Monday, July 19, 2010

Plutocracy & Oligarchy: Recent Thoughts on a Surfing Life

I wake up early to get to the beach. Seeing a big citrus fruit rise over the buildings dotting the beach or magically appearing through the morning fuzz, fingering an uneven reflection through the water in my direction is an experience I haven't gotten used to. I also go at dawn because a basic appreciation of this primal event, while widely acclaimed, is less practiced, leaving me to surf in relative solitude. There is a third reason, when given the weight of thought, brings about more unpleasant realities. I go surfing early because I don't have a permit to park at the beach.

Richard gives me a look of furious disappointment. While explaining his latest surfy invention, one that would inevitably be ignored by most surfers but likely purchased by the trend following hoi palloi, I mention that he needs to brand it for the right crowd:
"You know, those guys who put their board on top of their car nose first."
"Huh? Nose first? That's how I put the board on my car. What do you mean?"
I verbally fumble around and realize I've touched my teeth with my toes.
"Oh, you know, that old thing, that's how you tell real surfers from fake ones...I don't believe it, of course, but it's kind of a colloquial given."
"You don't believe it, but you just said it. So I'm a kook?"
This is a bad moment, I realize. I've let myself get tangled up in something both larger and smaller than me.

There are a million assumptions I've heard and felt surfers make over the years that seem to be part of a kind of DNA code, written into one's system the moment one is confident enough call oneself a surfer. Generally the code is stronger, more pronounced in those steeped in surfing culture from a youth, but the pose can be struck by those who've acculturated later in life. One strain of the code is a garden variety tribalism, a this is this and that is that protectionism that sweats out of the pore of every true believer. It is a feeling felt, on one level or another by any person whose felt their space encroached upon by anyone else: get out of my space. It is not a particularly discerning code.

The beaches of Long Island, New York are devastatingly beautiful. This is a fact lost upon the vast majority of people not from Long Island, New York. It's been an effective deception to keep them that way, one that includes constructing a massive, dirty city nearby, developing a culturally meaningful geographic trope (read: the mob movie) and, finally, putting tariffs on the enjoyment of its beaches. Further west on the island these take the form of a tidy daily parking fee, further east, seasonal parking permit.

Localism is historically one of, if not the, most important parts of surfing culture. I don't mean this in a we'll-beat-you-up-if-you-surf-here way, but in a more wide sense: people surf together at one place for long periods of time, tell stories about the place and people, building strong community. It inevitably begs the line: your strength is your weakness.

The parking permit effectively means the sole way to enjoy the beach is to live in the adjacent townships. Of course, one could always walk or bike to the beaches from a train stop, but for surfers this inevitably assumes proximal accommodation as bringing boards and bikes on the train is not always permitted.

There are eleven and a half million people populating the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The Atlantic Coast of the United States stretches for over three thousand miles. There are approximately one hundred and seventeen town, county and state beaches on Long Island. The Taco Bell in Shirley serves a delicious after-surf bean burrito that takes roughly two to three minutes to prepare. Any given breakfast wrap at Joni's in Montauk will take fifteen to twenty minutes to prepare. The average driving time, without traffic from Taco Bell in Shirley to Joni's in Montauk is just under an hour. The breakfast burrito will cost around eight dollars, the bean burrito ninety nine cents.

My own assumptions, when unchecked, tend to lead me to believe that surfers care more about the environment. This can send me down the path to mistakenly conclude that surfers are more liberal thinkers. This erroneous presumption gets me to think that surfers are, basically, open-hearted people on the whole. The deep, personal knowledge that this is a fantasy comes from a lifetime of empirical evidence.

The liberal dream is an open society. It is a place of inalienable rights, democratic choice and equality. The idea that you'd work hard enough that opportunity will inevitably open its door. The idea that that hard work will make you ready when luck smiles upon you.

There is a certain segment of the population I consider kooks who nonetheless are technically better surfers than me.

In America there is an added, conservative component to the liberal dream, a national creation myth that assumes a Calvinistic moral certitude: everyone is created equal and ought to have the same opportunities as long as they work hard. People who are successful have worked hard to get there. The possession of monetary wealth signifies a functioning moral compass.

There are four fast food chains in the furthest reaches of Long Island. Two McDonald's, one Friendlys and one Burger King, none any further east than Hampton Bays. I have never eaten at a Friendlys.

There are many double bind afflictions in my life.

The oceans, the lakes, the mountains, the gullies, the deserts are here for everyone to benefit from. These are places of education and spirituality. These are places that, if we look at the Earth as a whole ecosystem, ourselves included, is no more differentiated from us as humans as our own minds are from our own bodies. But to protect these things, at least on the surface level, we have to place restrictions on their use. We have to govern their accessibility.

There are a number of rules of conduct ubiquitous to every surf spot in the world. These are understood through basic tribal initiative rites during the period of acculturation. Some of these are cartooned on a placard at Ditch Plains in Montauk and include the basic codes of conduct of paddling out and sitting in the lineup. There are others that are more apocryphal, others that are more cultish, others that have deeper ramifications beyond getting yelled at for "being in the way." They are an important self-governing tool used in the most simple of societies. They are the same tools employed, via different methods by governing bodies in more complex societies.

To paddle out into a lineup is to take part in a meritocracy based on oligarchy, gerontocracy and technocracy. In a large number of scenarios, the only way to access a break is via plutocracy.

I have enough money to own a car. I have enough money to rent a room near the beach. I can afford the time to drive to my room near the beach. The further east I go, where I rent my room, the more beautiful the beaches become, the cleaner the water becomes and the more inaccessible they become to the average citizen.


Mr. Lentini said...

killer killer post toddy--after surf taco bell is key in shirley..pre surf too..and I agree with your buddy--nose first on the car is kookfest--dont you know the fin cuts the wind getting you better mileage--and man it just looks better..thanks for calling me to go eat taco bell--I mean go surf

toddy said...

Ha! No, he is a nose firster. Weird, I don't think he's a kook at all. And he's been doing it for a long, long maybe it didn't get to him...

I saw coffee cup bill this weekend.
I'll be up in Montauk next weekend too, so well, I'll give you a stinking call!