to the local junkyard for fifty bucks. The worst damage, I’m sure, was not the post-traumatic shame I suffered for the next week or so, but rather the toll it took on my poor parents. At the time my oldest brother was in the thick of his losing battle to heroin. That I should end up in the emergency room for drug-related reasons is unforgivable.

Did I mess with cocaine again after this disastrous initiation? You betcha. But not for six or seven years. I was at a house party in Newport Beach, Sydney when yet another dealer friend was chopping up lines. Just a little snort, I thought to myself, just to see what it does. I ended up flat on my back, looking up at the party from that same belittling angle I’d viewed the doctors and nurses from the first time around. And then, foolishly, another time at a Fourth of July party in Venice Beach, which resulted in exactly the same: lightheadedness, spins, crash landing, shame, embarrassment.

The moral of the story? Some of us are a bit slow to see the obvious (me+cocaine=death), and guardian angels are hovering invisibly in the ether, though they should be called upon as little as possible.